Bolsonaro struggles to sway Brazil’s poor voters with aid

Oct 20, 2022, 4:42 AM | Updated: 12:29 pm
FILE - Residents stand on the sidewalk in Aracuai, Brazil, Oct. 11, 2022. Araçuai is part of the J...

FILE - Residents stand on the sidewalk in Aracuai, Brazil, Oct. 11, 2022. Araçuai is part of the Jequitinhonha Valley in northern Minas Gerais state, bordering the poor northeast region that is a stronghold for former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who is running for president again. Gaining traction in Minas Gerais is especially important to incumbent Jair Bolsonaro, as the state has the second-largest population in the country. The two presidential candidates will face each other in a runoff Oct. 30th vote. (AP Photo/Andre Penner, File)

(AP Photo/Andre Penner, File)

ARAÇUAI, Brazil (AP) — After Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro boosted welfare payments in August by 50%, 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 ($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 Inácio Lula da Silva — the leftist front-runner — 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 da Silva in the first round of voting on Oct. 2 and planned to do so in the Oct. 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. Da Silva — known throughout Brazil as Lula — got 48% of the vote and Bolsonaro received 43%. 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 $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 sizable number so that they abstain from voting. Abstention rates are already higher among poor voters.

In 2003, then-President da Silva 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 1 million people to launch an anti-hunger program 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 meager 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 April, according to a study by several nonprofit organizations, including Oxfam.

Across Araçuai, 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 program, built upon da Silva’s flagship Family Aid program, 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 da Silva have traveled around Minas, and da Silva 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 councilor and now spokesperson for Araçuai’s center-right mayor.

Political scientists say part of Bolsonaro’s better-than-expected performance in the region can be traced to the fact that some da Silva 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.

Cláudio Gonçalves, 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,” Gonçalves 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 Araçuai, 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 councilor.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


              FILE - Claudio Goncalves looks out from the window of his home in the rural area of Aracuai, in the Jequitinhonha Valley, Minas Gerais state, Brazil, Oct. 11, 2022. Araçuai is part of the Jequitinhonha Valley in northern Minas Gerais state, bordering the poor northeast region that is a stronghold for former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who is running for president again. Incumbent Jair Bolsonaro has struggled to garner votes among the poor, which could ultimately cost him the election. (AP Photo/Andre Penner, File)
            
              FILE - Cleusa Pereira, who is unemployed and relies on a government handout says that it is not enough and she regularly goes hungry, prepares a meal at her home, in Aracuai, Minas Gerais state, Brazil, Oct. 11, 2022. Thirty-three million Brazilians were going hungry in the six months through April, according to a study by several nonprofit organizations, including Oxfam. (AP Photo/Andre Penner, File)
            
              FILE - A woman adjusts an election banner promoting presidential candidate Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Worker's Party legislative candidates, in Brasiliandia, one of Sao Paulo's poorest neighborhoods, in Brazil, Sept. 29, 2022. For da Silva it's important poor Brazilians not only support him, but actually turn out to vote. (AP Photo/Victor R. Caivano, File)
            
              FILE - Brazil's former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, left, and incumbent Jair Bolsonaro, take part in a presidential debate in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Oct. 16, 2022. During the first segment of their first one-on-one debate, they sought to convince poor voters that welfare payments will remain at their value. (AP Photo/Marcelo Chello, File)
            
              FILE - Vegetable vendor Maria do Carmo who hawks her products at a local market, says her stall has done much better in recent months as residents suddenly had some cash to spend due to an increase in a welfare program's benefits, in Aracuai, in the Jequitinhonha Valley, Minas Gerais state, Brazil, Oct. 11, 2022. "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, whose daughter is a pro-Bolsonaro city councilor. (AP Photo/Andre Penner, File)
            
              FILE - Supporters of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro pose for a selfie backdropped by an election banner promoting Bolsonaro's re-election bid, in Juiz de Fora, Minas Gerais state, Brazil, Aug. 16, 2022. Gaining traction in Minas Gerais is especially important to Bolsonaro, as the state has the second-largest population in the country. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo, File)
            
              FILE - Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who is running for reelection, attends a campaign rally in Juiz de Fora, Minas Gerais state, Brazil, Aug. 16, 2022. Bolsonaro government's Brazil Aid program, built upon former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's flagship Family Aid program and whose value was boosted in August, has helped people get by. It is also winning Bolsonaro votes. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo, File)
            
              FILE - An election poster promoting former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva for his presidential bid, lays on the ground during a campaign rally for rival, incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro, in Juiz de Fora, Minas Gerais state, Brazil, Aug. 16, 2022. Abstention is higher among poor voters, which will disproportionately hurt da Silva's presidential bid, according to Carlos Ranulfo, a political scientist at Federal University of Minas Gerais. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo, File)
            
              FILE - Maria Antonia Branco prepares a meal inside her home at the Campinhos community of Itinga, in the Jequitinhonha Valley, Minas Gerais state, Brazil, Oct. 12, 2022. In 2003, then-President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva brought his entire Cabinet to the Jequitinhonha Valley, saying he wanted his ministers to look extreme poverty in the eye. Da Silva chose the region to launch his Zero Hunger program, and it won him and his Workers' Party loyalty for years. (AP Photo/Andre Penner, File)
            
              FILE - Aglete Batista, second right, and family members, sit outside their home in Aracuai, in the Jequitinhonha Valley, Minas Gerais state, Brazil, Oct. 11, 2022. Like many families in Araçuai, Batista uses her welfare to pay outstanding tabs at local grocery stores. Her family rarely cooks anything besides noodles, rice or beans, and they use a wood stove because they can't afford cooking gas. (AP Photo/Andre Penner, File)
            
              FILE - Luzia Martins, who is unemployed, stands in line outside a bank to receive a government handout in Aracuai, in the Jequitinhonha Valley, Minas Gerais state, Brazil, Oct. 11, 2022. A staunch supporter of former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who is again running for president, Martins resents those likewise assembled to collect their welfare, but whose votes have swung to incumbent Jair Bolsonaro. (AP Photo/Andre Penner, File)
            
              FILE - Residents stand on the sidewalk in Aracuai, Brazil, Oct. 11, 2022. Araçuai is part of the Jequitinhonha Valley in northern Minas Gerais state, bordering the poor northeast region that is a stronghold for former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who is running for president again. Gaining traction in Minas Gerais is especially important to incumbent Jair Bolsonaro, as the state has the second-largest population in the country. The two presidential candidates will face each other in a runoff Oct. 30th vote. (AP Photo/Andre Penner, File)

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Bolsonaro struggles to sway Brazil’s poor voters with aid