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The rise, fall and rise of Lula

Episode Summary

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was a wildly popular president in Brazil, then went to prison on corruption charges. Now he's on the brink of an improbable comeback.

Episode Notes

Brazilians are heading to the polls on Sunday to choose between two very different candidates: current president Jair Bolsonaro and a former one, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, more popularly known as Lula. The icon of the left spent years in prison on corruption charges but is now on the cusp of regaining the presidency.

Today, we talk about how that happened. Read the full transcript here.

Host: Gustavo Arellano

Guests: L.A. Times Latin America correspondent Kate Linthicum

More reading:

Three years ago he was in prison. Now he’s poised to be Brazil’s next president

Echoing Trump, Brazil’s president prepares for election loss by declaring vote rigged

COVID-19 cautionary tales from India and Brazil


Episode Transcription

GUSTAVO ARELLANO: Brazilians are heading to the polls on Sunday to choose between two very different candidates: current President Jair Bolsonaro and a former one – Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, more popularly known as Lula. 

NEWS CLIPS: Former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has been convicted of corruption. Where a judge ordered Da Silva to turn himself in to police within 24 hours to begin serving a 12-year sentence. Crowds cheered as he gave himself up. But just as many of his supporters tried to block him from leaving. The former president… 

GUSTAVO: Yep, that Lula. Polls show that Lula is leading Bolsonaro by a lot. And if Lula wins, it'll be a political comeback like few others ever seen in Latin America.

I'm Gustavo Arellano. You're listening to “The Times,” essential news from the L.A. Times. It's Friday, Sept. 30, 2022. Today: How the pandemic created an opening in Brazil for a popular, if polarizing, leftist and how the populist incumbent Bolsonaro is trying to close it. 

My colleague Kate Linthicum covers Latin America for The Times. Kate, welcome.

KATE LINTHICUM: It's good to be here.

GUSTAVO: So you were recently in Brazil covering the elections. What's the latest? 

KATE: So, Brazil is in a really tense moment. The first round of voting is around the corner,  and the country is really more divided than it's been at any point in modern history. On the one side you have supporters of Jair Bolsonaro, the current president. He's been called the Trump of Brazil. He shares many advisors with Trump and a lot of his attitudes. He kind of says what he thinks. He's not afraid to offend people. He kind of downplayed the pandemic, called it a little flu, has pushed pro-gun legislation and has really inflamed racial tensions across the country. 

On the other side, you have Lula, who was president from 2003 to 2010. He is a former labor leader, leftist, who left office really popular but then was embroiled in this corruption case  that sent him to prison before he was released a few years ago. So he's really the comeback kid. And the question now is: Is he able to kind of replicate what he did before? Polls show Lula leading with a very healthy margin going into Sunday's election.

GUSTAVO: Yeah, this really feels like a pivotal moment from Brazil because you have two very stark choices, yet these candidates – Bolsonaro and Lula – they have real flaws. So what's at risk, then, for the country when voters head to the polls on Sunday? 

KATE: I mean, I spoke to a lot of voters who were a bit disappointed that these are their two options. Somebody who was in power 20 years ago and who was tainted by this scandal. And the alternative, a guy who is basically saying he won't accept election results and who has really challenged democracy at every turn in his four years in office. The contrast between these two candidates was very apparent to me when I went to a Bolsonaro rally one day and then a Lula rally the next night. 

BOLSONARO (TAPE): Sabemos que temos pela frente uma luta do bem contra o mal. 

KATE: The Bolsonaro rally was held on Independence Day. It was filled with people wearing green and yellow shirts, which is the color of Brazil's flag but also these colors that Bolsonaro has embraced for his campaign. 

It really felt like a “make America great again” rally in a lot of ways. It was tens of thousands of Bolsonaro supporters massed along Copacabana Beach in downtown Rio de Janeiro. There were paramilitaries falling from the sky, fighter jets, like, doing circles overhead. There was a military band playing patriotic songs. And it was generally a pretty white, pretty middle-, upper-class crowd.

The next night at Lula’s rally was totally different. It was in this working-class suburb of Rio, very Black, very working class. He had a rapper rapping about police killings and violence against Blacks onstage before him. He had a really diverse coalition of people. 

TAPE: [Audio in Portuguese from Lula rally]

KATE: So it was really kind of just this window into the two Brazils that exist today, and the two Brazils that are really opposing each other during this election.

GUSTAVO: You mentioned the first round. So what's the election process like in Brazil?

KATE: Yeah, so, there are two rounds of voting in Brazilian presidential elections. If somebody can get 50% in the first round, then they win the election outright and there's no second round of voting. If they don't, the top two vote-getters go into a runoff, which in this case would be held on Oct. 30.

GUSTAVO: We'll be right back. 

