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Brazil’s Most Popular President Returns From Political Exile With a Promise to Save the Nation

20 minute read

The genre we assign to a life story depends a lot on how it ends. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s life has already completed several dramatic arcs. First, the hero’s journey: a child born into poverty moves to the big city, rises to lead a labor union, and then becomes the most popular President in the history of modern Brazil. Then the tragedy: a celebrated statesman is fingered in a staggering corruption scheme, sent to prison, and forced to watch from the sidelines while rivals dismantle his legacy.

The endings don’t seem to stick, though. In April 2021, Brazil’s Supreme Court annulled the corruption convictions that had excluded Lula—as he’s universally known—from politics in 2018, saying a biased judge on his case had compromised his right to a fair trial. The bombshell decision set Brazil on course for a showdown between the leftist Lula and current far-right President Jair Bolsonaro in the October 2022 elections. Polls now put the challenger at 45% and the incumbent at 31%, with more centrist candidates all but out of the running.

Read More: Lula Conversa com TIME Sobre Ucrânia, Bolsonaro e a Frágil Democracia Brasileira

For Lula, who is 76 and had been preparing for a quieter life away from the halls of power, this new twist in his story was a surprise. But he didn’t hesitate to return to frontline politics. “In truth, I never gave up,” he rumbles in his famously gravelly voice, made hoarser by age. “Politics lives in every cell of my body, because I have a cause. And in the 12 years since I left office, I see that all the policies I created to benefit the poor have been destroyed.”

Photograph by Luisa Dörr for TIME

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It’s late March, six weeks before Lula launches his campaign, and he’s sitting in a studio in the São Paulo headquarters of his Workers’ Party (PT). Chuckling and griping that no one knows how to design a comfortable chair these days, he comes off as a jovial grandfather. But at his allusion to the current government, his back stiffens and the deeper, gruffer notes of his voice take over. Lula becomes the fiery young union leader he was in the 1970s, and launches into a soapbox-ready tirade.

The dream of Brazil that Lula pursued during his presidency from 2003 to 2010 lies in tatters, he says. Through progressive social programs, paid for by a boom in Brazilian products like steel, soy, and oil, Lula’s government lifted millions out of poverty and transformed life for the country’s Black majority and Indigenous minority. Bolsonaro has taken a hammer to all that, scrapping policies that expanded poor people’s access to education, limited police violence against Black communities, and protected Indigenous lands and the Amazon rain forest. COVID-19 has killed at least 660,000 Brazilians. The toll, the second highest in the world, was likely worsened by Bolsonaro, who called the virus “a little flu,” dubbed people who followed isolation guidance “idiots,” and refused to get a vaccine himself and to buy doses for Brazilians when they first became available. A December 2020 national survey showed more than 55% of Brazilians were living in food insecurity, up from 23% in 2013.

Read More: Why 2022 Might Be the Year Brazil Says Goodbye to President Bolsonaro

Even Brazil’s young democracy feels less than secure. Bolsonaro, a defender of the nation’s 20th century military dictatorship, has called mass rallies against judges who displease him and attacked critical journalists. He has also spent months warning of electoral fraud in Brazil, in an echo of President Donald Trump’s behavior before the 2020 U.S. election. In April, he suggested elections could be “suspended” if “something abnormal happens.” If he loses, analysts warn, a Brazilian version of a Jan. 6 riot is likely. If he wins, Brazil’s institutions may not withstand another four years of his rule.

Riding out of his political exile like a white knight, Lula claims that he can save Brazil from that nightmare. But it may no longer be the same country he once ruled. Its economy is reeling from the pandemic, with double-digit inflation and no commodities boom on the horizon. A six-year political crisis has bitterly divided society. Geopolitical rifts that Brazil once straddled have widened, and the West is in a new hot-and-cold war with Russia.

Lula, though, believes lightning will strike twice. “In American football, there is a player—as it happens he’s ended up with a Brazilian model,” he says, referring to Tom Brady and his wife Gisele Bündchen. “He’s been the best player in the world for a long time, but in each game, his fans demand that he plays better than he did in the last one. For me, with the presidency, it’s the same thing. I am only running because I can do better than I did before.”

Lula, who will run in October's presidential elections, takes part in a labor union event during International Workers' Day in São Paulo.Luisa Dörr for TIME

The crowd has been waiting for hours. Children sit restlessly on white plastic chairs, crammed together with their parents under a marquee to keep out the searing midday sun. Many wear red T-shirts with the logo of the Homeless Workers’ Movement (MTST), which fights for public housing and has organized this rally in a parking lot in the working-class outskirts of São Paulo. “It’s been a long time,” Lula finally begins over chants of his name, “that I’ve been missing the microphone.”

