There was a fleeting moment during Brazil’s 2014 presidential campaign when Marina Silva looked destined to win it all. Having famously escaped poverty, malaria, mercury poisoning and other horrors growing up in the Amazon, learned how to read at age 16, and transformed herself from a maid into a globally renowned environmentalist, she seemed like an ideal figure to build on Brazil’s social progress while putting an end to the increasingly obvious rot under then-President Dilma Rousseff.
Only five weeks before the election, polls showed Marina, as Brazilians call her, with a 10-point lead in a hypothetical runoff against Rousseff. But then the incumbent unleashed a barrage of attacks, including one memorable TV ad in which fictional wealthy Marina supporters laughed while food disappeared from the tables of the working class. Even more damaging, Rousseff’s supporters accused Marina of wanting to cut social programs including Bolsa Familia, which pays a cash stipend to about a quarter of Brazil’s population, in order to restore balance to the budget.
Through it all, Marina’s advisers begged her to brighten her message, to stop talking about recession, corruption and impending doom. To no avail. “We presented a platform saying Brazil was on the verge of a crisis,” Marina recalled in an interview with AQ. “When I didn’t say everything would be okay, or even get better, some people got very upset. But I said, ‘I can’t win an election with a lie. Because soon this will all fall apart, and society will not forgive us.’”
Marina paid the price: Her support in polls cratered, and she ultimately placed third on Election Day with just 21 percent of the vote, missing the runoff entirely. But within mere weeks, it became sadly obvious how prescient she was. Brazil spiraled into its worst recession in recorded history and, only three months after Rousseff began her second term, two-thirds of Brazilians said they wanted her impeached. They finally got their wish in August 2016. But the crisis has yet to abate under Rousseff’s successor and former vice president, Michel Temer, with unemployment rising to 11 percent, new corruption revelations erupting, and little hope of an imminent return to Brazil’s glory days.
Today, most Brazilians regret their vote — and they may yet have a chance to make it right. Polls suggest Marina is the country’s most popular prominent politician and the narrow frontrunner for the next presidential election in 2018. With a reputation for integrity, a centrist economic agenda, and the ultimate vindication of her failed candidacy, Marina’s moment may indeed be coming. She won’t say she’s running, but she sure sounds like she is. “The biggest problem we have in Brazil today is a political crisis,” she said. “That’s the true cause of what’s happening in the economy … We need new leadership, and a political reform.”
It may seem too early to think about 2018 ; didn’t Brazil just get a new president? But even President Temer’s supporters tend to agree he is a transitional figure, due to his abbreviated term and the controversy surrounding Rousseff’s impeachment. The heavy lifting necessary to fix Brazil — difficult, controversial reforms such as a simplification of the tax code, an overhaul of campaign finance laws, and an opening to foreign trade — will require a strong leader with an unquestioned popular mandate. So, from São Paulo to the Amazon to Wall Street and beyond, anyone trying to make a long-term bet on Brazil is already looking ahead.
That’s a tough task — Marina is hardly a shoo-in. The next election looks like Brazil’s most unpredictable since full democracy returned in 1989. The field could see a dozen candidates, each with their own fragmented constituencies. Meanwhile, Marina has her own flaws to deal with. Because the hard truth is that, in 2014, it wasn’t just the negative ads that sent her crashing out of the race. There were other, more personal, factors at work.
Some have forgotten this but—Marina wasn’t even supposed to run for president in 2014.
She passed up an opportunity to be the candidate for a small party, instead accepting an invitation from Eduardo Campos, a charismatic governor, to be his running mate. The decision raised eyebrows, since Marina had placed a strong third in the 2010 presidential election, and had more name recognition at the time than Campos. The assumption in Brasília, echoed at the time by some of Marina’s own allies, was that Marina was more comfortable in a figurehead role where she could champion one or two pet topics like the environment, and leave day-to-day governing to someone else
Campos died in a plane crash two months before the election, abruptly thrusting Marina into the number-one spot on the ticket. But even then, the questions never quite went away. Marina’s life story made her a necessary and inspiring moral voice, the argument went, but not everybody is suited to be president of a crisis-prone, continent-size country like Brazil.
Some Marina supporters say this view is sexist, while others see a particularly Brazilian strain of classism — a belief that no one from such humble roots could handle such a big job. Marina, for her part, acknowledges that her relatively frail physical figure — which is the product of her upbringing — may be the real source of doubts about her suitability for office.
“Look,” she said with a smile, “I think people sometimes see my body type, my life story — a person who had malaria five times, hepatitis three times. I have very good health, thank God. But I don’t believe in these stereotypes that people have of politics, where you have to show you’re a superhero … I’m not competing in the realm of traditional politics, and I think this is maybe a moment where we need inner strength much more than physical strength.”
Marina is also haunted by her membership until 2009 in the Workers Party, the party of Rousseff and former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who is now at the center of multiple corruption investigations. Marina was not only Lula’s environmental minister but also his friend, and chummy photos of the two are all over the Internet. Seeking separation from her past, Marina chose to campaign in 2014 as a center-right candidate on economic issues, supporting independence for Brazil’s central bank, for example. This alienated some longtime supporters, leaving her to pursue a new base that was not loyal to her — and quickly deserted when Rousseff’s attacks began.
This all raises the question: Will Marina be enough of a break from politics-as-usual to succeed in 2018? Especially if it becomes a “Throw the bums out” kind of election, as most expect?
On the day of our interview, newspapers published new allegations that her 2010 campaign had been financed with dirty money. As we spoke on the sidelines of a conference in São Paulo, a horde of reporters was waiting outside to question her. “They’re trying to destroy me,” Marina whispered, in an apparent reference to Brazil’s establishment, “because they see I’m the only one not involved.” The campaign finance accusations were never fully substantiated, and Marina denied them. But her reaction may foreshadow other challenges still ahead.
If she can overcome these obstacles, Marina’s appeal — to voters and investors alike — is clear.
She has a convincing view of where Brazil went wrong, focusing not just on corruption but also on the failed economic policies of the past decade. Most observers now believe the Workers Party relied too heavily on stimulating domestic demand, neglecting areas like schools and infrastructure. “We can’t say that a middle class is formed because of what it consumes,” Marina said. “(Instead), it’s the goods and services, and the level of education, that it gains access to. Because if it’s just a question of consumption, very soon that middle class will disappear.”
Marina has also given unconditional support to the Lava Jato probe of corruption at Petrobras, which many Brazilians see as the only silver lining of the past two years of crisis. “Brazil has a chance to clean itself up, to improve the quality of its institutions. Brazil is a country that unfortunately still hasn’t learned to institutionalize its conquests,” she said.
With a strong team of advisers that includes Neca Setubal, a celebrated education expert and member of a prominent banking family, fears have also abated that Marina could take the economy in a more radical direction if elected. Statements that sounded off-topic or whimsical when Brazil was still booming now sound visionary in today’s humbler, more troubled context.
“Brazil has a great chance to change its model of development to something sustainable,” she said. “But that will only be possible if it has political leadership who are committed to not do more of the same.”