Election season officially kicked off in Brazil on July 1st. For the past 7 months, amid wide-scale attacks on her competency -- and against the Brazilian economy -- coming from all sides of the political spectrum in the Anglophone media, President Dilma Rousseff’s poll numbers have remained stable, placing her far ahead of her closest competitor, Senator Aécio Neves of Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s PSDB party. IBOPE, Brazil’s most widely-respected polling agency, released numbers last week showing that 38 percent of the Brazilian public intends to vote for Dilma. According to IBOPE this is the same percentage who intended to vote for her in the last poll that was taken immediately before the World Cup, and roughly the same percentage that have supported her all year. Brazil has a multi-party system and she is currently far enough ahead of the remaining candidates that if the election were held tomorrow, she would win in the first round.
According to another recent poll by Datafolha [PDF], Dilma is leading in every region in Brazil. The numbers are close in the wealthy Southeast and South, but her lead climbs in the poorer North and Northeast. In the Northeast, Brazil’s poorest and second most populous region, the percentage of people saying they will vote for her climbs to 55 percent.
João Pedro Stedile, one of the national leaders of the Landless Peasants’ Movement (MST), breaks down the choices that voters have this October in the following manner: “Dilma Rousseff and (third-most-popular candidate) Eduardo Campos represent neo-developmentalism, and Aécio Neves represents neoliberalism.” Neo-developmentalism is a term that people on the Brazilian left use to describe the PT’s modern version of developmentalism. Developmentalism is a Keynesian-influenced economic strategy first developed in the 1940s in the Third World by economists like Raúl Prebisch and Celso Furtado based on income redistribution through social welfare initiatives, government stimulus for national industrial production and consumption, maintaining key sectors of the economy under control of state companies, and a high minimum wage, that was employed at varying levels by Brazilian president João (Jango) Goulart before the U.S.-supported military coup of 1964. Many people on the Brazilian left apply the “neo” prefix to the 12 years of PT government due to the neoliberal policies initiated in the Fernando Henrique Cardoso administration, such as an independent and monetarist Central Bank , that the PT has done little to revert and that blend with traditional developmentalist policies such as large minimum wage hikes, high social spending on welfare programs, maintaining state control over the petroleum industry and mortgage market and subsidizing the construction and manufacturing industries.
Despite valid criticism of the PT from many people on the more radical left, including key players in the Goulart administration such as Chico Oliveira, the results of 12 years of these policies are impressive: employment boomed as 19.5 million new jobs were generated, and 36 million people moved above the poverty line. These numbers show why Dilma still has a large lead in the polls despite last year’s huge June/July protests, which were either misunderstood or deliberately misinterpreted by many voices in the Anglophone media and academia as being primarily “anti-federal government” or “anti-World Cup.”
As the countdown to the World Cup moved forward this year, it seemed as if the corporate media was suddenly interested in human rights issues in Brazil (see, for example this AP article). The violent repression of protesters by Brazil’s state governments and their uncontrollable military police – an historic problem in Brazil – along with accusations of fraud during construction of expensive white-elephant stadiums -- provided ample fodder for criticism. Although it appears that the widely-quoted predictions of forced evictions to make way for public projects, mainly Bus Rapid Transit corridors, directly related to the World Cup (the People’s Cup Committee initially projected 250,000 were to be displaced) were exaggerated, the fact remains that tens of thousands of people were forced out of their homes and, in many cases, given lousy and technically illegal settlement packages by the city governments who evicted them. As the Financial Times smugly announced that the Brazilian economic strategy had failed, and the New York Times declared that “Grand Visions Fizzle in Brazil,” the more sensationalist voices started predicting that Brazil was going to crash and burn, with huge street protests during the World Cup.
It didn’t happen. In March, the MST announced that, despite its criticism of the Dilma administration for lack of action on agrarian reform and human rights abuses, it wasn’t going to protest against the World Cup, because it didn’t want to hurt her re-election prospects. The largest urban squatters’ social movements, like the MTST (Movimento de Trabalhadores Sem Teto, or urban homeless workers movement), the UNMP (União Nacional por Moradia Popular, or National Popular Housing Union) and the MNLM (Movimento Nacional de Luta para Moradia, or National Movement for Housing Struggle) staged a series of medium-sized protests across the country in the months leading up to the Cup. After they shut down nine bridges during rush hour in São Paulo with a group of 5,000 people, and put 12,000 on the street in front of Itaquerão stadium, Dilma met with movement leaders and struck a historic deal granting more social control over the huge Minha Casa Minha Vida program, which subsidizes low and lower middle income housing construction, with a guarantee of an additional 3 million new housing units built closer to city centers. At this point, the urban movements decided not to protest during the World Cup. This left small groups of primarily middle-class activists, some affiliated with small radical left political parties like the PSOL (that splintered off from the PT when Lula started isolating members of its “Socialism or Barbarianism” caucus in 2003) and others representing the tiny Black Blocs, some of which were infiltrated by undercover police and elements from the far-right. Tactically inexperienced, many of these middle-class activists tried to organize protests on social media. Many of them had tens of thousands of people commit online to going, but only a few hundred actually appearing on the streets.
Despite this, old photos and articles of the 2013 riots and protests went viral on social media, presented as if they were happening in the lead-up to and during he World Cup. I witnessed that in some cases media figures who I followed presented them as current events, adding to the confusion.
Rutgers Professor Sean Mitchell wrote a recent article documenting how the image of Brazil has shifted over the last few years from positive, after Brazil avoided going into recession during the Global Recession of 2008-2009, to negative, strengthened by panicky headlines and “violence porn.” He did not offer a theory as to why this is happening, but I believe that the media used valid criticism of human rights violations and corruption related to the World Cup, often coming from voices in the middle-class, intellectual left, to reframe Brazil as a failing nation ripe for regime change. I found myself caught up in this process as critical articles I wrote were given sensationalist edits and headlines as well. One would have to be naive to imagine that the U.S. government is not interested in privatization of the Brazilian state petroleum company, Petrobras, lowering protective tariffs and flexibilizing labor laws for American companies operating in Brazil, all of which are historic priorities for the opposition PSDB party. It is an old State Department tactic for regime change to foster a sense of political instability through supporting street protests in election years in Latin America. The organized Brazilian left knows that and it is one reason that the vast majority of labor unions and poor people’s social movements did not take to the streets during the World Cup.
Brian Mier is a geographer and freelance journalist who lives in Brazil and works as a policy analyst at the Centro de Direitos Econômicos e Sociais.