With a politics of hope over hate, of education over arms, of development over privatisation, at the head of a broad pro-democracy front which includes many of his former opponents, the heroism of Presidential candidate Fernando Haddad and his vice Manuela D’Ávila’s stand against fascism in Brazil may only be appreciated by future historians.
“I will not declare war on a neighbour. I will not allow the installation of American military bases here. The United States is not fond of democracy in the world. Their focus is oil.” – Fernando Haddad.
Brazil is in the midst of a bitter, violent election, not only to decide the political direction of the next four years – it is at a crossroads for its sovereignty, for its very future as a nation.
I moved to Brazil on New Years Eve 2012. Brazil was forever the country of the future, but over the previous ten years the promise had become real. It stood proudly on the world stage for the first time, with geopolitical and technological independence, and with its economy having just overtaken that of my own country, the United Kingdom. Many Europeans were crossing the South Atlantic following the financial crisis of 2008, which Brazil had resisted through Keynesian stimulus programmes. Brazil had become a land of opportunity and optimism which for outsiders masked its deep divisions, and the class war at its heart.
Resenting the North-Easterner’s class and lack of university education, the well-to-do rarely accepted the economic successes of the 2003-2009 Lula era, maintaining that it was down to the work of the Neoliberal-leaning administration of predecessor Fernando Henrique Cardoso. The truth was that a temperamental consensus and faith in Brazil’s new democratic institutions enabled the country to progress, with huge sectors of the population having their first ever access to education, health, economic participation and political representation. During this period, 40 million people were lifted out of poverty. Fuelled by the world commodities boom and effective management, the country repaid its IMF, World Bank and Paris Club debts, going on to build enormous foreign reserves. Lula left office as the most popular President in Brazilian history, 2003-2014 will be remembered as a golden age, and the notion that the Workers Party (PT) “broke” the country is a conservative fairytale; its banking sector had never had it so good, and with that a bitterly unequal societal model with its roots of slavery-era “big house and senzala” persisted. The 2014 re-election of Dilma Rousseff was never accepted by the opposition, and the subsequent tragic farce of her impeachment opened a pandoras box, creating the democratic crisis Brazil now faces.
As I settled in early 2013 I already knew my new home of São Paulo reasonably well. Its newly elected mayor was an economics professor called Fernando Haddad, of the Workers Party, and our social group was enthusiastic about him. He had just come into office after a massive mobilisation against Evangelical candidate Celso Russomanno propelled him into the second round to face PSDB’s José Serra. Some of my friends had been involved in that mobilisation, the same friends whom I had joined on the protests of Movimento Passe Livre against public transport fare rises over the previous years, under his predecessor.
Powered by this movement against a conservative fundamentalist and against the odds, Haddad won, and the progressive half of the city celebrated wildly.
Former President Lula joked that Mayor of São Paulo was a harder job than President of Brazil, and for a Workers Party politician in an increasingly hostile environment of Anti-PT sentiment, it would be a baptism of fire. Yet Haddad initially managed to tame all but the most conservative opposition with a programme focussed on making the unforgiving city more humane and more liveable. His administration would become the world’s largest progressive city government and receive plaudits, with his city master plan (the largest participatory master plan ever facilitated) collecting international awards. His system of ciclovias, or cycle lanes, became emblematic both of his forward looking municpal management and of a cultural war to come.
Fernando Haddad and supporters celebrating his election as Mayor of São Paulo, October 28, 2012
It was only six months into my new life in Brazil that things began to feel wrong. Those Passe Livre protests that I had joined for years had mutated, into something I found unsettling. “Why now?” I wondered, as crowds on the streets began to display proto-fascist characteristics. I compared what was happening around me to that which we had observed in other countries in recent times, and drew the conclusion that Brazil was being prepared for some kind of coup d’état or regime change. I was not alone, but our concerns fell mostly on deaf ears.
Attacked with growing hostility from the right, Haddad, then just six months into his tenure as Mayor, and faced with the escalation in São Paulo, was also criticised unfairly from the left for the actions of a Military Police which his office did not even control. It now transpires that the social media storm which fuelled that rightward shift on the streets in June 2013 originated from the same, scandal-hit digital marketing agencies, who are now at the centre of the illegal campaign in support of Haddad’s current opponent, which brought him close to taking the presidency in the first round. This vicious, sustained defamation against both Haddad and his running mate D’Ávila, has targeted the impressionable with messages such as “the communist will sexualise your children”.