Neighborhoods like this are Lula’s home turf. When he was 7 years old, in 1952, his mother brought him and his seven siblings from Brazil’s desert-like northeast, traveling two weeks in an open truck bed, to São Paulo. They lived in the back room of a bar, and Lula left school at 12 to help support them. By 17, he was making door handles at a factory, and on one night shift, he lost his left pinkie in a machine. At 23, Lula married a neighbor, Maria de Lourdes. But she died two years later from a hepatitis infection while eight months pregnant with their first son, who also died—victims, Lula would later say, of the low-quality health care offered to Brazil’s poor. A few years later, in 1975, he was elected leader of the Steel Workers’ Union of São Bernardo do Campo, a São Paulo district a few miles from the site of this rally.

Many in Brazil know that story, which was immortalized in a syrupy 2009 film, Lula, Son of Brazil. “Lula’s trajectory has a very strong mythic quality for everyone who fights for social justice in Brazil,” says Guilherme Boulos, 39, coordinator of the MTST, who is often considered Lula’s political heir. “But he himself isn’t a distant, ceremonial person. He still speaks the language of the people.” Lula says the secret to his success lies in his ability to relate to working-class Brazilians—an unusual feat in a country where politicians are prone to price-of-milk gaffes. “I feel proud to have proven that a metal-worker without a university diploma is more competent to govern this country than the elite of Brazil,” he says. “Because the art of government is to use your heart, not only your head.”

Lula at an event in Sao Bernardo Do Campo during his 1989 presidential campaign.Antonio Ribeiro—Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

Bolsonaro, a former army captain devoted to the “says what he really thinks” political style, would probably agree on the importance of connecting emotionally with voters. But Lula’s populism conceals a shrewd pragmatism that has allowed him to navigate Brazil’s choppy political waters. As President, Lula maintained the fiscal conservatism of his center-right predecessor, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, sticking to Brazil’s agreements with the International Monetary Fund and satisfying investors. At the same time, his flagship Bolsa Família program boosted the income of poorer families, while other policies expanded access to education and health care. “If I can tell you that I have a daughter with a law degree, it’s because of programs created by the Lula government,” says Mel Nogueira, 39, at the São Paulo rally. “He represents hope itself.” In 2009, two years before Lula left office with an 83% approval rating, President Barack Obama called him “the most popular politician on earth.”

Then it all came crashing down. In 2014, Brazilian investigators uncovered a vast kickbacks-for-contracts scheme, centered on the state oil giant Petrobras, with billions in public funds pilfered. The probe was dubbed Car Wash. Lula was no longer in office, but opposition parties in Congress took advantage of anger at the scandal, and an economic crisis in Brazil, to impeach his PT protégé President Dilma Rousseff. She was not directly implicated in Car Wash, but lawmakers voted her out on the pretext that she had fudged numbers to make public accounts look better ahead of an election, and replaced her with a right-wing interim President. Two weeks later, prosecutors alleged that Lula was the graft scheme’s “mastermind.” The formal charge was that he had received a beachfront apartment as a bribe from a construction company. Lula denied that he had ever owned the property, but in 2017 federal judge Sergio Moro sentenced him to nearly 10 years in prison.

From behind bars the following year, Lula mounted a new campaign for October’s presidential race. He was ahead in the polls when Brazil’s top electoral court ruled that he could not be a candidate. Lula detected the logic of that: “It made no sense to impeach Dilma, if two years later, I would be President again. So they had to take me out of the game.” Bolsonaro defeated Lula’s PT replacement by 55.2% to 44.8%. Moro would serve as Justice Minister in Bolsonaro’s government.

Lula is seen on television giving a speech responding to accusations of corruption against his government, inside a shop in São Paulo in 2004.Alex Majoli—Magnum Photos

Read More: Brazil’s Star Justice Minister Sergio Moro on His Resignation and Clash With President Bolsonaro

For the Brazilian left, Rousseff’s impeachment amounted to a coup, an attack not on corruption—Car Wash implicated politicians across the political spectrum—but on the social progress that Lula and Rousseff had tried to achieve. Yet some supporters remained unsure about what had taken place under Lula’s watch. “I wish the investigation had convinced me whether he was guilty or innocent,” left-wing filmmaker Petra Costa said in her 2019 documentary The Edge of Democracy. “But instead, I was seeing prosecutors making a spectacle to present their case.”

Lula had spent 18 months in prison when the Supreme Court ruled, in November 2019, that defendants can’t be jailed before exhausting their appeal options. (In April 2022, the U.N.’s human-rights committee said Lula’s trial had been biased and violated due process.)It was a dark period in his life. Publications that had once celebrated his accomplishments were describing him as a criminal. His second wife, of 43 years, Marisa Letícia, had died from a stroke during his prosecution, and while he was in jail his 7-year-old grandson Arthur died of meningitis.

