вторник, 21 октября 2014 г.

Brazil presidential candidates look back to the future

By Dom Phillips

Just 35 students attend the simple municipal elementary school in Beira Rio, a poor, rural community hidden in the dust and trees beside a highway in Além Paraíba in the far south of Minas Gerais state. But even here the electoral battle for president has polarized adults, just as it has split Brazil between the red of President Dilma Rousseff’s left-wing Workers Party and the blue of challenger Aécio Neves’s center-right Brazilian Social Democracy Party.

After a first-round vote on Oct. 5 that saw the surprise elimination of “third way” environmentalist Marina Silva, Brazil divided between two parties that have run the country for two decades. Rousseff got 42 percent of the votes to Neves’s 34 percent. As both contenders square off for a second-round vote on Sunday, they are campaigning hard on their previous records in office.

This has turned an increasingly aggressive campaign into an evaluation of past political performance, rather than proposals for the future. Nowhere is this more evident than here in Minas Gerais, where Neves was governor for eight years, before leaving office in 2010 with a 92 percent approval rating and a reputation for cutting costs and good management.

Neves’s task is to remind voters here how much they liked him when he was governor.
But Rousseff can call on the support her Workers Party has among the lower income voters in the state.

She beat him in the first round here, 43 percent to 40 percent. And a Workers Party candidate has just been elected governor.

Beira Rio schoolteacher Alessandra Martins said she would vote for Neves for change and his record on education.

“They invested more, but not enough,” she said.

Cinthia Medeiros, 39, the mother of a 4-year-old girl in Martins’s class, said Brazil’s government-funded health services are lacking. A month-long waiting list prompted her father to go to a private hospital for a recent operation, she said, something the family could ill afford.

Like many poorer Brazilians, Medeiros will vote for Rousseff because she and her Workers Party predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, helped millions escape poverty with social programs like the party’s signature income support benefit, the Family Allowance, which about 40 percent of Beira Rio residents receive.

“Everyone thinks it is better for Dilma to stay,” Medeiros said.

Além Paraíba is a sprawling rural municipality of 35,000 people. Aside from farming and a couple of distribution companies, it has little industry. The freight trains that rumble noisily down this quiet little town’s main street several times a day don’t stop. City Hall is its biggest employer. This is Brazil’s midwest, a friendly, unassuming place with a row of cheap shops, a pizzeria and a quiet sense of time to be killed and space to kill it.

On a recent, hot afternoon , couples canoodled in the shade of a park in front of the colonial town hall. In a black cowboy hat, a retired railroad worker, João Lucindo, 72, relaxed by a fast-food kiosk. He will vote for Neves.

“I can’t say the government is bad,” he said. “I voted for his grandfather.”

Brazilians like Lucindo believe that Aécio Neves’s grandfather, Tancredo Neves, was the greatest president Brazil never had. Chosen as the country’s first post-dictatorship president in an indirect election, he died in 1985 before he could take office. Aécio, as he is known throughout Brazil, was his personal secretary. He was four times a federal deputy before being elected governor of his home state of Minas Gerais in 2002.

The state was broke when he took it over in 2003. Neves introduced a “Management Shock” program, reducing costs, professionalizing public administration and increasing revenue. An anticipated deficit of $974 million for 2004 was reduced to zero. In 2008 Minas had a surplus of $253 million.

“He managed to balance the books,” said Gustavo Morelli, director of Macroplan, a Brazilian consultancy that specializes in public administration.

Além Paraíba’s mayor, Fernando Donzeles, praised Neves’s program.

“The state government reduced the administration machine, then looked to decentralize actions for the whole state,” he said. “This was a gain.”

Macroplan worked with the Minas state government on another Neves initiative — a 20-year development plan. It’s radical thinking in Brazil, where politicians rarely invest in anything beyond a four-year term.

“It obliges the state to have a vision that is bigger than its mandate,” said Morelli.

Education is another showcase success of the Neves government in Minas and central to his campaign. At the São José State high school in Além Paraíba, senior staff praised state government initiatives to restructure the high school curriculum and make it more vocational, as well as professional development projects for teachers, and increased resources.

“The state is concerned that the children get to university,” said school director Sonia Izabel.

Morelli said state health policies have been less successful. The state is building a hospital on Além Paraíba’s city limits. Until it is ready, the only hospital is the São Salvador, a charitable institution perched on a hill that receives some state, city and federal money. Local residents say federally funded health centers often lack doctors.

Last week prosecutors in Belo Horizonte filed a civil action for the state government to pay $534 million to the state health fund, arguing it had failed to put the full 12 percent of its receipts into health spending in 2009, as required by the constitution. The state government said prosecutors had previously been unsuccessful with similar actions, that this new legal move was electorally motivated, and that it met all legal requirements as the relevant constitutional requirement did not come into effect until 2010.

Neves has promised to maintain the popular Family Allowance benefit. But he still struggles with a reputation as a candidate for the rich, even here in Minas, and he has been forced to defend the $5.7 million improvement of a small airstrip with public money, near the remote town of Cláudio, where his family has a huge ranch.

At Além Paraíba’s movie house, one recent evening, parents from poor rural areas like Beira Rio watched children perform “Sleeping Beauty” with laughs, cooing and cheers. Outside, they packed into Volkswagen school vans for the journey home. Paulo Dias, 58, was one of the drivers. He gets up at 4:30 every morning to round up schoolchildren, driving about 100 miles on dirt roads.

“I think [Neves’s party] is more out to help the rich than the poor,” he said. “I will vote for Dilma.”

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