Professor John French on Lula, Former Brazilian President (and the Country’s COVID-19 Problem)

New scholarly biography of Lula draws from decades of research to chronicle the union leader’s emergence as the voice of Brazil’s working class and poor

Although he left office nearly a decade ago, the man known to millions simply as Lula remains Brazil’s single most influential politician, says John French, Duke professor of history.

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva led strikes against the country’s military dictatorship, founded the Workers’ Party and became president of Latin America’s largest country after his fourth attempt at election in 2002.

Lula has spoken out against the right-wing incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro, who has downplayed the COVID-19 pandemic and sabotaged public health measures designed to minimize exposure, especially among the poor, who often live in crowded housing and are disproportionally non-white. The pandemic has caused more than 120,000 deaths in the country.

According to French, Lula believes there is a lack of both competence and compassion under the Bolsonaro, who prides himself on being President Donald Trump’s staunchest Latin American ally.

And in Lula’s view, Brazil does not lack the expertise to handle the problem, given the world-class scientists and medical expertise of that country's universal national health system.

In French’s new book, “Lula and His Politics of Cunning: From Metalworker to President of Brazil,” the Duke professor follows Lula’s transformation from a young working-class man who learned to read at the age of 10, to the leader of massive strikes during a 21-year military dictatorship and founder of Brazil’s Workers’ Party. French continues to chronicle Lula’s political life through his two-term presidency, imprisonment for corruption charges and eventual release from prison in 2019.

The book will be published in October 2020 by the University of North Carolina Press. This is French’s third book on Brazilian politics. It was funded in part by the Duke-Brazil Initiative.

Professor John FrenchLula began his career as a metalworker. His type of manual, working-class job was looked down upon with disdain by much of the highly educated middle and upper class, says French.

While a dictatorship ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985, Lula became the leader of the metalworkers’ union and led strikes against powerful automobile companies and the military government. His unexpected emergence as a national figure and presidential contender astonished everyone in Brazil and everyone in the world, says French.

“It’s hard to imagine such an improbable rise, in Brazil or anywhere else in the world,” French says. “Someone who’s been a radical socialist and a trade union leader with a fourth-grade education became the president of one of the world’s largest economies.”

French first began studying Brazil’s metalworker strikes as a graduate student at Yale in the late 1970s. Once he saw the strikes on the front page of The New York Times, he decided to take a Portuguese class and wrote a travel grant application to visit the country and learn about the strikes first-hand.

Over the years, French has become a leading scholar of Brazilian politics. His research has allowed him to meet Lula multiple times and become familiar with Brazil’s common folks and the rural and working-class culture that helped shape the former president’s public life.

The book is also the story of São Paolo, says French. The city, which the professor describes as the “Brazilian Detroit,” grew as an industrial center from the 1950s through 1980s. With this expansion grew the possibility of upward mobility for the working class.

“Millions and millions of people were pouring in from rural areas,” French says. “São Paolo is a city that transformed itself with the influx, where everyone was in the collective state of optimism.”

Not long after Lula was born, his parents joined this swell and moved their family to São Paolo. Both parents were illiterate, and of Lula’s eight surviving siblings (four died), he was the only one to finish primary school.

Within the metalworker industry, Lula moved up from a minor figure in the union to a major one, says French, and then he became famous because of the strikes he helped organize. Lula’s “ability to maneuver and establish relationships with people above him, as well as his cunning capacity to speak with, not at, people” laid the framework for his political triumphs, French asserts in his book. And, French adds, the book is also a study in how this type of politics can be done.

“Lula’s charisma originates with his relationship with the 150,000 workers in his union and another 100,000 workers who were there in the movement that was forged,” French says.

Lula took his union experience and his optimism about workers’ empowerment to build a movement. When Lula began his first term, the country’s economy was stuttering. As president, he launched reforms to broaden opportunity and provide an economic lift to the millions of Brazilians living in poverty.

“When Lula became president, he said he would judge his administration’s success if every Brazilian could eat three times a day,” French says.

Some of the hallmarks of Lula’s administration included drastically increasing the real value of Brazil’s minimum wage, offering support to small farmers and pensioners while expanding college access, and creating Bolsa Família, a federal social welfare program that (still) pays families to keep their children in school.

The Brazilian president ended his term with a 90 percent approval rating and was able to succeed (twice) in securing the presidency for his chosen successor Dilma Rousseff in 2010 and 2014. And then, in a political twist matching his stratospheric ascent, once Lula left office, his right-wing opponents impeached Rousseff and convicted Lula with money laundering and corruption.

Yet, when Lula was released from jail two years later, a large crowd of his supporters greeted him.

“Lula’s appeal to people goes even beyond left-wing politics. He has relationship – even if it’s imagined – with tens of millions of people,” French says. “Lula is a leader Brazilians can identify with, because it’s a society where they’ve never had a similar story of social mobility.”