The following is the second part installment about the upcoming Brazilian election and my first hand account of a recent trip to Rio and Brasilia. To read Part I, click here.
Later, as I headed to the airport, I marveled at Brazil's ability to bring foreign correspondents from far corners of the globe to South America. As I boarded my flight, attendants showed me to my seat: business first class. Reclining in my comfortable chair, I wondered how much my nine-hour flight to Rio actually cost. As I sat there reflecting, an attendant approached to offer me a glass of champagne. The VIP treatment continued after we landed in Rio: as the plane sat on the tarmac and passengers waited to disembark, a tour representative boarded the aircraft and whisked me off through the airport.
Clearing customs in record time I was taken to my hotel, located on Copacabana beach no less. Treated to a lavish buffet, I met the other foreign correspondents on my trip. My young hosts from CDN spoke impeccable English, proved to be immensely affable and obliging, and attended to most every need. A dynamic PR firm to be sure, CDN is emblematic of Brazil's newfound self-confidence. The company's clients include Avon, the Brazilian Olympic Committee, Bayer, Coca Cola, DHL, Eletrobras, aerospace giant Embraer, General Mills, media conglomerate Globo, Brazil's Ministry of Health, Nestle, state oil company Petrobras, Pfizer, Purina, Sony, UBS and World Wildlife Fund Brazil. Amongst its many successful PR initiatives CDN happily touts its "10 years of Viagra" campaign.
Throughout my stay in Rio, the lavish treatment continued: fancy restaurants, samba dancing by night, bus travel to and from our press interviews and even a short trip to Ipanema beach. Though stimulating, the pace of our trip proved exhausting and so on my first day I sought to overcome my lack of sleep by downing cans of Guaraná, the Brazilian national soft drink, and espresso, known endearingly in Brazil as cafezinho. By now in an accelerated caffeinated state, I joined our entourage as we hopped on the bus for a late night trip to the presidential debate.
The event was held at TV studios belonging to Globo, a huge Brazilian media conglomerate. For those who may doubt Brazil's pervasive economic and cultural influence, a short trip to Globo will surely change one's mind. A vast operation, Globo is state of the art and probably rivals CNN's Atlanta headquarters or even Hollywood's Universal studios in sheer size. Indeed, the installation is so large that visitors must get around the premises in golf carts.
At the debate
Before I left for New York, I was a little concerned that I would have difficulty understanding what was said during our media interviews. As I discovered, however, there was no need to be anxious: pulling out all the stops, our hosts supplied us with top-notch English-Portuguese translators who were constantly on hand.
When the debate finally got underway it quickly became clear that the affair would be a tame and staid event. All candidates, the Globo host intoned, should adhere to educated and non-offensive language. As I watched the debate unfold, I was struck by the candidates' polite and respectful tone, certainly more reminiscent of the United States than populist Venezuela and Ecuador where politics can be a rough and tumble affair. Trailing in the polls as she went into the final debate, former Minister of the Environment Marina Silva certainly had an incentive to be as aggressive as possible yet for whatever reason the Green Party candidate was remarkably restrained.
Brazilians, who have distasteful memories of the 1964 to 1985 dictatorship, have thrown their support to candidates who opposed the military authorities of that time. Indeed, all presidential contenders standing up on the podium played a role in opposing military rule. Take, for example, Dilma Rousseff of Lula's Workers' Party, who was tortured and jailed by the military for her political activism. Then there's Marina Silva of the Green Party who, in 1984, co-founded an Amazonian labor union with the help of legendary rubber tapper Chico Mendes. Such activism was risky as Brazil's military leadership had declared labor organizing illegal.
Another candidate up on the podium, Plinio de Arruda Sampaio of the PSOL or Socialism and Freedom Party, went into exile during the dictatorship. From his perch in the United States, he criticized the military regime and later returned to Brazil where he played a role in helping to launch Lula's Workers' Party. Even José Serra of the more conservative PSDB or Brazilian Social Democracy Party opposed the dictatorship: as a student organizer, the young man was forced into exile in Bolivia.
Watching the debate late into the evening, I tried to focus but with no memorable fireworks on stage my attention began to drift. To be sure, the candidates sparred over the contours of public policy but there was no talk of dramatically reversing course from Lula's social programs. What can account for such a muted political culture? Perhaps, I reflected, Brazilian politicians calculated that their countrymen were fatigued by ideological battles of the past and wanted to move past the polarized political environment that prevailed under military rule.
Not too far off, according to Jairo Nicolau, a political scientist at Rio de Janeiro State University who sat down with our entourage to discuss the debate. One of the legacies of military dictatorship was that no one openly declared they were on the right in Brazil though many claimed to be on the left. Moreover, there is political consensus in Brazilian society about the need to address social problems. As a result, Nicolau remarks, disagreements voiced at the presidential debates tend to be relatively minor in nature. To the extent that disagreement is expressed at all, candidates tend to quibble about who is the rightful intellectual author of Lula's popular social programs.
In this sense, Brazilian democracy is currently far less volatile and polarizing than the United States. Unlike America, which has witnessed the rise of the far right Tea Party, Brazil has no classic "neo-liberal" right on the political spectrum. While Tea Partiers in the U.S. seek to dismantle the state, Brazilian politicians agree that the state should foster industry. In the U.S., the Tea Party shares vast philosophical disagreements with the Obama administration, while Brazil's major politicians seem far more utilitarian and focus on nuts and bolts problems during the debates.
Nikolas Kozloff is the author of No Rain in the Amazon: How South America's Climate Change Affects the Entire Planet (Palgrave, 2010) and Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave, 2008). Visit his website, www.nikolaskozloff.com.