Lula deflects questions about his state of mind during that time. He says he drew strength from calls of “Good morning, President” from supporters who maintained a vigil outside the jail. “I was prepared to leave prison without feeling any resentment, only remembering that it was a part of history. I cannot forget it,” he says. “But I can’t put it on the table every day. I want to think about the future.”

Lula, left, and his lawyer Cristiano Zanin leave the Lula Institute building in São Paulo, Brazil, on April 5 2018, the day federal judge Sergio Moro issued an arrest warrant for Lula.Marcelo Chello—AP/Shutterstock
A crowd of supporters carries Lula during a gathering outside the metalworkers' union building in São Bernardo do Campo, in São Paulo, Brazil, on Nov. 9 2019, after the former president was released from prison.Nelson Almeida—AFP/Getty Images

For all his talk of the future, Lula’s campaign has so far run on nostalgia. When he was President, his Facebook ads point out, unemployment was lower, wages were higher, and fuel was cheap. “Lula hasn’t really presented a plan for the future. For the time being, he is only presenting the idea that he was a better President than Bolsonaro,” says Thomas Traumann, a political consultant and former Brazilian communications secretary.

Bolsonaro’s pandemic mismanagement and attacks on democratic institutions have allowed Lula to command a broad unity coalition. Geraldo Alckmin, a center-right former São Paulo governor who was Lula’s rival in the 2006 election, will be his running mate. Other former critics are backing his campaign, including Felipe Neto, a popular YouTuber who was a fierce voice against the PT during the Car Wash probe. “I’m not a member of the PT, and I have hard criticism about a lot of matters related to Lula. But those criticisms are in the political field, not about human rights,” he says. “I would like to oppose a legitimate leader; I can’t stand doing it against a murderer any longer.”

In a country where per capita GDP has been cut almost in half since 2014, even elites, many of whom supported Bolsonaro in 2018, have warmed to the idea that Lula may be better for business. “I am the only candidate with whom people should not be concerned about [economic policy],” Lula says. “Because I’ve been a President twice already. We don’t discuss economic policies before winning the elections. First, you have to win the elections.” That will come as a surprise to many, since the economy has usually been at the center of Brazil’s presidential campaigns. But Lula doubles down, citing stats from Brazil’s 2000s boom. “You have to understand that instead of asking what I will do, just look at what I’ve done.”

If he wins, though, Lula would inherit a darker economic outlook than he did in 2003. “It’s hard to quantify how much of the economic success of Lula’s first administration was due to the incredible conditions that he was fortunate to have,” says Gustavo Ribeiro, a political analyst. “It’s going to be a much more daunting task ahead of him.”

Lula, former Brazilian President and 2022 presidential candidate, photographed in São Paulo on March 23.Luisa Dörr for TIME

That is perhaps most evident in the issue of oil. During the PT’s rule, offshore discoveries by Petrobras bolstered state budgets and kept fuel prices low in Brazil. Today the global oil price is surging, driving inflation in Brazil, while efforts to fight the climate crisis have cast a shadow over the future of the oil sector, which makes up 11.5% of Brazil’s exports. In Colombia, Gustavo Petro, the left-wing front runner in its upcoming election, has pledged an immediate halt to oil exploration in his country—in line with recommendations of the International Energy Agency. He expressed hope that Lula and other progressive allies would join him in an anti-oil bloc.

Read More: The Amazon Rain Forest Is Nearly Gone. We Went to the Front Lines to See If It Could Be Saved

Lula’s response will disappoint environmentalists. “Look, Petro has the right to propose whatever he wants. But in the case of Brazil, this is not for real,” he says. “In the case of the world, it’s not for real.” Might he stop exploration for new oil deposits while extracting the oil Brazil has already located? “No, as long as you don’t have alternative energy, you will continue to use the energy that you have.”

Though Lula says his administration would scale up Brazil’s production of clean energy, he has also pledged to invest in new oil-refinery infrastructure in an effort to decouple Brazil’s oil from the global market. He frames it as a sovereignty issue. “Think of our dear Germany: Angela Merkel decided to close all the nuclear power plants. She did not count on the war in Ukraine. And today, Europe depends on Russia for energy.”

Lula’s views on foreign policy put him against the prevailing wind today. As President, he refused to take a side in the West’s arguments with its rivals, and prided himself on speaking with Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez or Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the same week as George W. Bush or Barack Obama. He says he was “very concerned” when the U.S. and many Latin American countries recognized Juan Guaidó, Venezuela’s center-left opposition leader, as President in 2019, in a bid to force Nicolás Maduro, Chávez’s authoritarian successor, from power. Even today, after Venezuela’s collapse into kleptocracy, Lula refuses to call Maduro a dictator.

Lula remains a die-hard believer that “two elected heads of state, sitting at a table, looking each other in the eye,” can resolve any differences. He claims that President Joe Biden and E.U. leaders failed to do that enough in the run-up to Russia’s invasion of its neighbor in February. “The United States has a lot of political clout. And Biden could have avoided [the war], not incited it,” he says. “He could have participated more. Biden could have taken a plane to Moscow to talk to Putin. This is the kind of attitude you expect from a leader.”

