While it was not possible to independently verify the count, Brazilian media reported ballot boxes had been set up in cities throughout the region for the vote, which occurred the day before nationwide elections for mayors and city councils. Organizers had said their target was a million voters — or 5 percent of those eligible to vote in the three states. Even though the vote has no legal value, and they failed to hit that target, the message sent was unmistakable.
“We in the south have the conditions to sustain ourselves and generate riches. Today we generate a mountain of riches in taxes and benefits which are exported, and there is no counterpart,” said José Gonçalves, a business manager voting in favor of independence in the southern city of Porto Alegre, in an interview posted on YouTube by the city’s Jornal do Comércio newspaper.
The results come on the back of the local elections, marked by widespread absenteeism and rejection of traditional politicians. Brazil is reeling from the controversial impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff this year and revelations that many members of her Workers’ Party and its political allies were involved in a graft scandal at state-run oil company Petrobras.
Celso Deucher, general coordinator of the Plebisul campaign, said Wednesday that the vote had sent a “resounding message” to politicians in Brasilia, the capital.
“If Brasilia knows how to understand what we are saying, certainly Brazil will not be the same from today,” said Deucher, in a video posted on YouTube.
Deucher, one of the intellectual leaders of the movement called The South Is My Country, cited citizens' frustration with corruption as a reason so many voted to leave Brazil.
“Be ashamed. We don’t accept your behavior,” he told politicians in his address, adding that voters would rather be run by their former colonial masters than its current leaders.
“We prefer to return to Portugal than pay so dearly for continuing to be Brazilians,” he said.
The south of Brazil was colonized by immigrants from Italy, Portugal and Germany, and many take pride in a European sense of organization. It is one of Brazil’s richest regions, and organizers of the campaign have been able to capitalize on frustration that tax money goes to poorer regions in the northeast — where the population has more black and mixed-race people and slavery was more prevalent from the 16th to 19th centuries.
According to government figures, in July, Bahia state in Brazil’s northeast, which has a population of 15 million people, paid less than half the federal taxes of Rio Grande do Sul, in the south, which has a population of 11 million people.
There are also cultural differences between the regions. In some towns in the south, German is still spoken. A version of Germany’s famous Oktoberfest beer festival is held every year in Blumenau, a city in the state of Santa Catarina.
Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bündchen is from a high-achieving family of German descendants in Horizontina, a small town in the neighboring state of Rio Grande do Sul.
The sweeping investigation into Petrobras corruption is based in Curitiba, capital of Paraná, one of the states that voted in the plebiscite.
Deucher said in a phone interview that he admired countries that granted more rights to local or state governments. “The question of the local autonomies in Switzerland pleases us a lot. The United States is a good model too,” he said.
In the YouTube video, he said organizers planned another plebiscite in September 2017 and hoped to put 3 million voters on the street.
“The south is our country,” he concluded. “Long live the free South!”