Curtain Raiser

Brazil Gives Dilma a New Run, Colltalers

After one of the most contested elections in at least 12 years, Brazil has chosen to reelect Dilma Rousseff, of the Workers’ Party, for a second term as the country’s president, in a show of support for the continuity of its current political course.
But even with this win, Dilma emerges from this election bruised and battered. Allegations of financial scandal in the state-run oil giant Petrobrás reached very close to home, since she was part of the company’s board and, as president, is de facto, in charge of it.
For the world, even though it was feared by some in Washington and Wall Street, because of her sharing the populist tinges of her predecessor and mentor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, her reelection may represent little since even that role remains largely unfulfilled.
In fact, Dilma didn’t have to feel pressured to impose a new direction for her economic and growth policies, not any more than simply listening to a large segment of Brazil’s middle class, which spent great part of her first term complaining of her lack of commitment.
She could’ve as well heard and paid more attention to the massive street rallies that market the two major sports competitions that the country hosted, both of the national passion, soccer: the Confederations Cup in 2013, and the World Cup, this past summer.
But despite a few spare-of-the-moment measures, she failed to heed the clamor of dissatisfaction and pretty much continued to pursue the same priorities set still during the Lula administration. Dilma, to be perfectly blunt, hasn’t marked her term in office with much to distinguish herself from him, and lacking his popular appeal, has failed to convey even a timid idea of a caring leader.
On the positive side, however, her party, known as PT, can be credited to scoring some victories for the country’s extreme poor, with social programs that remain among the most effective and pragmatic to restore at least some semblance of class balance in a country marked by gargantuan social problems. For good or worse, such programs may have been exactly what guaranteed Dilma’s reelection.
Either because there was too much fear that they would represent an unjust income distribution, based more on class than on merit, or because they do represent a threat to the familiar mix of power that has ruled Brazilian politics for decades, these programs in general, and the Bolsa Familia in particular, have been prone to attract the most vociferous voices pro and against them of all PT’s policies.
The Bolsa, roughly translated as Family Allowance, provides zero-to-low income families with a stipend, which is conditioned to a series of assumptions, not the least among them, that household school-age children perform satisfactorily in class, and that the adults enroll in the few government-sponsored technical apprenticeship programs available in their county.
Despite being by far the most vilified program among PT’s social initiatives, it has been credited to lifting a considerable segment of the very impoverish citizenry, which has turned, to no one’s surprise, into the bulk of the party’s constituency in the northeast of the country.
The most serious criticism of the PT’s majority rule, though, has been about ingrained corruption in its ranks. Chief among them was the vote-buying scheme that became known as the Mensalão, which dragged members of Lula’s cabinet and some of his most trusted political operatives into a multiyear inquiry and ultimately jail. But the commander in chief managed to be spared from any role in the fiasco.
Despite allegations of improper handling of public funds, embezzlement, and illicit enrichment, no inquiry proved Lula’s involvement. To this day, however, his party can’t seem to shake a reputation of cover ups and attempts to mute those who accused it of criminal acts.
For Aécio, this election marked two catastrophic and mostly personal defeats: not just he failed to project a winning image, through sharp policies designed to contrast with Dilma’s, but he also couldn’t capitalize on the gathering momentum opposing the PT.
Twice during his campaign he had a chance to shorten the distance separating him from the president, and twice he succumbed to a lack of initiative and/or political leadership: one, when Eduardo Campos, the Socialist Party candidate who was killed in a plane crash in August, left a vacuum readily occupied by Marina Silva, his vice president and a former environment minister.
While Marina grew on the polls, Aécio sunk badly. But then she committed a tactical error, gathering support from the Evangelical right, which undermined and compromised her position before an important segment of voters: women. That once again opened the door for the Social Democrat to step up his efforts to appeal to a larger constituency of the electorate. And once again, he failed to appear electable.
Or so it seemed. Despite the efforts of a very successful former president, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, and the PSDB party machine, neither could bridge the gap or divert the suspicion that his was the candidacy favored by banks and financiers. And that buried him.
For those following Brazil’s politics, this election has been no novelty, in terms of turmoil, or much of the same, either, for the country is bound to change gears either way towards a future that, for a moment, seems so close, only for the next, to appear all but unattainable.
It’s been already a bumpy ride all along. After 20-plus years of military dictatorship, Brazilians got a fresh start in 1985. That’s when Tancredo Neves, grandfather of Aécio and a master of behind-the-scenes political articulation, was chosen as Brazil’s first civilian president, even if by indirect vote. But then something unfathomable happened: Tancredo died on the eve of taking the oath of office.
