Brazil’s 2018 Elections: Voices of Youth from Pantanal in the Baixada Fluminense

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Eça de Queiroz, the acclaimed Portuguese writer, author of classics such as The Maias and The Crime of Father Amaro, never suffered from significant financial hardship. A journalist and diplomat, he frequented corridors of power and spaces of the local intelligentsia with ease. He was what you might call aristocratic—a characterization that is quite different from the road that bears his name, 118 years after his death. Today the road is one one of the principal access routes to the neighborhood of Pantanal, a disenfranchised periphery of Duque de Caixas in the greater Rio de Janeiro metropolitan region. We went there to hear from residents about how the 2018 elections are influencing life in the community.

On Eça de Queiroz Road in the Baixada Fluminense, instead of the patisseries and fine bistros of Queiroz’s Portuguese town of Coimbra, local commerce is abundant in the form of tire repair shops, bars, bakeries, bars, and cinderblock houses. However, there are no child care or Emergency Care Units. Almost all the streets lack adequate sanitation—a situation that is compounded with mobility problems that have persisted for years. Pantanal’s name [meaning “wetlands”] owes to the flooded lowlands in the sub-basins of the Iguaçu and Sapuí Rivers, which traverse the region. The neighborhood belongs to the municipality’s second district. Rumor has it that the neighborhood contains a farm that once belonged to the historical and controversial mayor Tenório Cavalcante, who donned a black cape and walked around with a submachine gun in tow.

We met with three residents of this community. Juliana Maia is a tour guide and one of the founders of the social project Família Lanatanpa, which spreads hip-hop culture throughout the region. Joining her are Jonathan Farias, a merchant, and Gabriel Goulart, a 20-year-old barber. We first asked about their impressions of the televised debates between gubernatorial candidates and about how they represent local voter priorities.

There was a short silence after the question was posed until Maia took the risk in making a statement. She acknowledged that these are difficult times. For her, the candidates and program proposals are chaotic. In her opinion, the large number of contenders for the governorship, as well as for the presidency, results in unnecessary polarization. What should be unifying voters has instead turned into a dispute over less significant issues. “There are strange people with bizarre plans. Proposals for education are lacking,” said Maia.

Farias confesses to having difficulties in following the debates due to a heavy workload. “It’s not that I am uninterested, but since there are many different things happening at different times of day, it is impossible to follow. They say that the local population isn’t interested in what’s happening in the political realm.” But when people do not participate, it is because they are discouraged or tired of so many unfulfilled promises. The reasons are numerous. “There are houses up there where 16 people live without a septic tank. How are they going to believe that a solution will come from public authorities?” asks Maia.

For them, the televised debates are insufficient in almost every dimension. The timing is not ideal, the discussions are uninteresting in terms of proposals, and the duration is insufficient to critically analyze candidates’ plans. “How can someone understand all of that, to get it into their head that what’s being said will affect their life for the next four years?” inquired Farias.

Don’t Wait Passively, Act Decisively

They are not used to waiting for miracles—rather, they find their own solutions to urgent issues. Maia and Farias are part of a collective that organizes public parties and social actions in the community from time to time. Dubbed “Turma do Bem” (“The Goodness Crew”), the collective was born of the necessity to take food collection into their own hands to distribute baskets of basic food staples. Oftentimes, these actions are only possible through crowdfunding among friends. In order to receive a basket, the only requirement is that families register.

But fighting hunger is not everything. Education is a major weakness in Pantanal. The entire public school network in Duque de Caixas has been gutted. Maria Clara Machado Municipal School—located in Vila São José, a neighborhood bordering Pantanal—is just one example. Teachers have not received their salaries since Mayor Washington Reis took office. Moreover, there have been various labor disputes registered at the State Teachers’ Union.

The Growth of Conservatism and Polarization

In recent years, the Baixada Fluminense has gradually distanced itself from progressive agendas, increasingly gravitating toward more right-wing politicians. Factors such as public insecurity and demands for a more avid response from authorities to combat the advance of criminality drive these conservative choices. Maia has her own interpretation of what it means to be conservative. Conservative candidates seek to convince those who do not feel represented by social movements—especially with regards to the push for civil rights for minorities—and to persuade those who would accept authoritarian behavior and discourse in the face of these social changes. “I believe [that being conservative is] hypocritical. Only at this time of year does a candidate pose as politically correct, trying to project the image of an infallible person—but if you were to investigate their life, you would find loads of mistakes. They come here with security guards, their clothes all crisp, and take photos of some public work that had already been promised—to post on social media,” explained the tour guide.

Also important, according to the trio, is political polarization and partisanship, which has spread to the peripheries. Lula and Bolsonaro are the extremes of a democracy that currently lacks the capacity to find a middle ground. According to Maia, political education—especially for people in their twenties—largely comes from reading unreliable posts and articles shared on Facebook, presented as absolute truths. “These are the people who are going to vote, based only on this information!” Farias lamented.

Farias stated that only marketing ploys can explain questionable [electoral] victories. “They are selling images and whichever is the most appealing wins. Except that people are in no hurry to know what’s behind these [portrayals].” His father was a candidate for city councilor in the previous election. “He has a very broad platform; he’s a person who makes things happen. But there were candidates known to the entire community for their involvement in all the wrong things—and yet who still obtained a significantly greater number of votes than my father did. It’s really hard to make sense of this,” said Farias.

The Informal Market of Politics

Despite its location in the periphery, the municipality of Duque de Caxias is a powerhouse of the industrial economy, home to corporations such as Texaco, Shell, Exxon, Ipiranga, White Martins, IBF, Carvalhão Transport, Sadia, Ciferal, and others. The companies are most concentrated in the chemical and petroleum sectors, spurred by the presence of the Petrobrás Refinery of Duque de Caxias (REDUC), the second largest refinery in the country. This, however, does not translate into employment. Of REDUC’s workforce, 70% is imported from other municipalities in the state, which means little of this wealth enters the local economy.

In the context of this scenario, Goulart, the quietest of the three, described the most discomforting part of the entire process: the exponential growth of short-term job openings in pockets of poverty during electoral periods. On the afternoon that this meeting took place, I was struck by the number of people marching, waving banners almost all the way down Eça de Queiroz Road—at a time when approximately 13 million Brazilians face unemployment. I saw entire families, very humble people, taking turns at the task. Goulart himself took advantage of the opportunity to make some extra money: “But it’s eight hours of work and you make R$400 (US$100) working for 15 days. You don’t get money for lunch or anything else.”

Farias asks Goulart if he is familiar with the ideas and political proposals of the candidate that he was “supporting” [as a campaign worker]. “I don’t know anything [about him]. I was just there for the money and that’s it,” Goulart responded, brief in his words. The young man also insisted that he will not vote for anyone—in any government sphere. He opts to simply cast a null vote. “It’s all the same story, the same thing.”

Politicized or not, these residents of Pantanal provide a synthesis of the country’s contradictions.

Fabio Leon is a journalist and human rights activist who works as communications officer for Fórum Grita Baixada.