SAO PAULO – Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva began attending meetings of the Metalworkers’ Union – a key step toward an eventual career in Brazilian politics – thanks to the influence of an older brother, who staunchly defends the ex-president’s innocence after a pair of corruption convictions.
The 76-year-old Jose Ferreira da Silva, better known as Frei Chico, told EFE in an interview in Sao Paulo that he visits Lula whenever possible at the Federal Police headquarters in the southern city of Curitiba, where the 73-year-old former head of state is serving a lengthy prison sentence.
Chico joked that Lula will leave prison with a doctorate considering how much he reads inside his cell – the latest book being the history of oil.
But he turned serious when defending his brother from what he calls a “plot” to prevent him from returning to power.
Lula, who denies any wrongdoing, was found guilty in 2017 of accepting bribes from construction company OAS in the form of renovations to a seaside condo that the former president never owned or occupied.
That conviction – handed down by crusading federal Judge Sergio Moro, who is now justice minister in rightist President Jair Bolsonaro’s administration – came as part of a massive anti-corruption investigation known as Lava Jato (Car Wash) whose initial focus was a bribes-for-inflated-contracts scheme centered on Brazilian state oil company Petrobras.
Lula’s conviction was upheld on appeal, and he has been incarcerated since last April, which led to his being barred from the 2018 presidential election amid polls showing that he would have won by a wide margin.
Although his prison sentence in that case had been more than 12 years, it was reduced on appeal to eight years and 10 months last month by an appeals court, whose ruling could lead to Lula being granted house arrest later this year.
The ex-head of state also was convicted by federal Judge Gabriela Hardt in another corruption case in February of this year and sentenced to 12 years and 11 months behind bars.
In that second case, the ex-president was found to have illegally benefited from property renovations carried out by construction companies that received inflated contracts from Petrobras during Lula’s 2003-2010 administration.
Lula, who also was not the owner of that property, a country home in Atibaia, a town in the southeastern state of Sao Paulo, is appealing that second conviction.
But if it is upheld, that could prevent Lula from serving out the first sentence under house arrest.
“Lula is at ease. They could go as far as to kill him but they’ll never prove anything, because he didn’t do anything. Lula didn’t steal anything,” Chico said at the headquarters of the National Retirees’ Union in Sao Paulo, an institution to which he serves as a consultant.
Chico, an avowed communist, said his younger brother’s incarceration is part of a plan ultimately orchestrated by the United States, with the participation of the “elite” and some media companies.
“He’s aware they want to demoralize him and get rid of him.”
Lula’s morale remains high, according to Chico, who said the two convictions handed down against the leader of the center-left Workers’ Party (PT) are a set-up aimed at destroying him.
“Where’s the evidence?” he said indignantly.
Chico told EFE that “very violent pressure” is being exerted on Supreme Court justices to prevent them from freeing Lula.
“The Supreme Court is made up of human beings, parents of children who get intimidated. They have life-long employment. They’re set for life and only have to interpret the law. Vanity has taken hold of some of them,” he said.
Lula, who was born into a large, poor family in northeastern Brazil and raised by a single mother after his father went to live with another woman, began working in metal factories in Sao Paulo in 1968 after his family migrated to that metropolis.
But it was Chico who introduced him to union life and urged him to pursue a leadership position.
“At first he turned down the chance. I told him it was important, but in (the late 1960s) there was still repression and fear of (getting involved in unions) because it was dangerous,” he recalled.
He finally accepted and began a path that led to his becoming the president of the Metalworkers’ Union in 1975 and later a political leader who co-founded the PT in 1980.
Lula came up short in his bid for the presidency on three occasions (1989, 1994 and 1998) before being elected in 2002 and re-elected four years later.
He is credited with launching programs that helped lift millions out of poverty and finished his presidency with sky-high approval ratings. Nearly a decade after leaving office, he remains Brazil’s leading political figure.
“He prepared, studied a lot, quite a lot, to become a union leader, and later he became what he became,” Chico said.
In his judgment, however, Lula fell short in one key area during his administration – “reforming the media and the press,” which in some cases he said are “anti-democratic.”