In many ways, political culture in South America’s two most-watched countries couldn’t be more different. Brazilian voters, like this one walking over campaign flyers yesterday, are less politicized, and choose between candidates who agree on the big questions.
Yesterday, Brazilians and Venezuelans went to the polls. Here, voters broadly voted to maintain the powers that be and gave President Dilma’s Worker’s Party a pleasant surprise by giving Fernando Haddad a shot to be mayor of São Paulo. Northwest of here, Venezuelans re-elected “controversial”* president Hugo Chávez again, setting him up for an astonishing twenty years in power.
The two countries are the most-watched in South America, and from outside, it may appear that since they share a border they have much in common. They do. But after being a correspondent in Caracas and watching elections there, and now covering votes here, it’s obvious that in many ways their political cultures couldn’t be more different.
Click here to see the LA Times summary of the Brazil election, or here for more detail from Folha, or below to continue to me explaining these differences.
Talking to voters yesterday in Penha, on the poor outskirts of São Paulo, I heard many people – many, many people – tell me they didn’t really know why they voted the way they did. Some said: Whatever, they are all the same, liars and cheats. Others said: Whatever, things are going fine, and I don’t know anything about these people, really.
In hyper-politicized, deeply divided Venezuela, hearing someone say something like this would be enough to make your head explode. It just doesn’t happen. Most Venezuelans you come across will have spirited, and most often well-thought out arguments as to why they support or do not support Chávez. You’re likely to disagree with around half of the conclusions, but they are informed opinions. Topics like socialism, capitalism, corruption, politicians, revolution and democracy fill their heads and barroom conversations far more often than they do here in Brazil.
Brazilians, in my experience, are far less political than Venezuelans. This can be explained a few ways, and can be seen as either good or bad.
It may be that Venezuelans have been forced to pay attention due to the transformative and conflictual nature of the Chávez government. It may also be that Brazilians pay less attention than they should. One should also mention that voting is mandatory in Brazil – meaning those who truly don’t care still cast ballots – and that Venezuela is a country with a revolutionary tradition, whereas in Brazil most historical advances were arrived at through compromise and smoothed over by ruling elites. Brazil never had a revolution, civil war, or any real open political conflict.
The second way Brazilian political culture is different than Venezuela’s is probably directly related to the first.
That is, that in Brazil, most of the major political parties broadly agree on what Brazil should be doing. Namely, more or less what they’ve been doing for 15 years. Despite the small differences between Lula’s PT and Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s PSDB that the two parties love to exaggerate, they both agree on the same kind of government. They oversaw, and continue to propoose, a more or less markets-friendly social democracy with a mid-sized state presence. This approach, combined with a boom in Chinese demand for commodities, has lifted 40 million people out of poverty and increased the country’s presence on the world stage, but of course has not solved by a long shot problems of shocking inequality, persistent corruption, and woefully lacking health and education systems.
If you compare the small disagreements within Brazil to the fights going on in Venezuela, they appear even tinier still. In Venezuela, plenty of people really do – despite the incredulence of much of the international press – want radical socialist revolution. And plenty of others there want a total break with everything Chávez has done, and share much more of Washington’s idea of development than Brasília is likely to soon.
Those fundamental questions are open in Venezuela, but in Brazil there is general agreement on a path. So perhaps, why should those here get too involved? No one yesterday in São Paulo seemed too concerned things could change much one way or another. In Venezuela, I’d be willing to wager, everyone was.
Photo Vincent Bevins 07 – 10 – 2012