SAO PAULO – It was April 7, 2018, that Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva arrived at a Federal Police facility in the southern Brazilian city of Curitiba to begin serving a prison sentence for corruption, but a confidant of the popular former president says he remains unwilling to trade “his dignity for freedom.”
Since then, from inside a customized cell of 15 sq m (165 sq ft), the 73-year-old cancer survivor who governed Latin America’s largest nation for eight years has seen the courts keep him off the ballot in last year’s presidential election.
The decision to exclude Lula, then leading in the polls by a wide margin, all but assured the victory of far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro, a fervent admirer of Brazil’s 1964-1985 military regime and ally of US President Donald Trump.
Then came a second conviction for corruption that stretched Lula’s sentence to 25 years, even as his attorneys continue to challenge the initial guilty verdict.
Lula’s time behind bars has also been marked by family tragedy.
His older brother, Genival Inacio da Silva, died in January of cancer, while 7-year-old grandson Arthur succumbed to infection on March 1.
Yet despite his sorrow and fatigue, Lula remains resolute and hopeful that he will be able to prove his innocence to honor his late wife, Maria Leticia, and young Arthur, friends and family tell EFE.
The former lathe operator and union leader is mentally sharp and has dropped some weight, they say.
Lula keeps to a strict routine, rising every day at 6.00 am and running on the treadmill he has in the well-equipped cell to which he is entitled as an ex-head of state.
Politics dominates the conversation when friends and family come to see him on Thursdays for visiting day.
The talk tends to be “about the situation of the country, about the international embarrassment Brazil is experiencing and about the necessity of restoring social-protection policies for the poorest people,” attorney Emidio Souza told EFE.
With time on his hands, Lula has become a voracious reader, devouring 21 books in the first 57 days. His recent reading has included a book about the oil industry and a study of the Atlantic slave trade in the early 19th century.
The former president also reads all of the letters he gets from supporters and colleagues and responds to many of them.
Lula, like most Brazilians, is a soccer fanatic and he is able to follow his favorite domestic club, Corinthians, on the television in his cell. But without cable, he can’t watch European league matches.
The television does have a USB input and the ex-president occasionally watches films, notably “La noche de 12 años,” which recounts the 12 years former Uruguayan President Jose “Pepe” Mujica – a personal friend of Lula – and two other members of the Tupamaro rebel movement spent behind bars during the 1973-1985 military dictatorship in their country.
When Lula walks out of jail, the first thing he will do is embrace the supporters waiting outside the gates to thank them for their “resistance,” Souza said.
“People are resisting to defend his freedom. That is very moving to him,” the attorney said.
The various cases against Lula, who denies any wrongdoing, are based largely on plea-bargained testimony from people already convicted of corruption offenses.