Brazil Cries for Its Last Caudillo

     Brazil Cries for Its Last 

    Leonel Brizola’s position
    as one of Brazil’s leading political
    leaders over the past 50 years is undisputed. He spent 15 years
    in exile after the military grabbed power from his brother-in-law,
    João Goulart, in 1964. When an amnesty was granted in 1979 and
    Brizola returned to Brazil he was given a rapturous welcome.
    by: John

    The death of Leonel Brizola came as a shock to everyone here even though he
    was 82 years old. Like a number of veteran Brazilian politicians and personalities,
    such as former President José Sarney, Bahia’s senator Antonio Carlos
    Magalhães and architect Oscar Niemeyer, Brizola seemed to have more
    energy than men half his age.

    As national president
    of the PDT (Partido Democrático Trabalhista—Democratic Labor Party)
    he was an active force in politics until the end and made no secret of his
    disapproval of the policies of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva
    of the Workers’ Party (PT).

    Brizola was Lula’s running
    mate in the 1998 election, which was won convincingly by Fernando Henrique
    Cardoso. Like many old-time socialists, Brizola felt that Lula had betrayed
    his comrades and supporters by maintaining Cardoso’s economic policies.

    Some of Brizola’s more
    boorish supporters showed appalling misjudgment by booing Lula when he came
    to pay his last respects at Brizola’s lying-in ceremony in Rio de Janeiro.
    They taunted him and shook their fists, chanting "Traitor" and "Brizola

    It was a shocking display
    of disrespect, not only to Lula but to Brizola’s family and common decency.
    However, several of those in attendance used the occasion to criticize the
    current government’s policies.

    The usual anti-Americanism
    appeared as well with some people—including singer Beth Carvalho and
    Senator Heloisa Helena—praising Brizola’s anti-imperialism credentials.
    Predictably, one of the first foreign leaders to pay a tribute was Cuba’s
    Communist dictator Fidel Castro.

    Brizola abandoned Lula
    at the last election and supported Ciro Gomes of the PPS (Partido Popular
    Socialista—Popular Socialist Party), another small leftist party. At
    the time of his death he was trying to form an alliance with the PMDB (Partido
    do Movimento Democrático Brasileiro—Party of the Brazilian Democratic
    Movement) even though this party is actually a member of Lula’s governing
    alliance. There were even some reports that Brizola himself wanted to stand
    for the presidency in 2006.

    Brizola’s position as
    one of the leading political leaders over the past 50 years is undisputed.
    He spent 15 years in exile after the military grabbed power from his brother-in-law,
    João Goulart, in 1964. When an amnesty was granted in 1979 and Brizola
    returned to Brazil he was given a rapturous welcome by thousands of supporters.

    He was elected state governor
    of Rio de Janeiro twice but was rebuffed at presidential level, coming third
    behind Fernando Collor de Melo and Lula in the 1989 race. Brizola was later
    to lose much credibility when he supported Collor against accusations of corruption
    which eventually led Collor to resign as he was about to be impeached by the
    Senate in 1992.

    While Brizola was an opponent
    of the military and a fighter for workers’ rights he had much common with
    the nationalist views of many officers weaned on the "New State"
    of dictator Getúlio Vargas.

    He believed that Brazil
    could develop by using its own resources and closing its economy. This policy
    was more or less followed by the military and ultimately led to the so-called
    decade of the 80s when the economic miracle of the 70s was overturned and
    the country defaulted on its foreign debt.

    Stuck in the Past

    Brizola gradually lost
    his influence because, unlike Lula and Cardoso, who changed their views, he
    was incapable of developing and changing his ideas. He was stuck in a time
    warp and could offer Brazilians nothing over the last decade except rhetoric.

    He also strangled any
    intellectual or political development within his party which he ruled with
    an iron hand. Several of today’s most prominent politicians, such as Anthony
    Garotinho and Jaime Lerner, left or were kicked out of the party.

    The PDT became a one-man
    show and, in the absence of its founder and boss, could be absorbed into another
    party or become a fringe party. It has lost much support in recent years and
    has only 12 deputies in the House of Representatives and five Senators.

    It is also weak at local
    level with only 68 representatives in state assemblies and less than 3,000
    councilors. There is speculation that Garotinho or Lerner could return and
    revive the party but it would take someone of colossal force to fill Brizola’s

    There is no room to go
    into Brizola’s legacy here but many people accuse him of being responsible
    for one of Brazil’s greatest problems—the appalling lawlessness in parts
    of Rio de Janeiro. When he was state governor he was reluctant to send the
    security forces into the favela shanty towns which were spreading around
    the city.

    Critics have said that
    this softly-softly approach was one of the main reasons for the development
    of the drug trafficking gangs which now run the favelas and terrorize
    the local people. These places are virtually no-go areas and police can only
    enter in military-style operations which generally end in deaths of innocent
    people, gangsters and policemen.

    Gaúcho Carioca

    Finally, it is worth stressing
    Brizola’s origins. Despite his close connection with Rio, he was actually
    from the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul. The people from there are known
    in Brazil as Gaúchos and share many of the cultural and political
    attitudes of neighboring Argentina. Despite this they are fiercely Brazilian
    and have a much more aggressive pugnacious spirit than most of their fellow

    It is not surprising that
    three of Brazil’s most prominent political leaders in the 20th
    century were Gaúchos—Getúlio Vargas, Luiz Carlos
    Prestes, who led the famous rebel Prestes Column on an amazing journey across
    Brazil in the mid-20s on a Brazilian equivalent of Mao Tse Tung’s Long March,
    and, of course, Leonel Brizola.

    John Fitzpatrick is a Scottish journalist who first visited Brazil in 1987
    and has lived in São Paulo since 1995. He writes on politics and
    finance and runs his own company, Celtic Comunicações——which
    specializes in editorial and translation services for Brazilian and foreign
    clients. You can reach him at

    © John
    Fitzpatrick 2004

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