Brazil's Lula seeks presidency from prison as supporters protest in solidarity


The capital of the southern Brazilian state of Parana, or more precisely, the district of Santa Candida, where Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s prison is located, has become the political center of the country ever since its former president began his 12-year prison sentence there. He was convicted of corruption and money laundering, which is why his opponents say he shouldn’t be running for office.

Yet the Workers’ Party (PT) on Saturday officially named the man Brazilians call Lula as their presidential candidate. And seemingly unperturbed, he has been coordinating his election campaign from his solitary confinement cell at the Federal Police headquarters in Curitiba.

Supporters of the 72-year-old have been holding vigils outside the facility to protest against his “political imprisonment.” They initially set up a resistance camp complete with tents and morning, noon and evening role calls.

Solidarity camp for Lula in Curitiba (DW/M. Frighetto)

Lula’s supporters have held solidarity vigils outside his prison in Curitiba

Lula’s PT legal team

Thursday is visiting day. Fernando Haddad, a former education minister and ex-mayor of Sao Paulo, as well as the newly-appointed vice presidential candidate, has also become Lula’s defense counsel — which allows him free access to his PT colleague.

PT’s leader, Senator Gleisi Hoffmann, also recently joined Lula’s legal team, so she, too, can visit as often as she wants. “We are here to inform you that our candidate is still Lula. There is no plan B. We stand by this to the end,” she said after her last trip to the prison.

Read more: Lula — Brazil’s bitter divide personified

Despite Hoffmann’s words of support, people have been speculating about the party’s strategy should Lula be barred from campaigning — which is more than likely. According to Brazil’s Ficha Limpa (Clean Record) anti-graft law, people with corruption convictions held up on initial appeal may not stand for public office for eight years, irrespective of whether the person concerned may be allowed to appeal further. Ironically, Lula himself signed the measure into law in 2010.

Lula’s candidacy will not be approved or rejected until it is officially submitted to election authorities on August 15, however. And PT can change candidates until September 17. Although the party won’t admit it, there is likely a plan B, and it is expected to be Haddad.

Fernando Haddad (Getty Images/O.Torres)

Former Education Minister and ex-Sao Paulo Mayor Haddad is seen as PT’s likely alternative if Lula can’t run

‘Vetoing the right of the people’

Lula uses his visitors to communicate from prison. He writes newspaper articles and letters, but he is not allowed to give interviews. In his texts, the ex-president always stresses his innocence. His last hope is a pending Supreme Court ruling on appeal.

“Now they want a ballot with marked cards to exclude me, although most voters in opinion polls say they prefer me,” Lula wrote in a letter presented at the PT conference. “They already toppled the rightful president, Dilma Rousseff. Now they are vetoing the right of the people to freely elect their president.”

Backed by celebrities

The vigil in front of the police prison started out with roughly 2,000 people per day, a figure that has since dwindled to an estimated 100-300 people. On Thursday, Chico Buarque and Martinho da Vila, both popular musicians, caused quite a stir when they came to visit Lula. PT posted a video with Buarque saying the ex-president was in a good mood and “ready to go to the end.”

Other celebrities standing by Lula include US actor Danny Glover and Uruguay’s former president, Jose Mujica. A few days ago, Pope Francis sent Lula a friendly note.

Popular musicians Gilberto Gil and Chico Buarque (picture-alliance/AP Photo/L. Correa)

Popular musicians Gilberto Gil and Chico Buarque are among Lula’s celebrity supporters

In addition to visits by politicians, actors and other public figures, regular citizens from all over Brazil have made their way to the resistance camp. “Lula is one of us; he was born in the northeast and knows what our lives there are like,” said a woman from Caetes, Lula’s birthplace. “He’s got to get out.”

Frustrated residents take action

The vigils in front of the police prison in Curitiba have been going on for four months, however, and many Santa Candida district residents say they have had enough. They have taken action against Lula’s supporters, for instance by launching a page on Facebook and a YouTube channel named “Clear Curitiba.” Others have formed the Association of the Residents of Santa Candida to champion their rights against the demonstrators. “They have invaded our streets and are camping out here,” said Alisson Ferreira dos Santos, president of the association.

Other Lula supporters and local residents took their quarrel to court, where a compromise was eventually reached with the protesters. The demonstrators have now rented a plot of land next to the police prison to hold vigils there instead of on the street. Lula supporters see this as a success, as they are now even closer to their ex-president.

Flag of support for Lula in Curitiba (DW/M. Frighetto)

Lula’s supporters say that his imprisonment is political

The tents have vanished from the streets, but many residents are still dissatisfied. “This neighborhood has lots of elderly people and the noise is making everyone sick,” said Ney Fatima, who is retired and lives right next to the rented property. “My doctor has even increased my dose of medication.”

But even among the people of Santa Candida, Lula has supporters. Regiane do Carmo Santos offered the protesters space on her property when the vigils first began. The 53-year-old has also rented part of her house to them, where they now prepare their meals. She says she got involved unintentionally: “Now I feel very attached to the people.” It wasn’t easy, she added, as her neighbors harassed her at first. “But it’s okay now.”

In early July, when it briefly seemed Lula might be set free, Santos was ambivalent. “I was happy because he was to get out of prison. But also sad, because then I would have been alone again.” For the moment, it appears as if neither of these things will happen in the near future.