“Come and talk about my family to my face. Come and face me, little soldier, little phoney soldier.” said Haddad, addressing a campaign rally, as his far-right competitor evaded TV debates, mocking the democratic process, whilst publicly inciting violence, even murder, against Workers Party members.
For the first time since re-democratisation in 1989, Brazilians will not see the presidential candidates face each other – just one item on long list of serious electoral irregularities. (I have no interest in describing what Jair Bolsonaro or his sons are here – this is a good place to start).
A Bachelor in Law, with Masters in Economics and Doctorate in Philosophy, prior to his time as Mayor of São Paulo, Fernando Haddad was Education Minister under Lula, overseeing rapid expansion of access to higher education to poorer sectors of society through programmes such as PROUNI. His running mate Manuela D’Ávila, of PCdoB, is a feminist, journalist, former student leader, and at one time youngest member of congress. Manuela shelved her own presidential candidacy to join traditional allies on the Lula/Haddad ticket in a broad front.
“We will revitalise both our base and the Brazilian people’s struggle through a national development project. We think that confronting these ultra-conservative golpistas (Putschists) who are taking away basic human rights will guarantee the support and enthusiasm of the people.” – Manuela D’Ávila
Manuela D’Ávila with daughter Laura on a feminist pro-democracy rally, 2018
Criticised for his nervous manner as a latecomer to the TV debates, few contemplated the extraordinary pressure Haddad was under as a substitute candidate, running for President earlier in life than intended, and plunged into battle, under physical threat, as Brazil’s only barrier against a return to the Neofascism fought and ultimately defeated by his elder comrades.
Expected by some to abdicate from the election altogether, and criticised for its strategy of maintaining the candidacy of politically jailed former President Lula da Silva until the eleventh hour, in reality the PT was the only party with a national structure capable of beating what it faced; a new kind of cybernetic electoral machine already seen in action during the election of Donald Trump in the United States and the Brexit referendum in my own country.
The Workers Party has tried to maintain modern arguments against a tsunami of fake news, superstition and magical thinking, but a 15 year media campaign in which it was made synonymous with a corruption which pervaded the entire political system has enabled the rise of Neofascism, and Brazil’s oligarchic media must accept responsibility. Yet instead, the establishment: media, judiciary, military included, have effectively decided that the PT can not and must not be allowed to win. Former and current Military figures see the election as an opportunity to re-take power fully without tanks on the streets.
“Do you know what Bolsonaro is? He is a marriage of soulless neoliberalism, represented by Paulo Guedes, who would cut labour and social rights, with the charlatan fundamentalism of Edir Macedo.”- Fernando Haddad
Just days before the second round presidential runoff Bolsonaro told his followers “There will be a cleansing like we’ve never had before in this country. I will sweep away the reds of Brazil. Leave the country or go to jail.” as the country was engulfed in a wave of fascist mob violence.
His supporters exist in a frightening post-truth parallel universe, and the language of elimination of political opponents has raised further alarm, even beyond that triggered by his infamous remarks on torture and the killing of 30,000 “to make the country work”. The electoral court decided that Haddad’s campaign could not run an ad containing clips of his opponents own words on torture. “Brazil’s institutions are functioning normally” is the increasingly surreal mantra of Brazil’s bereft judiciary.
An international consensus in support of Haddad’s candidacy has grown to include unlikely supporters such as the Economist magazine. The grave threat to Brazil that his opponent represents is widely recognised outside and in, despite some attempts to depict the centre-left candidate as merely another extremist on the opposite pole to his extreme-right opponent.
Haddad and D’Ávila’s campaign has been built on dignity, honesty, clarity, coherence and courage, in the face of preposterousness and horror.
So here we are, and the country has one more chance on October 28th to avert catastrophe in an election which has been a democratic aberration – effectively a plebiscite on democracy, on civilisation or barbarism – but in which Brazil’s progressive forces have come together and shown what is possible, with open hearts and resistance as duty.
Whatever happens on Sunday, this isn’t over.
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