Curtain Raiser

Brazil’s Quest for Change, Colltalers

Brazilians voted in mass for president yesterday, seeking to accomplish one of at least three things: reelect their first female president, Dilma Rousseff, replace her with a first black president, Marina Silva, or end the Workers’ Party’s 12-year reign over the country’s politics.
Dilma came out on top but still short of preventing a technical tiebreaker on the 26th, against Social Democrat Aécio Neves. There a fourth thing, however, that Brazilians arguably won’t be able to accomplish even when they come back for the second round: real change.
That most of electorally-able citizens of this country of almost 200 million showed up was no surprise: voting is still obligatory in Brazil (more on that later). Also expected was that a second vote would be needed, as Dilma’s majority in the polls was never overwhelming, and Aécio and Marina (note: people refer to each other on a first name basis in Brazil) alternated their positions as second runners throughout the campaign.
In fact, ‘not a surprise’ and ‘expected’ have set the tone of this presidential election, Brazil’s eighth since the end of the military dictatorship in 1985, and its seventh by direct vote. Long gone are the passions that ignited the country with civic fervor in the 1980s, and the PT’s ascension to power through Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a former union leader and still Brazil’s most popular president and politician ever, all constraints abandoned.
On the contrary, since Dilma’s succeeded Lula four years ago, Brazil has hit a brick wall, as an unprecedented cycle of economic growth and global projection gave away to Latin American old foes: graft and political corruption allegations, falling GDP, inflation, unemployment, and general discontent, by a reemergent middle class, about its lot and the country’s fledgling democracy. That has been the tenor of Dilma’s tenure.
To be sure, Lula’s overreaching shadow continues to exert a considerable influence over Brazil’s politics, and even as his rise to power was far from unexpected – he lost three presidential contests before winning in 2002 -, he seems to have carved a permanent niche in the country’s psyche.
While in power, Lula’s managed to inspire, if not completely being responsible for, a widespread feeling of optimism for a nation long mired in the malaise of being considered ‘the country of the future,’ but hardly having ever caught even a sight of what that future could actually be.
He presided over growth amid a global financial crisis, and under his tutelage, a huge swath of the ‘economically challenged,’ i.e., downright dispossessed, was able to experience a timid sense of what the country’s resources could offer them, something that hadn’t happened since at least the 1930s, with dictator-turned-president-elect (in a second coming) Getúlio Vargas, with whom Lula’s brand of populism is often compared.
However, even as his popularity soared within Brazil and abroad, Lula’s was plagued by an ingrained culture of privilege indulged by PT’s political operatives and within his inner circle of advisers. The biggest political scandal in Brazil’s modern age, the Mensalão, has happened under his watch, and even as he’s been cleared so far of any wrongdoing, very close allies of his were sent to prison for their role in the graft scheme.
Somehow, odds may have been stacked too high against Dilma, and her quest to both continue Lula’s legacy, and also, to imprint the country with her own brand of leadership. To many Brazilians, she’s failed at both, which is, oddly, surprising, since her almost boorish personality and guerrilla past could well stand on their own: known for speaking her mind, she was tortured and a political prisoner of the dictatorship in the 1960s.
One would think that such credentials, along with the fact she’s a cancer survival and was Lula’s Energy Minister and later Chief of Staff, would qualify her to the challenges of being Brazil’s first female president. Somewhat, though, none of it became apparent through the past four years.
Politically, she’s been perceived as a shy and calculating politician, often behind the curve of important political developments shaping Brazil, such as the mass rallies against social exclusion of the summer of 1993 and onwards, approval of a troubling pro-logger Forestal Code, in 2012, which seemed to counter efforts for protection of the Amazon, and allegations of corruption favoring PT at Brazil’s state-run oil giant Petrobrás.
Along with that, she seems to lack what many political leaders often exude, including her predecessor: pure political luck. Since her 2011 election, Brazil’s economic boom, and the glare it projected over other emerging economies, has receded to the background, overshadowed by the explosion of international events such as the Arab Spring, armed conflicts in Ukraine and between Israel and the Palestinians, and now the bloody Middle East rise of Isil.
Remember how much safer the world seemed to be when the only ‘threat’ was represented by Iran’s refusal to dismount its nuclear program? Neither do we, but for someone as charismatic and unencumbered as Lula, it may have been the perfect opportunity to shine on globally.
Not for someone like Dilma, though, whose woes also included her inability to groom political successors and craft a lasting legacy, again, as her mentor did with her and for himself. And that’s all we’ll be saying about how the Brazilian president has been battered by her own predicaments.
Speaking of the Amazon, her biggest challenger to up to few weeks ago, Marina, seemed to have all the credibility Dilma lacked on the globally-resonant issued of the environment, and real chances to defeat her too. But Aécio’s well-oiled political machine made sure that didn’t happen.
A former rubber-taper herself who grew up in the Amazon state, member of the same trade union of Chico Mendes, the activist assassinated in 1988, and the Environment Minister in Lula’s first term, Marina seemed to have what it takes to represent a potential radical change in Brazil’s politics, when she was nominated last October as vice president of Eduardo Campos, on the Socialist Party ticket.
That possibility became closer to reality when she assumed the top position of the ticket, after Eduardo was killed in a plane crash in August, in what was pretty much the only dramatic development of this presidential elections cycle. But then, she chose Beto Albuquerque, a Southern politician with close ties to farmers and the agribusiness, and her environmental clout started to come undone.
