Live From Rio

Thursday, January 30, 2003

RIO DE JANEIRO—There is dancing in the streets here in Rio. Flags are waving, music is blasting from passing vehicles, the street is littered with paper, and highly energized kids are everywhere. But it’s not Carnival, it’s not New Year’s Eve, Brazil hasn’t won another World Cup. It’s October 5, 2002—the eve of the first round of the national elections.

Brazil is a large country with the second largest population in the Americas. Some 90 million people went to the polls in October to determine who would lead their country for the next four years: populist Luis Inácio Lula da Silva (Lula) from the Workers Party (PT) or Social Democrat Jose Serra.

For me, as an interested observer, the 15 days in four different Brazilian cities in the run-up to the election was a throwback to the 1960s in the United States. There are interesting parallels between the United States 40 to 50 years ago and Brazil today. The 1960 U.S. population was 179 million; today, Brazil’s is 176 million. Just as Eisenhower swept away 20 years of an entrenched party in the United States in 1952, Lula’s election ended some 18 years of his opponents’ leadership in Brazil.

But as interesting as the subtle political and demographic similarities are, the presidential campaign produced even more graphic similarities. In the 1960s in the United States, we witnessed a change in campaigning. The televised Kennedy-Nixon debates launched the United States into a new type of campaign dominated by television ads, appearances, and debates. Television has virtually universal reach in Brazil, and television and movie stars make pitches for their favorite candidates; yet it doesn’t mean the voters pay attention. Many Brazilians—particularly those from the lower economic strata—do not get their political information from television.

Trucks, cars, motorcycles, and bicycles had flags and banners waving. Flatbed trucks and minivans had loudspeakers carrying the message (and the music) of their standard-bearers. Leaflets were thrust into our hands at every corner; adults and children wore Serra soccer jerseys and Lula T-shirts. These images define the information highway for the 2002 Brazilian presidential election.

And there were street rallies—not the spontaneous rallies of grassroots politicians but well-timed, precisely choreographed rallies along Avenue Atlantica in Copacabana and through downtown Brasilia and Rio. A Saturday PT rally in the quarter-mile median strip along Eixo Monumental, Brasilia’s main drag, drew thousands; it went on all day long with speeches, candidates, bands, food booths, and banners, culminating with fireworks. This rally was as much a party as it was about a political party.

As the Kennedys, Eugene McCarthy, and George McGovern energized America’s youth in the 1960s and 1970s, Lula’s most visible supporters were young. Their joy, exuberance, and energy were visible everywhere.

On the streets of Rio and Brasilia, there was total dominance by Lula. We saw red flags and stars (PT logos) everywhere but nary a sign of Serra supporters. It was hard to believe that Serra received more than a handful of votes, much less the 33 million he garnered. The results confirmed our eyewitness observations; in the first round of voting Serra collected a mere 9 percent of the vote in the state of Rio de Janeiro and fared only slightly better in Distrito Federal (Brasilia), where he received 17 percent.

The preelection polls indicated that Lula would get 46 percent of the vote in the first round—he did. The polls said he would swamp Serra in the second round—Lula trounced Serra by 22 percentage points. Lula won convincingly, but, after 25 years of economic stagnation and with the looming specter of a greater financial crisis, will he be able to change Brazil?

As we were leaving Rio, stalled in early evening traffic on our way to Tom Jobin International Airport, our cab driver looked over his shoulder and commented wryly, “Desculpe, e Brasil” (I’m sorry, it’s Brazil). When I returned to the States, I chatted about Brazil with Milton Friedman. Milton said that Lula’s election might not be so bad, that “change often comes from the Left.” The question is: Four years from now, will change have begun in Brazil or will the cab driver continue to lament the stagnant state of his homeland? Will the cab driver or the Nobel laureate be right?