In this Q&A, John D. French discusses his new book Lula and His Politics of Cunning: From Metalworker to President of Brazil.
Known around the world simply as Lula, Luis Inácio Lula da Silva was born in 1945 to illiterate parents who migrated to industrializing São Paulo. He learned to read at ten years of age, left school at fourteen, became a skilled metalworker, rose to union leadership, helped end a military dictatorship—and in 2003 became the thirty-fifth president of Brazil. During his administration, Lula led his country through reforms that lifted tens of millions out of poverty. Here, John D. French, one of the foremost historians of Brazil, provides the first critical biography of the leader whom even his political opponents see as strikingly charismatic, humorous, and endearing.
Lula and His Politics of Cunning is now available in hardcover and ebook editions.
Q: Why did you decide to write a biography of Lula? What kind of personal passion did you bring to it?
A: I was captured by a passion for politics at the tender age of seven during the 1960 presidential election. Within two years, I was hooked on reading history—mostly military history accounts of the World Wars along with Caesar’s campaigns in Gaul—and I wore buttons for LBJ against Barry Goldwater in 1964. Volunteering at conventions, I heard Senator Robert F. Kennedy and New York governor Nelson Rockefeller in person even as I entered my first public debate in junior high school—I still have my yellowed note cards—as an opponent of the U.S. intervention in Vietnam, condemning it in 1966 as not only futile and unjust but illegal under international law. When I got to Amherst College in 1971, I declared my history major the first week and wrote a thesis four years later on the relationship between FDR and the labor movement during the New Deal, a topic whose link to my Brazilian life project is self-evident.
Q: In a sentence or two, what were the economic and political conditions in 2003 Brazil that helped make it possible for Lula to win the hearts and minds of Brazilians—and the presidency?
A: Lula’s election came twenty years after Brazil was hit, in 1992, by a devastating international debt crisis caused by loans taken out under the Brazilian military regime in an era of irresponsible—if not criminal—lending of recycled petrodollars by U.S. banks. The result was a decade and a half marked by mass impoverishment—with annual inflation running over 1000%—and economic stagnation. This came to an end in the mid-1990s under the Plano Real that shut down inflation under Brazil’s second democratically-elected president after military rule. By FHC’s second term (1998-2002), the bloom was off the neoliberal restructuring that had hurt organized labor, and Brazil was shaken by the international financial crises usually named after its victims Russia and Asia. In this, his fourth run for president, Lula was a known quantity—as was his Workers’ Party—and a more mature one who captured the desire for change and a willingness to try a different path under a surprisingly different sort of leader (much like Obama in the midst of the US economic meltdown of 2008). Hope, as Lula liked to say, beat fear in the election of 2002.
Q: What strikes you as the most remarkable thing about Lula’s rise to the presidency?
A: The figure whose political career is most similar to Lula is the former union strike leader Lech Walesa, who lost his prestige and influence after his one-term Presidency of Poland. So what’s remarkable to me is less that Lula was elected—which is admittedly highly unusual in an elitist, authoritarian, and radically unequal society like Brazil—but that he would prove capable, with his party, of handling its challenges so well while winning the next three presidential elections (2006, 2010, 2014). In seven consecutive presidential elections between 1989 and 2018, Lula or his chosen candidate have either won or come in second in the presidential run off. He is to presidential electoral politics what the Brazilian Pelé is to world soccer.
Q: You delve into Lula’s family life in more depth than is usually revealed—how did Lula’s relationship with his family (including his brother, Frei Chico) help to shape Lula’s political beliefs and actions?
A: I tell the tale of Lula and his closest brother in detail—along with parents, six other siblings, relatives, adolescent buddies, girlfriends, and shop mates—through a bottom-up narrative of these then-anonymous poor migrants to the big city whose lives were marked by suffering, loss, and nostalgia, but also by adventure, joy, and fulfillment. As the family “rebel,” Frei Chico took a very different path as an adolescent than Lula, the “good boy.” Frei Chico’s willingness to fight back against employers, despite the cost, and his commitment to trade unionism and eventually Communism served to help Lula anchor himself in a political and union world he knew nothing about until 1968. And Frei Chico’s disappearance and torture by a murderous secret police agency in 1975 would prove a moment of truth for the newly-elected thirty-three-year-old union president Lula.
Q: Did Lula know that you were writing this book about him?
A: He did. In 2015, I accompanied Brazilian scientist Miguel Nicolelis to a meeting with Lula and told him about the biography, shared the outline, and gave him my two prior books on the metalworkers of ABC. As always, Lula was affable but far more interested in talking with Miguel about how the PT government of his successor could better position themselves and deliver on their 2014 campaign’s promises to further improve public education, an issue Lula feels strongly about, having only formally finished the four grades of primary school himself. Throughout the PT presidency, he would oversee an unprecedented investment in and leap in enrollments of higher education, along with the adoption of an ambitious quota-based affirmative action program.
Q: Tell us about Lula’s background as a nordestino immigrant from the rural Northeast of Brazil, and what that meant in terms of fitting into Brazilian culture and society at the time.
