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Samba, scandals and saudades: the battle between Lula and Bolsonaro


SÃO PAULO

SATURDAY AUGUST 20

On an uncommonly cold Saturday morning in subtropical São Paulo, people wrapped in coats and hats pour out of metro stations and buses, drawn to the beat of samba drums emanating from the historic but rundown centre of the largest city in the Americas.

A dozen friends, most wearing something red, have paused by a newsstand to pose for a photo. As they smile for the camera, a few make an “L” sign with their thumb and forefinger. The “L” is for Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the politician they have come to hear speak and who, they hope, is soon to become Brazil’s new president. Red is the colour of his leftwing Workers’ Party, or PT.

If he succeeds it won’t be the first time “Lula” has occupied the country’s highest office. During his eight years in power between 2003 and 2010, a global commodities rally helped the fiery former union leader lift millions of Brazilians out of deprivation to join a growing middle class. In 2012, under Lula’s chosen successor, Dilma Rousseff, Brazil became the world’s sixth-largest economy, before things unravelled in spectacular fashion — not only for them and their party, but also for the fortunes of the South American nation.

September 10: a supporter of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva holds a doll depicting the former Brazilian president at a recent protest against President Jair Bolsonaro in São Paulo © Amanda Perobelli/Reuters

More than a decade on, nostalgia for Lula’s time in power is the dominant theme of the 76-year-old’s current campaign. Brazil has seen a big drop in living standards since then, and São Paulo, the capital of its most populous and wealthy state, is no exception. Sales are down, says street vendor José Fernando de Lucena, 41, who is tending a grill where skewers of cooked sausage, chicken and beef pile up. “With Lula as president again, we will eat meat, not eggs, damn it.” In the past even those in the favela could eat meat, he explains. Shaking his woolly hat for emphasis, de Lucena says Lula was the best president Brazil had: “In the name of Jesus, he will return.”

There is optimism among his supporters that next month Lula will indeed triumph. Most polls give him a firm lead — some in double digits, though they have narrowed recently. (Should no candidate gain more than half of votes in the October 2 ballot it will go to a second-round runoff). Standing on a pedestrianised avenue lined with palm trees, a long queue of his fans have gathered in expectation. The entry line, which stretches for about 1km in total, passes near the Theatro Municipal, a belle époque landmark inspired by the Paris opera house, and a balustrade overlooking the crowd and stage. Down below, the green and yellow of a giant Brazilian flag flutters over heads, along with a folky rendition of the national anthem.

Agnaldo Marinho Santana, a 49-year-old grandfather, is another voter with fond memories. “My life was very different then,” he says. “I had a job and home. Today I have nothing.” Santana is one of São ­Paulo’s 30,000-odd rough sleepers, a number up 30 per cent since 2019. By his feet he trails a bag of empty plastic bottles, the calling card of the catador, or informal rubbish collector. “Nobody looks at you,” he says of being homeless. “Nobody will talk to you.” But he believes Lula can restore good times.

Victory for Lula would, in the view of many here, end a nightmare that began with the election of Jair Bolsonaro, the current far-right populist president. Pilates teacher Sarah Bitar, 40, speaking through a coronavirus mask, says: “Today there isn’t a government, it’s a disgovernment, which is making Brazil worse than what they did in the dictatorship.”

‘Lula’ hats in the red of the leftwing Workers’ Party (PT) for sale at the São Paulo protest © REUTERS/Amanda Perobelli

A former army captain, Bolsonaro has praised the repressive military regime that ended almost 40 years ago. Since his election in 2018 he has championed an agricultural boom and turned a blind eye to destruction of the Amazon rainforest. He mocked the Covid-19 virus, calling it “a little flu”. But, following the deaths of more than 600,000 citizens, a senate committee last year called for him to face criminal indictment over his alleged mishandling of the pandemic (no charges have been brought, however). Popular with evangelical Christians, farmers and soldiers, Bolsonaro’s ultra-conservative views have contributed to the country’s polarised political ­landscape and alienated voters like Bitar, who says, “We want a future without hate.”

In the build-up to the election, however, tensions are rising. Critics fear the president is preparing to reject his possible defeat, putting the future of Brazil’s young democracy at stake. Like his political idol Donald Trump, Bolsonaro has called into question the integrity of his nation’s electronic voting system, and asked his supporters to swear they would “give their lives for freedom”. Only a few weeks after that rally, a Lula supporter was stabbed to death by a Bolsonaro fan during a political argument in the central-west state of Mato Grosso. Lula called the climate ­surrounding the electoral process “completely abnormal”.

