“Those in power can kill one, two, or a hundred roses, but they’ll never be able to stop the arrival of spring.”
On 7 April 2018, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva delivered a speech to thousands of supporters in Sao Paulo. Standing outside the headquarters of the very metalworkers’ union he once led, Lula told the crowd he would, one day, return.
After finishing his speech, Lula turned himself in to a nearby police station. The former president – and founding member of the left-wing Workers’ Party (PT) – was following orders of a federal judge, who had instructed him to begin serving a 12-year prison sentence for corruption.
Describing the conviction as “the biggest judicial lie told in the country’s 500-year history”, Lula would spend more than a year in prison, before the Supreme Federal Court ruled that his imprisonment was unlawful in November 2019.
Lula would not have been freed were it not for a remarkable wave of international solidarity, not least from Lula’s legal team, Geoffrey Robertson KC and John Watts. Without their work, Lula may still be in prison today. Unfortunately, by the time Lula was released, he had missed (and had been barred from running in) the 2018 presidential election. The politically-motivated conviction, which the UN described as a violation of Lula’s right to a fair trial, had paved the way for the victory of the right-wing candidate, Jair Bolsonaro. Sergio Moro, the judge who ordered Lula’s arrest, would go onto serve as Bolsonaro’s justice minister.
During his four-year term, Bolsonaro would unleash a wave of impoverishment, fascism and ecocide. Leading arguably the worst pandemic response in the world, Bolsonaro blocked calls for lockdowns, social distancing rules and mask mandates, resulting in the second-highest death toll across the globe. The pandemic, of course, targeted underlying economic vulnerabilities, but they were vulnerabilities that Bolsonaro’s policies drastically exacerbated.
At the peak of his war against the poor, 100 million Brazilians were living in poverty. Women – and particularly Black women – have paid a disproportionate price for Bolsonaro’s social conservatism; it is now harder than ever to access abortion services. LGBT+ people have faced state-sanctioned discrimination too, the self-declared homophobe incited hatred after warning that Brazil was becoming a “gay tourism paradise”.
Bolsonaro’s presidency was a threat to life both in Brazil and around the world; for every year he was in charge, deforestation of the Amazon rose by at least 75 per cent. By the end of his term, the “lungs of the world” were (and still are) at a tipping point, where any further deforestation will likely trigger irreversible climate collapse. Bolsonaro’s assault on the environment was an assault on Indigenous communities too; there was a 180 per cent rise in reported cases of indigenous land invasion between 2018 and 2021.
Although Lula was freed in 2019, it wasn’t until March 2021 when, following another ruling, he was officially allowed to run for president in 2022. Lula’s campaign was reborn. So too, then, was the campaign to save Brazilian democracy and the future of our planet. On the ballot was a choice between socialism or extinction.
At the invitation of Brazil’s trade unions, I travelled to Brazil with The Progressive International as part of their established election observation arm. Bolsonaro repeatedly warned that he would not respect the result of the election if he lost; our mission was to defend Brazilian democracy in an election vital for the future of our civilisation.
Election day was agonisingly tense. For those of us on the ground, it soon became clear that Lula was not just up against Bolsonaro, but the machinery of the Brazilian state; we received multiple reports of federal police and federal highway police blocking roads and conducting unwarranted vehicle searches in the poorest areas of Lula’s northern strongholds.
Once again, those in power proved they were willing and capable of cutting down one, two, a hundred roses. However, just as Lula had promised, they could not stop spring from arriving. At around 7.30pm in Brazil, Lula emerged victorious, beating Bolsonaro by a hair’s breadth. Relief turned to ecstasy; those of us waiting for Bolsonaro to address the delegation of international guests embraced each other and sang in celebration.
Entering the room to a chorus of joy, Lula spoke at great length to those who had supported him. In an incredibly moving speech, Lula pledged to end hunger, racism, homophobia, transphobia and deforestation. One line was particularly memorable: “When we cut down an ancient tree, we cut down a part of our own lives. My government will stop the destruction of Amazon entirely. With us, it is safe forever.”
And by tackling illegal mining in the north, indigenous communities would no longer be systematically murdered by the greed for gold. “No price of gold”, he said, “is worth anyone’s life.”
Lula’s tone was hopeful and furious in equal measure. His anger at the level of misery that Bolsonaro had inflicted was palpable, lamenting the fact that, despite being a major food exporter, Brazil had children starving on the streets of its cities. Lula vowed to repeat – and go further than – what he did the last time he was president: lift millions out of poverty.
Perhaps the most significant part of his speech came at the end: Brazil, he said, would not be dragged into a new Cold War or an endless arms race. A Lula-led Brazil would endeavour to foster good relations with all global partners, for the sake of international peace.
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Responding to chants of “Viva Lula”, the new president insisted this was not a victory for him. It was a victory for a “democratic movement that formed above political parties, personal interests and ideologies”. Lula had won with the support of workers, indigenous people and the marginalised.
I saw this first-hand throughout the campaign, spending time with trade unions, a plethora of parties that had coalesced around him, and grassroots movements like the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) and the Homeless Workers Movement (MTST). Lula’s victory came from a left-led coalition of political parties and social movements. Who needs focus groups when you have solidarity?
The global struggle for equality, democracy and peace goes on. That includes the struggle right here in the UK; I hope that people who are eager to celebrate the victories of those overseas are equally as supportive as those fighting for a radical transfer of wealth, power and ownership closer to home. Lula’s triumph proves that, when we are united, transformative change can – and will – be won.
Two years ago, Lula was in prison, serving an unjust conviction. Today, he is the president of Brazil. As Lula told his supporters back in 2018, “there is no point in trying to end my ideas, they are already lingering in the air and you can’t arrest them”. Shared by millions around the world, Lula’s ideas no longer linger. They live. They breathe. And they are here to stay.
Last night’s results do not just mark a stunning comeback for Lula. They are, I hope, a comeback for our humanity.
Jeremy Corbyn is the MP for Islington North and served as leader of the Labour Party from 2015 to 2020