Between polarization and transition

Brazil, under the Workers' Party, even if it’s still struggling with enormous poverty and social inequality, has managed to improve tremendously.

Photo: Vinicius Amano, via Unsplash.

In October, Brazil went through its closest presidential elections since 1989–51.6% to 48.4%. The winner was the incumbent President, Dilma Rousseff, who earned her reelection as a candidate from the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Party of the Workers), or PT. From 2003, the PT has ruled the country, with Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva also having served two terms. The loser in the election was Aécio Neves, the candidate of the Partido Social da Democracia Brasileira (Social Party of the Brazilian Democracy), or PSDB.

After the results were announced, Folha, a newspaper from São Paulo, published a map that showed a divided Brazil. Northeastern states (as well as Maranhão and Bahia) were red, the color of the PT. The Southern states (including São Paulo) were blue, the color of the PSDB. A separatist wave became obvious in Brazilian media. Some conservative commentators argued that “poors don’t know how to vote” or that the Northeastern states were victims of the “government’s populism and charity”.

But, of course, we are not so far away from each other. Another map, devised and published by Thomas Conti, disproves that wrongful, binary, overgeneralizing vision.

Yet, this panorama created an atmosphere of conflict between two sides, which led to protests and marches, which haven’t stopped since August, expressing hatred and the desire of each side to be as separated as possible from the other.

Indeed, the profiles and the political careers of the two candidates that represent both polarities have been different. Though both are economists, Rousseff has a technical profile, while Neves (who comes from one of the most politically prominent families in the country), has held political positions.

The candidate from the PSDB defends the continuity of the political Project of Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who ruled the country between 1995 and 2003. FHC, as he is also known, focused in lowering inflation and relied in neoliberal politics, such as privatizing a series of national companies, and looking to strengthen the economy, freeing it from a strong state control. During her first term Rousseff boosted national public banks, supported unemployment control, the growth of the internal market, and the State became a bigger part in the development of the social structure.

Politics on debt and foreign relationships, especially with the United States, are also a big difference between the politics of the PT and the PSDB. Cardoso’s government made various agreements with the IMF to handle the country’s external debt. But Rousseff looked to pay off the external debt by drawing from the country’s internal debt. She also looked away from the United States, who had been a valuable partner of Cardoso, and looked to create “South-South” agreements, creating pacts with Bolivia, Venezuela and Uruguay. She also promoted the creation of a common fund of the emerging “BRICS” nations, joining Russia, India, China and South Africa.

Nonetheless, the fact that such a polarization between neoliberal and left-wing politics appeared in the electoral contest doesn’t mean that this division runs through the whole country, or that every Brazilian is on one side or the other. The stage is much more complex and its reflected in a series of social changes. Maybe they are recent, as recent as the World Cup, or maybe they come from the protests in 2013 that started in a few big cities, but spread throughout the country. Or they might have begun in the last, crucial, ten years, when Brazil started to be perceived as an economical power, when the level of poverty was reduced, the middle class grew, and some confusing, disorganized developments started to move our country.

The protests from 2013 were too complex to fit just one analysis. Thousands of people took the streets, from all over the country, and from every socio-economical background. Different ideological groups were on the streets and for very different reasons. But one thing was clear: if on the one hand these mobilizations represented the will to recover public space, the right of participation and a feeling of collective power; they also represented extremist and even violent reactionary actions which weren’t striving to open debates, but to take politics “on its own hands.” If part of the population was demonstrating to fight for more rights, other part was out to push a conservative agenda of social, racial and regional discrimination.

As the World Cup (and the elections) came closer, the multiple (and sometimes contradictory) criticisms grew bigger, At the beginning they seemed to be directed towards Fifa and the resources wasted by the cup, which many felt could be better invested on health and education. But it deformed into a confused criticism of the national government. I believe this was made worse by the country’s partial and antiquated news media, which has lost its critical, investigative role, and instead has been very partial in its coverage.

Traditional news outlets always talked down the actual number of people out on the streets, but they were quick to use the protests against the national government, trying to pin on it every complaint the people had. New media, such as blog and online periodicals reflected the environment in which they came to be: a polarization in which each of the extremes reads only the source that fits with its worldview, diminishing the chances of any kind of dialogue.

The gap grew bigger, stronger and more violent. The marketing strategies from both candidates, seeing how polarized the elections had become, turned to personal violence. The main purpose was to throw accusations at the other, not to propose solutions. Furthermore, Marina Silva, the third candidate in the first round of elections, had tried to turn the debate into a depoliticized discourse, simplifying her policy between “good” and “bad”.

In the streets, on Facebook, in daily life, the division was clear. According to philosopher Paulo Eduardo Arantes (close to the PT), the Brazilian right is similar to the U.S. right in the sense that it is “not interested in creating majorities in government. It is interested in impeding other governments, They don’t need votes because they are directly financed by big corporations. (…) That is why they can afford the luxury to have very clear, non-negotiable positions. So they attack, making impossible any change to the status quo. [Meanwhile,] the left can’t do that because it has to govern, to create majorities, to compromise.” There can be no middle ground there.

Yet, for me, it is clear that Brazil, even if it’s still struggling with its enormous poverty and social inequality, has managed to improve tremendously. It has been the direct responsibility of certain PT politics, such as Bolsa Familia and Minha Casa Minha Vida, but also of a great number of scholarships from the ProUni program, of the technical school from Pronatec, the new Federal Universities and of Ciencias Sem Fronteras. It’s the result of the control of the minimum wage, the formalization of domestic employment, the position in favor of diversity and the fight for criminalization of the discrimination towards homosexuals. I think it’s the right path. Nevertheless, a portion of the population is not willing to abandon a series of hereditary privileges, which is necessary to achieve this progress. They find it admissible to pay 6% of IOF (tax on abroad operations), as they find it impossible to leave behind an already settled ideological view, which is blind to this progress.

The political reform proposed by Rousseff (which would happen via popular vote) was denied by Congress barely a week after her electoral victory. Dialogue and the construction of new policies still seem distant. But polarization is inevitable; it is linked to our political and economical model. Diversity of views and creative dialogue can’t come from the reductionist differences between red and blue states, it should be determined by serious and thorough research and by information that actually relates to the problems and the projects that guide our country.

Further Reading

Going to the Mall in Brazil

Since last December, Brazilian shopping malls have become the stage for a new style of youth gathering: the rolezinho. Roughly translated as “little excursions” or outings, the rolezinhos can be characterized as planned meetings (via social network) of a large group of youth from poor neighborhoods, with the intent of seeing each other, flirting, eating and drinking at McDonald’s, taking pictures to post on Facebook, and simply having fun.