GUSTAVO: Kate, we've covered current Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro with you before on the podcast, but we never really talked about the former president, Lula. What's his background?

KATE: Lula has quite a story. He grew up very poor. Left school at age 12 to work to support his family. Became a steel worker. And then became a union leader who in the 1970s really helped oppose Brazil’s military dictatorship. He ran for president three times unsuccessfully until he won election in 2002 and took office in 2003.

NEWS CLIP: São Paulo’s main boulevard might be like Fifth Avenue in New York. There are thousands of people celebrating the victory by Luiz da Silva. 

KATE: And he did that by compromising just a little bit. He's a dyed-in-the-wool leftist.  

NEWS CLIP: The first time that leftist candidate has ever won an election in Brazil. 

KATE: And he was super critical of the U.S. and, kind of, Brazil's economic system. But he finally won office by agreeing to find middle ground, really, with the business elites in Brazil,  with the business community.

NEWS CLIP: Brazil's economy has been in a downturn for years. However, he says he doesn't want to scare the free markets. He plans to keep up with free market reforms.

LULA: [speaking in Portuguese]

KATE: So when he took office, he had a lot of policies that we associate with the left. He gave tons of money to poor people – these programs that gave $30 a month that helped lift an estimated 12 million people out of poverty. 

But he didn't kind of shake the boat like other leftist politicians at that time. He was no Hugo Chávez, who really wanted to kind of rework Venezuela's economy completely and move away from the capitalist model.

GUSTAVO: And you mentioned that Lula was pretty popular with Brazillians while in office.

KATE: Obama once called him the “most popular politician on Earth.”


KATE: He left power with this staggering, like, 85% approval rating, which is pretty unheard of. And it was really because he ruled Brazil at a time when the economy was booming, thanks to this kind of commodities boom. China was growing and had this endless appetite  for soybeans and other products that come from Latin America. So you had the economy just growing at these crazy rates. And then you had this very generous kind of social policy that Lula put in place where he was really giving money directly to a lot of Brazilians. He was changing college admissions quotas and helping poorer people get into college. 

And I'm always struck when I'm in Brazil by just the nostalgia people have for those times. A lot of people can point to Lula's policies as having made the difference in their life, you know, the reason they got to go to college and be the first person in their family to go to university, the reason they were able to move ahead. And so I think today, as Brazil and the entire world is facing this really kind of frightening economic moment, a lot of people are nostalgic for those earlier, better times.

GUSTAVO: So Lula left office a hero in Brazil and all across Latin America, really. But his good times didn't last. What happened? 

KATE: Things changed. Brazil weathered the 2008 recession better than a lot of countries. But that economic growth that had been so key to Lula's term and his popularity, it didn't last forever. Economic growth stalled worldwide during the 2008 recession. And that meant that countries supplying commodities to China ended up suffering as well. So there was less money. And then there was this really big corruption scandal … 

NEWS CLIP: For weeks, Brazil has been consumed by allegations of corruption and bribery at the highest level. 

KATE: … involving Brazil's large state-owned oil company. 

NEWS CLIP: Petrobras, which posted losses of 21.6 billion reals in 2014, or about $7.18 billion. 

KATE: That ended up taking down Lula and a whole lot of politicians in Brazil.

NEWS CLIP: [speaking Portuguese]

KATE: The basics were, this oil company was giving slush funds to politicians. 

NEWS CLIP: Construction companies allegedly paid kickbacks to the executives as well as politicians in exchange for lucrative contracts with the oil giant.

KATE: And while people in Lula's government and on the left explained that this had been happening forever and very much predated their government, it was really Lula and his party, the Workers’ Party, that ended up paying the highest price.

NEWS CLIP: Every day there is a new scandal. Every day there is something related to money being taken out of the country. 

KATE: So in 2017, Lula was convicted for having taken a condo as part of this scheme. And in 2018, he went to prison.

NEWS CLIP: [Lula speaking in Portuguese]

KATE: He began a 12-year prison sentence. 

NEWS CLIP: [Lula speaking in Portuguese]

KATE: And this whole thing really tarnished the reputation of Lula's successor, Dilma Rousseff. 

NEWS CLIP: [Rousseff speaking in Portuguese]

KATE: Rousseff, who was this former urban guerrilla during the time of the dictatorships, very much on the left, was formally impeached in 2016 on charges sort of loosely connected to this scandal.

NEWS CLIP: [Politician shouts in Portuguese "What an honor destiny has reserved for me!" while casting the deciding vote in the impeachment]

KATE: Her successor, Michel Temer, also was arrested eventually on corruption charges.

