Still believers: Lula’s supporters rally daily at fallen hero’s prison

Continuing vigil marks deep loyalty to former Brazil president after first year in jail

It is day 354 of the Free Lula Vigil and about 50 activists are gathered in front of federal police headquarters in the city of Curitiba, where Brazil's first working-class president is locked up serving a 12-year sentence for corruption.

At 9am on the dot they shout out their by now traditional morning salutation "Good Morning President Lula!" in the direction of the room-cum-cell where Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has been held since his detention on April 7th last year. It will be followed later in the day by an afternoon greeting and a final one for goodnight.

The vigil marks its first anniversary on Sunday and this longevity is testimony to the continued fervent commitment of Lula’s supporters, despite years of political reversals since he left office in 2010 that have ended up with him in jail and a reactionary demagogue in the presidency he once occupied with such distinction.

The former president was imprisoned after an appeals court upheld his 2017 conviction in a case involving the refurbishment of a beachfront apartment by construction companies caught up in the sprawling Car Wash anti-corruption probe.


Since his imprisonment he has been found guilty in a second trial involving a country retreat and is also charged in several more cases.

For supporters such as Isabel Aparacida Fernandes, one of the vigil’s permanent members who takes four buses each day to be here, her dedication is rooted in a deep personal identification with Lula.

Like him she too had to migrate with her family from the country to the city as a child to survive. And like him she ended up working in the industrial belt around São Paulo where Lula got his start as a union leader and inspired the likes of Fernandes to get involved in politics, helping him to build up the largest left-wing movement in the Americas.

‘Worth the effort’

She has no regrets about spending a year of her retirement at the vigil. “Lula is worth the effort. I am only repaying what he gave to me and everyone who benefited from his government. We are here because of all Lula did for us, the poor,” she says.

Though he has a window, Lula cannot see the vigil from his room, just the tops of the local Paraná pine trees around it. But his visitors say he can hear his vocal group of supporters, who have been here as long as he has and who vow not to leave until the man they fervently believe is the world’s most prominent political prisoner is released.

Among those leading the morning greeting is trade union leader Ana Cristina Guilherme, who has travelled 3,500km from her home in Fortaleza to make her fourth visit to the vigil, which is located in a rented parking lot across the road from the bunker-like police building.

Cases built by prosecutors against Lula or the wider corruption scandals that engulfed the Workers Party when in power remain undiscussed

For her, the campaign to free Lula is now key to resisting efforts by Brazil's new far-right president Jair Bolsonaro to undo all that was achieved during the left's 13 years in power.

“It is part of the same struggle. First they convicted him without evidence to remove him from the presidential election [last year] which he was going to win, and then they locked him up because they know what a powerful mobilising force Lula is,” she says.

For vigil co-ordinators Tarcisio Leopoldo and Adair Gonçalves, this struggle is just the latest phase in a far larger one they were born into. Their parents were landless peasants, victims of Brazil's concentration of land ownership in the hands of large ranchers and they were raised within the Landless Workers' Movement, the largest grassroots social movement in Latin America.

“Our movement has a long history of struggle, of mobilisation, and this is now focused on freeing Lula, not just because he was convicted without evidence but because of what he represents,” says Leopoldo.

Lives of the landless

For the two activists, Lula was the first president who really transformed the lives of the landless. They say key state programmes such as those giving peasants access to financing are already being rolled back by the Bolsonaro administration, which recently ordered a halt to land reform. “Our people are already feeling the impact of this new extreme-right government,” says Gonçalves.

The Landless Workers' Movement is co-ordinating the vigil with campaigners from the two other organisations long associated with Lula and his fight for social justice in one of the world's most unequal societies – the Workers Party and its allied Unified Workers' Central trade union federation. All three formed the backbone of the movement that led Brazil's left to power for the first time in 2002.

They have set up a mini tented village that includes a well-equipped office, lecture space and a small library. The Landless Movement also maintain a health unit where herbal remedies, acupuncture and even reiki is available for visiting activists. There are also some stalls selling leftist memorabilia such as Free Lula and Ché Guevara T-shirts.

After the good morning greeting, and several cups of coffee and gourds of bitter herbal maté to ward off the early autumn cold, the daily round-table discussion starts in the lecture space.

The day’s topic is the history of resistance in Latin America since the Mexican Revolution in 1910. Participation is voluntary and about a dozen people take part. Most of them are making visits to the vigil, which has attracted nearly 17,000 people since it started.