Plus, she’s received and embraced support of Brazil’s extremely wealthy and influential, and also radically right-wing religious brand, the messianic Evangelicals, who openly oppose a woman’s right to choose and rights over her reproductive system, as well as condem homosexuality and any other of what they consider ‘sexual deviations.’ And that did it for the progressive Brazilians and their overwhelming urban majority.
Quick aside about Brazil’s religious mores: to show the rise of the Evangelicals on its politics in a what’s considered the biggest Catholic country besides Italy, two out of the three candidates, with chances to become Brazil’s president, are Evangelicals, as Dilma like Marina, also professes a messianic denomination, Pentecostal; her faith, though, was never an issue during her tenure. Aécio is the sole Catholic contender.
The Social Democrat candidate, who’d bring back to power the party of former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso, is another curious case of sameness in this campaign. The grandson of a legendary Brazilian politician, Tancredo Neves, the behind-the-scenes negotiator who died the night before becoming the country’s first civilian president after the military rule, in 1985, has run a spectacularly lackluster campaign.
A former governor – his trajectory is very similar to that of former governor Eduardo Campos, who was also running a bland campaign when he died nine years to the day of his grandfather’s passing, political firebrand Miguel Arraes -, Aécio is known as a competent administrator, plagued by accusations of drug use and personal excesses. Another figure in Brazil’s politics with contrasting styles in personal and public life.
His numbers were shattered right after Eduardo’s death, boosting Marina’s, but he recovered a couple of weeks after, helped in no small measure by his direct adversaries’ foes, more so than his own efforts. Although in public life for some two decades, and Brazilians more or less know what to expect of his presidency, one thing is almost sure: he seems hardly likely to propel Brazil towards any out-of-the-ordinary course.
That brings us back to the beginning, as none of the candidates has engaged and rallied their constituencies as past presidents did, and neither their personal histories, as storied and inspirational as they may be, became staples of their own rhetoric to seek, or retain, high office.
On the contrary, while Brazilians seem transfixed about yet another set of corruption claims surrounding Petrobrás, and marginally, the set of timid reforms proposed by each candidate, they seem out of step with the great issues threatening to destabilize the world at large, some of them closely related to what’s happening within Brazil’s own borders, such as climate change, the threat to global peace, terrorism, privacy, and so on.
Brazil’s deep into an insular political realignment that appears to underestimate the impact worldwide changes surrounding it can bring to the country’s stability. And even battles that have a direct effect on the quality of life of its citizens, such as women’s rights, racial and sex minority protections, church and state separation, end of fossil-fuel incentives, may have been muffled in favor of a more parochial approach to politics.
The world in general, and the U.S., in particular, could learn from the Brazilian experience, including the fact that voting is still obligatory, a factor that has been instrumental in avoiding the electoral process from becoming inconsequential, as it’s becoming in American politics, for instance.
There are also challenges that Brazil faces that could serve as textbook for any other nation to fulfill its own destiny, such as an option to no armed conflict engagement, strict gun control regulation, a renewed focus on its faltering welfare system, and a general disposition to play a positive part in a world plagued by rising hunger, economic uncertainties and overall lack of security for its citizens.
But Brazil has still a long way to go to fulfill its own ambitions of becoming a world power, not the least of it, in the crucial task of forming new, revolutionary, young leaderships, more apt at addressing the issues of our time. Despite great clamor against political corruption, and increased participation of Brazilians in the national discussion, we still see apathy and disengagement as two of its most enduring, crippling obstacles.
While for Americans, roughly comparing, just showing up to vote a month from now will already be a powerful display in support of U.S. electoral process, to Brazilians, it’s not enough, compulsorily as voting is. They need to also make sure that a new crop of candidates springs out, willing to seize that constantly receding ‘golden’ future for their country. Perhaps some expect change to come from the most unexpected ways. We don’t.
In fact, not everyone has the religious fervor of believing in invisible powers and out-of-the-blue miracles, but in hard, thankless work. Not many are convinced that it’s enough to publicly decry corruption in the upper echelons, while spurning personal ethics and rules of conduct on their own.
Finally, perhaps what’s going to determine the ultimate fate of Brazil in the next four years will be the elections at state level, gubernatorial and legislative. Or how much a progressive presidential candidate such as Eduardo Jorge, from the Green Party, will fare today. Just because we don’t put much credence in suddenly turnarounds, doesn’t mean we can’t admit that change is not always apparent from the get go.
In any instance, it’ll be an ample effort, not only a partisan push but a full engagement of young voters, the middle class, and more issue-specific campaigns, what may turn the tide towards a better country. It’d be a great end of the year when Brazil lost its bid to win the World Cup at home, something Brazilians are still reeling from, if this elections would determine a really new dawn for the country.
There’s a great longing in Brazil for it to become a beacon of peace in the world and a reference to personal fulfillment to everyone. But Brazilians will have to be brave, and self-critical, and willing to work extra hard to make that into their new reality. Using a beaten sport metaphor, it’s time for everyone to stop just watching and complaining about the game, and come down from the bleachers to score a few goals for the common good.
Above all, we all still love you Brazil and want you to be the best that you’ve ever been, the best that you can possibly be, and will be rooting for you all the steps of the way. Good luck today and ever. WC


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