Brazil

Lula seeks political rebirth where he began: among the people

The very thought that Lula might go to prison causes Maria Helena da Conceicao to break into tears. To her, the former Brazilian president is much more than just a politician facing corruption charges and fighting to regain power.

Former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva plunges into a crowd during a three-week tour designed to show his continuing popularity ahead of next year's presidential election
Former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva plunges into a crowd during a three-week tour designed to show his continuing popularity ahead of next year's presidential election (AFP)

The very thought that Lula might go to prison causes Maria Helena da Conceicao to break into tears. To her, the former Brazilian president is much more than just a politician facing corruption charges and fighting to regain power.

The fortyish Maria Helena is one of the many people who benefited from the social policies of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a hugely popular leader who in his two terms as president (2003-2010) pulled millions of Brazilians out of lives of barefoot poverty.

Brandishing a poster bearing a photo of her proudly receiving a university diploma, Maria Helena would not have missed the visit of the aging leftist icon to Feira de Santana, some 100 kilometers (60 miles) from Salvador de Bahia. It is the third stop on a three-week tour of some of the poorest areas of Brazil's northeast.

"Before, we had no access to universities. Rich people did not accept us. But today, though I am black and poor, I am doing advanced studies alongside those with money," said Maria Helena, who has a law degree and recently began studying psychology.

Standing among an animated crowd of thousands of militants -- many wearing the red T-shirts of the Workers' Party that Lula founded in the 1980s -- she makes no effort to hide her emotion when the former president arrives for a rally billed as dealing with "the defense of public policies for family farming."

Greeted by thunderous chants of "Lula, warrior of the Brazilian people!," the bearded politician with the gravelly voice clearly cultivates his image as a man of the people. Sporting the traditional leather hat of Bahia, he is showered with gifts from the crowd, including locally grown fruit and vegetables.

A promise of «much more»

Former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva poses with supporters during his bus tour of northeastern Brazil
Former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva poses with supporters during his bus tour of northeastern Brazil (AFP)

A native of neighboring Pernambuco state, Lula himself knew hunger growing up in the arid northeast, before emigrating to Sao Paulo to work as a metallurgist.

But this tour is not just about returning to his roots. Lula wants to put himself back on the political map ahead of next year's presidential elections, and he makes clear that he considers the many corruption charges facing him as nothing but a "plot by the elites" to prevent him from running.

"They want to destroy me and they think I will hang my head," he tells the crowd. "But don't worry about me: if one day I should return to power, we are going to do much more," the former union leader promises, before being interrupted for long minutes by shouted cries of "Lula, president!"

At 71, he has lost none of his charisma. While the corruption charges have not helped, he knows how to charm his public, reminding them of the incredible path he followed from youthful poverty to becoming a leader once described as "the most popular politician on earth."

"I know where I come from and I know where I'm going. I am not going to Paris or London. You can count on a comrade ready to fight to the very end!" he shouts, to a roar of applause.

That is just the sort of hopeful message that got Maria Jose Pereira da Silva, a 65-year-old farmer, out of bed at 5 o'clock in the morning to see her idol.

"Today, we have running water, a fridge, a TV. It's Lula who gave us all this. We consider him as a sort of father," she said, clearly moved.

Legal woes continue

A supporter of former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva gets emotional as he speaks at a rally with farmers during his three-week bus tour of northeastern Brazil
A supporter of former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva gets emotional as he speaks at a rally with farmers during his three-week bus tour of northeastern Brazil (AFP)

While Lula may find the adoring crowds invigorating, his ambitions may yet be nipped in the bud.

Last month he was sentenced to nine years and six months in prison on corruption and money-laundering charges.

Judge Sergio Moro accused the former president of accepting bribes from a construction company seeking to win contracts from state-controlled oil giant Petrobras.

The luxury seaside flat that he allegedly was given as a bribe is worlds away from the gritty realities of the humble rural dwellers of Brazil's northeast.

While he remains free pending an appeal, Lula must appear in another case before Judge Moro on September 13, shortly after the people's tour that will help him take the measure of his continuing popularity.

Even if opinion polls show him leading a hypothetical 2018 race, Lula faces headwinds. The economic boom he oversaw is long past, some of his social policies have been rolled back, and he faces political opposition, particularly in richer southeastern Brazil.

But to people like Maria Helena, none of that matters. Lula will always be her "warrior."