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The Next Step For Brazil's Lula


He was the most important democratically elected leader in the region while he governed Brazil, a former steel worker and union organizer with a fourth-grade education who rose to power as a leftist hero of the neglected poor in Latin America's most populous and economically powerful nation. In a stunning fall from grace, former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was sentenced to more than nine years in prison on corruption and money laundering charges this past week. He remains free while he appeals the case. But it's another shock to a country that's being racked with political scandal and instability. In our New York studios to talk about Lula is Brian Winter. He's the editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly magazine. Welcome to the program, Brian.

BRIAN WINTER: Happy to be here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So I covered Brazil. So did you. Lula loomed so large over the psyche of Brazil and the continent. What is the significance of this sentence?

WINTER: Well, you know, Lula to his supporters is an Abe Lincoln-type figure. He is the face of the working class that accomplished something. I mean, he was Brazil's first president who came from poverty. He ran for president three times and lost. And then when he finally got in, he had in some respects the good fortune of presiding over a commodities boom. And therefore, 30 million Brazilians came out of poverty and into the middle class during his presidency from 2003 to 2010. Since then, as you know, things have fallen apart. And he had a role in that, a role in the economic mismanagement but also a role in the corrupt ways of doing business in politics.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Remind us what exactly he's being accused of.

WINTER: Well, Lula has five sets of corruption charges against him. And this one that he was sentenced for recently was - it involves a beachfront apartment that he was allegedly given access to with his family in return for considerations on a - what amounted to a government contract.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And it's part of, of course, a wider corruption scandal that has been uncovered that's really rocking Brazil at the moment. Tell us a little bit about the context in which this is happening.

WINTER: Well, the size of this scandal involving the Brazilian state-run oil company Petrobras is sometimes hard for outsiders to understand. Petrobras is a company that, through the company and its suppliers, encompasses about 10 percent of Brazil's economy.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, it's huge.

WINTER: And so what happened was you had these prosecutors who found - almost stumbled into these clues. And they started pulling on this string and saw very quickly that this scandal was connected to almost everything and everyone.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And everybody, yeah.

WINTER: Yeah. It's like watching Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Jeff Bezos all go to jail - and some important politicians, like watching John McCain and Lindsey Graham join them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So now we have Lula possibly going to prison. What has been his reaction? He has not taken this lying down. He is coming out fighting.

WINTER: So it's important to note that he - the judge allowed him to stay free pending an appeal. And that appeal might take up to a year. And, you know, he and his defense team have said that this is a politicized show trial in order to keep him from running for president again in 2018.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And the polls show that he is still, despite all of his troubles, one of the most popular politicians in the country. How can that possibly be?

WINTER: Well, a lot of that is connected to the memory of how good things were in Brazil in the 2000s during this period where you saw economic growth, upward mobility. And, you know, there is a percentage of the population that says, you know what? All politicians are corrupt. Lula is the only one who ever did anything for me. And by the way, the country is still mired in its worst recession in recorded history. That goes back at least a hundred years - that they've been keeping records. And this really seems like the only guy who can get us back to the good times.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Brian Winter of Americas Quarterly magazine, thank you so much.

WINTER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.