When the curtain rises on the 2016 Olympic Games on Friday, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the man credited with securing them for Brazil, isn’t expected to be in the packed audience at Maracaná stadium in Rio de Janeiro.
No wonder. Lula, as he is universally known, has gone from being Brazil’s golden boy to its scapegoat. Vendors hawk inflatable dolls festooned with an image of the former president in prison stripes. Thousands of protesters crowded iconic Copacabana beach last weekend, chanting, “Send Lula to jail.” Last Friday, a judge had ordered him to stand trial on obstruction of justice charges, and other investigations are pending.
His likely absence from the opening ceremonies would complete a fall of Shakespearean proportions. A decade ago, the country and the world couldn’t get enough of the impish bearded president with a four-finger wave – he lost one in an industrial accident. Lula was the “it” factor that helped Rio de Janeiro drub Madrid in the final vote awarding the games back in 2009.
“He’s lost the image of a national leader,” is the simple summary offered by Fernando Schuler, a political science professor at INSPER, a private university in Sao Paulo, traditionally a hotbed of Lula support.
Born dirt poor in Brazil’s northeast, Lula shined shoes as a child, then became a lathe operator in an auto factory, where at 19 he lost his left pinkie finger. He challenged the military rulers as a union leader, and helped usher in a return to democratic government in 1989.
After failing thrice, Lula won the presidency in 2003, and then a second four-year term, leaving office in 2011 as arguably the most popular president in Brazil’s modern history. He’d been hosted at Camp David by President George W. Bush.
It also didn’t hurt that the global economy was humming during much of his two terms, and in 2008 Brazil, long a debtor nation, became a creditor.
That was then. Today Brazil is in the second year of a recession and Lula’s handpicked successor, Dilma Rousseff, has been temporarily ousted while facing an impeachment proceeding in the Brazilian Senate, expected to begin soon after the games conclude. Their supporters call it a constitutional coup, especially given that acting President Michel Temer is also facing corruption allegations.
He’s lost the image of a national leader.
Fernando Schuler, political science professor, INSPER
The change in circumstances has dampened Brazilians’ enthusiasm for the games.
“This contrast of a grand moment nationally to this actual crisis, and a very personal situation for Lula and the risk of imprisonment, explains why many people in Rio are indifferent to the Olympics,” said Mauricio Santoro, a political science professor at the State University of Rio de Janeiro (UERJ).
Brazil’s legal system, which provides special facilities for college-educated convicts, puts Lula at particular risk. A lifelong worker before entering politics, he never received higher education, meaning hypothetically he could serve time with thieves and thugs.
“It would be a very bad precedent, putting a politician in jail with common prisoners,” Santoro said, adding, “It can’t be completely discounted.”
Schuler, the INSPER professor, thought it unlikely given the issues of personal security.
Still, Lula’s fall from grace is particularly stinging for those of lesser means who distrust politicians. They refuse to believe that his transgressions are any worse than other politicians’. “They always leave with a little money,” complained Gilmar Ferreira, for 35 years a fishing boat captain on Rio’s Guanabara Bay.
How Lula’s legal woes play out will ultimately determine his legacy.
“Until the moment that the (prosecution) process ends, Lula’s destiny and public image remain in doubt and uncertainty,” said Schuler.