The long, strange political career of Brazil’s Lula: Once soaring in the polls, he’s now headed to prison

Former Presidents Dilma Rousseff and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva greet supporters in Porto Alegre, Brazil, on Jan. 23, 2018. Rousseff was impeached and Lula was convicted of corruption.
(Jefferson Bernardes / AFP/Getty Images)

He was once called the “most popular politician on Earth” by President Obama, and when he left office as Brazil’s president, he had a sky-high approval rating of 87%. Even now he remains popular and polls show he could win the presidency again.

But over the years, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has been dogged by allegations of corruption. On Wednesday, his conviction on charges of corruption and money laundering was upheld in a court hearing that lasted well over eight hours and led to protests across the country, both for and against the popular leader.

Three federal regional court judges voted unanimously to maintain the guilty verdict handed down on July 12, 2017. Lula’s original sentence of 9 1/2 years was increased to 12 years and one month.

Lula’s attorneys, in a statement, denounced the proceedings as “a legal farce masquerading as justice” and said they would take his case to the United Nations Human Rights Committee.

The first federal regional court judge to speak, Joao Pedro Gebran Neto, said it was clear Lula took part in a corruption scheme involving the state-run oil giant, Petrobras.

“There is more than reasonable evidence that the former president was one of the main articulators — if not the main articulator — of the scheme at Petrobras,” the judge said during the reading of his 430-page vote.

Lula’s conviction was yet another twist in a long and complicated career.


Union beginnings

After more than a decade in the field of metalworking, Lula is elected president of the metalworkers union in Sao Bernardo do Campo. He became active in the union movement in 1966, two years after losing a finger on his left hand while on the job. He was previously elected deputy director of the union in 1969 and first secretary in 1972.

Feb. 10, 1980

Establishes Workers’ Party

After fighting for workers’ rights through his union efforts — including leading a metalworkers general strike in 1979, their first since Brazil succumbed to a military dictatorship in 1964 — Lula founds the Partido dos Trabalhadores, or Workers’ Party.

April 19, 1980


Lula is arrested for his role in the 1979 strike but continues to organize and run protests from prison. His mother dies while he is in custody and he is given a pass to attend her funeral. About 2,000 people appear at the cemetery, chanting “Free Lula.” He is released on May 20, when the strike ends.


Elected to Congress

Lula’s popularity continues to grow. He is elected to the Brazilian Congress with 650,000 votes — the most of any candidate in the country that year.

1989, 1994 and 1998

Running — and losing

Lula runs for president as the Workers’ Party candidate, each time coming in second place. He is defeated first by Fernando Collor de Mello — who is impeached in 1992 — and then twice by Fernando Henrique Cardoso.

Oct. 27, 2002

Finally wins the presidency

Lula is elected president in 2002 with 61.3% of the vote. He is reelected in 2006 with 61% of the vote after continuing to campaign on promises to reform the country’s political and economic systems, as well as a plan to eradicate hunger. The anti-hunger program is praised by world leaders and the United Nations.

April 2009

Praise from Obama

At the G-20 summit in London, President Obama greets Lula by saying: “That’s my man right there. The most popular politician on Earth.” Lula’s approval rating hovers around 70%. When he leaves office in 2010, his approval rating is 87%.


‘Most influential’ person

Lula makes the list of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people of the year. Others considered that year were musician Patti Smith, filmmaker J.J. Abrams, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Al Qaeda recruiter Anwar Awlaki.

March 16, 2016

First signs of trouble

Lula’s name surfaces in connection with a far-reaching corruption investigation known by the code name Lava Jato, or Car Wash. On March 16, he agrees to serve as chief of staff to his successor and protege, President Dilma Rousseff. The position comes with some legal immunity that would shield him from prosecution, but two days after Lula is sworn in, a judge files an injunction to block his appointment because of Lava Jato.

Sept. 20, 2016

Charged with corruption

Lula and his wife, Marisa Leticia Lula da Silva, are charged with corruption and money laundering. Lula denies the allegations, calling them “fiction” and politically motivated. The charges are thrown out after a judge finds there is not enough evidence for the accused to stand trial. But his legal problems are not over.

July 12, 2017

Found guilty

Lula is convicted on another set of corruption charges for accepting $1.2 million in bribes from contractor OAS. Prosecutors say the bribes were used for the purchase and renovation of a luxury penthouse apartment in the seaside town of Guaruja. Prosecutors say that in return, Lula helped the firm win contracts with state-run oil giant Petrobras. He is sentenced to 9½ years in jail, but remains free while the decision is appealed.

Sept. 5, 2017

More corruption charges

More corruption charges are filed against Lula, as well as Rousseff and six other members of the Workers’ Party. They are accused of running a criminal organization to divert funds from Petrobras. They all deny the allegations.

Jan. 24, 2018

Conviction upheld

Three judges not only uphold Lula’s conviction, but they also increase his sentence to 12 years and one month. His attorneys, Cristiano Zanin Martins and Valeska Teixeira Zanin, said in their statement that the verdict “shames Brazil within the international community.” They pledged to “continue to fight this political conviction.”

Lula, in his own style, put things a bit differently a day before the ruling, when he told supporters: “Only one thing will take me off the streets of this country, and it will be the day of my death.”

Langlois is a special correspondent.


2:20 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from Lula’s attorneys.

1:20 p.m.: This article was updated to report that three judges unanimously upheld the conviction of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

This article was originally published at 11:35 a.m.