A street vendor sells towels with images of Bolsonaro and Lula near Eldorado dos Carajás in September 2021.Jonne Roriz—Bloomberg/Getty Images

Most Western analysts argue that Vladimir Putin’s invasion was fueled by an imperialistic desire to seize territory, rather than any provocations from Ukraine. But in Lula’s view, even Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who faced a months-long buildup of troops at his borders before the outbreak of war in February, shares blame. “I see the President of Ukraine, speaking on television, being applauded, getting a standing ovation by all the [European] parliamentarians,” he says, shaking his head angrily. “This guy is as responsible as Putin for the war. Because in the war, there’s not just one person guilty.” He argues that it is irresponsible for Western leaders to celebrate Zelensky rather than focusing on closed-door negotiations. “You are encouraging this guy, and then he thinks he is the cherry on your cake. We should be having a serious conversation. OK, you were a nice comedian. But let us not make war for you to show up on TV.”

Read More: Inside Zelensky’s World

The U.S. and the E.U. should have assured Putin that Ukraine would not join NATO, Lula says, drawing a comparison with the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, when the U.S. and Russia agreed to remove missile deployments from each other’s backyards. Western sanctions on Russia have unfairly impacted other regions’ economies, he adds. “War is no solution,” he says. “And now we are going to have to foot the bill because of the war on Ukraine. Argentina, Bolivia will also have to pay. You’re not punishing Putin. You’re punishing many different countries, you’re punishing mankind.”

The conflict underscores the need to renew global institutions, he says. “Today’s United Nations doesn’t represent anything anymore. Governments don’t take the U.N. seriously today, because they make decisions without respecting it,” Lula says. “We need to create a new global governance.” However difficult that may be in today’s fractured world, many leaders and diplomats would welcome Lula’s return: over the past four years, Bolsonaro has burned countless bridges, angering China with racist jokes about COVID-19 and mocking E.U. leaders. “Brazil will again become a protagonist on the international stage,” Lula pledges, “and we will prove that it’s possible to have a better world.”


If Lula’s stance on Ukraine, or his refusal to acknowledge any corruption-related mistakes by his party, suggest stubbornness, his supporters say he is willing to evolve where it matters.

For example, Brazil’s conversation on systemic racism has advanced since 2010. According to Douglas Belchior, an organizer for the nation’s Black Coalition for Rights, Lula’s antipoverty and education-access programs gave him a strong record on improving life for Black and mixed-race Brazilians, who make up 56% of the population and 75% of the country’s poorest. But today, Black and Indigenous Brazilians are calling for more targeted action to undo the pervasive legacy of slavery and colonialism. Lula’s next administration will need to put more emphasis on antiracism, and correct “some serious failings” by past PT governments on policing, Belchior says. “Going back to the point immediately before Bolsonaro isn’t enough for us. We have to move forward from where the PT governments stopped,” he says. “And Lula has listened to many Black activists, intellectuals, and politicians. He knows that the reconstruction of Brazil requires tackling racism.”

Read More: How Black Brazilians Are Looking to a Slavery-Era Form of Resistance to Fight Racial Injustice Today

There also are signs of movement on environmental issues. Though Lula is less ambitious about phasing out fossil fuels, his administrations were successful in curbing deforestation. Now he is centering the shifts Brazil needs to make on food to fight climate change—arguably more important in a country where agriculture and land use make up 61.5% of annual greenhouse-gas emissions. “I have improved how I speak. Now I’m not only talking about [ensuring that people can afford] a barbecue, but also about vegetarians,” he tweeted in February. “So we can stimulate a healthier agriculture in our country.”

Brazilian media attributes some of Lula’s new talking points—which also include an emphasis on gender equality and animal rights—to the influence of his fiancée Rosângela da Silva (no relation). In 2019, Lula announced his engagement to da Silva, a 55-year-old sociologist and PT activist, and they plan to wed in May. He’s hesitant to talk about her—“She can speak for herself!”—but he has “learned from her,” he says. “When you lose your wife, you think, well, my life has no more meaning. Then suddenly this person appears who makes you feel like you want to live again. I’m in love as if I were 20 years old, as if it were my first girlfriend.”

Lula believes the marriage will shape the tone of his next political chapter. “A guy as happy as I am doesn’t have to rage—let your opponents do what they want,” he says. “If I can, on the campaign, I will speak only about love. I don’t think it’s possible to be a good President if you only feel hate inside you, if all you want is revenge. No, the past is over. I will build a new Brazil.”

With reporting by Eloise Barry/London

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Write to Ciara Nugent/São Paulo, Brazil at ciara.nugent@time.com