Lula in jail — what you need to know about the latest attack on Brazil's democracy

Issue 
Demonstrators protest the jailing of Lula in Brasilia, April 6.

The jailing of ex-Workers’ party (PT) president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva can only be seen as a continuation of the “institutional coup” begun in 2016 that ousted elected PT President Dilma Rousseff, writes Juan Cruz Ferre.

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, popularly known as “Lula”, decided to turn himself in after the Brazilian Supreme Court found him guilty of corruption and handed down a 12-year jail sentence on April 5. After 10 hours of debate, the Court turned down Lula’s plea to remain free by one vote— four against five.

The case against Lula is part of the “Car Wash” corruption investigation, which has jailed dozens of top executives and politicians and exposed bitter, deep divides in the country.

The PT’s presidential candidate in elections this October, Lula is still leading in polls. But he is now banned from running for office in the upcoming general elections.

Brazil is undergoing widening political and social polarisation since the institutional coup against Dilma, Lula’s successor. On March 14, against the backdrop of a militarised Rio de Janeiro, city councilwoman from the Party of Socialism and Freedom (PSOL) Marielle Franco was murdered by the police.

In recent days, Lula’s bus caravan was hit by four gunshots when travelling in Parana.

Double standard

Lula’s involvement in a corruption scheme is by no means out of the question, but the speed at which the process against him has advanced is extraordinary. Several other politicians directly involved in the “Car Wash” scandal have received far less draconian treatment.

Renan Calheiros was president of Brazil’s Senate when he was ordered by the Supreme Court to step down because of charges of embezzlement. He and the Senate refused to abide, and the Court backtracked — allowing him to keep his position, but severing his line of succession to the presidency.

According to media reports, Senator Aécio Neves, leader of the right-wing Democratic Movement Party of Brazil (PMDB), met several times with Court President Cármen Lúcia while he was on trial for corruption. Eventually, she issued the deciding vote in a ruling that gave the Senate de facto veto powers over the Court’s decision in his case.

The Supreme Court also allowed Senate-appointed President Michel Temer to fill his cabinet with other elected officials prosecuted for corruption, whereas Lula was prevented from joining Dilma’s government for this same reason. Temer himself avoided standing trial before the Court last year when allies in Congress shielded him from charges of corruption, obstructing justice and links to organised crime.

The Supreme Court is arbitrarily targeting Lula at a time when he leads the polls for president. This is an open attack against the Brazilian people’s right to vote.

Moreover, the army’s Chief Commander General Eduardo Villas Boas hinted in a tweet at the possibility of a military intervention if Lula’s sentence was not upheld. The arrest warrant on Lula was celebrated by the media giant Globo and all major newspapers.

Judicial power

Sergio Moro, the prosecutor leading the “Car Wash” investigation, was trained by the US State Department, as a WikiLeaks’ report shows.

After Dilma’s re-election in 2014, the judiciary has increasingly played a prominent role in national politics. For this reason, different political analysts labelled it a “judiciary party”.

The Brazilian economy plunged in 2012 and has not recovered, causing popular discontent and growing social polarisation. Under the guise of an anti-corruption crusade, Moro launched the trial that ended with Dilma’s impeachment last year — a process widely recognised as an institutional coup.

Behind a bloated judiciary power overriding the executive branch and encroaching people’s democratic rights is an emboldened right wing. It seeks to pass harsher austerity policies and break the spine of the organised working class through labour and pension reforms. Lula’s presidential bid could jeopardise these plans.

Amid a growing rift between a conservative movement led by groups such as Free Brazil Movement (MBL) and Vem pra Rua (“Come to the street”), and the more impoverished and working-class sectors unequivocally opposing Temer’s austerity policies, the judiciary plays arbiter.

With no real accountability to the people, it has been crucial in sweeping the PT from government and advancing Temer’s political agenda.

Tone deaf left

There is a left that sees no value in defending democratic rights under capitalism. The Unified Workers Socialist Party (PSTU) is one. Raving about Lula’s looming arrest, its statement cheered the Supreme Court’s decision and naively hoped for the imprisonment of “all of them”.

These words display not only a grave misunderstanding of the role of the judiciary in Brazil over the past four years, but also a bewildering trust in the state’s repressive apparatus to deliver “justice”. Baffling as it sounds, the PSTU has held this position since the coup against Dilma.

Due to this implicitly pro-coup position, half the party split to form Movement for an Independent Socialist Alternative (MAIS).

The Party for Socialism and Freedom (PSOL), a multi-tendency left group, has not managed a unified position on Lula’s jailing. Whereas some support Lula’s arrest, other forces within the PSOL, such as the Socialist Left Movement (MES), protested the ruling. It called for his freedom and his right to run in the presidential elections.

The Revolutionary Movement of Workers (MRT) understands the court’s ruling as a continuation of the institutional coup against Dilma and the PT, and denounces the encroachment of the judiciary into people’s rights. The MRT calls out the PT’s truce and the immobility of the Unified Workers’ Central (CUT), but it rejects Lula’s arrest and proscription.

Do not wake the giant

Acknowledging the Supreme Court’s attacks on democratic rights should not imply supporting Lula or the PT. In fact, it was Dilma who made Temer vice-president in 2014. And the Supreme Court president was appointed by Lula.

Despite his past as a metal worker, Lula is a capitalist politician who has not advanced anti-capitalist measures during his presidency. He refrained from mobilising the only real social force that could stop the right-wing attack: the working class.

The CUT is the largest union federation in Brazil, representing 7.4 million workers. Despite the CUT being largely controlled by PT officials, the federation has not called for work stoppages, strikes, or other active measures in response to Lula’s arrest.

The PT has not released a call to fight in the streets against the continuation of the soft coup. The PT’s truce in the terrain of class struggle has been a straitjacket for Brazil’s working class.

And this has been the result not only of its unwillingness to flex the workers’ muscle, but also a natural consequence of demoralisation in response to Dilma’s own attacks on workers’ rights in collusion with the right.

The corruption scandals tarnishing her administration only make it an easier target for the right. It will be only over the heads of PT officials that the working class will break the inertia, shake its chains and become aware of its own power.

[Abridged from Left Voice.]

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