“A man of the wilderness, more than anything, is a strong man. Coined by the writer Euclides da Cunha, the phrase seems to fit Lula’s personality from birth.”
That’s how Instituto Lula begins the official biography of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the leftist leader who served two consecutive terms as Brazilian president between 2003 and 2010.
Often known only as Lula, which means squid in Portuguese, the controversial politician and founder of the Workers’ Party has recently made headlines again. First, he was detained on March 4 as part of an investigation into corruption and money laundering tied to Brazil’s state-owned oil company, Petrobras.
Brazilian police raided the former president’s home in Sao Bernardo do Campo, the Lula Institute in Sao Paulo, his son’s home and others, according to authorities.
Then Brazil’s current President and Lula da Silva’s protégé, Dilma Rousseff, appointed Lula da Silva chief of staff Thursday in a controversial move that her critics say is an attempt to shield him from the corruption investigation.
Born poor in 1945 in the Brazilian northern state of Pernambuco, the seventh son in a home of illiterate farmers (according to his official biography), Lula da Silva’s life reflects Brazil’s painful transformations over the last seven decades.
At age 7, his mother, like thousands of other Brazilians, decided to move the family from the impoverished north to the southern coast in Santos with two goals in mind: a better life for her children and reuniting with Lula da Silva’s father, who had left the home weeks before the future president was born.
According to Lula da Silva’s official biography, he was a shoe-shiner and street vendor until he decided to become a lathe operator in his midteens when the family was already living in Sao Paulo. He lost his left pinky in an industrial accident at age 17.
Perhaps the most formative episode during his young life was the military coup of 1964 when Lula da Silva was 18 years old.
On the advice of a brother who was a secret member of the Brazilian Communist Party, Lula da Silva began to attend meetings of a workers’ union, joining the leadership in 1969 and becoming its president by 1975, before turning 30 years old, according to his official biography.
During the late 1970s, he led massive demonstrations and protests against the dictatorship, making a name for himself in the opposition.
Along with other leaders from universities, unions and leftist organizations, Lula da Silva founded the Partido dos Trabalhadores, or Workers Party, in February of 1980. Two months later, he was arrested and spent a month in jail.
After a failed bid for congress in 1982 for the state of Sao Paulo, he ran successfully four years later. He came short in his efforts to become president three consecutive times: in 1989, 1994 and 1998.
It was not until 2002 that he prevailed and only in the second round of elections, held November 27. His election created some panic in the financial markets, which led to a devaluation of the real, the Brazilian currency, and a downgrade of the country’s credit rating even before he took office on the first day of 2003.
His official biography says Lula da Silva’s two terms in office were “mainly marked by the successful implementation of redistributive programs […].” Lula da Silva created Bolsa Familia, or Family Allowance, a social welfare program that provides financial aid to poor families.
Even though he was widely liked, reaching an approval rate of nearly 90% even at the end of his second term in office, Lula da Silva’s administration was tarnished by a series of corruption scandals, mainly the controversy known as mensalao (big monthly payment).
Brazilian Congressman Roberto Jefferson told newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo that Lula da Silva’s party had been paying some members of congress as much as $12,000 a month to secure favorable votes for the Workers’ Party.
A smoker for decades, Lula da Silva announced that he had developed throat cancer in late October 2011, nearly a year after leaving office.
Last April, the Brazilian Attorney General’s Office opened an investigation into allegations of influence-peddling by the former president. Lula da Silva was accused of helping Brazilian construction conglomerate Oderbrecht gain contracts overseas through the use of his international contacts.
The Lula Institute issued a statement saying: “We are calm. The Lula Institute is certain of the transparency and legality of ex-president Lula da Silva’s activities.”
On March 4, federal police raided Lula da Silva’s home and took him in for questioning on suspicion he benefited from a bribery and money laundering scheme involving state-run oil company Petrobras.
Now the opposition says President Rousseff is trying to protect Lula by making him her chief of staff, a position that grants him immunity from prosecution.