Although patchwork agreements with police unions have bought a temporary and uneasy peace in Bahia and Rio, law and order is now the key issue for any candidate seeking to challenge popular leader Dilma Rousseff' in the 2014 presidential race.
Rejecting federal assistance after walkouts by state police, Rio de Janeiro governor Sergio Cabral morphed from being a nice guy to a tough political boss, restored order and emerged from the fray with a growing natiowide base to challenge Dilma for the presidency.
National media gave broad coverage to Cabral's critique that the federal intervention plan developed by team Dilma and Workers Party governor Jaques Wagner was full of "mistakes." Cabral suggested that the local hands-on approach used by his public security team in Rio was more effective than operations conducted by the 4,000 elite troops sent in by Brasilia to help reduce the looting and killing in Bahia.
Forced out in the open by the current wave of unrest the law and order issue reveals a crisis in Brazilian federalism pitting Dilma's centralized big government approach against Cabral's libertarian-style states rights agenda that seeks to downsize government. The consequence is a growing split in the governing coalition between the Workers Party and Cabral's Brazilian Popular Democratic Movement (PMDB) that brought Dilma to power. The PMDB is the second most powerful legislative bloc in the Brazilian congress.
Vice president Michel Temer, who abandoned his responsibilities as titular head of the PMDB to serve the federal government, is an ally of Cabral. He also has a close working relationship with political kingmaker and investment banker Mario Garnero, who hosted a recent talk by the Rio governor at the Harvard Club of New York that found U.S. and international business leaders in attendance enthusiastic about Cabral's presidential ambitions.
A former speaker of the Brazlian lower house Temer has been unhappy since the taking office over the paltry number of senior appointments his party was awarded after helping provide Dilma with a decisive victory in what otherwise could have been a very messy second round vote.
Wittingly or unwittingly, police bosses in Bahia state waited for both Dilma and governor Wagner to be out of the country to go out on strike. Temer was acting president while the pair were on a state visit to Cuba finalizing a half billion dollar aid and development program that will project Brazilian influence in the Caribbean region and help keep the Castro dictatorship in power.
It wasn't until Dilma returned to Brazilian soil 96 hours later and officially re-assumed constitutional power that formal meetings were held in which she approved sending federal security forces to intervene in Bahia. With violence escalating in the interim, Wagner met with Brazilian media and offered them videotape evidence showing that striking state police were engaged in looting and provoking unrest.
The popular Brazilian movie series, Tropa Elite (elite troops) has earned hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office depicting exactly the kind of lawlessness, violence and collusion that has ensued over the past two weeks. But change comes slowly in Brazil.
The same military police leaders who triggered the latest wave of lawlessness, including more than 200 homicides in Bahia state, caused a similar social explosion a decade ago, complaining about wages while characterizing Lula as a communist as the labor leader was ramping up his fourth and successful campaign to become president of Brazil. Then as now, amnesty was offered as a carrot to leaders of the Bahia strike to get the fractious police union back on the streets and to project a modicum of law and order.
Bahia, a state of 14 million the size of France is the gateway to Brazil's impoverished northeast and has one of the poorest per capita incomes and income distribution indices among Brazil's 26 states.
Salvador, with its lush life and bigger than Big Easy culture is former seat of the colonial Portuguese empire in Brazil and was the center for the slave trade that was finally outlawed in 1885. The city's 3.5 million citizens, often called bahianos, are governed by mayor Joao Henrique Carneiro, not governor Wagner.
Educated in french-speaking Canada and a member of the the influential Brazilian baptist church that was founded with US assistance during the slave trade, Carneiro is the scion of an old school political family that is identified with the bossism laissez-faire political machine implemented by legendary strongman Antonio Carlos Magalhaes during the 1950s, an era that Brazilians call Carlismo.
As a big wheel in the Carlismo machine, Carneiro's father, Joao Dorval, was mayor of Salvador, governor of Bahia state and a powerful state senator. While Joao Henrique has been identified with soft power issues like human rights and reducing hunger he has been uncomfortable with Workers Party programs like Drug Free Bahia and social spending like the family food allowance and government job training that are motivating a new forward thinking generation. He plans to run for governor in the next election in hope of rolling back Workers Party influence in his state and returning the old Carlismo network to dominance in a trendy multicultural wrapper. Joao Enrique is a member of the PMDB and an ally of Rio governor Cabral.
While Wagner has taken most of the blowback over the Bahia police strikes, sparing Dilma from public criticism, his mixture of populism and technocracy continue to create growth in a state economy that is struggling to raise living standards. Wagner served as labor minister in Lula's government and was leader of the petrochemical workers union. Petrochemical products represent the largest sector of the Bahia state economy. An anomaly in Brazilian politics Wagner is a practicing member of the Jewish religion and not shy about his lifelong support for Zionism that makes him an unlikely factor in Brazil's presidential equation.
Brazil's return to normalcy could face new labor actions when the nation emerges from its Carnival hangover in March. Valor Economico, an influential business publication, reports that constuction workers at World Cup sites around the nation are planning to go on strike for higher wages. Pedreiros in Bahia's capital city Salvador and elsewhere in the northeast are earning around 650 reals per month to work on World Cup infrastructure projects while their counterparts in Porto Alegre, Curitiba and Sao Paulo are paid twice that amount. Its another indication of the poor income distribution linked to the structure and politics of Brazil's federal system.
Throwing money at the problem, offering amnesty to strikers who defy the rule of law and dancing to the music are part of the problem not part of the solution and with the Cabral Express revving up the law and order bandwagon something has got to give.
Dilma is scheduled to visit the White House on April 9th to discuss bi-lateral and global issues. Its a great opportunity for her to project presidential leadership that can separate her from the grandstanding wannabes like Cabral. Especially since former president Lula is unlikely to be the high energy vote getter for her that he was the first time around. Whether the Brazilian media gives her visit the blanket coverage it gave president Obama during his 36 hour stopover in Brazil is another question.