Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

In Brazil, a government `by the people' takes root

As democracy in Brazil comes to the end of its fourth year, citizens from across the political spectrum are beginning to learn how to speak up for themselves. And voters are beginning to think about ideas, instead of personalities.

Political analysts say these developments are the best insurance against a return to a military government like the one that began with a coup in 1964 and lasted until 1985.

About these ads

As Brazilians gain a greater voice in the political system, they are realizing that democracy isn't just going to the polls to vote.

``People are so angry at the way their money is being spent. Our group started spontaneously out of sheer frustration, with things like growing corruption, government waste, and misspent taxes,'' says Lula May Reed, an upper-class Sao Paulo housewife.

She and some other women started the Movement for a Conscious Vote a year ago to promote responsible voting and follow-up on elected officials. The movement, nonpartisan, and made up of representatives from a number of different women's and civic groups, is local, but it uses a networking system to reach out to other cities.

For last month's municipal elections, the group prepared a kit with a questionnaire for evaluating candidates, including questions about background, political experience, platform, responsibility, honesty, commitment, and ideology. The kit also included a form letter to send to elected officials, texts for telegrams, and a list of Sao Paulo's senators and federal deputies. Many groups copied the kit, added their own logos, and sent it out out all over Brazil.

Now, says Ms. Reed, the movement is organizing civic groups to observe the city councilmen elected in Sao Paulo Nov. 15. The observers will fill out a form, evaluating the representatives' participation in committee work, plenary debates, and votes.

``It's a grass-roots movement to follow up what these people are doing once they get into office, which has never been done in Brazil before,'' Reed explains.

``Once they're in office, politicians think they are above the law and can do whatever they please. They feel they don't have to answer to anybody. That's partly why we have inefficiency and corruption in Brazil,'' she says.

About these ads

As voters look more closely at those they elect, they often find that too many politicians stick to these old patterns. ``There's a dramatic shortage of [public-spirited men] in Brazil and other Latin American countries,'' says Fabio Konder Comparato, a law professor and member of the Justice and Peace Commission of Sao Paulo's Roman Catholic Archdiocese.

He explains: ``The US tradition is associative, while the Iberian tradition is individualistic.'' The dominant mentality ``is that what counts is the family, the narrow private area of your own folk. Everything that's outside of the family, the clan, the circle of friends, is outside of the Latin American's concerns.''

To help change this mind-set, Professor Comparato is starting the nonpartisan Brazilian Center for Studies and Preparation for Development.

Linked to a university in the state of Sao Paulo, the center will offer courses on Brazil and how it fits into the global context. There will be seminars on such issues as land reform, health needs, and education, ``to feed the political debate,'' he says.

Other groups are also organizing leadership courses. And businessmen, who used to count on personal contacts to sway government officials, are increasingly going into politics or publicly taking political positions.

``People are discovering that there are channels for using their rights,'' says Marcos Figueiredo, a political analyst. He notes that the Superior Labor Court expects 5 million labor complaints in 1989, more than ever before.

After 21 years of political repression, Brazil still has a long way to go to install democracy fully. At an October debate among some of Sao Paulo's mayoral candidates, few present could explain why they were there. (They were ``mostly pro-workers'' - poor candidates from the edge of town who belong to movements concerned with housing.)

``I came to see if someone could pay my electric bill,'' said Peloggia da Silva, a retired restaurant-cleaning lady. Pulling a wad of overdue electric bills totaling about $100 from her purse, she explained sadly, ``We haven't had electricity for a month.''

Still, the resounding November defeat of many candidates linked to the old-time political system bodes well for Brazil. In Sao Paulo, incumbent mayor Janio Quadros is famous for conniving with city councilmen to avoid meeting until his projects become law automatically.

But this system will become a thing of the past Jan. 1, when the neophyte Workers Party's candidate, Luiza Erundina, takes office as mayor.

Her party is already organizing neighborhood ``popular councils,'' open to any political party. They will help write the city's new charter, draft and act upon the budget, and check on the new city government's performance. The party is also considering installing a people's tribunal at the city chamber, where local groups can present their own petitions and proposals.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.