Lula's Arrest Would Prompt Upheaval, According to Brazil's Leading Activist

  • Movement occupies lands linked to Temer, vows to defend Lula
  • Sentenced to 9.5 years, Lula remains free pending appeal

QuickTake: Brazil's Economic Instability

The arrest of Brazil’s former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva would trigger widespread social upheaval and help pave the way for his re-election, according to the leader of one of the country’s largest and most radical activist groups.

"We won’t accept this type of persecution," said Joao Pedro Stedile, leader of the Marxist-inspired Movement of Landless Rural Workers (MST) that campaigns for land reform. Lula’s detention would push Brazil into a constitutional limbo, sparking protests across the country, said Stedile, whose friends included the likes of Fidel Castro and Yasser Arafat, and who was received by Pope Francis in 2014.

Joao Pedro Stedile

Photographer: Andressa Anholete/AFP via Getty Images

The MST said that on Tuesday morning it occupied properties belonging to Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi and other allies of President Michel Temer, who it accuses of corruption. Amaggi group, founded by the Maggi family, confirmed the occupation, while Temer’s press office wasn’t immediately able to comment. The action is part of a "day of struggle" against the government’s reform agenda, Stedilhe wrote in an emailed statement on Tuesday.

Arguably Brazil’s most famous social movement, the MST is part of a network of leftist groups that have vowed to defend Lula, a former trade union leader, following his conviction on corruption charges. Since its inception in the 1980s, the MST made headlines with high-profile invasions of properties owned by authorities or big business, occasionally ransacking crops and machinery and clashing with police. Under pressure from groups like the MST, Brazil’s land reform resettled 1.3 million families in an area twice the size of the U.S. state of California.

Sentenced to nine and half years for taking 3.7 million reais ($1.1 million) worth of benefits from a construction company in exchange for favors, Lula will remain at liberty pending an appeal. Opinion polls published prior to the verdict show the ex-president as the leading contender for the 2018 presidential election.

Pressure on Temer

The MST is also exerting pressure on lawmakers to put Temer on trial for alleged bribe-taking, said Stedile, a 63 year-old economist born to Italian immigrant farmers.

A vote on the floor of the lower house is scheduled to take place on August 2. Two thirds, or 342 deputies, must approve for the case to move to the Supreme Court.

A political firestorm broke last year when police raided Lula’s home and briefly detained him for questioning, prompting scuffles in the street between supporters and critics. In May, Lula’s first face-to-face encounter with Sergio Moro, the judge who would eventually find him guilty, prompted protests by tens of thousands of the former president’s followers.

But a rally in Lula’s defense last week, after his conviction, drew far fewer numbers, raising questions over the solidity of his support base. The MST, meanwhile, has alienated itself from mainstream public opinion through its more radical activities, according to Claudio Goncalves Couto, a political scientist from the Getulio Vargas Foundation, a think tank and business school.

"Recent demonstrations haven’t brought many people to the street. The possible imprisonment of Lula could change that," he said. "But for the MST to capitalize on this, it needs to expand its appeal, which is difficult."

With around 14 million Brazilians unemployed, however, Stedile says that the conditions for major protests are ripening.

"I am sure they will come. It’s only a matter of time."

— With assistance by Luisa Marini

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