From Brazil

with Vincent Bevins and guests

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Vincent Bevins é colaborador do jornal britânico 'Financial Times' e correspondente no Brasil do 'Los Angeles Times'. Escrito em inglês, blog aborda principais acontecimentos do Brasil sob o olhar de um estrangeiro.

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A visit to Brazil’s reddest city

Por frombrazil
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The city that voted most heavily for opposition candidate Aécio Neves in last month’s election is in the United States – Miami, specifically. But the city that would be the darkest Dilma red on Brazil’s electoral map is the poor town of Belágua in Maranhão, where the vast majority of residents rely on government assistance. Anna Jean Kaiser visited last year. 

By Anna Jean Kaiser

I went to Belágua in last year while working with Jonathan Watts for the Guardian. We chose the poorest city in Brazil to take a look at Bolsa Familia, the famous PT welfare program, in action.

Belágua is a tiny rural town amid thick jungle, and one road runs through the “center” which has a few convenience stores, one motel, and the city government building sits up a dirt road. Most houses are made of mud and straw and outside the small center, people live on winding dirt roads that lead to small clearings in the jungle. New government programs are crucial for survival.

It was no surprise to me, then, that 93.93% of residents voted for Dilma. Brazil’s presidential election has exposed the rift between Brazil’s poor and its elite as never before. However, those on Belágua’s side of the fence, James Young noted recently, may have always known about the divide. It was similarly unsurprising that the municipality with the highest percent of votes (91.97%) for center-right Aécio Neves was Miami, Florida.

Belágua’s population is 6,524 and Caixa Econômica Federal says 1,292 families are beneficiaries of Bolsa Familia, or 79.2 percent of residents. But Caixa’s calculation is based on families of four and families tend to be very large. Local residents told us that their guess was that even more receive the benefit.

The program rewards families with a conditional monthly cash allowance. Kids must stay in school and receive vaccinations, and families below the poverty line receive about R$70/month (~US$30) per child, for up to five children.

Alcoholism, especially among the men, is a big problem in the community, something we were hit with dead on – literally, we got in a collision with a drunk motorcycle driver on one of the winding dirt roads. It seemed like, on average, families had about 7 or 8 kids. The owner of the motel we stayed in, who is also a local teacher, told us that vasectomies are free in the region, but most refused due to their Catholic religion.

In Belágua, there are basically only three sources of money: a small number of jobs for the municipal government, working for pennies an hour on farms making mandioca flour, and Bolsa Família. In reality, it seemed that the city revolves around the program.

For many in Belágua, the few hundred reais a month is a lifeline. In the two families pictured in the slideshow, both mothers said it’s the family’s only income. Though most recipients of Bolsa Família use it as a supplement to salaries, the woman pictured with her newborn twins has 12 children to feed with the family’s measly Bolsa Família allowance of $200 reais a month. She estimated that that money puts food on the table about half the month, and the second half they survive on caloric mandioca flour and whatever else they can find.

As one can imagine, the Brazilians of Miami live a different reality. One Brazilian, Deborah Albuquerque Chlaem, a journalist from São Paulo, announced in a viral video on Facebook that she was packing her bags for Orlando, where her dad lives, since she was so upset with the result of Dilma’s reelection.

“I tried to help you poverty-stricken imbeciles, stupid people who voted for Dilma,” she said. “You’re so stupid and are going to depend on Bolsa Familia for the rest of your lives… you’re going to continue in this crap. Me, no! I’m have the resources to leave this country that will become Cuba, that will become a dictatorship!”

More reasonable Aécio supporters point out correctly that the economy is stagnant, inflation is high, and the PT has been at the center of two big corruption scandals. More conservative members of the middle and upper class even took to the streets in what The Economist deemed “the cashmere revolution.

But in Belágua, when asked what the PT’s has meant to the community, people say that everyone is still in a very difficult situation, but it’s drastically better than it was. Many in Belágua, and the northeast region, say they felt abandoned by the state before the PT. For them, Dilma’s party was the first time the state paid them any attention.

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