Latin America & Caribbean

Profile: Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva

Former Brazilian president Lula Image copyright AFP
Image caption Lula is still a well-liked figure but recent corruption allegations have hit his popularity

It took Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva four attempts before he was finally elected as Brazil's president in 2002.

He came to office as the first leftist leader in Brazil in nearly half a century. And he left eight years later, barred from standing for a third term, enjoying exceptionally high popularity ratings for a retiring Latin American leader.

His 2002 election victory marked the end of an unprecedented journey from abject poverty to the presidency of Brazil.

Lula came to power promising major reforms to the country's political and economic system.

He vowed to eradicate hunger and create a self-confident, caring, outward-looking nation.

Analysts say it is because of some of his government's social programmes, which benefited tens of millions of Brazilians, that Lula retained his popularity.

He raised Brazil's profile on the international scene and presided over Brazil's longest period of economic growth in three decades, they say.

But his popularity has been hit lately by accusations that he had knowledge of, or involvement in, wrongdoings at the state-controlled oil company Petrobras, something he has consistently denied.

Road to pragmatism

Lula's life began in humble circumstances.

The son of a poor, illiterate peasant family, Lula worked as a peanut seller and shoe-shine boy as a child, only learning to read when he was 10 years old.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Lula was sworn in in 2003 and re-elected for a second term in 2006

He went on to train as a metal worker and found work in an industrial city near Sao Paulo, where he lost the little finger of his left hand in an accident in the 1960s.

Lula was not initially interested in politics but threw himself into trade union activism after his first wife died of hepatitis in 1969.

Elected leader of the 100,000-strong Metalworkers' Union in 1975, he transformed trade union activism in Brazil by turning what had mostly been government-friendly organisations into a powerful independent movement.

In 1980, Lula brought together a combination of trade unionists, intellectuals, Trotskyites and church activists to found the Workers' Party (PT), the first major socialist party in the country's history.

Since then, the PT has gradually replaced its revolutionary commitment to changing the power structure in Brazil with a more pragmatic, social democratic platform.

Before his 2002 election victory, Lula had previously lost three times and he began to believe his party would never win power nationally without forming alliances and keeping powerful economic players onside.

His coalition in that election included a small right-wing party and he carefully courted business leaders both in Brazil and abroad.

The Workers' Party manifesto reflected these sometimes conflicting visions but overall remained committed to prioritising the poor, encouraging grassroots participation and defending ethical government.

Performance in power

In his time in office, Lula pumped billions of dollars into social programmes and can reasonably claim to have helped reverse Brazil's historic inequalities.

By increasing the minimum wage well above the rate of inflation and broadening state help to the most impoverished with a family grant programme, the Bolsa Familia, he helped some 44 million people and cemented his support among the poor.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Lula led Brazil during its economic boom in the 2000s

However, many commentators argue that the programme failed to address the structural problems that underpin poverty, such as education.

There was also some criticism of the country's economic performance under Lula. Although Brazil saw steady annual growth, some business leaders argued it lost its competitive edge against international rivals.

Nonetheless, his government quelled fears in financial markets by keeping the economy stable and achieving a budget surplus.

Helped by his high approval ratings, Lula got his hand-picked successor, former chief of staff Dilma Rousseff elected in 2010. Ms Rousseff won re-election four years later.

Shortly after leaving office, Lula was diagnosed with throat cancer. He even shaved his trademark beard during treatment. Doctors declared him cured of the disease in 2012.

A comeback?

Many of his supporters have now called for his return. They see him as a viable candidate to run for the presidency in 2018, and Lula himself has not ruled it out.

Brazil, though, is not the same. The economic bonanza of his years is gone, partially because of the end of the commodities cycle that had driven it.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Lula's hand-picked successor, his former chief of staff Dilma Rousseff, assumed office in 2011

The country is now in its worst recession in 25 years. Experts also blame Ms Rousseff's mismanagement for Brazil's recent financial troubles and her own popularity has hit record lows.

Add to that the multi-billion dollar corruption scandal at Petrobras. Senior businessmen and politicians, including big names from his Workers' Party, have either been arrested or are under investigation.

Lula himself is suspected to have received illicit benefits from the kickback scheme and has been questioned by the police. He has repeatedly denied the accusations, and his supporters say he has been unfairly targeted.

The investigation, called Car Wash, or Lava Jato, has been a blow to the Workers' Party image, analysts say. It remains to be seen what long-term impact it will have on Lula's.

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