Today security is in place but the atmosphere is relaxed. The venue is the Vale do Anhangabaú — a spartan plaza ringed by iconic structures like the 1920s Martinelli Building, the city’s first skyscraper, and the somewhat older St Benedict’s Monastery. Among the warm-up speakers is Geraldo Alckmin, a centre-right establishment politician who was once Lula’s sworn enemy. The pair went head-to-head in a bitter dispute for the presidency in 2006. Even a year ago his presence would have been unthinkable, yet he is now Lula’s running mate, the two united by their determination to oust Bolsonaro.

Later, Rosângela da Silva, who married Lula in May and is a fixture by his side on the trail, dances onstage to a new recording of a campaign jingle written for her husband’s first presidential run back in 1989 (it took another three attempts before Lula finally made it to the presidential palace in Brasília). Raucous cheers erupt when her husband is introduced.

Having taken off a puffer jacket with the crest of his favourite football team, Corinthians, Lula starts to speak, thrashing around the stage with his trademark energy. He reels off PT government achievements before lamenting that people are going hungry in a country that is among the world’s top three food producers. He is full of oratorical flourishes, including the obligatory third-person pronouncement: “Many people thought Lula was dead.” Finally he inveighs against his adversary Bolsonaro: “The Brazilian people who are sick of so many lies, injustice and suffering — they will remove you.”

At the end there’s a shower of celebratory confetti and a palpable feeling of confidence in the air. Victory for the veteran leftwinger would be all the more remarkable given that just three years ago, he was languishing in a prison cell.

BELO HORIZONTE

THURSDAY AUGUST 18

Two days earlier, 600km from São Paulo, the first official rally of the Lula campaign took place in the southeastern city of Belo Horizonte, capital of Minas Gerais. Its history is steeped in a gold mining rush that began around the turn of the 18th century. Today it’s a bellwether state that is home to one in 10 of Brazil’s voters.

Pulling up before the preserved splendour of a century-old former train station, a cabbie warns of pickpockets. “Unfortunately there are a lot of criminals in Brazil,” he says. “Our justice system makes it easy for them.” For a start, he goes on, there’s the former inmate running for president of the republic. “He almost broke the country, now he’s free to stand for election. I don’t think that’s fair.”

When Lula left office in January 2011 his approval ratings were above 80 per cent. But the decade that followed represented a huge fall from grace. After the boom years the country sunk into its worst recession on record under the government of Dilma Rousseff, with many blaming her expansion of state intervention in the economy. By the time she was impeached in 2016, investigators had uncovered a bribery scheme on the PT’s watch that sucked billions of dollars out of Petrobras, the state-controlled oil company. “Operation Car Wash”, as it was known, ensnared dozens of businessmen and politicians.

August 18: Lula and his wife Rosangela (centre) acknowledge PT supporters in Belo Horizonte © REUTERS/Washington Alves

Following guilty verdicts on charges of corruption and money laundering, Lula was handed a custodial sentence. But then, in another twist, the convictions were annulled last year by the supreme court, which also found the presiding judge to have been biased. Lula has always maintained his innocence. In the eyes of PT supporters, the anti-corruption probes were a political witch hunt. But there’s no doubt the anger at widespread venality within Brazil’s political system was a key ingredient in Bolsonaro’s “outsider” bid for the presidency in 2018. His supporters regularly cite Lula’s jail time in order to attack the left.

If he is to become president, Lula will almost certainly need the backing of undecided voters in Minas Gerais, and even some former Bolsonaro voters. “We have to work a lot on the middle class,” says a campaign team member. Yet at the rally he is, for the most part, preaching to the converted. Outside a bar near the old railway plaza, Maristella Reis, 36, pours beer into a red beaker bearing Lula’s image. She bought it while attending a vigil outside the police station where he was imprisoned for 580 days in the southern city of Curitiba. “Our president was never alone,” she says.

As the tropical sun lowers, Lula’s face is everywhere: on T-shirts, flags, baseball caps and towels for sale. Chants of his name break out like at a football match. Hundreds of flags twirl with acronyms of the trade unions and social movements that coalesce around the PT. Most numerous is the MST (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra) or Landless Workers’ Movement, which occupies unused farming land and is the bane of agribusiness. It’s hard to shake the feeling of being in a leftwing bubble. That is, until two 20-somethings parade past the public garden that stands across from the main plaza wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “Direita Minas” — Rightwing Minas.

Renan and Brenda, who only give their first names, say they are here “to see what’s going on”. They extol the virtues of Bolsonaro: his stances against abortion and corruption, his religious beliefs and respect for private property. As for Lula: “He was president before, and look what happened.” Out of nowhere we’re interrupted when, a few metres behind us, flames suddenly leap from a hedge. “Setting fire to bushes — what kind of demonstration is this?” one of the pair says in disgust, before briskly walking off.

