Brazilian Politics Leonard Cohen Style

Chief of staff, Dilma Rousseff Whenever I try to follow the ins and outs of Brazilian politics with its strange alliance, plots, duplicity and subterfuge I think of the verse from Leonard Cohen’s song “Everybody Knows” that goes: “Everybody knows that you love me baby / Everybody knows that you really do / Everybody knows that you’ve been faithful / Ah give or take a night or two / Everybody knows you’ve been discreet / But there were so many people / you just had to meet / Without your clothes / And everybody knows.”

We are watching the unraveling at the moment of a number of plots and betrayals which everybody knows about but turns a blind eye to. First of all, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is trying to foist his preferred presidential candidate, Dilma Rousseff, onto the electorate, regardless of whether anyone wants her or not.

Secondly, São Paulo state governor, José Serra, has bribed one of his main rivals, Geraldo Alckmin, by giving him a top job in his administration, thereby ensuring that Alckmin does not block Serra’s presidential ambitions. And thirdly, former President José Sarney is trying to become the Senate chairman by pretending he does not really want the job.

Lula has been singing the praises of Dilma Rousseff, his chief of staff, for over a year now although he always claims he has not even asked her if she even wants to be the Workers Party (PT) presidential candidate. Presumably the PT has mechanisms for choosing its candidates, which actually involve taking the views of the rank and file members into consideration.

If so, then Lula is not interested. Neither is Dilma who has recently changed from an Ugly Duckling to a very fine swan indeed, thanks to a nose job, a diet, a nip and tuck, a new hair style and contact lens instead of her old specs. Instead of the frumpy thin-lipped apparatchik of old we now have an attractive mature woman who could easily win a glamorous granny competition.

Despite her cosmetic change, Dilma has still not announced her interest in being a presidential candidate although she is expected to begin a marathon round of public appearances in February in which she will unveil works for the so-called Accelerated Growth Program. Nor has she made any speeches on what she stands for, presumably because she feels she can get by on Lula’s coat-tails.

However, one thing that everybody knows is that the Brazilian people will not be so naïve as to turn out and vote for someone just because she is Lula’s favorite. And another thing that everybody knows is that Lula could dump Dilma from one moment to the next if he feels like it, particularly if he succumbs to the flattering pressure from his admirers and alters the Constitution to allow him to stand again. This may seem far-fetched but it cannot be discounted even at this late stage.  

As for Serra, he may feel he has pulled off a great coup by tempting Alckmin into the fold and dangling the prospect of Alckmin succeeding him as governor when he presumably stands for the presidency in 2010. However, Alckmin’s star waned when he fought a disastrous campaign for the PSDB against Lula in 2006 and was lucky not to be beaten in the first round.

He was also humiliated in the race for the São Paulo mayorship last year when Serra supported the candidate of the rival DEMs. The PSDB also has another strong candidate in the governor of Minas Gerais state, Aécio Neves, who does not think Serra has a divine right to be the party’s candidate.

In fact, Serra and Neves were almost as much to blame for the PSDB’s failure to win the presidency by letting Alckmin force himself on the party. Lula is not the only politician to disdain his own party. The PSDB big wigs – Serra, Neves, Alckmin and ex-President Fernando Henrique Cardoso – made the decision on who would be the party’s candidate without seeking the views of the ordinary members. What everybody knows is that Serra is desperate to be president and will do anything to achieve this aim.                

As for Sarney, most Brazilians are desperate to see the back of him. He was one of a series of unimpressive presidents, along with Fernando Collor de Mello and Itamar Franco, who held power after the generals handed control back to civilian politicians. Sarney is a Northeastern old-timer who represents everything that holds Brazil back and has been a powerbroker for almost 50 years.

Although he became president simply because the elected president, Tancredo Neves, died before assuming office, Sarney managed to extend the term of office from four to five years. He has already been Senate chairman, leads a faction of the PMDB, has allies and supporters in high places and has great power and influence.

He has an unusual tactic which is to stand above the fray – in public, that is – and say he will only agree to be nominated if there is common consent. This means that he virtually forces himself on Congress through backroom carrot and stick negotiations. Everybody knows that behind that avuncular, amiable exterior lies a ruthless, Machiavellian mind which is only interested in gaining power and holding onto it.

That is the sad state of the Brazilian political scene as we head into an economic crisis and prepare for a presidential election next year.

Let’s finish by quoting another verse from Leonard Cohen which sums the situation up perfectly:

“Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows that the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That’s how it goes
Everybody knows”

John Fitzpatrick is a Scottish writer and consultant with long experience of Brazil. He is based in São Paulo and runs his own company Celtic Comunicações. This article originally appeared on his site He can be contacted at

© John Fitzpatrick 2009


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