The ascension of his vice president, José Sarney, a politician whose trajectory’s trademark was that of collaboration and support to the regime, was a cold shower on the feverish enthusiasm the end of the dictatorship had represented to the country. But it was what it was.
All hopes were raised again when the legislature approved the direct presidential vote, and in 1990, Brazilians went to the polls for the first time in 30 years and elected Fernando Collor de Melo, whose soap opera good looks betrayed a corrupt politician that, only two years later, was to become the only president to be impeached and kicked out of office. Many thought the dream had turned into a nightmare.
But after a transitional mandate by Itamar Franco, in the land of first names, yet another Fernando, the Cardoso, became the first civilian president to stay a full term in office (a military coup cut Goulart’s short in 1964) in a very long time. The Social Democrat made history by finally tackling Brazil’s twin evils of its chronic economic woes: astronomical inflation and staggering undervalued currency.
In two terms, Fernando Henrique’s policies put the country on track for an economic boom, sowing the seeds for much of what the then dark horse of Brazil’s politics, Lula and the PT, would later take credit for and further extend.
Having been defeated three times before, however, the charismatic former union leader and the party were now both ready to take the country by storm, and when that happened, nothing could compare with the exuberance of his two terms in office.
Lula quickly projected a winning image for the country abroad, fueling Brazil’s old aspirations to become a world leader, while dominated its internal politics, despite a string of allegations of corruption and graft within his cabinet and inner circle of political operatives. His influence was so powerful that his nomination of Chief of Staff Dilma Rousseff as his successor four years ago was a smooth sailing.
Brazilians often forget that the turmoil that surrounded the current election cycle is more in line with past presidential elections than the Lula years in office, which were by all accounts, the exception. Now, with Dilma’s reelected, it’s likely that a period of calm will follow.
From the inside or from abroad, one hopes that the president retakes some of the most crucial issues that Brazil faces, if it still aims at becoming a global powerhouse and an inspiration to billions, which were all but ignored during the presidential campaign.
Illiteracy, social programs, jobs, infrastructure projects and, perhaps the most visible one, the environment cause and fate of the world’s biggest rainforest, the Amazon, can no longer be shoved under the rug of political expediency and contempt by the country’s leadership.
In a way, the campaigns of both Dilma and Aécio, and even more sadly, that of Marina Silva, were a tremendous disappointment to anyone minimally interested in the well being of Brazil. Instead of focusing on those issues, the three engaged in a pathetic dance of convenience, each trying hard to appear above the political fray, and then going for the jugular of personal attacks.
It was an appalling spectacle of seasoned politicians, who should know better, doing their worst to gain votes, to the startling point when some segments of the population began to long for the ‘good’ old times of the military dictatorship.
It was as if the scars left by those dark years, when no questions were asked, decisions were made by decree, and many were being tortured in the bowels of the brutal regime, were meaningless or conveniently forgotten, in favor of what was recalled with nostalgia.
Even more vexing was the realization that a new political player, the radical political right wing of the Evangelical movement, has now an engorged role in the country’s direction. That’s bad news because much of its recipes signal a backlash against society’s most treasured and inalienable achievements, such as women’s and sexual minorities rights, science teachings, and separation of church and state.
Now that campaigning is over, and a new political alliance between citizens and the upper echelons of power is bound to be concocted, Brazilians of all nationalities, and with a minimum grasp on a coherent vision for the country, expect that nothing less than a push towards decency, civility, freedom, and above all, sacrifice, are in the works, and will guide all parties in the quest to a new Brazil.
Time is ripe for Brazilians to finally take upon themselves the task of writing a new social contract, which is crucial for their future. The world is simply too busy, or otherwise, too indifferent, to care or be blamed for whatever ills it’s bound to spill over onto Brazil.
We should all be so proud in seeing Latin America’s largest economy to succeed and set a new balance in world power. Given all new realities plaguing billions of people around the world, it’s about time new ideas emerge to contribute in the solution of the great tragedies of our age. Hunger, extreme poverty, income inequality, even terrorism, are all common causes that seem to test the old world order.
It’s worth noting that voting was also underway yesterday in two other countries acutely affected by such challenges: Uruguay, where a new president will come out of a runoff, and Tunisia, the Arab Spring’s birthplace and the only one where it seems to have taken root, is choosing a new parliament now, and a president in a month. Together, they may upstage even the U.S.’s midterm elections, next week.
If a country can peacefully tackle the aforementioned challenges within its own borders, it’ll earn the credentials and qualifications to offer the world what it needs to mend. Brazil, for its diversity, size, and strategic geopolitics positioning, may as well be the one to do it.
Thus, it’s up to you, Brazil. Wake up and go to work. The world anxiously awaits your powerful input. All the best to you all. WC


2 thoughts on “Curtain Raiser

  1. Lisa at fLVE says:

    I saw the long lines in front of the Brazilian consulate in SF a few weeks ago.


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