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.
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 TrabalhistaDemocratic 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 peopleincluding singer Beth Carvalho and
Senator Heloisa Helenapraising 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
SocialistaPopular 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 BrasileiroParty 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 problemsthe 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
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.
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 GaúchosGetúlio 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 Comunicaçõeswww.celt.com.brwhich
specializes in editorial and translation services for Brazilian and foreign
clients. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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