Brazil president looks to cash subsidies to make inroads on Lula’s turf

By Waldheim Garcia Montoya

Cumaru, Brazil, Sep 15 (EFE).- Signs bearing the image of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro are now visible on the walls of several low-income homes in this northeastern town, one of the biggest beneficiaries of recently approved cash subsidies for the poor being distributed in the midst of an election campaign.

Even limited support for the rightist incumbent, who faces an uphill battle for re-election, is surprising in rural parts of impoverished northeastern Brazil.

That arid region has long been a stronghold of the leftist Workers’ Party (PT) and former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who was born in the interior of Pernambuco state (where Cumaru is located) and is the clear front-runner ahead of the Oct. 2 election.

In the 2018 general election, the Lula-backed candidate, PT’s Fernando Haddad, obtained 78.9 percent of the vote in Cumaru compared to 21.11 percent for Bolsonaro.

But the new cash subsidies may give the retired military officer hope for a better showing there and other similar towns the second time around.

“Government assistance, especially (food aid), is very important for our people,” Renato Jose da Silva, leader of the nearby rural community of Boa Esperança, where 33 families live from the crops they grow on semi-arid land, poultry farming and goat rearing, said in an interview with Efe.

He was referring to the current administration’s main social welfare program.

Known as Auxilio Brasil, it had been providing monthly payments of 400 reais (just over $75) per household until just days before the start of the election campaign, when that amount was increased by 50 percent to 600 reais.

Electoral law prohibits new or expanded social benefits payments in election years, but the legislature overwhelmingly voted in favor of a constitutional amendment that enables that ban to be circumvented via the declaration of a state of emergency.

The government said the move was justified due to double-digit inflation stemming from the war in Ukraine.

One of the biggest beneficiaries of the extra welfare payments was Cumaru, with the federal government receiving applications for additional aid to cover roughly three-fourths of that small town’s 17,000 inhabitants.

“Auxilio Brasil had already helped the women here a lot, and now much more with this increase,” said 45-year-old Selma de Albuquerque, who used a portion of the subsidy to buy medicine for her mother and to add to her small herd of goats.

But like many other people in Cumaru, especially those living in houses decorated with posters of Bolsonaro, Selma refused to say who would get her vote next month.

“In the 2018 elections, there were rumors that Bolsonaro was going to do away with Bolsa Familia (the PT’s signature social welfare program). People were afraid, but that wasn’t the case. And that’s why even though the majority are loyal to Lula, a lot are going to vote for Bolsonaro,” Renato Jose da Silva said.

Neuza Soares, 33, said the additional Auxilio Brasil subsidy has enabled her family to install a toilet and fix up their poultry house.

She says they now hope to buy a cow that can produce milk for their three young children.

“With milk at 10 reais, it’s better to try to buy a cow. Milk has become a luxury item in Brazil,” said the housewife, who told Efe she will vote for Lula in October.

According to the most recent polls, Bolsonaro has made some gains among voters in households with income of up to two minimum salaries and now enjoys 26 percent support among that segment of the population.

Lula, however, still possesses a commanding overall lead of between 11 and 15 percentage points with three weeks remaining until the first round of balloting. EFE

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