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RIO DE JANEIRO – Former Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff said Friday that this week's corruption conviction of her mentor and predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, is a political move aimed at keeping him out of next year's presidential election.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Rousseff said no candidate allied with President Michel Temer has the votes to beat Silva, universally known as Lula.
"The 2018 elections are an enigma. They do not have a candidate to compete against Lula," Rousseff said. "You can't know what the result will be, but they know people noticed they had meaningful gains when he was in office. They want to stop Lula from being eligible."
During Silva's two terms in the 2000s, he used a commodities boom to fund generous economic policies that helped pull millions of Brazilians out of poverty. He left office with sky-high popularity, and Rousseff was his hand-picked successor. But Brazil's fortunes turned while she was in office and hers and those of their Workers' Party did along with them. Rousseff didn't have the charisma of her predecessor to fend off her opponents as the economy entered its deepest recession in decades.
She was impeached last year for manipulating the fiscal budget and was succeeded by Temer, who is from a different political party. Silva was found guilty of corruption and money laundering earlier this week and sentenced to nearly 10 years in prison, although he remains free while an appeal is heard. He has denied wrongdoing and said the court has no evidence against him.
"This sentence does not remove (former) President Lula from the competition," said Rousseff. "They shouldn't think removing Lula from the election would bring stability to Brazil. It wouldn't."
If Silva's conviction is upheld by a group of magistrates, he will be ineligible to run next year. In a Datafolha institute poll published in June, the former president led with 30 percent support in the current most likely scenario, twice the support of his nearest rival. The Brazilian general elections are scheduled for October next year.
Since taking office, Temer, who is from a centrist political party, has pushed a controversial agenda that has been cheered by foreign investors as necessary for restoring confidence in Brazil's economy but has been dismally unpopular at home.
"Since they have no candidate to keep the unpopular measures and the big presence in the scene is Lula, they use the theory of lawfare. That means not to take into account his defense and not even to produce evidence against him," the former Marxist-guerrilla-turned-politician, who was jailed under the country's military dictatorship, said.
A relaxed and smiling Rousseff — starkly different from her serious demeanor while president — said only immediate direct elections could ease Brazil's political crisis after Temer himself was accused of corruption by the country's top prosecutor. Brazil's lower house of Congress will decide in August if he should be suspended and stand trial.
If Temer is suspended, Chamber of Deputies Speaker Rodrigo Maia will take over as the trial goes forward. If the president is permanently removed, Congress would elect a replacement and Maia, who is also under investigation for corruption, is seen as the favorite. Rousseff believes that would only draw out Brazil's political crisis.
"Replacing this administration with another little coup monger that is also involved in corruption allegations, and who will also lead us to the same process, doesn't solve the country's stalemate," said the former president, who deems her impeachment last year a "coup." ''A direct election would bring legitimacy."
The first woman to be elected president in Brazil, Rousseff won two presidential elections but only led Latin America's largest nation for five years. While she spoke to the AP for a little more than an hour, she only agreed to be on camera for a few minutes, citing a sensitivity in her right eye.
These days, Rousseff lives in Porto Alegre, deep in Brazil's South, and she has been vocal in her criticism of Temer, but says she gets more attention from foreign than from Brazilian media.
"I am banned in media companies here. Foreign media was vital for us to break a big barrier and speak to the world," she said as she gazed out on Rio's Sugarloaf Mountain and the Guanabara Bay below.
Rousseff said Brazil's international reputation has been damaged by the current political crisis and her impeachment.
"Foreign leaders won't be aggressive or impolite, but they largely ignore Temer," she said.
The former Brazilian president has very different opinions about two major foreign leaders, often in the news together these days: U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
"The United States today has a leader that is beneath his role, not up for the challenges," Rousseff said.
Meanwhile, she called Putin a "great leader for his country, a very talented man."
Asked if there is anything she would do differently to block the impeachment proceedings against her, Rousseff was direct: "I was in jail for three years during the military rule. Does anyone with that experience spend a lot of time thinking of ifs? We just don't. I can only live on."