After Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro boosted welfare payments in August by 50 per cent, many people in the Jequitinhonha Valley, one of the poorest regions of the country, felt they could once again afford some meat, keep electricity running, and repair leaky roofs.
Even if it was an obvious election-year gambit, needy Brazilians are grateful for the extra 200 reais (US$38) per month — but perhaps not enough to switch their political allegiance to the far-right leader in large numbers.
Bolsonaro has struggled to gain support among the poor, but with less than two weeks to go before a runoff vote against former President Luiz In?cio Lula da Silva — the leftist frontrunner — he is betting the bump in welfare will pay off.
In the Jequitinhonha Valley’s impoverished city of Aracuai, part of the northern Minas Gerais state that has been a bellwether for presidential races, it is hard to find a single voter who flipped their support to Bolsonaro because of the bigger welfare payments.
Before sunrise at a state-owned bank where people waited to collect their aid, many said they voted for Lula in the first round of voting on October 2 and planned to do so in the October 30 runoff. Some said they knew someone who planned to switch to Bolsonaro in the runoff or were considering it.
“Some people are that easy when they’re in dire straits,” said 60-year-old housekeeper Luzia Martins. “But I don’t sell my conscience.”
In the first round of this year’s presidential election, national results matched those of the state. Lula got 48 per cent of the vote and Bolsonaro received 43 per cent. The remainder was split among other candidates and will be up for grabs in the runoff.
At Bolsonaro’s urging, Brazilian lawmakers declared a state of emergency in July, waiving a constitutional cap on spending to allow about US$7.6 billion in additional welfare benefits, plus a subsidy for cooking gas and assistance for truck and taxi drivers.
The extra government aid to nearly a quarter of Brazil’s population may not sway many voters to switch sides. But political scientists say the Bolsonaro campaign is hoping it might placate a sizeable number so that they abstain from voting. Abstention rates are already higher among poor voters.
In 2003, then President Lula brought his entire Cabinet to the Jequitinhonha Valley, saying he wanted his ministers to see extreme poverty up close. The leftist chose the region of one million people to launch an anti-hunger programme that was incorporated in an even bigger welfare package that lifted tens of millions out of poverty, winning him and his Workers’ Party loyalty for years.
But a decade later, Brazil’s economy slipped into its deepest recession in a century. Then, after a few years of meagre growth, the COVID-19 pandemic caused another severe downturn.
A recovery in 2022 has brought unemployment to its lowest level since 2015, but many people are subsisting on informal, occasional jobs, and soaring inflation has left families struggling to pay for food and other basic needs. Thirty-three million Brazilians were hungry in the six months through to April, according to a study by several non-profit organisations, including Oxfam.
Across Ara?uai, bare-brick homes are unfinished; many are abandoned. Some people who go downtown to pick up donated food and clothing can’t afford bus fare, so they make the multi-hour trek on foot.
Bolsonaro’s Brazil Aid welfare programme, built upon Lula’s flagship Family Aid programme, has helped people get by. First-round results show it helped Bolsonaro win some votes in the Jequitinhonha Valley, said Carlos Ranulfo, a political scientist at Federal University of Minas Gerais.
In advance of this month’s runoff, both Bolsonaro and Lula have travelled around Minas, and Lula is expected to visit Friday.
“This is a vastly pro-Lula, pro-Workers’ Party stronghold, but Bolsonaro indeed made inroads with his welfare,” said Sergio Vasconcelos, a former city councillor and now spokesperson for Ara?uai’s centre-right mayor.
Political scientists say part of Bolsonaro’s better-than-expected performance in the region can be traced to the fact that some Lula supporters who are registered in Minas moved elsewhere for better economic opportunities and so didn’t cast votes. Others are just disaffected and disconnected altogether.
Cl?udio Gon?alves, 64, won’t be casting a ballot. Living alone in Jequitinhonha’s countryside, he has no phone, doesn’t watch television, and spends most of his day caring for his pets. At night, he walks an hour to the local bar to sip beer under the starry sky.
“I’ve heard people say this guy is better, that guy is better … But I don’t really pay attention,” Gon?alves said as he gazed into the night. “This valley is as poor as when I was born.”
Ranulfo, the political scientist, said he doubts abstention rates and Bolsonaro’s traction with some poor voters will be enough for the far-right president to clinch victory.
Like many people in Ara?uai, Aglete Batista, 32, uses her welfare to pay outstanding debts with local grocers. Her family uses a wood stove to cook mostly noodles, rice or beans because they can’t afford propane.
A Lula sticker is the sole decoration at their shack that’s surrounded by dirt and mud. Adults sit on a couch outside while naked, dust-covered children play not far from a pit latrine.
The larger welfare payments from the Bolsonaro government have helped the family seal their roof, so that rain no longer soaks one of their two beds, and to pay a two-month-old electricity bill to keep their rusty refrigerator and fan running to cope with the blazing heat.
“I don’t like Bolsonaro, but it is obvious that this handout is key for us to survive,” Batista said. “Some people here feel they need to help Bolsonaro. They are too young to remember the help and the handouts we had during the Lula years. I remember.”
During a debate on Sunday, both candidates said that if they are elected, the higher welfare payments, which are scheduled to end in December, will become permanent.
“We will keep that extra expenditure permanently and for life,” Bolsonaro said. To which Lula responded: “We will fix this country so we can have some barbecue, have some beer on the weekend.”
Bolsonaro’s few outspoken supporters in the Jequitinhonha Valley are enthusiastic about the welfare payments. Maria do Carmo, 64, said her vegetable stall business has benefited since residents were given more cash.
“I’m not saying these people should get free money forever; they need to work. But it is a temporary solution that helps us, too,” said do Carmo, 64, whose daughter is a pro-Bolsonaro city councillor.