Last month, Brazil’s former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, was jailed on corruption charges in connection to Operation Car Wash, or Operação Lava Jato.
Da Silva became president in 2003 on campaign promises focusing on improving the economic situation, stating, “If at the end of my term every Brazilian person has three meals per day, I will have fulfilled my life’s mission.” He left office in 2011 but was up for re-election this year with widespread public support.
Professor Shawn Smallman of International and Latin American Studies at Portland State weighed in on the Brazilian public’s perceptions of da Silva. “[Da Silva] was someone who was from a working-class background,” he said. “He was from the northeast, which was relatively poor. He worked as a shoe shiner, and then he got a job as a union organizer after working in a factory, and he’s just someone who ties to the people.”
Operation Car Wash began as a money laundering probe by the Federal Police of Brazil four years ago, but has since evolved into one of the biggest scandals in South American history with elites from 11 different countries in the region alleged to be involved.
As reported by The Intercept, the charges against da Silva involve a $1.1 million beachfront penthouse apartment gifted to him during his presidency from a construction company by the name of OAS. Furthermore, da Silva allegedly negotiated backdoor deals with an executive from OAS for the oil company Petrobras. During the investigation, the executive became a cooperating witness for the case.
However, some conjecture over the allegations remains. The apartment title was never transferred to da Silva, quid pro quo was never established in relation to Petrobras, and a majority of the case rested entirely on the executive’s testimony.
Even at the time of his arrest, da Silva continued to have support from his base, who see his indictment as an attempt by Brazilian oligarchs to re-establish control over the democratic process and reverse the economic changes the country has seen over the past 25 years.
Smallman contributed his view on Brazil’s changing economics, describing the situation when he was there in 1992. “Inflation was 1,700 percent a year, which meant if I change my money on a Monday, I had to spend it by a Friday, or it was worth half of what it was.”
A report by Oxfam announced 28 million people had been lifted out of poverty since da Silva’s first term, reducing the poverty rate to less than 10 percent. Based on data from the World Bank, Brazil’s GDP experienced an unprecedented surge during the da Silva administration, rising from about $558 billion in 2003 to $2.6 trillion in 2011.
Smallman also discussed the ways in which economic changes affected da Silva’s legitimacy in the public eye. “[Da Silva was] in power at a time when not only inflation [was] under control thanks to the previous president, but also Brazil [had experienced] really great economic growth,” he said. “You saw a large percentage of the poor population move out of poverty into kind of a lower middle class.”
In addition to the current unrest on the left, Brazilian President Michel Temer—da Silva’s main opponent—is also under investigation for money laundering, though he has not been arrested. With an approval rating of only three percent, Temer is the least popular president in the country’s history. After entering office, he enacted austerity measures in response to the 2015 recession.
According to Vox, all of this contributes to a loss of faith in democracy and a fear that Brazil may be returning to military rule. Da Silva’s arrest comes in the wake of the assassination of the prominent human rights activist Marielle Franco. Franco was a Black, queer woman with a large focus on police brutality, and it’s suspected her death was the result of someone with police training, if not active police involvement.
Brazil has one of the highest rates of police brutality in the world; Human Rights Watch reported in 2015 that 20 percent of homicides in Rio de Janeiro were committed by police, and 75 percent of those killed were Black men.