With The Economy Crashing, Brazilians Turn On A Once-Popular President

Apr 15, 2016
Originally published on April 15, 2016 1:25 pm

Three years ago, NPR visited the port of Suape outside the northern Brazilian city of Recife when it was an example of Brazil's booming economy. Brazil's state oil company, Petrobras, has a large refinery that was working full tilt.

Today the scene is very different. That big Petrobras refinery still operates but it's had big layoffs. It's partially shuttered, weeds are growing on the side of the pavement. It's emblematic of what's happened here and in many parts of Brazil.

Last year, this northeastern state of Pernanbuco lost 89,500 jobs, the most in the country. It's been a devastating turnaround for this historically poor region.

Jorge Leonel do Nascimento, a stocky man with callused hands, is one of the men who suddenly found himself unemployed. He worked at Suape during the boom years and says he thought they would never end. He bought a car. Joined the expanding middle-class.

"I felt like I had achieved something," he said. "In 2011, it was good for everyone. People were buying properties, electrical devices for their homes. There was hope."

Asked who he credited for the good times, he said he voted for President Dilma Rousseff in the last two elections, and before that, for her predecessor Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, known as "Lula."

Nascimento says the Worker's Party, which goes by the acronym PT, was the only one that tried to change things in the poorer, blacker regions of the country. The party started a program giving money and food to poor families in the drought-stricken north that literally saved some from starvation.

"Before, we were abandoned by the other parties," he said. "When the PT came to the presidency, we became secure."

A Dramatic Turnaround

Or so he thought. When he was fired last year, he believed he'd find something else quickly. But it's been over a year and he's been doing odd jobs to make ends meet. Brazil's economy is in the worst recession in generations. All the social programs started by the PT are being scaled back.

A few miles down the road from Suape, you can see the impact.

At an appliance store, new refrigerators and televisions are on sale, along with most anything else you might want.

But Adriana Gomez, the general manager, says no one is buying. The economic crisis has devastated commerce here. And that has had an enormous political effect.

This region helped Rousseff win re-election in 2014. According to the polling company Datafolha, her approval rating in the northeast was 68 percent back in 2013. This past February it plunged to 16 percent.

Some people argue the massive corruption scandal involving the state oil company Petrobras is the reason people want Rousseff out. She hasn't been directly implicated in the scheme that saw billions bilked for kickbacks and bribes, but her party and many of its members, including former President Lula has been.

But Thiago de Aragao, a political analyst with Arko Consulting, says the political turmoil and the effort to impeach Rousseff is being driven by the miserable state of the economy.

The economy contracted 3.8 percent last year. Prices are going up by 10 percent a month. People are being fired. It's hard to survive politically while this economic disaster is playing out.

"We have a society in which corruption is highly acceptable by the society as long as the economy flows in a positive manner," he said. He points to another huge corruption revelation that took place in former President Lula's first term, where it was discovered that his government was paying politicians for their votes. Aragao says people largely ignored the scandal because the economy was expanding.

Unemployed port worker Jorge Leonel do Nascimento says he's now given up on politics.

"I feel like I was fooled. By Lula and Dilma," he said.

That car he bought in the boom years? He's selling it now in order to survive.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Brazil's Congress is considering impeaching the president, Dilma Rousseff, and polls show most Brazilians in favor. That administration is mired in a corruption scandal, though for many Brazilians that is not the source of their discontent. What they're thinking of is the economy and lost jobs. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro traveled to a region of Brazil where people usually support the president.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: Three years ago, the port of Suape outside the northern Brazilian city of Recife was an example of Brazil's booming economy. In fact, my colleague, Melissa Block, profiled it as an example of Brazil's prosperity. And she began her report in a helicopter flying over the vast complex.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Portuguese).

MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: We fly low over the Suape shipyard, the largest in the Southern Hemisphere. Up ahead looms an oil refinery for Brazil's state oil company, Petrobras.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was NPR's Melissa Block in 2013. Today on the ground, the view is very different. That big Petrobras refinery still operates, but it's had big layoffs.

I'm walking up to the gates of this massive oil refinery, and it's partially shuttered, you know, weeds are growing on the side of the pavement. And it's pretty emblematic of what's happened here. Last year, this state in the Northeast, Pernambuco, lost 89,500 jobs.

JORGE LEONEL DO NASCIMENTO: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Jorge Leonel do Nascimento is one of the men who suddenly became unemployed. He's a stocky man with callused hands. He worked at Suape during the boom years, and he says he thought they would never end. He bought a car. He's speaking here through an interpreter.

NASCIMENTO: (Through interpreter) I felt like I had achieved something. In 2011, it was good for everyone. People were buying properties. There was hope.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I ask him who he credited for that.

NASCIMENTO: Dilma Rousseff.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says he voted for President Rousseff in the last two elections and before that for her predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, known as Lula here. Nascimento says the PT or Workers' Party were the only ones who tried to change things in the poor blacker regions of the country. They started a program giving money and food to poor families that in the drought-stricken North, literally saved some from starvation.

NASCIMENTO: (Through interpreter) Before, we were abandoned by other parties. When the PT came to the presidency, we became secure.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Or so he thought. When he was fired in 2015, he truly believed he'd find something quick. But it's been over a year, and he's been doing odd jobs to make ends meet. Brazil's economy is in the worst recession in generations. All those social programs started by the PT are now being scaled back. A few miles down the road from Suape, you can see the effect of what's happened.

I'm walking into one of the appliance stores here. There are refrigerators for sale, televisions and ovens.

ADRIANA GOMEZ: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Adriana Gomez, the general manager, though, tells me no one's buying anymore.

GOMEZ: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She says the economic crisis has devastated commerce here, and that has had an enormous political effect. This region got President Dilma Rousseff re-elected. According to the polling company Datafolha, in 2013 her approval rating in the Northeast was at 68 percent. This past February it plunged to 16 percent.

Some people argue that the massive corruption scandal involving the state oil company that's plaguing the government is the reason people want Rousseff out.

Thiago de Aragao is a political analyst with Arko Consulting, and we spoke to him via Skype. He says the political turmoil leading to the current attempt to impeach Rousseff has one main cause, and it's not corruption.

THIAGO ARAGAO: The economy.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Brazil's economy, it contracted 3.8 percent last year. Prices are going up by 10 percent a month in some things. He says it's hard to politically survive this kind of economic catastrophe.

ARAGAO: You have a society in which corruption is highly acceptable as long as the economy flows in a positive manner.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The unemployed port worker, Jorge Leonel do Nascimento, says he's now given up on politics.

BLOCK: (Through interpreter) I feel like I was fooled by Lula and Dilma.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That car he bought in the boom years, he's selling it now in order to survive. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.