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“Our phoenix”: Lula’s ups and downs in Brazil are beyond belief | WGN 720 Radio

SAO PAULO (AP) — Four years ago, Luis Inacio Lula da Silva’s reputation and political future were in tatters. After an unlikely rise from poverty to trade union leader and to the presidency of Brazil, the man known to all as Lula has landed in prison.

On Sunday – in another twist – Brazilian voters chose him by the narrowest of margins to lead the world’s fourth-largest democracy once again. He will also put his legacy on the line.

“They tried to bury me alive and here I am,” da Silva said in a speech on Sunday night after the results confirmed his third presidential victory. “I am here to lead in a very difficult situation. But I believe in God that with the help of our people we will find a way out for this country.”

Life before Silva took place in such a unique, unusual way that it strains credulity.

His family moved from the impoverished northeastern region of Brazil to the state of São Paulo in search of a better life, following his father who had traveled south many years before. However, upon arrival, they discovered that he had moved in with another woman. Da Silva’s mother was left alone to raise eight children, of which little Lula was the youngest.

In the pressure of money, he became a locksmith at the age of 14 on the harsh outskirts of the metropolis. It was physical work that cost him the little finger of his left hand. He became a trade union leader in an era when Brazil’s labor force was still huge, and this translated into political power. In 1989, he made his first presidential bid, which he lost — along with the next two races.

Finally, in 2002, he won and became the first worker to hold the highest office in the country. And he was re-elected four years later, defeating his rival Gerald Alkmin, who became his running mate this year.

Exports of raw materials to China increased rapidly, filling the state coffers, and an extensive social welfare program lifted tens of millions of Brazilians into the middle class. Da Silva left office with an approval rating of over 80%, and then-US President Barack Obama called him “the most popular politician on Earth.” His chosen successor, Dilma Rousseff, was elected in 2014.

However, during Rousseff’s second term, a wide-ranging corruption investigation ensnared both politicians and businessmen. It brought her administration — along with da Silva and the rest of the Workers’ Party he founded — into disgrace.

The revelations of systemic kickbacks in exchange for government contracts followed a deep two-year recession that many blamed on Rousseff’s economic policies and which angered the Workers’ Party. In 2016, she was impeached for violating fiscal responsibility laws regarding the management of the federal budget.

The former president was then convicted of corruption and money laundering and locked up in a 160-square-foot room on the fourth floor of a federal police building in the southern city of Curitiba. That pushed him out of the 2018 presidential race and cleared the way for Jair Bolsonaro, then a fringe lawmaker, to win. Da Silva’s political legacy was destroyed.

His personal life also fell apart. His wife died, which he attributed at the time to the tension caused by the investigation.

Slowly, hope crept in. He began exchanging love letters with a woman named Rosangela da Silva, nicknamed Gianna. Their relationship blossomed thanks to Silva’s then-lawyer, Luis Carlos Rocha, who visited him every weekday.

Roja acted as a dutiful courier, hiding Janji’s letters in his jacket pocket where the guards didn’t check. He told the Associated Press that he saw Silva’s face light up with each colorful envelope he delivered.

“God willing, one day we will publish (the letters),” da Silva said at a rally in September. “But only for people over 18.”

The Supreme Court also began evaluating the legality of his convictions, which it eventually overturned on the grounds that the presiding federal judge was biased and colluded with prosecutors.

After 580 days of imprisonment, da Silva was a free man — he could marry his girlfriend and run for president. That hasn’t stopped incumbent President Bolsonaro, who is seeking a second term, from reminding voters of his pre-Silva convictions at every turn, warning that electing him would be like letting a thief return to the scene of a crime.

It has revived simmering anti-Workers sentiment, and the fact that much of Brazil still has contempt for Silva is a major reason why this year’s contest between the two political titans has become even tighter.

In the end, it came down to the wire, with da Silva being elected for a third term with 50.9% of the vote. It was the most violent election since Brazil’s return to democracy more than three decades ago.

Gianya was by his side during his victory speech, as she was throughout his campaign. She shed tears, overwhelmed with emotion. And she was not alone.

“I cried when he was arrested. Now I’m crying because he will bring Brazil back to normal. He can do it, he has the charisma to do it,” said Claudia Marcos, a 56-year-old historian who joined thousands of others to celebrate the left’s victory on Sao Paulo’s main boulevard. “He is our phoenix. The most important president in the history of Brazil.”

On Sunday at the headquarters of the Workers’ Party, da Silva delivered a long, carefully written speech in which he promised to unite Brazil. He will take office on January 1 and has said he will not seek re-election. This means that this presidential term could be his last act.

“It is not the number of years that makes a man old. What makes you old is not having a reason,” said da Silva, who turned 77 three days before the vote. “Brazil is my thing. The Brazilian people are my business.”


Associated Press writers Danielle Polita contributed from Curitiba and Diane Jeante from Rio de Janeiro.


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