Silva, Luis Inácio Lula da (1945–)

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Silva, Luis Inácio Lula da (1945–)

Luis Inácio Lula da Silva became famous in the late 1970s as the leader of striking auto industry workers in the state of São Paulo, Brazil. As a union leader and founder of Brazil's radical Workers Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, PT), he became an international symbol for leftist causes. On New Year's Day 2003, this poor migrant from the country's depressed northeastern region, commonly known by the childhood nickname Lula (Portuguese for "squid"), was inaugurated as Brazil's thirty-ninth president. Lula's personal journey from poverty to fame and power is among the country's most remarkable biographies.

Lula was born on October 27, 1945, to peasant parents in Caetés, a rural district in the poverty-stricken backlands of Pernambuco state. The seventh of eight children, Lula quit school early to help earn money for his family. In 1956 his mother moved the family to São Paulo city, attracted to the metropolitan area, as were tens of thousands of other northeasterners, by new industries and the promise of a better life. Job hungry, Lula sought work in the budding auto and steel industry, eventually becoming a journeyman lathe operator.

In the late 1960s Lula became involved in the labor movement by joining a group of dissident militants. By 1975 he had been elected president of the São Bernardo dos Campos and Diadema Metalworkers Union. Brazil had suffered a military coup d'etat in 1964, and Lula, as leader of a union in a strategic industry, played an important role in the regime's downfall in 1985. His career defined the "new unionism" that Brazilian workers supported with enthusiasm in the late 1970s. New leaders such as Lula arose from the grassroots to make the organizations more responsive to worker demands. In a series of innovative work stoppages in the late 1970s, Lula helped paralyze the industry and embarrass the regime. The military's attempts to repress the movement—Lula was jailed for a month—proved ineffective. In 1974 he married Marisa Letícia Rocco Casa (b. 1950); they raised five children (including one each from previous relationships).

In 1980 Lula was courted by leftist intellectuals and politicians who together founded the PT. In 1982, as the military relaxed its dictatorial grip on the nation, Lula ran for governor of São Paulo state; though he lost, his candidacy helped consolidate the PT. In 1983 he helped found an independent labor federation to coordinate the work of the new unionists, the Unique Labor Central (Central Única dos Trabalhadores, CUT). In 1986, following the military's withdrawal from power, Lula won a seat in the congress. As a delegate to the constituent assembly, he helped fashion Brazil's 1988 constitution to support broad workers' rights, including health care and land redistribution. The following year, the PT named Lula their presidential candidate. Running in 1990, 1994, and 1998, he placed second.

These campaigns helped build Lula's reputation and strategy. On the one hand, he sought to celebrate rather than negate his background as a poor, undereducated, northeastern migrant worker. He vigorously identified himself with social movements such as the Landless Workers Movement (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra, MST) and a series of general strikes promoted by the CUT. He became a staunch critic of globalization, calling for fair, not free, trade. On the other hand, he learned to adapt to the corrupt realities of Brazilian politics, gathering around him a group of leftist advisers whose tactics reflected those of the Bolsheviks. While Lula's public appearances seemed to confirm a socialist agenda, his campaign built alliances with capitalists, reflecting values developed during his union career. The strategy guaranteed electoral victory in 2002.

Lula's overwhelming victory provoked ecstatic celebration. Finally, a true working-class leader had become president of a nation historically dominated by a ruling class little removed from the republic's slave-owning forefathers. His historic connection to radical social movements and antiglobalization campaigns encouraged many to believe that Lula's victory offered real change. However, once in office he proved to be a realist rather than the idealist many imagined him to be. He displayed more loyalty to his new allies than to his old comrades by pursuing policies and reforms consistent with neoliberal capitalism. He proudly outdid conservatives by enhancing Brazil's status abroad as a nation in good financial standing, free of International Monetary Fund restrictions for the first time in twenty years. Millions more were spent on industrial infrastructure and conventional agribusiness rather than on social development through education and land reform.

While gratifying the international left with globetrotting geared toward building a powerful coalition of Third World nations, Lula gradually alienated part of his popular base at home by proving more sensitive to the constant criticism of an insatiable bourgeoisie. The political tides, which had long carried Lula forward, seemed to turn in 2004 with allegations of his having paid bribes on a monthly basis to various politicians. The scandal forced the ouster of the apparatchiks who had crafted his campaign strategy but did not end his political career. Standing for reelection in 2006, Lula won a second term of office with more than 60 percent of the vote. By that time, however, many of his once ardent supporters were deeply disappointed with him.

Lula's political success owes much to welfare programs, such as Zero Hunger and the Family Grant, that have made a meaningful difference in the lives of millions of poor people. The stable economy has encouraged significant job growth, bringing real benefits to still more working-class people. These were the voters, statistics show, who overwhelmingly supported his reelection. Meanwhile, deep-seated class prejudice seemed to prevent the middle and upper classes from lending their support to Lula, despite his many efforts to please them.

See alsoBrazil, Political Parties: Workers Party (PT); Brazil, Revolutions: Revolution of 1964.


Branford, Sue, and Bernardo Kucinski. Lula and the Workers Party in Brazil. New York: New Press, 2005.

Morel, Marío. Lula: O início, 3rd edition. Rio de Janeiro: Editora Nova Fronteira, 2006.

Parana, Denise. Lula: Filho do Brasil. São Paulo: Editora Perseu Abramo, 2002.

Power, Timothy J., and Wendy Hunter. "Rewarding Lula: Executive Power, Social Policy and the Brazilian Elections of 2006." Latin American Politics and Society 49, no. 1 (2007): 1-30.

Sader, Emir, and Ken Silverstein. Without Fear of Being Happy: Lula, the Workers Party and Brazil. London and New York: Verso, 1991.

                                         Cliff Welch