To the Lighthouse

Forrest Hylton

In Brazil, where Christopher Columbus is not well known, 12 October is a federal holiday in honour of children, as well as an important day in the Brazilian Catholic religious calendar, with a pilgrimage in São Paulo to the sanctuary of Nossa Senhora da Conceição Aparecida. The statue was supposedly discovered in a river in São Paulo’s interior by three fishermen in 1717, who were blessed by abundant catches thereafter. Though she started out white, the river turned her black; or perhaps it was the smoke from the fishermen’s votive candles. In any event, she is a powerful symbol of liberty for the Afro-descended majority, in a country where slavery formally ended only in 1888.

In Salvador da Bahia on 12 October, after two consecutive years without it, carnival came early: the bloco Lula, a sea of red T-shirts and flags of many colours, several kilometres long, snaked its way from Ondina to the Farol da Barra, the lighthouse constructed by the Tupi-nambá and Portuguese settlers in 1501.

Even before the bloco arrived at the Farol, the area was full of people wearing red, many children among them, with a carnival truck blasting new campaign songs composed by Bahians, 70 per cent of whom voted for Lula in the first round. The number may well go higher in the second round on 30 October, given Bolsonaro’s racist attacks on north-easterners for their alleged ignorance.

Sonic intelligence was much in evidence; so were police of all stripes. One song punned on Bolsonaro’s first name, Jair, telling him to leave now (‘já ir embora’). The MC saluted people for giving Lula such a large advantage in the first round, urging them to increase it in the second. An older woman of African descent wearing a straw visor, bathing suit and shorts, turned to me, without interrupting her dancing, and said: ‘What pride, right?’ I was cheering along with everyone else. It was hard not to. Another song in the latest brega style had a chorus that repeated ‘É o treze/Lula na cabeça’ (thirteen is Lula’s number on the electoral list).

Bolsonaro’s rally on Brazil’s bicentennial Independence Day, 7 July, drew a decent-sized and diverse crowd, thanks to evangelicals, and also featured a truck with (evangelical) music, but it was nothing like carnival. With its emphasis on ‘God, Family and Country’ (as well as private security guards), the event was grim, heavy and vaguely funereal. Bolsonaro was underwhelming in person. Lula’s rally, in contrast, had the air of an evangelical revival, in the best sense of collective enthusiasm and optimism.

The joy and anticipation, particularly noticeable among the elderly (a key demographic that Bolsonaro won on 2 October, though not in Bahia), were palpable and contagious. I have been to PT-MST events at the Farol before – including a concert at which Margareth Menezes sang to a full house – but nothing compares to last week’s event in terms of size or cathartic release.

In every sense, Lula is the biggest show in town, which is especially remarkable given that he’s from Pernambuco, not Bahia. While Bahians are open and welcoming to outsiders, and Salvador is cosmopolitan in its way, their regional and local pride is fierce, with good reason. Lula knows this, and it was clear he was pleased to be there, speaking to one and all, not as the leader of the PT, but as the future president of Brazil (so he and the crowd hope). He remembered his first electoral race in 1989, his visit to the Farol, veteran trade union and party comrades such as Rui Costa, the current governor, and Jerónimo Rodríguez, the PT’s candidate for governor, but observed that the size of the crowd had grown enormously. He thanked them for their support, and insisted that they need to carry Rodríguez, who received 49 per cent in the first round, over the finish line to victory on 30 October.

Although Bolsonaro’s rally in July also featured many working-class Brazilians of African and mixed descent, as well as young people, Lula’s bloco was largely Afro-descended (pretos) and mixed (pardos), and packed with young people dancing and singing, some of them dressed for carnival, with wigs, make-up, costumes and props. Far more of the poor and indigent who live and work (or not) in the area were included than at Bolsonaro’s last rally, and they danced and sang with everyone else. When Lula spoke about improving diet, nutrition and health, and reviving domestic agriculture, along with jobs and education, it was with impassioned conviction, and cheers went up. This is what people here, and in the rest of Brazil, desperately need.

The morning after the event, the rubbish collectors, fishmongers, street sweepers, moto-taxi drivers and the many and varied workers on the beach – the majority of whom are classified as pretos and pardos – commented favourably on the turnout. I tried and failed to mediate a heated dispute in my building between an evangelical bolsonarista doorman and a lulista cleaner. The cleaner was adamant and upset, and the doorman was trying to play innocent, as if he hadn’t provoked anyone, even though he had been repeating fake news circulated on WhatsApp to get a rise out of his colleague.

