Lula's Return

An extraordinary experience in the history of Brazil and its reflections on the international level

The assault on the buildings of power in Brasilia is a further demonstration of the importance of Lula's election to the presidency of Brazil. In recent years, President Bolsonaro had changed (or tried to change) Brazil's democratic institutions. With Lula's re-election, Brazil returns to the world stage. Lula's return with his third term as president defines a historic moment not only for Brazil but in many ways at the general level of international political relations.

We must, despite the regurgitations of the far right fueled by the Bolsonaro regime, return to the novelty constituted by the new presidency for the possible changes in Brazilian politics. But not only. It is worth reconstructing Lula's exceptional personal and political history not only in view of the possible future of Brazil, a country which enters the political scene with a leading role and which can contribute to modifying the relations between the great powers today concentrated on challenge between the United States and Russia alongside in many ways the decisive role of China.

Lula  finds a troubled country dominated by Bolsonaro since 2019 with the support of the far right. His justice minister Sergio Moro had managed, when he was still a magistrate, to convict Lula in 2017 on speculation charges that proved to be unfounded. Lula had remained in prison for 19 months to then be provisionally released pending a new trial. A sentence that proved groundless and was eliminated by the highest levels of the judiciary in 2021, when Lula definitively relaunched the challenge for the presidency.

He won with the primary support of the CUT, the trade union confederation, but also with the support of a part of the Brazilian bourgeoisie. Not surprisingly, he accepted the decisive support of a part of the right represented by the candidate for vice-presidency Geraldo Alckmin.

His first political decision has been to intervene in the Amazon, which had fallen prey to international speculation with the destruction of part of the forest. He will have to face the difficulties of the global economic crisis which is reflected in Brazil, reducing its exports and raising interest rates. The increase in public spending will have to be supported by the increase in taxes on the wealthy classes. Overall, a rational policy but in stark contrast to that practiced by Bolsonaro's far right.

 1.  Lula's presidency changes not only politics but Brazil's role on the international scene. His personal and political history make him a singular leader in the political panorama of the last decades. From this point of view, it is worth remembering his origins and the beginning of his public life, almost casual, when Brazil was under the rule of the military regime. A life in many respects extraordinary whose origin was in an almost unknown countryside in the north-west of Brazil.

Luiz Inácio da Silva, called when he was still a child Lula which repeats the initial consonant of his name, was born in Caetés in the countryside of the province of Pernambuco in central-western Brazil. He was the seventh child which was followed by the birth of the third sister. The father had gone to look for work far away with another woman, who was his mother's cousin, in the suburbs of São Paulo. Up to five years Lula did not know his father. The brothers had not had the opportunity to study, except for Frei Chico who had attended the first years of school. The father and mother were illiterate. Lula had had to stop at elementary school.

When the family decided to move to the south to get closer to their father, they made a thirteen-day journey stopping with the truck that transported them to service stations. In Santos, a seaside city about seventy kilometers from São Paulo, they did not have a permanent residence. The three sisters adapted as servants when they found a host family. Lula did some casual work. But he too went back to study becoming a turner. His mother was very proud of her youngest child.

2.   Until adulthood he had never been involved in politics and did not intend to deal with the trade union substantially subjected to the military regime. His brother Frei Chico, a worker, had instead become a member of one of the two communist unions, but clandestinely as was necessary under the military regime. Lula's fate changed unexpectedly when Frei Chico , working in a close factory, was arrested, the police having suspected his union’s  activity. They took him to prison and with torture they tried to get information about his activity.

 Lula was deeply affected even though he did not share his brother's political militancy. But he couldn't give up the role his fellow workers wanted him to play as a union member. Although he did not aspire to particular positions, he became an important member of the union. Union struggle in the usual forms was prohibited. But the strikes in the suburbs of São Paulo, the most industrialized area of Brazil, spread in a form that aimed to prevent police intervention.

Indeed, the workers entered the factory at the usual time but folded their arms. The employers were unable to this form of strike. The police wanted to arrest the union leaders, but the union denied having called the strike, admitting only that it assisted the workers who "spontaneously" occupied the factory.

3    Without having initially proposed it to himself, Lula had become the protagonist of the new form of trade unionism. There were key strikes in major factories among others including large multinational companies such as Volkswagen, Mercedes and Ford. Lula became one of the leaders of the new unionism of metalworkers. When a large demonstration was organized in 1979 which brought together over one hundred thousand workers in the San Paolo stadium, Lula concentrated his intervention not on the Brazilian authoritarian policy, but on the demands of the workers, the insufficiency of wages, the working conditions. And he enjoyed great success becoming the undisputed leader of the metalworkers' union in the most industrialized area of Brazil.

In 1980 he began to associate with a group of left-wing intellectuals who, surprised by the results of the new forms of mobilization, aimed to form a party far away not only from those that the government had enfeoffed, but also from the two clandestine communist parties. The Workers' Party (PT) was formed of which Lula became its recognized leader. It was the first step destined to change the political history of Brazil. In 1983 there was the second step with the creation of the CUT, the single workers' federation.

In a short space of time, not only the trade union but also the political history of Brazil had changed, having the military regime lost control of the country. Lula, now at the head of a large popular movement, was elected to the Chamber of Deputies and in 1989 was proposed by the party for the presidency of the republic, coming close to victory despite the onslaught of baseless maneuvers and accusations.

4.  Lula was by then a political exponent of international renown both for the foundation of the most important trade union in Latin America and for his political role which had brought him to the threshold of the presidency. He was the guest of dozens of countries. Italy became one of the most important destinations. (His wife Marisa was from a family of Italian origin).

Italian syndicalism, albeit divided, had a particular characteristic by combining the articulated dimension of the demands with a political dimension exercised to a large extent together. This distinguished it from French syndicalism where the CGT while strong remained separate from the other two main unions; and from German trade unionism which historically excluded the communist party.

Lula was welcomed many times in Italy by the trade unions and by the left-wing parties in government in the second part of the 1990s. In Italy he was interested in setting up an association - the International Center for Social Studies - which I directed and which, inaugurated by Jacques Delors, brought together the representatives of the three trade-unions federations and a group of intellectuals from the Italian and European left.

During the 1990s, the elections were won in Brazil by Fernando Henrique Cardoso, an intellectual educated in American universities, supported by the Brazilian right. In the elections at the end of 2002 the outcome was once again uncertain, but Lula's victory in the runoff was overwhelming. A new era had begun in Brazil. Lula formed a government that was surprising in many ways because it was supported by the Brazilian right. With his dual mandate, Brazil's role on the international scene radically changed, becoming a model of economic and social change.

In conclusion, his return to the presidency of Brazil has had an important echo not only in Latin America but globally. Under his presidency, Brazil will fully return to the international scene, starting with the war in Ukraine which, in his opinion, must be resolved by a peace negotiated between the United States and Russia.

Brazil will play an active international role not only being the most important country in Latin America but for the role it globally plays. We cannot anticipate the journey of the new presidency. But we know that Lula's personal and political history make him a singular character in the political panorama of the last decades. Once again Lula places himself at the center of the international political scene for his story and his charisma.

Antonio Lettieri

Editor of Insight and President of CISS - Center for International Social Studies (Roma). He was National Secretary of CGIL; Member of ILO Governing Body and Advisor for European policy of Labour Minister. (