As we wait back on the plaza, corny pop songs about saudades — Portuguese for longing, sadness or melancholy — for Lula are playing ad nauseam. Although the campaign is formally just starting, he has been on the road all year and it shows. An ex-smoker and survivor of throat cancer, his gruff voice sounds more hoarse than usual. There is no walkabout; everything appears carefully managed. This doesn’t matter to the exultant attendees. Yet while exaggerations are to be expected, the MC’s claim of 100,000 participants feels fanciful. As in São Paulo, where the turnout was affected by low temperatures, the crowd feels busy but not teeming. Many Bolsonaristas have argued that the opinion polls are wrong, pointing to the attendances for the president’s own campaign events, which they say dwarf Lula’s. Perhaps they have a point.

SÃO LUÍS

FRIDAY SEPTEMBER 2

In the lobby of Hotel Luzeiros, which looks out on the shimmering Atlantic Ocean, a streak of blue cuts through the red T-shirts and black police uniforms. Donning a traditional headdress of macaw feathers, Ozany Tatainy has travelled nine hours to the northern city of São Luís (not even a particularly long road trip in this vast nation) for a glimpse of Lula.

A member of the Guajajara tribe, Tatainy frames the election as a struggle for indigenous rights. Many native communities have faced increasing threats since Bolsonaro came to power. The situation is particularly stark in the Amazon, where illegal gold miners and loggers regularly employ violence to scare inhabitants off their legal reserves. “For more than 500 years, we have been fighting and resisting. Brazil was not discovered, it was invaded,” says the recently qualified nurse. She bursts into tears. “And many indigenous are still dying because of this fight.”

In contrast to Bolsonaro’s past pledge to cede “not a centimetre” more of territory to Brazil’s first peoples, who number close to a million, Lula has promised to create a special ministry for them.

“We have two main candidates — one that threatens my people, that incites even more hatred and racism,” says Tatainy. “So I really want Lula.”

That the election outcome feels like a matter of survival for certain minority groups is one more indication of how high tensions are running. Armed law officers stand alert by the doorway of the hotel hosting Lula, who reportedly wears a bulletproof vest to events (Bolsonaro almost died after he was stabbed during the 2018 election campaign). São Luís, capital of Maranhão state, should be ­welcoming. It shares much in common with the wider north-east of Brazil. Poor, prone to drought and home to more than one-quarter of the 156 million electorate, the region is a stronghold for Lula, who himself was born in the northeastern state of Pernambuco before moving to São Paulo as a child. In Maranhão, where the average income per person is just R$635 ($123) a month, Lula commands two-thirds of votes, according to a recent poll.

Yet even here you can find wariness. “The ex-president is here,” says a hotel bellboy, eyeing the aides and hangers-on. “You mean the ex-convict?” retorts a colleague.

August 16: Presidential campaign materials depicting Lula and Bolsonaro on the first day for political campaigns in Brasília © REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

With divisions so widely apparent, it seems reasonable to wonder why Brazil finds itself choosing between the polarising figures of Bolsonaro and Lula. Each is blamed by their opponents for having a significant hand in Brazil’s current predicament. Kelvyn Salomão, a driver for ride-hailing apps, is one who feels disenfranchised by the situation. No fan of Bolsonaro, he says he cannot vote for Lula either because of the history of scandals. He had been hoping for an unlikely “third way” candidate to emerge but it seems the past still has too strong a hold over many. “The people here are still captivated by [Lula],” he says.

Their affection is displayed when Lula and his entourage depart the hotel at sunset for a square in the city centre, where sound systems blare as popcorn carts and drinks stalls compete for punters streaming off coaches in the hot night. Luan Costa was the first in his family to attend university, credit for which he attributes to Lula’s policies, and says the PT brought electricity to his grandmother’s remote village. “Today is a day of hope for us. Hope to get Brazil out of the mud and chaos we’ve been in since Bolsonaro’s election.”

For all its current ideological division, Brazilian politics often comes down to personalities and favours, especially at the provincial level. Given the political tumult and economic hardships many Brazilians have endured in recent times, it’s no surprise to find resignation sometimes shading into apathy. Roseana Alves is a Bolsonaro supporter, but says she journeyed two hours to Lula’s event with several relatives because she was promised R$50 ($10) by a local politician for attending. A bottle of wine in one hand and a plastic cup in the other, she is enjoying the festival atmosphere. “We Brazilians don’t believe in politics anymore, or in the president,” she says. “Once they get to power, they don’t do anything, they get corrupted, they promise so many things and then do nothing. It’s sad.

“I just came to get my cash,” she adds, taking a swig of wine. “May the best man win.”

Michael Pooler is the FT’s Brazil correspondent. Bryan Harris is the FT’s Brazil bureau chief

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