We’ve been told since the end of the election that Brazil has been split in two. But all that really happened last month was that citizens voted largely according to rational self-interest. And for those who have been paying attention – or those who come from the less fortunate half of the rift – the tale of a united Brazil was never much more than a myth in the first place.
By James Young
Brazilians woke up nine days ago to a country that, according to the results of the second round run-off election won by Dilma Rousseff, was far more regionally and socially divided than they had previously believed. The widespread support for Rousseff in Brazil’s poorer North and Northeast regions, coupled with the rancorous nature of the contest and the ease with which social media allows the spread of venom, had seemingly set Brazilian against Brazilian, with much of the unpleasantness directed against voters in the nordeste.
Former national justice secretary and police chief Romeu Tuma Junior was one of many who published an illustration showing a wall dividing the north and the south of Brazil, accompanied by the legend “Let’s respect the PT voters and let Dilma govern just them – a wall now!” A (failed) attempt at humor, no doubt, but the sentiment behind the joke was clear. Mr Tuma went on to write that he wished he could understand the people of the northeast, who “vote PT and then move to São Paulo seeking a better life.”
Firstly, it should also be pointed out that rumors of a straight north vs. south split are exaggerated. More than 11 million Brazilians voted for PSDB candidate Aécio Neves in the north and northeast, while Rousseff picked up more than 26 million votes in the south and south east (including wins in Neves’ home state of Minas Gerais and in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil’s second and third most populous states). Nor is it accurate to suggest a strict social divide between rich and poor – Rousseff lost out to Neves in a number of working class neighborhoods in the periferia of São Paulo, for example, but did well in relatively prosperous areas such as the Triângulo Mineiro area of Minas.
Nonetheless, according to many the election results meant that the Brazilian happy family of myth and legend, of “The Brazilian People,” had suddenly become dysfunctional. “O povo Brasileiro doesn’t exist,” wrote Vladimir Safatle in the Folha de São Paulo. “The Brazil we have known until now is over.”
In fact, the most surprising thing about what the election results told us about Brazil was that people were surprised by any of this in the first place. Mr Safatle could have gone further – arguably, o povo Brasileiro has never existed at all.
The country’s regional inequality is well documented, with the north and north east trailing the south and south east in every economic indicator, from average earnings to literacy rates to the provision of basic sanitation, while prejudice against the nordeste is rife among the less reconstructed parts of Brazilian society.
The idea that the millions of Brazilians who scrape by on a minimum salary of U$288 (or often much less) in desperately poor parts of the nordeste should magically share the same political beliefs as the upwardly mobile in the tonier parts of Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo or Florianopolis seems as fanciful an idea as believing in the Coelhinho da Páscoa, the Brazilian Easter Bunny.
In fact nordestinos have plenty of good reasons to vote PT, despite the party’s current woes, which include the Petrobras corruption scandal, a stalled economy, and rising inflation. “Don’t blame the people of the north east for choosing Dilma. Before Lula, many nordestinos lived in poverty. We in the South and those in the North have different political visions. We see the PSDB as a force for change, while they see the party as a return to the government of Cardoso, and poverty,” wrote Folha de São Paulo reader Lucas Ferreira Ramos in a letter to the newspaper. Mr Ramos’s words felt like a rare voice of reason amidst all the histrionics and hyperbole.
It is also myopic to attribute PT success entirely to social programs. Over the last decade, economic growth has been much higher in the Northeast than in the Southeast – not just for the poor, but for the middle class, the upwardly mobile entrepreneurial class, and the rich – which means that any political analysis should surely have expected higher levels of PT support in the region.
Brazil did not become “polarized” overnight – the country’s divisions have festered for decades, if not centuries, aided and abetted by a media discourse based in São Paulo and Rio which continue to treat the north and northeast of the country as backwaters, as well as a succession of local and federal governments disinterested in the plight of the regions.
Perhaps the only surprising thing about the country’s political divisions is that they have seemingly gone unnoticed until now. In 1989 the second round run-off between Luis Inácio Lula da Silva (born into poverty in the interior of Pernambuco) and Fernando Collor (scion of a wealthy northeastern political family) ended narrowly in Collor’s favor. The regional split back then was not exactly the same as this year’s results – former union leader Lula did well in a number of the big industrialized cities of the south east, while the elegant, Globo-approved Collor, who looked exactly like what many Brazilians expected their leaders to look like, was strong in parts of the northeast and the countryside. But that election was much more acrid than even this one.
“Fernando told the nation that the Workers’ Party was heading for a blood bath in Brazil, which raised anxiety levels. But he was floundering until a society friend of his mother’s told Dona Leda that her servants were threatening to occupy her apartment when Lula won. Fernando told a TV talk show that Lula would confiscate people’s life savings. That families would have their front doors broken down and rooms seized to house the homeless. You’ll have Workers’ Party militants living with you, Fernando said,” writes Peter Robb in his study of Brazilian culture and history, A Death In Brazil.
This time around, market players and international investors made it clear that Neves would be better for the small minority whose income is linked to returns on capital. But some Neves voters, feeling squeezed under the PT, said they may take their fears to a more radical conclusion.
“In my parents’ time being middle class meant you could afford the best apartment, the best car. Now I just get by. That’s why I’m leaving Brazil,” said unhappy 37-year-old sales manager Ana Silvia da Silva, who was interviewed by Folha after Sunday’s results came out.
Ironically, perhaps the election results show that northerners and southerners have more in common than they think. For despite their eagerness to assume the moral and intellectual high ground, a great many PSDB supporters surely cast their votes for the same reasons as large percentages of voters in every election since time began (including, of course, their PT voting countrymen and women) – good old fashioned self-interest.
The first photo is of São Paulo’s Paraísopolis favela, which shares a border with wealthy residents of skyscrapers. In the second photo, protesters take to Avenida Paulista to call for impeachment of the president-elect last Saturday. Some called for military intervention.