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Lula’s Freedom Has Transformed Brazilian Politics

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Lula’s freedom was never a foregone conclusion—even after Brazil’s Supreme Court decided last Thursday that it was unconstitutional to jail defendants before they had exhausted their appeals. This included former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and roughly another 5,000 people in detention around the country. Legally they should be freed, but justice, particularly in Brazil, doesn’t just happen.

After the Supreme Court decision, leaders of the Landless Workers Movement and Lula’s Workers Party called for supporters to descend on the southern Brazilian city of Curitiba. People poured into the Santa Candida residential neighborhood surrounding the prison and joined a community of Lula supporters who had been protesting there for 19 months.

In front of the jail, rows of cameras on tripods pointed at the entrance, waiting. Lula’s lawyers visited him in the morning, and announced that they had asked a local Curitiba court to release him immediately.

Spontaneous cheers and “Free Lula” chants erupted every few minutes from the growing crowd of thousands. People in red shirts walked in half-euphoria, half-daze, still disbelieving that Lula might really be free within a few hours.

“We could not be happier,” Pauliana Silva Gonçalves told me, her fist raised before the prison walls. She wore a black shirt with a white image of Lula’s face. She wiped away tears under thick sunglasses. “Our voices are filled with the freedom of our companion Lula da Silva. We’ve been here for 580 days, resisting.”

Lula had been incarcerated since April 7, 2018. The charge was corruption: accepting a beachside apartment from a company seeking government contracts. But the evidence was weak. Lula maintained his innocence, and so did his supporters.

Gonçalves arrived the day after he was imprisoned with others from the Brazilian state of Espirito Santo, more than 800 miles away. She had been here ever since. The night the helicopter arrived carrying Lula to his cell, his supporters launched an around-the-clock vigil just outside the federal police prison. Hundreds arrived and pitched their tents on the sides of the streets of the middle-class neighborhood. Gonçalves was one of them.

“We will only leave Curitiba when Lula is freed,” said Lindbergh Farias, then a Workers Party senator, on April 8. They kept their promise. The vigil would become ground zero for left organizing around the country.

 On May 1, 2018, Brazilian unions held the country’s first united Workers Day rally in decades in Curitiba. Thousands came. They returned for major actions every few months: New Years, the anniversary of Lula’s imprisonment, Lula’s 500th day in jail.

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