As a migrant, a worker, a union leader and a political visionary, Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva has spent his life fighting for democracy and the rights of workers and excluded communities in Brazil. As president from 2003 through 2010, Lula led millions out of poverty and increased access to higher education and housing for poorer citizens. He became a leader revered worldwide by those who believe a sustainable global economy rests on prosperity being shared broadly. The AFL-CIO therefore honors Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva with its annual George Meany-Lane Kirkland Human Rights Award.
In his commitment to increasing access to a decent life and to basic rights as widely as possible, Lula has been faithful to his origins in the poor northeast of Brazil, where he grew up before migrating to São Paulo with his mother and seven brothers and sisters. As the head of a key metalworkers’ union in the late 1970s, he led workers who confronted Brazil’s dictatorship to democratize workplaces and unions. Lula was a crucial figure in the broad alliance of mass social movements, artists and intellectuals, women and men, and Brazilians of all races, that brought democracy back to Brazil in 1985.
In that young democracy, Lula fought tirelessly to broaden the promise of equal rights and a decent life to Brazil’s people. During his presidency, all Brazilians prospered. But since 2015, opponents of such progress have taken advantage of an economic downturn, elite resentment of lost control and prejudice against many of their fellow citizens to take the country backward, freezing health and education spending for 20 years, undermining workers’ rights, rolling back advances in racial and gender equality, endangering the Amazon rainforest and indigenous people, and sowing hatred and fear in their speech and actions.
These privileged elites have undermined Brazil’s fragile democratic institutions, especially its judiciary, and took extraordinary and illegal measures to prevent Lula from running for president in October 2018 when all polls predicted his victory. Since April 8, 2018, Lula has been a political prisoner, convicted of “unspecified official acts” with only plea-bargained testimony as evidence against him. In defiance of Brazil’s Constitution, he has been imprisoned while his appeals still are pending, blocked from receiving visitors though that privilege is allowed to many other prisoners and prevented from attending his brother’s funeral, although Brazil grants thousands of such bereavement leaves each month. In fact, Lula had more access to rights when he was arrested for his activism during the 1970s dictatorship than he has in today’s Brazil.
Lula’s crime is having the audacity to take well more than 30 million people out of poverty and challenge the privileges of the powerful elite, who long have acted as though they own Brazil. Throughout this ordeal, Lula and the broad social movement that he and allies built have remained clear: a luta continua—the struggle continues.
The AFL-CIO joins the United Nations Human Rights Committee in calling for the restoration of Lula’s full political rights, and we unite with the global labor movement in demanding his immediate acquittal and release from a profoundly unjust political persecution.
Lula and Brazil’s vibrant social movements continue both as real actors in the daily struggle for social justice in Brazil, and as a symbol of the hope we all guard for a return to democracy in many countries passing through a dark period of increasing inequality and rank hatred of migrants, workers, and leaders and visionaries committed to social justice.
The AFL-CIO recognizes Lula’s decades of struggle to improve workers’ rights, strengthen Brazil’s democracy, and fight for greater equality and justice around the world. The working people of the AFL-CIO grant this award to Lula and promise our continuing solidarity in the fight for justice and democracy in Brazil and around the world.