Sao Paulo – An office here holds the nearly 30,000 letters that President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva received over the 580 days he spent behind bars on subsequently overturned convictions for corruption, missives that illustrate the hard reality of life for marginalized people in Brazil.
On April 7, 2018, a helicopter carrying Brazil’s most popular politician landed on the roof of the Federal Police outpost in the southern city of Curitiba.
Lula was imprisoned for ostensible corrupt acts during his 2003-2011 tenure as head of state, but the Brazilian Supreme Court threw out the convictions in November 2019 following revelations of prosecutorial and judicial misconduct.
The high court ruling allowed Lula to return to public life and he returned to the presidency in January after narrowly defeating right-wing incumbent Jair Bolsonaro in the October 2022 election.
Even now, the 77-year-old autoworker turned politician becomes emotional when he looks back on his time in jail, during which he lost his older brother and a grandson to illness.
“So many times I fell into bed, belly up, looking at the ceiling,” Lula said in a recent interview, choking up as he spoke.
His imprisonment moved his supporters both in Brazil and abroad and they launched a campaign of letter-writing to show solidarity with Lula.
More than 60 boxes full of those letters, sorted by date and origin, are stored in an office at the Lula Institute in Sao Paulo.
The vast majority are handwritten and constitute a faithful reflection of the inequalities and injustices that Lula battled during his first two terms as president.
“Dear President Lula” is the most common salutation, though many writers addressed the prisoner as “comrade.”
Some close with a fingerprint rather than a signature, as the authors were illiterate and had to dictate their thoughts to a third person who committed them to writing.
Maria Honorio, 81, taped a small rosary to her letter to Lula from Fortaleza.
And the missives include personal stories about the impact of the anti-poverty programs that Lula launched.
Calinka Lacort, the Lula Institute staff member who manages the archive, tells EFE that reading the letters often leaves her in tears.
The messages came “from almost every place in the world,” she says, mentioning Argentina, Cuba, France, Spain, and distant Japan.
The volume of letters overwhelmed the jailers and they decided to send them onto the Lula Institute, where administrators created a team to manage the correspondence.
“People started to perceive that it was a way of showing him that he was not alone. The letters became a political act. There were even people who sent an empty envelope as a form of protest,” Lacort says.
She and her colleagues at the institute read every letter and picked out the ones they thought would be of greatest interest to Lula.
“We sent him those batches and he returned them to us,” Lacort recounts. “He made annotations on some. On many he wrote ‘respond.’”
Another member of the team, IT specialist Barbara de Paula, has been working since early 2019 on digitizing the letters, a project undertaken amid fears that Bolsonaro was going to target the institute.
Some of the missives were published last year in “Dear Lula: Letters to a president in prison,” assembled by Maud Chirio, a French historian specializing in Brazil.