Thursday, July 22, 2010

Democracy Roars

It's election time... sometime in October Bahians will select their governor and Brazilians will elect a new president. Both posts are currently held by members of the PT (Lula, current president, completing his 8 year term) and Wagner (up for re-election), completing 4 years as governor. The PT is the "Partido Trabalhador" or Workers' Party - a left leaning party... as usual, a party that use to have more radical ideas and now seems to have moved to a more moderate stance on most political issues, but, also as usual, is the lesser of 2 (or it this case, many more) evils.

I recently was discussing this with my good friend Razack (who wrote his dissertation on Brazil's Landless Peasant Movement (MST) - the "largest" social movement in the world with more than a million members fighting for rural - and urban - land rights). We debated the use of traditional, patronage politics, in which the State consolidates power for decades at a time, under the auspice of "democracy." This one guy - known here as "ACM" (the M is Magalhaes - practically every street, government building the airport etc carry this name) ruled in Bahia under the dictatorship, and then founded his own post-dictatorship age-of-democracy political party (actually, multiple parties, kept changing the name). He was in power for 4 decades until he finally kicked the bucket, but left his rein to sons and family members. What is so incredulous is how the people of Bahia can continue to vote him and his party into power year after year.

It was a relief when the PT won in Bahia 4 years ago, and have since implemented some really progressive reforms: concentrating improvements in the interior of the state rather than the capitol, bringing water to villages, increasing education etc... but this leftist party also reverted to some of the reactionary reforms of their opponants - increasing security (there are more police in Eder's neighborhood than I've ever seen - riding around four armed military-looking guys at a time in each SUV holding semi-automatics at bay. ya, sure, i feel more secure!), or subsidizing the creation of a massive "free-trade zone" type industrial park outside of Salvador where Ford is the big hustler - and thus environmental polluter. The government uses propaganda to advertise all their improvements with really cheesy and patronizing tv commercials and ads on billboards on about how great the state of Bahia is now, featuring an old guy with missing teeth and a huge smile who talks about how he's the happiest man alive for finally having a job (doesn't matter that it's minimum wage, barely covers the bills and comes with little opportunity for promotion) or an old lady who is practically hugging a water tank and going on and on and on about how great it is to have water.

Anyway, so I wanted to try and describe to you all what a Brazilian election look like? Well, with 3 months to go, I wanted to jot down my initial observations. The parties were legally "allowed" to start advertising their candidates on city walls about 2 weeks ago, and literally, within 48 hours, the walls of the city were covered with block letters advertising the name of the candidate, the party and some number that goes along with their candidacy. (see photos).

This is where my graffiti research comes in because these guys will cover anything and everything that gets in the way of painting another ad for their party. The graffiti artists I recently interviewed called the politicians the real "taggers" (pichadores) because just like a young guy with a can of spray in his backpack hitting the streets in the middle of the night to put up his name all over, these politicians are doing the same thing - blanketing the city with their name all over. They even engage in covering each others' ads! The difference is that they don't have unique, creative, funky tags that pichadores spend hours working on to perfection in their notebooks to put it up on walls. These guys just do big block letters, using the same colors - red, blue, white, black (a little bit of yellow appeared this season too).
Ironically, the political parties know that the best people to paint the walls are the city's graffiti artists themselves, and incredulously, they indulge at 5 reais (around 3 dollars) a letter, to make money so they can buy spray. Not all graffiti artists are engaging in this debauchery. Anyway, as a Fulbrighter studying Salvador's street art and hoping to write a book about it with Eder, I'm a bit disappointed by how the city has turned into one big political party advertisement. Which gets me thinking...

What IS democracy all about? Is it the voting in of ideas by the masses of people? Is it popular participation in political affairs? Is it the system of governance meant to empower individuals to shape their lives, communities and society as they see fit? While observing what democracy looks like down here in Brazil, as a foreigner, the concept appears quite contaminated. Please, let me make clear, no more
contaminated than U.S.-style democracy, it's just that I'm
not blogging about the U.S. I see all these fair-skinned politicians - the large majority men - scrambling to win the support of a city and state filled with mixed-race people who look nothing like these representatives. It's so obviously blatant to me, why isn't it to others? My sense, and again, we'll have to point out the correlation to the U.S. here, is that folks just don't believe in the government's ability to really represent them. They see these candidates as one and the same, and have lost faith in their ability to really make changes in people's lives.

Faith, that's a whole other topic. The faith lost in the democratic process gets diverted into the one million (i'd guess) store-front evangelical churches that litter every favela commercial strip of this city and attract nightly, worshipers putting THEIR faith in the candidate that really matters - "jesus christ is the MAN" (Jesus Cristo e o Senhor! as the universal church of christ proclaims on all their massive daunting churches (see photo). I'm terribly off subject. Let me blog about Brazil, religion and Christianity at another time.

One aspect of Brazilian democracy I think would be a great idea for the U.S. is that everyone is mandated to vote (it would never fly up north, there's too much talk of freedom! freedom to not participate in demcracy! bah! humbug!). If you're over 18, you must vote. Eder was suppose to vote even when he lived in the U.S., and was fined like everyone else who doesn't show up (around $12 i think). You do have the option, after showing up, waiting in line and getting up to caste your ballot, to leave it blank and not vote for anyone.

I asked about whether there will be any political ads on TV.. Eder said that the parties buy one-hour time slots that air in between the novelas (soap operas), but that isn't allowed until closer to the election. I think I like this system better than the U.S. too - having been bombarded and I think numbed - by so many ads for more than a year prior to our presidential election.

not sure how to end this so i'll end it here. I will keep updating this blog with new observations and will go out and take some more photos to add to the mix so you have some better visuals.

ps: another thought - i have overheard very very little about these elections from Eder's family - there is very little discussion about them. Maybe that will change? To me it illustrates a bit of estrangement from the electoral/democratic process.

pps: the pieces that eder did today below

ppps: (added on July 31) one week after i publish this blog, some of the images of eder's art were covered up... i have added a few photos to the blog to illustrate the sequence ... the piece Eder did with a man's long hand reaching for his heart was covered up by a politician... we had taken a picture of it when 2 politicians put up ads on either side and left the art up, but then this week someone came and put it right over that piece and a few others near it. So this morning Eder went and wrote "respeite a arte" (respect art) covering their ads. We'll see what happens next!??

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