Brazil Divided


It is a rare moment in Brazil when all social classes – and presumably all political persuasions – can be found in one place. The queue to Pele’s wake, which started streets away from the stadium of Santos FC, the great footballer’s club for most of his career, was a unique event, though it featured some of those timeless characteristics of the world’s fourth largest democracy: easy conversation, singing, beer and snack sellers, alongside the vendors of Pele merchandise.

It is not so much Pele’s domestic career that Brazilians unite over (though for the residents of the São Paulo seaside city that gives the team its name, he will always be one of theirs), but the fact that he led the country to three World Cup wins, his twelve goals in the tournaments between 1958 and 1970 as beautiful football as ever performed. By 2pm the line stretched two hours in the hot summer sun. No one was complaining. As an appreciative chant rose, an older lady in front of me, her clothes marking her wealth, asked two young men, their hair bleached in the fashion of the favela, to teach her the words. They clapped as she joined in with gusto. A bit further up two small boys shyly provided quotes to the numerous journalists that stalked the line: yes, their grandfather told them about the World Cup games; yes, they came today because they loved football; yes, with a grin, one day they too would like to score a goal for Brazil. At last, my neighbours and I shuffled into the stadium, the empty stands bedecked with banners proclaiming O Rei – the King – and slowly past the semi open casket.

In his lifetime Pele became an international symbol of Brazil: drawing appreciative crowds to his football tours of African nations; helping to popularise soccer in the United States after moving to New York Cosmos in 1975; and hanging out with presidents and rock stars, from Nelson Mandela to Mick Jagger, in his later years. Andy Warhol screen printed his image; he starred alongside Sly Stallone and Michael Caine in World War II tear-jerker Escape to Victory. Alongside the trappings of fame, he acquired a university education, became a businessman (to mixed success) and in 1995 was made minister of sport. For the world, Pele presented a seductive image of Brazil: a country of football, of dance and elegant footwork, of glamour. The past four years have put this image through the wringer, with international headlines favouring instead the foul-mouthed, far-right rants of former president Jair Bolsonaro. Now, it’s the nation of 700,000 COVID deaths; of 3.3 million hungry; of the wanton destruction of the Amazon and the deaths of its indigenous defenders, for the murder of journalists. For some in the crowd, at least those to whom the last president was an anathema, celebrating the life of a footballing superstar was cathartic, a moment of rare patriotic pride.

On New Year’s Day, the day before the footballer’s lying-in-state, and amidst three days of official mourning, Brazil inaugurated the third presidency of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. In October Bolsonaro lost the presidential election to the left-winger by a narrow margin, in part thanks to a broad coalition of support, including centrists and the centre-right spooked by the incumbent’s increasingly insurrectionary rhetoric. That support was tested – and largely found institutionally steady – on the 8 January, a Sunday, when the greatest fears of democratic Brazil came to pass, and an attack was made on parliament. Thousands of Bolsonaro supporters, who have long been camped outside the Oscar Niemeyer-designed government complex, broke through the woefully inadequate security cordon and stormed into the largely empty Congress and on through the presidential palace and the supreme court building. Tens of millions of real in damage was done to art and furniture, with protesters trashing and vandalising even the office of the First Lady. Only after several hours of chaos were the buildings cleared, with 1,400 people taken into custody. The fall out was quick, with the head of security, and the state governor of Brazil, both pro-Bolsonaro figures, removed from their posts, suspected of deliberate dereliction of duty. The events were worrying, even if an organised military-backed coup failed to materialise. It signals the rise of a new far-right movement, perhaps not directed by military figures but coordinated on social media, that might happily resort to even worst forms of terrorism. Just days before the attack, a man was arrested with explosives which he planned to detonate near Brasilia airport. Amidst this horror, Lula is trying to maintain a precarious political unity, and hope that he can somehow bring the country together in the way that perhaps only footballing legends really can. When he last left the top job in 2011 he did so with an 80 percent approval rating. Now, however, things are very different. Subsequent corruption claims and imprisonment tarnished his reputation, and while his convictions were annulled, 48 percent of the electorate voted for his competitor, with many citing that their vote was less one for Bolsonaro than one against Lula. In the warped minds of those who ripped the paintings in the palace and urinated on the carpets of congress, they are the ones saving Brazil from a demagogue.

For Lula’s third term Pele’s old job at the sports ministry has been taken by Ana Moser, who played for the Women’s National Volleyball team for over a decade (ministerial positions aren’t necessarily elected officials). She is one of the many high-profile figures that the returning president has appointed to, he hopes, heal the country. Margareth Menezes, an axe singer from the northeast of the country, will take the reins of the culture ministry, reopened having been closed by Bolsonaro on his first day in power; Nísia Trindade, the former president of Fiocruz, Brazil’s bioscience research institute (which partnered with the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca to develop the leading COVID-19 vaccine) is charged with the nation’s health; Silvio Almeida, a leading intellectual on race relations will head a Ministry of Human Rights and Citizenship. It’s a team of all stars against the washed-up soap stars and quack doctors that Bolsonaro put his trust in. Silvio’s inaugural speech soon went viral on left-wing social media. “I will say obvious things here”, the newly minted minister started. “Workers and workers of Brazil, you exist and are valuable to us; women from Brazil, you exist and are valuable to us; black and men and women of Brazil, you exist and are valuable people for us; indigenous peoples of this country, you exist and are valuable to us; lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, travesti, intersex and homelessness, people who suffer from lack of access to health, domestic workers, everyone who suffers from lack of transportation, everyone who has their rights violated, you exist and are valuable to us.” He promised his first meeting would be with the justice ministry to work out how to reduce the murder rate among poor, Black and young Brazilians. While the Bolsonaro government oversaw an overall reduction in the murder rate, that success was not without qualification. In 2020 victims were 2.7 times more likely to be Black Brazilian than white, rising to 17 times in some states. Police killings were three times as likely to target Black citizens than white. “Human rights are not a moral agenda, it is a political agenda,” Almedia continued. “They are not symbolic, it is a requirement for the state to comply with what is in the Constitution”.