NEWS CLIP: [Crowd chanting]

KATE: What this time in Brazilian history did was deeply, deeply divide the people. You had sort of this entrenched left, who defended Dilma, who defended Lula. And then you had this ascendant right, who, it turns out, was sort of behind these corruption investigations and who now wanted to take advantage of the weakened left to get one of their own in power. And that's how we explain the rise of Bolsonaro.

BOLSONARO (TAPE): O que ocorreu hoje nas zonas não foi a vitória de um partido, mas a celebração de um país pela liberdade.

GUSTAVO: We'll be right back. 

GUSTAVO: Kate, despite the huge corruption scandal that Lula got caught up in, the former president is actually polling far ahead of Bolsonaro. So why are Brazilians willing to give Lula a second chance?

KATE: I think there's a few reasons. I mean, a lot of people don't believe Lula was treated fairly. He was released from prison in 2019 after an investigation showed that the judge who convicted him had been in cahoots with the prosecutors. So his conviction was cleared, which is what allowed him to run for president again. And then there's just the fact of where Brazil is right now. Bolsonaro had a pretty disastrous response to the coronavirus pandemic

NEWS CLIP: A Senate committee in Brazil, following a six-month investigation, calls for the criminal prosecution of President Jair Bolsonaro for his missteps that have led to more than 600,000 COVID-19 deaths in the country, second only to the United States. 

KATE: He didn't believe that the coronavirus pandemic was a real thing. 

NEWS CLIP: He insistently touted a discredited anti-malaria drug while raising doubts about vaccines and the use of masks. 

KATE: He didn't give people the chance to stay home from work. 

NEWS CLIP: Since the start of the pandemic, Bolsonaro has sabotaged local efforts aimed at stopping the virus’s spread, saying the economy needed to keep humming.  

KATE: Brazil was one of the countries hit hardest in Latin America and in the world. At the same time Bolsonaro is president at this really difficult time economically. We have the war with Ukraine and Russia hurting gas prices globally. We are on the brink of a global recession, it seems. Inflation is huge worldwide. So Bolsonaro is president during that as well. So, again, people, I think, are nostalgic for that earlier time with Lula, in part just because it was a better time for all of us. And we see across Latin America that leftists are really benefiting from this moment. In Colombia, Peru, Chile, Mexico, Honduras, Panama, we have leftists in office. It's a major shift from just five years ago, where the region was really controlled mostly by right-leaning politicians.

GUSTAVO: Yeah, we've talked about this new left wave in Latin America with you on the podcast, but Lula's from the old school, you know, it's a different generation in time. How does he compare to leftist leaders today?

KATE: People have referred to this new leftward shift across Latin America as the new pink tide. That refers to the original pink tide about 20 years ago, when for the first time ever, really, all of these leftists won across Latin America. It was a much more radical left than what we see today, really characterized by Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. 

It was very anti-American. These were politicians, leaders, who spoke very angrily about kind of the history of U.S. intervention in the region. And these were leaders who were very ideological. They really came out of the Cold War, and they were that kind of ideological left from those times. And they had a lot of criticisms of what they described as the neoliberal economic model that was ascendant at that time. They wanted economic models that really centered on helping working-class people, that took money away from bankers and big companies. And in a lot of those countries at that time, we saw this process of nationalization. 

Lula was never so radical. He was always a little bit more of a moderate. When he took office in 2003, he appointed a banker to be the head of the national bank. He paid off Brazil's external debts, whereas Argentina at that time was defaulting on its international debts. He really did kind of keep Brazil in the economic model of his predecessors. He didn't do anything so radical. So in a way, I think he's actually kind of a model for the current wave of leftists that we've seen, who are very much pro- big government and anti-poverty and talk a lot about income inequality but who aren't calling for the overthrow of capitalism and, you know, death to the United States. They're talking about racial justice, gender equity, and they're talking about climate change – things that you really didn't hear from that first version of the pink tide 20 years ago.

GUSTAVO: It sounds like pragmatic leftism.

KATE: Yeah. Less ideological and more pragmatic. Exactly.

GUSTAVO: Kate, you talked about Lula's time in office and the corruption scandal that really messed with Brazil's economy. But I'm wondering, then, about the current president, Jair Bolsanaro. I mean, it's his election to lose, so how's his campaign doing?

KATE: Well, he's trailing in the polls. He's trailing by about 10 points, according to almost all polls. He has a lot to lose right now. There are a number of corruption investigations targeting him and his family members, largely around the issue of his family's purchase of a lot of properties with cash in recent years. So Bolsonaro could very well face jail if he leaves, and perhaps that's why he's taking this more aggressive – some would say desperate – tack of adopting some tactics that Americans actually will be familiar with. 

