Last month, on the day before the first round of the Brazilian presidential elections, I spent one afternoon in the city of Olinda, in the state of Pernambuco, home to one of the country’s most famous carnival festivities. There, carnival means business, and many of the city’s inhabitants work in the entertainment and hospitality industry, two branches of the economy that have been particularly hard-hit by the covid pandemic and the casual way it was handled by President Jair Bolsonaro’s administration.
In Olinda, I called to a popular hangout, “Bar do Ró” by name, where I watched with friends a show put on by a carnival orchestra playing “frevo”, a local rhythm that for foreigners - possibly unaware of the extent of the cultural diversity that characterizes the popular traditions of Brazil - can probably best be explained as Pernambuco’s answer to the samba that is played in the internationally acclaimed carnival parades that take place in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo.
But frevo is not the only thing that distinguishes Pernambuco, in the northeast of Brazil, from giant cities like Rio and São Paulo, in the southeast, or from major centres even further south, like those in the states of Paraná, Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul. Because in Pernambuco, as in many other states in the northeast of the country, presidential candidate Luis Inácio Lula da Silva had more support during the elections than anywhere else in the country.
Inside “Bar do Ró” everybody, from the street vendor selling deliciously warm salted peanuts, to the orchestra and the well-heeled professionals drinking beer, was ready to cast their vote for Lula. There was even a moment during the concert in which the orchestra enthused the crowd by playing a tune with words that attacked Bolsonaro. Outside the bar, nevertheless, in some of the corners of that struggling neighbourhood within Olinda, if one looked attentively enough, one could see the signs that even here where Lula had most support, the population remained divided.
After the party had ended I walked for a bit around the area and saw hanging here and there from the windows Brazilian flags, repeating, even if less obviously, a pattern to be found in the more affluent areas of the neighbouring city of Recife, my own hometown.
Basically, the richer the region in Recife, the greater were the number of national flags to be seen at the windows and on verandas of modern apartment blocks, signifying support for Bolsonaro. To signal their support for Lula, on the other hand, his followers had adopted the traditional red flag of the Workers’ Party embellished with their candidate’s name.
But regardless of the neighbourhood, the display of competing flags on the façade of any building led often to bitter quarrels among otherwise peaceful neighbours. Anxious that the shouting matches could turn into something worse, such as fist-fights or even shootings, some building administrators attempted to prohibit the display of flags or any other campaign material in areas of common use. Of course this did not stop people from finding other ways to express themselves and infuriate each other.
Within the home, too, where one is supposed to feel protected from what is going on in the public world, almost every Brazilian has a story about how national politics either scarred or destroyed their relationship with a friend or another family member.
I know of children, young and old, who have been shocked by their parents’ unexpected development of extreme political views. I know of siblings who have come to avoid each other because they are tired of arguing with them about what is or is not fake news. I know of couples whose long marriages have broken down because of differing political views and the way conspiracy theories have interfered with the uptake of covid vaccines by different members within the same family. Here, it is worth bearing in mind that Brazil lost more than 600.000 lives due to the often dismissive response of the Bolsonaro administration to the crisis.
When the results of the second round of the presidential elections were announced at the end of October , Lula emerged as the winner of the contest by a very narrow margin. Bolsonaro may have lost the presidency but ‘Bolsonarismo’ (the Brazilian equivalent to the MAGA in America) the political movement that takes his name, remains very much alive, having elected a powerful bloc of allies in Congress. The country, therefore, remains divided against itself.
Lula’s political slogan during the electoral campaign was that he would make Brazil happy again. To do that he will need to find a way to speak to the hearts of the half of the Brazilian population who did not vote for him. But repairing the rifts that have been torn in Brazilian society during the Bolsonaro years will not be quick or easy.
Juliana de Albuquerque is an academic at University College Cork and columnist with the Brazilian newspaper Folha de S. Paulo