SAO PAULO, Saturday
A former metalworker who rose to become one of the most popular presidents in Brazilian history, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva now sees his legacy under threat after being implicated in a corruption scandal.
Lula left office in 2011 as a blue-collar hero who presided over a watershed boom and helped lift tens of millions of people from poverty.
He was so widely admired as president that Foreign Policy magazine called him a rock star and US counterpart Barack Obama called him “the man”.
Known for his charisma and common touch, Lula’s popularity in Brazil and the success of the economy during a period of high commodities prices helped him ride out numerous scandals. When he stepped down after two terms, he basked in 80 per cent popularity ratings.
But five years after helping handpicked successor Dilma Rousseff take his place, corruption claims have left him fighting for his reputation — and potentially his freedom.
The gruff, bearded leftist was briefly detained for questioning in the investigation into a massive embezzlement and bribery conspiracy centred on state oil company Petrobras.
Prosecutors accused Lula, 70, of accepting favours from corrupt construction companies seeking Petrobras contracts.
They were also looking at a more central role played by Lula in the scheme that has already seen charges against scores of people, many of them politicians and businessmen closely tied to Lula’s Workers’ Party.
Lula has rejected any involvement in the Petrobras scandal.
Lula grew up in deep poverty, the last of eight children born to a family of farmers in the arid, hardscrabble northeastern state of Pernambuco.
He had little formal education, quitting grade school to help his family get by.
As a teenager, he lost a finger in a machine accident. He not only persevered but became president of his trade union.
Lula made three unsuccessful presidential bids from 1989 to 1998. He succeeded the fourth time in 2002.
Brazil’s economy hit a breakneck 7.5 per cent growth in 2010, his final year in office.
He was defiant after his release from police questioning.
“I escaped dying from hunger before I was five. That was one miracle. The second was getting a diploma as a metal worker. Another was getting a political conscience”.
“The other was founding a party. Another miracle was getting to the presidency of the republic.”