Not all the ministerial appointments were won so easily. The months between Lula’s election and his inauguration were spent with various factions of his Workers’ Party (PT) jostling for influence against those from outside who leant him their support. Consequently, while Lula’s presidency will battle a Congress packed with his enemies, there will undoubtedly be an uneasy tension around the 37-strong cabinet table too. Sharing power is not instinctive for PT, and it looked like the whole enterprise might collapse when Lula’s initial ministerial appointments featured only stalwarts of his own party. Simone Tebet ran as a right of centre candidate for the presidency, and though never a serious contender to win, garnered 4.9 million votes in the first round and praise for her appearances during the candidates’ debate. Having then gone on to endorse Lula, no natural political bedfellow, there was the expectation she would be rewarded with a position in government, the moderate conservative initially expressing interest in the education portfolio and later, once that position was given to a PT supporter, the Ministry of Social Development. PT again opposed that move, with internal critics pointing out that Tebet would reap the political credit for Bolsa Família, the monetary benefits granted to the poorest of Brazilains. She ended up instead as Minister of Planning. To the left, the new Ministry of Indigenous People will be headed by the high profile and charismatic figure of Sônia Guajajara, an activist born to the Guajajara people and a deputy in the lower chamber with PSOL, a socialist party briefly convulsed in its own internal struggle as to whether join Lula’s government or merely lend support on a case-by-case basis.

While both presidential campaigns had been very light on actual policy announcements, dominated instead by attacks on their opposition, Lula made a series of environmental pledges during his stump speeches, promising no further deforestation, low carbon agriculture investment and net zero carbon emissions. It was natural then he would turn to Marina Silva as Environment Minister. She previously served under Lula during his first two terms between 2003 and 2008 and is perhaps the only other politician to inspire similar levels of devotion. She immediately renamed her department the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change. Such is her star power – invited as a keynote speaker to climate change conferences globally – queues among politicos and journalists to witness her first speech back at the ministry snaked through the governmental complex in Brasilia. Her promise to put forest protection centre stage can’t come soon enough with Amazon deforestation at a tipping point (in the first half of 2022 deforestation rates were at eighty percent high on the same period in 2018, the year before Bolsonaro took office.)

As Silva spoke in the capital, Lula paid his respects to Pele in Santos. There was no such appearance from the ex-president however, who had flown off to Florida to avoid the New Year’s Day inauguration, lodging instead in the Orlando home of a professional mixed-martial-arts fighter a few miles from Disney World. There he is close to his old friend Donald Trump, a man he once described as his “idol”, and who returned the favour describing the Brazilian as “a fantastic man, one of the great presidents of any country in the world”. Like Trump he seems yesterday’s man, giving an (albeit mealy mouthed) condemnation of the violence in Brasilia. Maybe, like Trump, he is plotting a comeback, more likely the number of legal actions stacked against him will prevent him from running; but the man is not the issue, the virus he popularised is to here to stay, with any number of two-bit politicians (including his sons) ready to take up the mantle.

Like all national myths, the Brazil Pele presented on the world stage hid a darker social reality. He was aware that his fame was used to promote Brazil as a post-racial society, masking the extreme racism that still exists today; moreover, critics pointed out that many of these matches were held while Brazil was in the worst days of its military dictatorship. When he announced he would retire from the national team after his last World Cup win in 1970, such was his usefulness in terms of soft power, the footballer received significant pressure from the then regime to return to the green and yellow jersey. He resisted and while, for some, he was never outspoken enough, it is perhaps telling that one of his first roles off the field was acting in the film A Marcha, which tells the story of an escaped slave to lead the fight for the abolition in Brazil. These national traumas have never really been laid to rest. Bolsonarism was a symptom of a deeper historical malaise. In 2020 it was estimated that the descendants of a Brazilian born among the poorest 10 percent of the country – who are overwhelmingly Black – take, on average, nine generations to reach the median income of society. This is an economic and racial divide that goes back far longer than the last president, and if Lula, who will be aged 81 in 2026 and has said he won’t run again, wants to heal both the old divides and the more recent ones, he will have to be in a hurry. Whatever the glow I felt amidst the queue in Santos, Brazil’s unjust, and deeply divided, society continues.

Oliver Basciano is a journalist and critic based in São Paulo. He is working on a book about leprosy and exclusion.