Who is Marina Silva?

Possibly Brazil’s next president, she is a perplexing mix of contradictory social and political characteristics

Valbona MuzakaEndless polls record compulsively the distance between Brazilian voters’ preference for the incumbent Dilma Rousseff of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) and her most prominent challenger, Marina Silva of the Partido Socialista Brasileiro (PSB).  They suggest that Silva could potentially win the race for Brazil’s presidency this Sunday, especially if a second-round run-off becomes necessary.

Silva’s rise is phenomenal.  But who is she?

We know a lot about her life, of course.  A woman who survived numerous illnesses, hard labour and extreme poverty; conquered illiteracy as a teenager; became a political activist in the Amazon alongside Chico Mendez, the youngest and first rubber-tapper to be elected as a Senator in Brazilian history; a government minister for the environment aged 45; and, now, poised to become the president of the largest Latin American country.  Without question, a mixed-race woman who has achieved all of this in a country as unequal as Brazil is a formidable person of fierce intellect and enormous strength.

But the question is really what she stands for – and is the more pertinent because her unofficial election motto has reportedly become Victor Hugo’s observation that ‘One cannot resist an idea whose time has come’.   Marina Silva has been variously described as a socialist, environmentalist, progressive, an outsider/newcomer, the first black would-be president of Brazil and so on. Working in Brazil during the last phase of this highly charged presidential election race, I have come to the view that the apparently irresistible idea she claims to represent is not to be found in any of these labels, if it is to be found at all.

First, Marina Silva is not a socialist, and neither is the membership of the Partido Socialista Brasileiro.  If socialism is understood as a distinct way of organising an economy and society, the ‘socialist’ in the PSB is an empty signifier.  In any case, her commitment to the PSB apparently lasts only until her own party is legalised.  Before Silva surprised many by joining the PSB, she had tried (and failed) to create her own party (Rede Sustantibilidade – Sustainability Network).  She had previously belonged to the Green Party on whose ticket she ran for the 2010 presidential elections, winning nearly 20% of the vote; earlier, she had been a member of the PT prior to resigning from Lula’s government in 2008.   Party-switching may be common in Brazil, but this trajectory weakens claims that Marina Silva is an outsider.

Second, Marina Silva is not a progressive candidate, at least not in the way I understand the concept.  In economic terms, her programme is no different from that of Aécio Neves, the centre-right presidential candidate, and is as orthodox as it can be.  One of Silva’s biggest backers is banking heir Maria Alice Setubal, who is also acting as her campaign coordinator.  That Silva has become the darling of financial capital is evident in the rise of the country’s stocks every time polls indicate she’s edging forward.  Her main economic advisors are neoliberal economist Eduardo Giannetti da Fonseca and André Lara Resende, who was one of the main economic advisers of Henrique Cardoso, the dependentista-turned-neoliberal president of Brazil during 1995-2002.  Both vouch that a Silva government would be business-friendly, cut public spending, roll back subsidised credit, lower barriers to foreign competition and return to the so-called ‘tripod’ of strong fiscal responsibility, inflation targeting and floating exchange rates.  As her economic adviser Giannetti put it, ‘we will not sacrifice [them] to any adventure in social spending’.

Nor is Silva progressive in social terms.  Sure, Bolsa Família is there to stay, for no presidential candidate in her right mind could propose cuts to this programme without antagonising the numerous poor.  Besides, it’s cheap, consuming only 0.6% of the GDP.  For the rest, Silva promises increased investment in health and education, although it remains a mystery how this will be done in the context of her orthodox economic policy.  She has also adopted unclear and sometimes conservative positions on issues such as abortion, same sex marriage and LGBT rights, on which she has performed a number of perplexing U-turns.  If gender equality and women’s empowerment is part of her electoral platform, I have missed it entirely. Much of her positioning on these and other issues can only be understood in light of her conversion to evangelical (Pentecostal) Christian faith in 1997, a trajectory that eventually alienated some of her earliest co-activists and friends (most notably Leonardo Boff).

Third, Silva’s commitment to environmentalism is still strong, but hardly deserves the label radical.  Amongst the three main candidates, she has by far the strongest environmental record – on account both of her early activism in Acre and her performance as environmental minister in the Lula government.  It was during this 2003-8 period that Silva, the defender of the forest that once had been her home, often came head-to-head with the modernist Rousseff, then energy minister and later chief of staff.  As a consequence of these and other conflicts she resigned, although Lula (currently supporting Rousseff’s candidacy) claimed that she had done so because God had told her to.  Whatever the truth, it’s clear that Silva has made substantial concessions to her former ‘enemies’ in her bid for the presidency, most notably disavowing her earlier opposition to GMOs as a ‘myth’, cozying up to sugar, ethanol and big agribusiness by adopting a ‘flexible’ approach, and choosing Beto Albuquerque, a southern deputy with strong links to agribusiness, as her running mate.

Fourth, all of the above makes clear that Marina Silva is neither an outsider, nor a newcomer to Brazilian politics.  Her impressive trajectory is, however, as unique as Lula’s was, even if the two Silvas represent very different marginalised Brazils.  Even though Brazil had a ‘black’ president a while ago (Nilo Peçanha), she would be the first non-white Brazilian president to claim the label ‘black’ as her own in a country where the political and economic elite is predominantly white.

Of course, to win the presidency, Marina Silva must appeal to non-whites and whites alike and she is trying to do this on a ‘new politics’ platform that seeks to appeal to the many in Brazil who seek change.  Yet, as highlighted here, much of her platform is based on old, orthodox and conservative political currents.  Just as the street protests last year (whose dissatisfaction Silva wants to convert to votes) aired many contradictory voices, so does the ambiguous platform on which she is running.  Only two elements of her electoral programme are clear to me: her largely neoliberal economic policies and her personal faith in the God who has chosen her to be the next president of Brazil.  The former is not really of her making; the latter is very much so, and I suspect is the irresistible idea whose time Marina Silva thinks has come.  I hope I am wrong.