Former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, long hailed as a standard-bearer of the global left, ended a dramatic two-day standoff with authorities on Saturday, turning himself in to face a 12-year sentence on corruption charges. He has vowed to stage his political comeback from prison.
The move intensified the roiling political drama in Latin America’s largest nation and turned a man former President Barack Obama once called “the most popular politician on Earth” into the region’s most famous prisoner.
His jailing underscores the scope of the corruption probe known as Operation Car Wash that is bringing down political and business leaders across Latin America, and in which Lula is by far the biggest figure yet to fall.
Lula waded through crowds of supporters and surrendered to authorities Saturday evening after a tense impasse in which he avoided prison and hunkered down in the steelmakers union where he launched his career four decades ago.
His backers, linked arm-in-arm in a human chain, tried to prevent his exit, even as a motorcade of police streamed toward the union building outside Sao Paulo.
“I will comply with the order,” Lula told hundreds of supporters surrounding union earlier in the day. Later, he was carried off the stage at the headquarters on their shoulders as they chanted his name and showered him with flowers. “That way, they will know I am not afraid. I am not running. I will prove my innocence.”
Lula has vowed to run for re-election from prison, which in his case will be a private, 160-square-foot room with unfettered access to lawyers and family members in the southern city of Curitiba. But Brazilian law will likely disqualify him from running.
His legal troubles have left Brazil’s October presidential race — in which he was the frontrunner — wide open, with analysts saying there is now room for out-of-the-box candidates.
While Lula is expected to anoint an alternate to replace him in the elections, his popularity is unlikely to transfer to another candidate. One-third of Brazilians are expected to cast blank protest votes, according to the latest polls.
“We see the return of this ‘us versus them’ dynamic, of poor versus rich, educated class against the working class, a theme that will dominate the electoral cycle,” said Alexandre Bandeira, a political consultant in Brasilia. “The question is whether he can maintain the activism of his supporters from behind bars.”
Lula’s arrest both thrilled and devastated the country. Anti-Lula demonstrators sounded horns and lit fireworks as a police motorcade escorted the former president to the police station in Sao Paulo. The day before, demonstrations for and against the former president blocked more than 50 highways around Brazil, according to local media. In his hometown, supporters set tires on fire to protest his imprisonment.
On Saturday, Lula urged his supporters to continue to take action in his absence.
“You will burn tires as you so badly wanted,” he said. “You will represent me.”
His arrest marks a victory for Operation Car Wash, which has traced a corruption scheme to the highest echelons of government and unraveled Brazil’s political class. He is accused of accepting bribes from one of the country’s major construction companies in exchange for government contracts. In addition to his current conviction, Lula faces six other corruption trials.
Lula denies any wrongdoing and has called the investigation a media-led political witch hunt.
“If my crime was putting poor, black people in universities, allowing poor people to eat meat, to have their own cars, have their own homes,” Lula said, “then I will continue being a criminal in this country, because I will do much more.”
In 2003, Lula was celebrated as the first working-class president in a country with stark inequality. During his mandate, Brazil rode a commodities boom and Lula became an international icon.
His social programs were credited with lifting 20 million people out of poverty, according to a World Bank study, and he left the presidency with soaring approval ratings. He dreamed of making a comeback and reclaiming his place as the country’s leader through the elections in October.
Many Brazilians nostalgic for the social gains made during the Lula era came out to support him.
“If Lula stole, at least he gave some of it to the people,” said Jose Antonio da Silva, 52, a steelworker at Mercedes and member of the union. “If they want to jail Lula, they need to jail the rest of them, too.”
Others celebrated his jailing as the sign of a new chapter in a country where the rich and powerful have historically gone unpunished for corruption.
” I hope this is the start of a new era,” said Nicolas Nunes, 30, an investment banker in Sao Paulo. “Maybe others who stole will also be jailed.”