(Bloomberg View) -- When I first met Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, he seemed larger than life, despite his somewhat compact stature. Now, even in disgrace, the former Brazilian president remains a towering figure in Latin America’s future, and a serous complication in American foreign policy south of the border.
That introduction to Lula came in 2005, when I was senior military assistant to Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld. We spent over an hour with him in the capital, Brasilia. There were important topics on the table, ranging from Brazil’s laudable role in leading the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Haiti to stopping the flow of narcotics in the region.
Speaking without notes, Lula provided a tour de force vision of Latin America and the Caribbean as seen through the eyes of a leader at the height of his game. Rumsfeld, a hard man to impress, walked away with real respect for the left-leaning former union leader.
Several years later, I returned to Brazil with four stars on my collar in a new role: chief of United States Southern Command. My job was to manage all military-to-military relations with the 31 countries in the region. Lula continued to impress me with his extraordinary grasp of Latin American politics, and he was clearly committed to furthering Brazil’s global rise. He was at 80 percent popularity in the polls, the Brazilian economy was strong, and it looked like his ability to drive events in his nation would continue indefinitely. In every sense I felt he was a global leader who would finally make Brazil, long touted as the country of tomorrow, a force on the world stage.
So it came as an extraordinary shock over the weekend to see the images of the former president headed to jail.
I knew, of course, that he had been under investigation for years in connection with the massive national scandal known in Brazil as the Lava Jato, or Car Wash. He is now sentenced to 12 years for accepting access to a seaside apartment -- relatively small beer in comparison with other Brazilian politicians headed behind bars.
Even before his conviction, his position within the country was weakening. His hand-picked successor, Dilma Rousseff, was impeached two years ago, and the legal threats against him continued to increase.
Yet he nonetheless managed to maintain his high level of personal popularity, and was the frontrunner in this year’s presidential race. What does his fall from grace mean for his nation and the region?
First, it is yet another current in the receding tide of leftist leaders across the region. At one point early this century, there were 10 left-leaning governments in Latin America, a remarkable reversal in a region that had right-wing military dictatorships aplenty throughout much of the late 20th century.
Leaders such as Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Rafael Correa in Ecuador and Nestor Kirchner in Argentina championed an unstoppable Marea Rosa, or pink tide. But nation after nation has turned to the right, with only the Venezuelan Chavista Nicolas Maduro clinging to power.
For the U.S., this is good news -- unless we squander it by taking a condescending attitude to our allies, partners and friends to the south. The only leftist politician on the rise in Latin America is presidential frontrunner Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in Mexico, who has deftly taken advantage of President Donald Trump’s negative rhetoric about the region and his obsessive desire to build a “big beautiful wall” on our southern border.
Second, Lula’s jailing presents a serious problem for the U.S. It throws the October presidential election into chaos, with candidates widely scattered across the political spectrum. Lula may continue campaigning from jail, and how it would ultimately be adjudicated if he won is unclear. It might also splinter the center and the center-left, and open a path for Jair Bolsonaro, a right-wing former Army officer some see as the Brazilian Donald Trump.
This uncertainty, and the likely election of a weak leader in the hemisphere’s second-largest country, will lessen America’s ability to forge a coherent plan to address the challenges of narcotics, Venezuela’s building civil war, and economic revitalization. Brazil is simply that important to the continent, and to U.S. interests within it.
Finally, Lula’s incarceration will be a kind of international parable that different people will interpret differently. There are competing visions of whether he is truly guilty of corruption at a level commensurate with his fall, or whether his political opponents manufactured the charges and engineered his arrival in a small cell.
The use of the legal system to take out political opponents is a hallmark of authoritarian states. As the Peruvian strongman Oscar Benavides said, “For my friends, everything, for my enemies, the law.” Some will see Lula’s fall as a powerful example of the reach and power of the rule of law; others will see it as a manipulation of the legal system to choke off a popular candidate.
Whether Lula manages to manufacture yet another personal comeback in a long and extraordinary life is a big question -- but either way his influence will continue to hover over the world to the south, even from jail. Anticipate more turbulence and uncertainty in Brazil, which still looks like it might be the “country of tomorrow” forever.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
James Stavridis is a Bloomberg columnist. He is a retired U.S. Navy admiral and former military commander of NATO, and dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. His most recent book is "Sea Power: The History and Geopolitics of the World's Oceans."
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