You know, from the very beginning, Bolsonaro, he styled himself after former President Trump, who he's literally described as his idol. Now he's copying Trump's strategy to claim fraud in the election. So even though the election hasn't happened yet, he's preparing his supporters to say: This was a fraudulent election, we don't accept the results, and we're going to fight to keep Bolsonaro in office.

GUSTAVO: And you mentioned that he has some of Trump's own advisors helping him.

KATE: Yeah. He's in conversation with Trump family members, Steve Bannon. And Bolsonaro seems to genuinely believe that Trump didn't lose the 2020 election and that Trump's only problem was not doing more to prepare the populace for that beforehand. So that's really why he's hammering on this issue and has been for months now, basically saying Brazil's electoral vote-count system is flawed; Lula and the left are going to steal the election from me and we're not going to accept the results. He famously said that there were only three options for him: stay in office, die or go to jail.

Bolsonaro is a former military officer. He has a lot of support from the army. And there are real fears that he could try to engineer a coup. He's been quoted as saying he's nostalgic for the days of Brazil's military dictatorship

Also, I can say that the vast majority of people I talked to said they'll be voting for Lula, precisely because they view him as less dangerous than Bolsonaro.

INTERVIEWEE (TAPE): I'm voting for Lula because he's the guy who has better expectation of defeating Bolsonaro…

KATE (TAPE): He’s got the best chance. 

KATE: I spoke to one person, a writer named Marcelo Franca, who told me he would be voting for Lula. 

MARCELO FRANCA (TAPE): Anything is better than Bolsanaro. Anything. Anything. 

KATE: So Brazilians see this election as about more than just these people, these candidates, and really about Brazil's very young – still nascent, really – democracy. 

GUSTAVO: Has Bolsonaro issued any threats about what he and his supporters might do if he does lose the election?

KATE: I mean, he sort of issued these veiled threats, saying the people really won't stand for this if it happens. And that has sparked fears that there could be some kind of insurrection or really intense protest in Brazil, kind of similar to what happened on Jan. 6 in the United States.  

So that's really why it's so tense right now in Brazil, because there is a sense that there is a huge part of the population that isn't going to accept what polls suggest is going to happen, which is Bolsonaro is going to lose.

GUSTAVO: Kate, thank you so much for this conversation.

KATE: Thank you.

GUSTAVO: And finally, some sad news: This past Wednesday, Grammy-winning rapper Coolio passed away. He was 59. Born Artis Leon Ivey Jr., Coolio was best known for his contribution to ’90s hip-hop and TV, with his hit song “Gangsta’s Paradise” featured in the 1995 film “Dangerous Minds.”

LYRICS: Been spending most their lives living in the gangsta’s paradise.…

GUSTAVO: The Times review of the soundtrack called it his “most mature work yet” and said: “‘Paradise’ looks beyond the apathy, anger and hopelessness that most post-N.W.A rap groups have institutionalized. While Coolio certainly doesn’t dodge these difficult issues – the title song is perhaps the most depressing crossover pop hit in history – he also uses the narrative side of his poetic gift to prove that there’s more to life in the ’hood than drive-bys and drug deals: There are people living regular lives.” That’s writing from the 1990s, not my writing.

The film track was nominated for record of the year and won for best rap solo performance at the 1996 Grammy Awards. I was a teenager then, and that song became legend status immediately.

Coolio also dabbled in acting, reality TV, cooking and writing. He even produced the theme song for the hit 1990s Nickelodeon show “Kenan and Kel.”

LYRICS: Everybody out there go run and tell your homeboys and homegirls it’s time for “Kenan and Kel.” They’ll keep you laughing in the afternoon.… 

GUSTAVO: He also toyed with the idea of going into politics. In a 1998 interview with The Times, Coolio told a reporter that “If I became a politician, I’d probably get killed, because I wouldn’t take any bribes, I wouldn’t compromise my integrity, and I wouldn’t cheat.” He never became a politician.

In the days since his passing, tributes from the hip-hop world have poured in, including fellow Compton rapper Ice Cube. He tweeted that he had witnessed “firsthand this man’s grind to the top of the industry.”

Coolio, may you have a fantastic voyage to the other side. 

And that's it for this episode of “The Times,” essential news from the L.A. Times. Kasia Broussalian and Shannon Lin were the jefas on this episode, and Mark Nieto mixed and mastered it. 

Our show is produced by Shannon Lin, Denise Guerra, Kasia Broussalian, David Toledo and Ashlea Brown. Our editorial assistant is Madalyn Amato. Our engineers are Mario Diaz, Mark Nieto and Mike Heflin. Our editor is Kinsee Morlan. Our executive producers are Jazmín Aguilera, Shani Hilton and Heba Elorbany. And our theme music is by Andrew Eapen. 

I'm Gustavo Arellano. We'll be back next week with all the news and desmadre. Gracias.