A: The poor and predominantly non-white Northeast is the historic heartland of slavery and the plantation going back to the 16th century. The region lost prominence, wealth, and power with the rise of the Southeast, especially São Paulo and Rio, and the South during the coffee boom and industrialization of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Much like the American South prior to World War II, the region was scorned and regarded as the “sick man” of the country: authoritarian, economically backward, and its politics prone to demagoguery and the cheap buying of votes through clientelism. The Northeast experienced a process analogous to the great migration of Black and white southerners in the U.S. who headed North between the first and second World Wars, with tens of millions of rural nordestinos and mineiros migrating to Brazil’s industrial heartlands after 1945. This would transform the politics and unionism of São Paulo, where regionalist prejudice against them was strong and remains stubbornly persistent even today.
Q: What did Lula learn from his time in the union? How did that time shape his political views—and how much did his political views shape the union?
A: This biography offers a precise examination of Lula’s practice and style of leadership—along with his characteristic use of words and posture towards those around him—which I suggest, provocatively, is essentially unchanged since 1978, the year of the first strikes, even as Lula rose in the political superstructure of Brazil through 2020.
Q: “Cunning” is a striking term that you use in your book, including in the title—what exactly do you mean by it? How did Lula demonstrate this cunning in his political career?
A: This book does not offer the top-down vision of the factory, the trade union, political party, or the Presidency from a perspective lodged in their institutional structures. Rather, this bottom-up account follows individual men and women as they came to occupy, act within, and deploy the powers made possible by such structures. Instead of imitating his brother’s combativeness, which cost Frei Chico, Lula is a preeminent practitioner of the maneuvering that characterized the life paths of the weak: poor, poorly-educated, and most often non-white individuals who always have to watch their step and show deference to the immediate “authorities” who have a say over their futures. While limited in their power, they stubbornly maneuver to overcome the many obstacles they face even though they do not have the power to win by “shouting.” Lula has always been prepared to shout and fight—boldly and even rashly—when necessary, but he prefers to get the better of the other side through negotiations, wielding his possible power of mobilization as a factor for the other side to weigh rather than rushing to it as his first response. I would emphasize, as well, that the cunning of the weak can be used for purely individualistic and selfish ends, as it often is, but Lula deploys cunning with the aim of changing society towards meeting the interests of the majority. This is why I call it a transformative, but not revolutionary, politics of cunning.
Q: Noting that Brazil under Lula became one of the most lauded in the world in terms of fast economic development, what did Lula’s victory mean for the left, the povo, and for Brazil?
A: With his typical way with words and simple metaphors, Lula would say his presidency was the moment when those on the bottom of an unequal society—looked down on as inferiors—could walk with their heads held high. They now knew that one of their own had finally seized the symbolic golden ring, the presidency, and had gone on to prove that such a person, while leading a capitalist government, could bend capitalism so as to benefit the masses through a modest but real redistribution of wealth and opportunity.
Q: Why was Lula jailed for Operation Car Wash, and why was he freed from jail?
A: As a society formed by three and a half centuries of slavery, which only ended in 1888, Brazilian politics has always been a game played by the rich, powerful, and highly educated, with little being heard from the descendants of the slave quarters, Brazil’s common people (povo). Brazil’s first experience of representative electoral democracy, with some mass voting, began in 1945 but was brought to an end by the military seizure of power in 1964. In this byzantine elite world, the judiciary has always been a political weapon to be used against opponents—almost always in the name of combating corruption, which is indeed a staggering problem. Yet, as the infamous aphorism cynically notes, “justice is for my friends and the law for my enemies.” Not knowing enough about Brazilian history and politics, journalists and outsiders took at face value the propaganda around a tendentious lower level judge, Sergio Moro, who conducted a campaign of political persecution against Lula. This campaign was driven not by corruption, which is unproved, but by the imperative of eliminating him as a 2018 presidential candidate who would have easily beaten the right wing candidate Jair Bolsonaro. And Bolsonaro, once elected, rewarded Moro with appointment as his Minister of Justice.
Q: What do you think Lula is focusing on in the present day?
A: Given his age, at 75, he is in quarantine but still participating in a stream of live interviews, discussions, and gatherings, which you can follow on Facebook. He’s quarantined with his new 52-year-old fiancée, his longtime wife Marisa having died in 2017 also under indictment. He continues to display his characteristic humor and absolute conviction that the terrible things unfolding can be stopped by working together and doing politics. On a more sober note, he displays a strong sense of indignation and sorrow at the massive suffering in the country, including the eminently preventable deaths from COVID-19—more than 108,000 and counting as of late August 2020—by a country whose President denies its existence and who refuses to allow the government to undertake active public health measures.
Q: Though Lula’s story is far from over, what do you think has been his legacy thus far?
A: At his first meeting with Lula in April 2009, President Obama put it succinctly, telling the other world leaders gathered around Lula: “he’s the man, the most popular politician on earth!”
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John D. French is professor of history at Duke University and the author, most recently, of Drowning in Laws: Labor Law and Brazilian Political Culture.