14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 6 April 2018 — In 2010, then Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva provoked a bitter controversy when he compared Cuban dissidents to common criminals. Those words, said a week after the death of the opponent Orlando Zapata Tamayo, take on a new meaning today, a few hours before the Brazilian leader goes to prison.
“I think hunger strikes cannot be used as a human rights pretext to free people,” said the former steelworker, eight years ago in March. “Imagine what would happen if all the bandits who are imprisoned in Sao Paulo went on hunger strike and asked for their freedom,” he remarked cheerfully.
For Lula, the dissident who agonized in his cell until he died was nothing more than a criminal who refused to eat for 86 days to pressure the authorities to release him from prison. Despite publicly lamenting his death, Brazil’s president believed the official version of Zapata’s death and insisted the Cuban bricklayer, born in Banes, was not a political prisoner.
Now it is the popular trade unionist who has been tried in the courts of justice and public opinion. He came to this point not because he protested police repression in the streets, as Zapata did, but because of corruption and money laundering. As president of his country he betrayed the voters’ trust by exchanging favors, receiving bribes and handing out contracts.
Under the image of a humble man who ascended to the highest position in an imposing nation like Brazil, Lula was in fact a “political animal” accustomed to prioritizing ideology and his old ‘comrades in the struggle’ over the welfare of his people. As soon as he settled into Planalto Palace he began to create his own robust network of perks and fidelities that ultimately blew up in his face.
In this network of favors were not only some of his old comrades from Brazil’s Workers Party, but also those from outdated regimes like Havana’s. Lula solicitously served the Castro brothers the entire time he was in office, an attitude inherited by Dilma Rousseff when she succeeded him in office.
For the Cuban Government the years during which the Workers Party led Brazil served as a panacea. Lula and Rousseff closed ranks to support the Plaza of the Revolution in international forums, kept their shock troops at the ready to attack any critics of the Castros, and financed the Port of Mariel Special Development Zone project, which involved the corrupt Brazilian transnational Odebrecht.
In the name of those old favors, on Thursday the Havana regime released a statement signed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in defense of the former president, calling his sentence an “unfair campaign against Lula, against the Workers Party and against the leftist and progressive forces in Brazil.” Some corruption is repaid with apartments, some with bribes, and much of the rest with political statements.
Lulu’s 12 year prison sentence could well be extended much longer, should the magistrates find him guilty in other pending cases. His time behind bars could be long, enough time to allow him to reflect on everything he has said and done.
Perhaps in the long days that await him looking through the thick bars, the former president can imagine what Zapata’s last days might have been like for the young black bricklayer born in a small town in the east of the island who refused to eat or drink water to demand his freedom. That man, unlike Lula, was innocent.
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