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Brazil's President-elect Luis Inácio Lula da Silva's remarkable comeback

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

This Sunday, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva will be inaugurated as Brazil's president. It's an astounding political comeback for the 77-year-old leftist. Little more than three years ago, he was sitting in a prison cell. His victory over the incumbent far-right president marks a sharp turn in Brazilian politics. And as NPR's Carrie Kahn reports, Lula, who rose from poverty to the presidency twice, says he is the man to reunite the country.

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UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in non-English language).

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: In April of 2018, supporters carried the former president on their shoulders to surrender to authorities. Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva defiantly told the crowd he was being jailed not for corruption but for his politics and defense of the poor.

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LUIZ INACIO LULA DA SILVA: (Non-English language spoken).

KAHN: For putting poor people into universities, for helping the poor eat meat, own cars and homes, he said.

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LULA DA SILVA: (Non-English language spoken).

KAHN: "If these are my crimes, then I will continue to be a criminal," he cried. With that, he headed into prison and, many believed, into political oblivion. But this wasn't Lula's first time facing adversity. He was born into poverty in Brazil's rural countryside. At 7, his large family moved to Sao Paulo's industrializing outskirts, where he had to leave school and work the streets.

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FREI CHICO: (Non-English language spoken).

KAHN: In a banned TV documentary, Lula's older brother, Frei Chico, retells how with just a fifth-grade education, he sold food and shined shoes. By the 1960s, the two siblings were working in factories.

JUNO RODRIGUES SILVA: (Non-English language spoken).

KAHN: His longtime friend 80-year-old Juno Rodrigues Silva says times were bad and workers went hungry. Lula struggled right alongside them, he says, and rose to lead the metalworkers' union, becoming a skilled negotiator, says current union head Moises Selerges.

MOISES SELERGES: (Non-English language spoken).

KAHN: Winning the trust of workers and some of the country's most powerful businessmen alike, says Selerges. Through multiple strikes in the 1970s, Lula challenged Brazil's dictatorship, and in 1980, he formed the Workers' Party, running unsuccessfully three times for president as Brazil returned to democracy.

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LULA DA SILVA: (Non-English language spoken).

KAHN: Finally victorious in 2002, Lula told a huge crowd he would not betray them. And during his two terms in office, with the help of a worldwide commodity boon, Lula invested heavily in the poor, raising tens of millions out of poverty. He left office with high approval ratings and international praise.

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BARACK OBAMA: The most popular politician on Earth.

KAHN: Former President Obama joked with Lula at an international summit, calling him the most popular politician on Earth. However, soon after, Lula was caught up in a huge bribery scandal that ensnared hundreds in his government and his Workers' Party. He was charged with illegally accepting a seaside apartment and a farm. His political legacy disgraced, from jail, he watched on as ultranationalist Jair Bolsonaro won the election, and his country shifted far to the right. However, the Supreme Court annulled his conviction, and in 2019, after nearly two years in prison, he walked free.

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UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in non-English language).

KAHN: His loyal supporters stuck by him. And after four years of divisive politics under Bolsonaro, one of the world's highest COVID death rates and record deforestation in the Amazon, voters booted out the incumbent, giving Lula a narrow victory.

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LULA DA SILVA: (Non-English language spoken).

KAHN: On election night, in his gravelly voice, he said democracy and equal opportunity will return to Brazil. But the challenges facing Lula this time around are great. Brazil's economy is struggling. Poverty and hunger are on the rise, and Bolsonaro still hasn't conceded defeat. Lula insists, though, that a lifetime of struggle has him ready for the fight. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Kahn
Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.