SERTÂNIA, Brazil — Inside a roofless house, beside an empty fridge sat a man full of worry. He had no job. No running water. No bricks to finish his home. Some days, no food.
One reason to hope: Jair Bolsonaro. Brazil’s president has come here three times to tout infrastructure projects he says will bring millions of people like Ferreira running water. Nearly half of city residents are receiving a cash benefit provided to the poor — an amount recently doubled by Bolsonaro — infusing the city with cash it would not otherwise have.
If anyone has seen life tangibly improved by Bolsonaro’s administration — and should consider rewarding him with a vote in this year’s presidential election — it would be someone like Ferreira.
Just one problem:
“I can’t stand him,” Ferreira said. “I’ll never vote for him.”
For Bolsonaro, who has dominated and divided Brazil as few politicians have, time appears to be running out. For much of the past year, as the virus he belittled killed hundreds of thousands of Brazilians and drove millions more into poverty, the polls have been grim. His approval rating has bottomed out at 22 percent. Projections show him badly trailing leftist former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, whom he’ll almost certainly face in October’s election.
He’s now looking for voters wherever he can find them, including among a demographic that seems an unlikely fit for a right-wing nationalist who has spent his career waging culture wars and glorifying the country’s military. Bolsonaro wants the votes of the poor.
He tripled the number of trips he made in 2021 to the northeast, Brazil’s poorest region, where he lauded infrastructure projects as a way to bring development. He has clashed with his austerity-focused finance minister to put more money into the pockets of the poor through cash redistribution programs. Late last year, he unveiled Brazil Aid, which pays about $80 per month per person to millions of poor people — double the amount dispensed by a program created during Lula’s tenure.
“The president who made the world’s largest social program,” he has since called himself.
Senior Bolsonaro officials now see electoral opportunity among the poor. They point first to the pandemic cash stimulus, which paid $115 a month to more than 60 million people. Before the program ended, it made many poor Brazilians richer than they’d ever been, slashed poverty and briefly swelled Bolsonaro’s approval ratings among the poor.
Then they highlight Bolsonaro’s unvarnished, often profane manner. The belief is that many will identify with his humble origins as the son of a rural gold miner. His administration this week posted a video of Bolsonaro eating chicken barbecue sloppily, leaving a mess all over his pants. It was widely seen as an attempt to connect with the poor. “A President of the people!” one political ally tweeted.
Ciro Nogueira, Bolsonaro’s chief of staff, said the president has discussed a strategy to chip away votes from a demographic that historically has gone for Lula. “He has a real closeness to the poor in this country,” Nogueira said. “The actions of the government are much stronger than words, and what matters are the actions of the government.”
That’s the pitch. But here’s the reality: Being poor in Brazil has rarely been harder.
The pandemic has left the country more impoverished, more unequal and more unemployed. Inflation has risen above 10 percent. The cost of gasoline in some locations is at record highs. Nearly 20 million Brazilians have reported that they have recently gone hungry. As people fall into arrears and lose their homes, new favelas — informal communities often founded by homeless people — are rising all over the country.
For many, the additional income provided by Bolsonaro’s new aid program has done little to offset the vicissitudes of the pandemic and the economy. Rather than flocking to Bolsonaro, recent polls show, the poor who voted for him in 2018 are fleeing his coalition at a faster rate than other groups. Even the recent image of Bolsonaro eating messily seemed to backfire. It was deleted after stirring outrage.
“The people are poor, but Bolsonaro is a pig,” tweeted Cristovam Buarque, a prominent leftist politician.
Cesar Zucco, a political scientist at the university Fundação Getulio Vargas, has studied how Brazil’s cash redistribution programs affect electoral outcomes. Their impacts, he says, are at times exaggerated. Even Bolsa Família, a nearly mythic program created by Lula that extended cash benefits to the poor, did not on its own shift elections.
Bolsonaro, Zucco says, is in trouble. The spike in his approval ratings that was driven by the pandemic stimulus was little more than a mirage, he says, and will be difficult to replicate. The new program is worth far less and reaches 40 million fewer people. It won’t be enough, he said, to overcome the effects of the limping economy.
“Bolsonaro’s in a bind,” Zucco said. “He’s not going to win reelection, and he’s acting like someone who knows it.”
Tereza Campello, a former senior Lula official who helped create Bolsa Família, said the program alone did not forge Lula’s bond with the country’s poorest. “It was a confluence of things,” she said. “Those were the years when many people first got running water or electricity, or it was when the first person in their family went to college, or the first person in their family became a doctor.”
In few places are Bolsonaro’s electoral difficulties among the poor more stark than in Brazil’s vast and largely arid northeast. The region, which concentrates half of Brazil’s impoverished people, is the primary beneficiary of his aid program. But it is also where Bolsonaro has historically been least popular — and continues to be.
“The northeastern enigma” was how Brazilian columnist José Casado summed it up in the magazine Veja.
The Washington Post interviewed 30 people in the city of Sertânia, the vast majority of whom were recipients of Bolsonaro’s social benefit, but was able to find only three who said they were planning to vote for him. Up and down the poorest streets, where jobs are scarce and many have difficulty feeding their families, came a similar response.
“Vote for Bolsonaro?” guffawed Sabrina Campos Dionísio, 22. “He destroyed the northeast.”
Near one empty shop down a parched dirt road, two people began to argue about this year’s election.
“During Lula’s time, everyone was able to buy a car,” the shopkeeper said.
“So you think it was Lula that bought them?” said customer Iara Frasão, a Bolsonaro voter.
“No, but he facilitated it,” came the response.
Many said they had trouble understanding Bolsonaro’s vaccine hesitance. Brazil has long embraced vaccines. People said it made little sense for Bolsonaro, who still hasn’t taken the coronavirus vaccine and has worked to undermine confidence in it, to go against a long-standing tradition in Brazil.
“Even I don’t get it,” said Luiz Abel, who ran for mayor as an open Bolsonaro supporter but lost badly. “Why is he denying the vaccine?”
Ferreira rubbed his hands together and looked around his barren home. He was far from wealthy before Bolsonaro. Money came from whatever construction or painting job he could get.
But then the pandemic arrived, and the jobs dried up, and he moved his wife and five children out of their rented home and into this half-finished, roofless structure. He’s never been able to find the materials he needs to finish it.
He said he’s grateful for Bolsonaro’s cash benefit. But it hasn’t been enough. Some days, his family goes hungry. What food they do have is cooked over a wood fire; gas and charcoal are too expensive.
“Bolsonaro could have done so much more to help the poor,” he said. “But he doesn’t have the head for it.”
Gabriela Sá Pessoa contributed to this report from São Paulo.