Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s lifestory once read like a fairytale. He overcame poverty to lead his country, leaving office with the highest popularity rating in Brazilian history. But his downfall has been just as dramatic as his rise to power.
He was fêted as a rare leftist who’d not only helped lift tens of millions of people from poverty but charmed the markets, putting Brazil on track to claim its mantle of emerging economic powerhouse.
However, things went sour shortly after he handed over to his chosen Workers’ Party (PT) successor, Dilma Rousseff, who oversaw a rapidly declining economy and in 2016 was forced out of office in a controversial impeachment vote.
The post-Lula era also saw prosecutors open a mammoth corruption probe called Lava Jato (“Car Wash”) that revealed systemic embezzlement and bribery among scores of individual politicians, all the main political parties, and many of the biggest businesses.
He had little formal education as a boy, quitting grade school to help his family get by.
When he was seven, his family joined a wave of migration to the industrial heartland of São Paulo state, where he worked as a shoeshine boy and street vendor before becoming a metalworker.
He rose to become president of his trade union less than a decade after joining. He was the force behind big strikes in the 1970s that challenged the military regime. And in 1980, he co-founded the PT, first standing as its candidate for president nine years later.
He made three unsuccessful presidential bids from 1989 to 1998, each time chipping away at the establishment parties and the idea that a poor, uneducated labour leader could never be president of Brazil.
The fourth time, in 2002, he succeeded, taking office on January 1, 2003.
Lula calmed market fears of a radical surge to the left by adopting fiscally responsible policies and a calm, pragmatic approach.
He also had the good fortune to preside over a so-called ‘golden decade’ for Latin America, when China’s ravenous demand for raw materials propelled the region’s economies to a historic period of growth.
Brazil’s economy hit an impressive 7.5 percent growth pace in 2010, his final year in office.
Despite a series of scandals in his first term – most notably the congressional vote-buying Mensalão scandal that felled his chief-of-staff – Lula coasted to re-election in 2006.
Brazil’s first democratically elected leftist since the end of the 1964-1985 military dictatorship, he was so widely admired as president that Foreign Policy magazine called him a “rock star.” His US counterpart Barack Obama once referred to him as “the man.”
The Constitution limited him to two consecutive terms, but he seemed to have cemented his legacy by helping Rousseff into power.