“The only person more popular than me is Jesus Christ” said Brazil’s former president Luiz Inazio Lula da Silva during an emotionally charged press conference on Thursday in which he defended himself against a raft of corruption charges.
In an appearance that lasted more than an hour, the man known universally as Lula displayed his greatest weapon – his personality – as he continued to fight for his political survival.
Two years ago, as the Petrobras probe became public, prosecutors began to close in on the former president
Brazil’s most popular ever president is hoping to stand for office again in 2018, but on Wednesday state prosecutors in the southern city of Curitiba accused him of being the “top commander” of the huge “Lava Jata” (carwash) corruption network that cost state oil company Petrobras millions of dollars.
Prosecutors claim Lula is guilty of corruption, money laundering and receiving bribes from construction company OAS, one of the engineering and construction firms at the center of the Petrobras scandal.
“I believe very few people in Brazil are more in the public eye than me or have had their finances more closely inspected than me,” said Lula, who ran the country between 2003 and 2010, on Thursday.
“I have earned the right to walk with my head held high. If they [prosecutors] can prove even a single corrupt act on my part, I will walk to the police station in the same way people go to the [Catholic pilgrimage site] Aparecida do Norte to pay for their sins,” he added.
Lula also used Thursday’s appearance before the press to directly counter accusations directed at him and his wife María Letícia.
Lula is accused of accepting a luxury apartment in Guarujá, on the coast of São Paulo from construction company OAS. He has denied ownership of the three-floor condo, and his lawyers have dismissed the charges as a political plot to stymie his political comeback.
Lula displayed his greatest weapon – his personality – as he continued to fight for his political survival
“They claim I have an apartment I don’t have and a country estate I don’t have,” the former president told journalists.
“I have a clear conscience and am in good spirits,” he concluded.
Asked about his candidacy for the 2018 election, he would only say: “I know who wants me in and who wants me out”.
A former shoeshine boy and union leader who led nationwide strikes against Brazil’s military dictatorship during the 1970s and 1980s, contributing to its downfall, Lula was elected the nation’s first working-class president in 2002 after three failed campaigns.
A hero to Brazil’s poor, Lula implemented social policies that helped millions escape poverty and join the middle classes. He left office in 2010 with an 83% approval rating and an economy growing at more than 7% annually.
But two years ago, as the Petrobras probe became public, prosecutors began to close in on the former president.
Investigators charge it is not possible that Lula was unaware of the institutionalized corruption and political kickbacks taking place at Petrobras and other state-run companies before and during his mandate.
English version by George Mills.