SAO PAULO, Brazil — At 24, Elen Rodrigues is part of a generation of Brazilians who have come of age under the Workers’ Party — a movement that promised to lift up the poor for the first time in this deeply unequal nation.
They were among the millions who saw their lives improve during an unprecedented boom that inspired talk of a “Rooseveltian dream” of broad well-being in Brazil. Rodrigues, who went to college on a government scholarship, had barely tasted prosperity, however, when the economy plunged into its deepest recession in decades.
Now she is one of the many working-class Brazilians to turn against the Workers’ Party, even rejecting their onetime hero, unionist-turned-president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Amid a long-running bribery investigation and allegations of budget malfeasance, his successor, Dilma Rousseff, could be impeached by the Senate as soon as next month. And Rodrigues would not mind seeing her go.
“Lula did a great job in so many areas, but the corruption really disappointed me,” Rodrigues said.
“And Dilma’s government has been total confusion — it seems like she simply doesn’t know what she’s doing.”
The crisis has taken a heavy toll on the lower classes. High inflation is eroding already tight incomes, and 3 million Brazilians have lost their jobs since last year — including much of the staff at a steel plant where Rodrigues had secured an administrative job.
Waning support from workers not only makes Rousseff’s removal more likely; disillusionment with her and especially the charismatic Lula, co-founder of one of the most enduring left-wing movements in any Latin American democracy, also has left a vacuum that no other politician can seem to fill.
Part of Lula’s appeal for ordinary Brazilians grows from his life story. Born in the desolate northeastern backlands, he started working in an auto-parts factory near Sao Paulo at 14. As a union leader in the late 1970s, he stood up to the military dictatorship, and as the face of the Workers’ Party in the 1980s, he helped promote the transition to democracy.
Lula and the party came to power in 2003. He is the first president who grew up poor, and he raised the minimum wage every year. He also vastly expanded welfare payments with a program called Bolsa Família, which now keeps 14 million families from going hungry.
One of the ironies of the Workers’ Party’s fall from grace is that its leaders had once vowed to wrest power from a corrupt establishment but ended up producing scandals of their own. It is a story of idealism that wilted as it came into contact with power. To get their projects through a fractious Congress long motivated by patronage and finance political campaigns for their wobbly coalition, some of Lula’s and Rousseff’s closest allies resorted to bribery to grease the gears.
“I used to really like Lula,” said Vera Santos, 28, a history student from the northeast who lives on the pension of her ailing adoptive mother. “I liked how he spoke, how committed he seemed to helping the poor win the same rights as everyone else. But the Workers’ Party isn’t what I thought it was.”
Lula is being investigated in the Petrobras scheme, in which billions were skimmed from the state oil company, but he has denied wrongdoing. He and Rousseff chalk up the impeachment effort to a “coup” by elites using the scandal as a pretext to gain power. And indeed, many of the lawmakers who voted to impeach Rousseff in the lower house of Congress this month are themselves implicated in this and other schemes.
But while the millions who have marched for Rousseff’s ouster are generally whiter and wealthier than the population at large, polls indicated that around 60 percent of the poor also support her impeachment. They just do not take to the streets as much. Many, like Rodrigues, live far from the center of this city of 20 million and would face a long trip on multiple buses and trains.
Those who do show up at protests often speak about corruption in economic, rather than moral, terms. Jumar de Jesus Pereira, 40, lays subway track for a living. Having voted for Rousseff, he now wants her impeached. “The price of everything is going up,” he said. “They’re bankrupting the country with all this corruption.”
Rousseff’s popularity with the poor started sinking soon after they ensured her narrow reelection in 2014. With the economy showing signs of trouble, she had campaigned on the promise not to implement austerity measures. Then once she had won, she abruptly changed course, scaling back social benefits even as interest rates and energy prices spiked.
Such reversals have provoked an identity crisis in the Workers’ Party. Celso Rocha de Barros, a party supporter who writes a column for the Folha de S.Paulo newspaper, says that losing the poor is the movement’s “worst nightmare.” He suggests, though, that the government may have itself to blame.
Lula owed part of his success to luck. After his predecessor beat hyperinflation in the 1990s, soaring commodity prices allowed him to invest in social programs without courting conflict with the business class. When commodity prices tumbled, the balancing act fell apart.
But Lula and Rousseff also pursued policies that Barros and a variety of economists describe as regressive — such as providing corporate tax breaks. In the hope of creating “national champions” in industries such as beef and construction, the Workers’ Party transferred money to the top of the income pyramid, benefiting wealthy campaign donors even while adding hundreds of billions of dollars to the national debt.
Brazil’s state development bank has financed essential infrastructure such as highways and dams, but also projects of questionable public benefit, such as World Cup stadiums and even ports and bridges in foreign countries — built by firms in the Petrobras scheme. Meanwhile, half of Brazilians still lack basic sanitation.
This disconnection is not lost on ordinary Brazilians. Crisângela Barbosa, 36, makes a living cleaning houses. Standing on the sidelines of a march for impeachment in Sao Paulo, she said, “They’re lending billions to Cuba, Venezuela, Africa, while we’re rotting here.”
Still, considering the urgent wants of the poor, it is little surprise they have not switched their support to the opposition. Those leading calls for impeachment speak of slimming down the government, but surveys show that working-class Brazilians tend to want the opposite: a strong state that will extend the social safety net.
Reflecting their broad disaffection with the political class, 9 out of 10 working-class Brazilians cannot name anyone to lead the country out of its crisis.
“Brazil has been through crises before, but this is the first generation of Brazilians to start losing what they had achieved,” said Renato Meirelles, president of the polling firm Data Popular. “And the debate that really matters to them, about how to create the opportunity to improve their lives again, isn’t happening.”