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Brazzil - Politics - September 2003

Brazil: Bahia Mafia Rules

For most Brazilians, Bahia is not "the land of happiness," but the
domain of a veteran politician called Antônio Carlos Magalhães,
who has dominated the state for almost half a century. The Magalhães
influence is overwhelming, and there is a virtual personality cult
around ACM and his son, Luiz Eduardo, who died in 1998.

John Fitzpatrick


I have just returned from a trip to Bahia, my first visit in about 10 years, and was taken aback by the changes in the state capital, Salvador, and surrounding area. The city center, which despite its grand churches and official buildings was rundown and dangerous, has been cleaned up. Buildings of historical and architectural interest have been restored and painted, the squares, streets and pavements have been repaired, and the beauty and atmosphere of the place put modern urban horrors like São Paulo and Brasília to shame.

There is still much to be done: some churches and buildings are half abandoned with plants growing in the cracks, and the street hustlers, beggars and locals offering "um presente da Bahia" are as irritating as before. However, one must applaud the authorities for the initiative they have taken.

A lot of money has also been spent in the infrastructure around the city. The airport opened only a year ago glistens and dazzles, and there is a lot of real estate development targeted at the tourist trade, offering weekend and holiday homes for city folk looking for a place in the sun by the sea. The big industrial hub at Camaçari is home to a variety of companies, from petrochemicals to Ford, which has one of the world's most modern assembly lines there. Shopping centers have been constructed and some stretches of highway are as smooth and free of potholes as Florida's Turnpike.

Clearly Bahia has come a long way, but these comments are not meant to hide reality. The state of Bahia, in spite of these advances, still shares the same social problems as other states in northeastern Brazil, a generally impoverished and invariably drought-stricken region. A large percentage of Bahia's population continues to live in misery and poverty*.

The sun shone every day I was there and Bahia seemed to be, as the local tourist board calls it, "the land of happiness". For outsiders who know a little about Brazil, Bahia is synonymous with the African-influenced music, religion, art and food. Bahia's culture is extremely strong, possibly the strongest in Brazil. Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Gal Costa, Dorival Caymmi and Jorge Amado are just some of the artistic giants from Bahia who have stamped their influence on the country and abroad.

The Giant Shadow of ACM

However, for most Brazilians, Bahia is not "the land of happiness" but the domain of a veteran politician called Antônio Carlos Magalhães, who has dominated the state for almost half a century. ACM, as he is best known, has amassed great political power and personal wealth, and held virtually every senior post in the country, except the presidency itself.

Credited with raising Bahia's profile and boosting its economy by attracting industry and encouraging tourism, he has gone from being a federal cabinet minister during the military regime (1964-85) to President of the Senate during the administrations of Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1994-2002). However, he was forced to step down from this position last year after breaking the very Senate rules he was supposed to safeguard, showing that his democratic credentials are doubtful. He is imperious, arrogant, bullying, intolerant, almost a law to himself. Many see him as an unchallenged sort of "king" of Bahia.   

In an article written after President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva came to power, I predicted that the days of politicians like Magalhães, called "colonels" in northeastern Brazil, were numbered. After my visit to Bahia I am no longer so confident that this will be the case. The Magalhães influence is overwhelming, and there is a virtual personality cult around ACM and his son, Luiz Eduardo, who died in 1998.

The main airport, for example, was renamed Aeroporto de Salvador _ Deputado Luiz Eduardo Magalhães even though the previous name 2 de Julho referred to an important battle in 1823, during the fight for Brazilian independence from Portugal. The main avenue into the city from the airport is also named after Luiz Eduardo, and is marked by a life-sized statue surrounded by a shrine and 43 trees, one for each year of his life. Many schools and buildings have also been named after him.

Plaques all over the area bear the name of ACM, who has been state governor twice and is credited with all kinds of works and good deeds. It is almost impossible to pick up a local paper without seeing pictures of him. Since he owns newspapers, radio and TV stations this is not surprising. A look through the Correio da Bahia, whose board of directors is headed by one Antônio Carlos Peixoto de Magalhães Junior, shows a picture of ACM with an arm around star singer and composer Caetano Veloso's mother, who was celebrating her 86th birthday. Mrs. Veloso looked hale and hearty, even though her "friend", as the paper described ACM, had been a supporter of the military regime that forced her famous son into exile.

The Grandson Also Rises

Another picture on the same page shows Antônio Carlos Magalhães Neto, being slapped on the back by members of Congress in Brasília during the recent negotiations on tax reform. With ACM in his 70s, the younger members of his family, like Antônio Carlos Magalhães Neto, are becoming more and more prominent in politics. This particular grandson is only in his early 20s, but he played a high-profile role as tax reform made its way through the Lower House of Congress.

There are more of them around too. In a humble street in the Itapoã district, I saw a banner hanging from a building bearing a message of thanks from the local people to another member of the clan, Paulo Magalhães, for resolving a problem they had. Whether having the offspring of someone like ACM involved in politics is a good or bad thing is a moot point. Luiz Eduardo Magalhães, for example, was the virtual prime minister during Cardoso's first administration, and was generally seen as a conciliatory person and future presidential candidate. It would, therefore, be unfair to criticize them because of their blood relationship.

On the other hand, the Magalhães name is tainted in other parts of Brazil because of ACM's behavior. Like many Brazilian politicians he has been accused of corruption and diverting public funds to his own pocket. And like so many other politicians, ACM has denied the allegations and has never been convicted of any such crime. However, he faces many allegations, which go much further than corruption and are much more disturbing. For legal reasons I am reluctant to print any of these allegations, but if true they show that there is more darkness than light in Bahia.        

For those who can read Portuguese, I recommend the following two books: Dom Carlos Corleone by Francisco Alexandria, and Memórias das Trevas _ Uma Devassa na Vida de Antônio Carlos Magalhães by João Carlos Teixeira Gomes. The publisher of the latter describes it as follows:

"The political and personal trajectory of ACM, described in Memórias das Trevas, includes an endless number of persecutions, aggressions, violence in its most diverse forms, retaliations, acts of brute force, cowardice, authoritarianism, a wide array of ill-advised and deplorable measures, all committed by a politician who benefited from the military dictatorship in a 40 year reign of absolute power, which converted him into a sort of "owner" of Bahia."  

When this book was published, ACM had a book of his own put together and published within days, repudiating the author's allegations.

* Statistical information is available at the Bahia state Office of Economic and Social Studies (Portuguese only):


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— www.celt.com.br, which specializes in editorial and translation services for Brazilian and foreign clients. You can reach him at jf@celt.com.br  

© John Fitzpatrick 2003

This article appeared originally in Infobrazil, at www.infobrazil.com




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