Reactionary wind

One woman tells the group she came because she regrets drifting away from her previous political activism once Lula swept into power.

Others talk of the need to rediscover the solidarity that dissipated during the left’s years in office now that a harsh reactionary wind is blowing across the world’s fourth-largest democracy.

Among the group are three friends who have travelled from Brazil's southernmost state of Rio Grande do Sul.

Relations with local residents are pitched somewhere between cool and tense

“We came to see what the vigil is so we could go back to our towns and tell the truth about it to the all the Bolsominions there,” says Cristina Mor, using a pejorative term for Bolsonaro’s supporters, most of whom are avid consumers of fake news, especially when it relates to Lula.

The discussion is informed and, though partisan, contains considerably more self-criticism than any the Workers Party has conducted, in public at least, since the impeachment of Lula’s hand-picked successor Dilma Rousseff in 2016, a political defeat preceded by a catalogue of political and policy errors.

But the cases built by prosecutors against Lula or the wider corruption scandals that engulfed the Workers Party when in power remain undiscussed. The vigil’s watchword – “without proof there is no crime” – is not up for debate.

Many Brazilian jurists disagree, arguing that just because investigators could not find receipts does not mean Lula did not benefit from corruption when in power.

But the sense on the Brazilian left that Lula is the victim of political persecution is reinforced by the fact many of his political opponents, often facing graver accusations of wrongdoing, are at liberty, some of them still roaming the halls of congress in Brasília.

Anti-corruption drive

Even more damning in the eyes of those maintaining the vigil is the fact that Sergio Moro, the federal judge who condemned and sentenced Lula, has since accepted the position of justice minister in Bolsonaro's government.

The move raised eyebrows, even among those who backed his anti-corruption drive, with some warning it risked legitimising the Workers Party’s claim that the investigation Moro oversaw – known as Car Wash – was always politically motivated.

"When Lula's case landed with Moro he saw an opportunity," says Reginaldo Neto de Oliveira, president of the the Workers Party branch in the town of Extrema and another of the vigil's permanent members.

“We joke among ourselves that Moro does not know how to survive any more without Lula. Everything he has achieved in life up to now is thanks to Lula. This was all planned out beforehand because if Lula had not been in jail he would have beaten Bolsonaro in the election.”

After the “Goodnight” greeting is shouted out into the night air, the vigil breaks up for the day.

An agreement with authorities means no one can sleep at the site. Relations with local residents are pitched somewhere between cool and tense. Shots were fired at a second temporary vigil nearby last year.

Many of those not from Curitiba head to Free Lula House, a former kindergarten nearby transformed by the Landless Movement into digs for those on the vigil. They will be back the next day when Lula’s chances of having the cases against him thrown out by higher courts will once again be a likely topic of conversation.

But even if such hopes prove unrealistic, Oliveira says the vigil will remain for as long as it takes: “When I first came I said I was only leaving when Lula left. You do not give up on a man like Lula. As he said in his last speech before his arrest, he is now no longer a person but an idea.”

Lula’s legal woes

January 1st, 2011: Brazil's president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva – popularly known as Lula – leaves office after eight years in power with stratospheric approval ratings and having overseen the election of his hand-picked successor, Dilma Rousseff.

March 17th, 2014: The Car Wash investigation into political corruption at state oil giant Petrobras comes to public attention. Case eventually spawns multiple investigations into endemic political corruption practised by all Brazil's main political parties.

May 12th, 2016: Rousseff removed from office as a result of impeachment proceedings. Formally stripped of mandate on August 31st following a trial in the Senate.

July 29th, 2016: Lula sent for trial for the first time.

July 12th, 2017: Lula convicted in case involving a beachfront apartment – prosecutors say he was promised the apartment in return for helping a construction company secure lucrative contracts with state oil firm Petrobras – and sentenced to nine years and six months in jail by federal judge Sergio Moro. .

January 24th, 2018: Three-judge panel rejects Lula's appeal in apartment case and increases sentence to 12 years and one month.

April 7th, 2018: Lula detained and transferred to police headquarters in Curitiba to serve sentence. Appeal lodged before higher court in Brasília is pending.

February 6th, 2019: Lula is convicted in a second case involving a country retreat and sentenced to 12 years and 11 months in jail. An appeal pending.

Ongoing: Lula has also been charged six further times with crimes ranging from influence peddling to criminal conspiracy. He is also under investigation in two further cases. He has consistently denied any wrongdoing and maintains his innocence.