The cleaner and I walked out to the patio. I told him we’d have victory soon enough. I could of course be wrong, but we’d better hope I’m not, because the alternative – fascist dictatorship, without term limits, backed by a corrupt congress, purged judiciary, evangelical pastors, the military and paramilitary militias – is too horrible to contemplate. Not even Washington wants to see that.

On Sunday, 16 October, Bolsonaro went to the Sanctuary of Nossa Senhora Aparecida, wearing a Brazilian football jersey, and press-ganged some poor child wearing the same shirt into a photo op. His supporters were decked out in the same colours and uniform, some of them inebriated. They intimidated, threatened and roughed up people in the church, disrupting the mass.

Nothing like this has ever happened in Brazil before. It was deeply offensive to the country’s Catholics, and not only to them. Lula, meanwhile, has prepared a letter to the evangelicals, and when he was here last Wednesday evening defended the freedom of worship for Catholics, evangelicals, religions ‘with an African matrix’ and all other creeds. The claim that Lula will persecute non-Catholics has circulated widely, but based on his track record in office, and the response from the crowd in Salvador, almost no one in Bahia believes it. Bolsonaro repeated the lie several times during the televised debate, the first of the second round, on 16 October (which most undecided voters thought Lula won).

Damares Alves, a senator elect, evangelical pastor and Bolsonaro’s former minister for the family and the rights of women and children, has been making more lurid allegations. At a recent revival, she claimed to know of cases on the island of Marajó of children having their teeth pulled in order to perform oral sex. She also talked about anal sex. Many children were present at the event, and if indeed she knew of cases of sexual abuse of minors, but did not alert the appropriate authorities, then she committed the crime of prevarication. When the Ministerio Público demanded she turn over any evidence, Alves walked back her claims, admitting it was just something she heard and had no proof.

The latest polls show Lula on 53.5 per cent and Bolsonaro on 46.5. In Minas Gerais, Bolsonaro is running a full-court press with allied businessmen, Governor Romeu Zema (who imagines he is next in line for the presidency, should Bolsonaro win this month), mayors and evangelical pastors. But polls so far indicate he’s unlikely to turn Lula’s 600,000 vote lead into a 2.5 million vote defeat, as he promised. Lula still leads by 51.3 to 48.7 per cent, though Bolsonaro has narrowed the gap. In Rio and São Paulo, Bolsonaro is polling almost 54 per cent, though Lula is closing in on him in Rio somewhat.

Bolsonaro has roughly the same advantage among white voters (50 per cent support), who comprise 35 per cent of the electorate – as well as most of the middle and ruling class – as Lula has among mixed-race people (49 per cent), who make up 40 per cent of voters. Lula’s largest lead by far is among Afro-Brazilians (57 per cent), who make up 16 per cent of the electorate. His support among those who earn up to twice the minimum wage – half the electorate – remains solid, at 58 per cent, though Bolsonaro has made gains here.

Class and religion cut across regional-racial differences, and the middle class may well decide the winner on 30 October. Lula is trying to chip away at Bolsonaro’s lead among the 38 per cent of the electorate who earn between two and five times the minimum wage (often, ironically, thanks to PT policies), including waged workers and small business owners; or the 8 per cent who earn between five and ten times the minimum wage (skilled industrial workers as well as the professional-managerial class in São Paulo) – sectors that favoured Bolsonaro in 2018, and again on 2 October.

Despite Bolsonaro’s claims that the PT committed fraud in the first round, the army found no evidence of tampering. (Since when has the Brazilian army been the arbiter of fair elections?) There is evidence, however, of voter suppression by Bolsonaro himself, along with the rest of the executive, with long lines at polling stations and tedious biometric procedures, often repeated up to four times. Voters had to prove they were alive before they could vote. The process is so laborious, especially for the poorest, that many give up. If Bolsonaro loses on 30 October, his campaign has admitted that he is preparing a Trump-style assault on federal buildings. He said so on 6 January 2021, and has recently returned to the theme in his public addresses.

The dream of progress, development and uplift for the Brazilian nation is older than the first republic, born in 1889 out of the ashes of nearly four centuries of slavocracy; it does not die easily. For many, perhaps a majority, Lula represents that dream, and – for a considerable minority – always has. Bolsonaro, by contrast, represents organised crime, endemic corruption, evangelical zealotry, military men in civilian ministries, the extermination of Indigenous peoples and the burning of the Amazon, staggering death tolls and abysmal public health failures during the Covid pandemic, especially for Afro-Brazilians, and spreading darkness in public education. He offers no future to the impoverished majority. A great deal hangs in the balance, for Brazil, the western hemisphere and the world. A Bolsonaro victory remains a possibility, however remote.