A response to last week’s article on the Jan. 8 insurrection in Brazil: Lula represents more than corruption

Maria Lobato Grabowsky

On Oct. 30, 2022, in Rio de Janeiro, with my cousins and parents, I watched now-President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s share of the vote increase in increments of 0.1 percent from 49 percent to 50.02 percent; tears of joy filled our eyes. Outside, I heard others screaming and banging pans with glee, announcing the restoration of our democracy. We wiped away our tears, played loud Brazilian samba music, and danced to celebrate this historic victory for our country. Finally, we would have a president to be proud of, who vowed to represent all of us, fight against poverty, racism, and sexism, prevent the destruction of our sacred Amazon rainforest, and set Brazil back on a path forward.

In contrast, on Jan. 8, I was distraught. I watched in horror as rioters smashed glass, invaded governmental buildings, and expressed their support for the former president, Jair Bolsonaro, who did a complete disservice to our country. It was incredibly frustrating to see this happening while at the College, with my Brazilian family far away and few around me to relate to.

Seeing Laura Alleman Chamon’s recent Record opinion piece lessened this frustration. Chamon brought Brazil into the campus dialogue  and penetrated the often suffocating purple bubble. I appreciated her advocating for the College to recognize international students’ voting rights. While I was lucky to have the opportunity to cast my vote in the Brazilian elections, it pains me that other Brazilian students at the College did not have this same opportunity, especially given the stakes this election. 

I chose to respond to Chamon’s article because, as another Brazilian student on this campus, I feel inclined to highlight some aspects of the story that Chamon left out. While nothing she wrote was untrue, I hope to draw a clear distinction between Lula and Bolsonaro. In Brazil, where corruption is widespread, Lula is not an outlier but a data point within a larger pattern. Furthermore, Lula cannot be reduced to his corruption when he represents so much more for our country. 

In her article, Laura wrote that Lula was imprisoned for corruption along with others from his party, the Workers’ Party. I wish to make clear that the criminal investigation, Operation Car Wash, uncovered bribery scandals involving politicians across every political party. Out of the 32 people that the operation imprisoned, only five were members of the Workers’ Party. The party with the largest number of politicians investigated was Brazil’s Progressive Party (PP), which supports Bolsonaro. Rather than demonstrating a connection between corruption and Lula’s government, Operation Car Wash revealed a web of corruption tying together several politicians and businessmen. Brazil’s entire government lost credibility, not the Workers’ Party or Lula specifically. 

Apprehension toward electing Lula for his third term as president is justifiable. The evidence of his corruption disappointed the nation and tainted his image. However, I proudly voted for him, because he will bring hope back to Brazil, progress our country, restore democracy, and repair the damage Bolsonaro created. 

Lula is Brazil’s first working-class president. Prior to his political career, he worked as a shoe-shine boy, in a factory, and as a lathe operator, before becoming a union leader and activist in the labor movement. During his first term as president, he lifted millions of Brazilians out of poverty and transformed the Brazilian economy for the better. His story and his actions instilled hope in countless Brazilians. 

Deforestation in the Amazon has fallen by 61 percent in Lula’s first month of governing in comparison to January of last year. Marina Silva, who Lula appointed as the minister of the environment, is primarily responsible for this accomplishment. Silva is a devoted environmentalist, working hard to end deforestation and undo the harm Bolsonaro created. Contrarily, in Bolsonaro’s first three years in office, the Amazon rainforest lost 34,000 square kilometers, an area larger than Belgium. Ricardo Salles, Bolsonaro’s minister of the environment, quit because he faced a criminal investigation after obstructing an investigation into illegal logging in the Amazon. Even before assuming his post, he was convicted of changing environmental maps to benefit mining companies. 

Another of Lula’s exceptional nominations is Anielle Franco to the position of minister of racial equality. Franco is a Black, bisexual, female activist from the Maré complex, the largest favela, or shantytown, in Rio de Janeiro. In 2018, her sister, Marielle Franco, a former councilwoman and human rights activist, was assassinated. Her assassination was a national reminder of the constant political violence in Brazil. While the details of the assassination and who ordered it remain unresolved, there are strong suspicions that Bolsonaro is involved. 

Bolsonaro and his family are also suspected of corruption. Investigations suggest the family partakes in rachadinha, a common practice in Brazilian politics in which politicians hire a fake employee not to work but to transfer a large cut of their salary, paid for with government money, to them. Moreover, Bolsonaro passed laws to make it harder for prosecutors to fight corruption, punishing them for misconduct and preventing investigators from acquiring bank records. Lula has been found guilty of corruption, but he never impeded investigators or prosecutors from checking his power during his time in office. Bolsonaro blocked the pathways for a healthy democracy, while Lula always left them open. 

During Brazil’s presidential inauguration, the former president places a sash over the current president to signify the transfer of power. This year, Bolsonaro fled to the United States to avoid participating in the ritual and, in his place, Lula organized a group of eight people to hand the sash and represent the diversity of Brazil. Among the group was a 10-year-old Black boy from the outskirts of São Paulo, Chief Raoni Metuktire who advocates for the rights of Indigenous groups in the Amazon, and an activist for disabled people’s rights. The sash was transferred from hand to hand until a Black woman placed it over Lula, symbolizing a new government that celebrates and values Brazil’s diversity.  

Lula has done more for his country than lie and steal from its people. He is a beacon of hope after four years of hopelessness. For his new cabinet, he chose a diverse group of individuals wishing to represent every Brazilian and promote justice and equality. 

The attack on Jan. 8 was terrifying not only because rioters rejected democracy, but also because they supported Bolsonaro over Lula. They support a president that promotes authoritarianism over one that believes in democracy. They wish for a government that reeks of prejudice and hatred over one that emanates with solidarity and love. 

Fortunately, their actions did not culminate in Lula’s deposal. Still, like Chamon, the attack reminded me of the need to exercise our right to vote. In Brazil’s northeast, where most vote for Lula, the police, who support Bolsonaro, blocked roads and stopped buses transporting voters to the polls. If they were not denied their right to vote, the elections would not be as close and as contested by rioters. The College should not deny its international students their right to vote. The College should support all students in their path to the polls and we can contribute to electing more presidents like Lula.

Maria Lobato Grabowsky ’25 is from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.