Perspectives on Democracy

Brazil: Regional Inequality—Whose Vote Counts?

Barbara Weinstein, September 2016

“I’ve already done my duty. And you?”: Citizens of São Paulo who revolted against the dictatorship of Getúlio Vargas in 1932 wanted “law and order,” not “democracy.” Since the sort of racially based exclusion of voters associated with Jim Crow in the United States or apartheid in South Africa has not been a feature of politics in Brazil and other Latin American nations, scholars have tended to focus on class-based inequality as the crucial problem for understanding the challenges to democratic processes in Latin America. But more recently, historians have considered how, even in the absence of rigid racial categories or formal mechanisms of exclusion, race can operate to undermine democratic initiatives. In the case of Brazilian politics, this racism gets expressed in a variety of ways, including, I would argue, in the racialization of regional difference, a process that emerged most clearly in the 1930s and which continues to be a feature of the Brazilian political landscape.

For most of Latin America, the 1930s was a time when populist political initiatives emerged from the right and the left. In the case of Brazil, that decade saw the rise of Getúlio Vargas, the man who would rule the nation as provisional president or dictator from 1930 to 1945. Vargas’s policies and disdain for democratic procedure provoked sporadic unrest throughout Brazil, but the most sustained challenge to his power came from the state of São Paulo, Brazil’s leading agricultural and industrial region. Outraged at Vargas’s appointment of outsiders as provisional governors and his unilateral implementation of new labor legislation, the two main political parties in the region united and, with support from a dissident faction of the military, declared war on the Vargas regime in July 1932.

There are many intriguing features of this short-lived revolt, but there is one particular aspect that I would like to highlight here: the paulistas (people from the state of São Paulo) who joined the movement against Vargas, while regularly denouncing his dictatorship, did not call for democracy. With rare exceptions, paulista flyers, manifestos, and posters referred to the need to restore the “rule of law,” rather than democracy. Indeed, when prominent supporters of the “Constitutionalist Revolution” did mention democracy, it was typically to call it into question. Thus, a leading figure from São Paulo’s Partido Democrático expressed his skepticism about Brazil’s capacity for “true” democratic rule: “We are an immense democracy of illiterates. Democracy, under these conditions, inevitably acquires features of a dictatorship.”1

Ultimately, it is not surprising that the paulistas did not represent their movement against a dictatorship as a fight for democracy, since the rationale for the uprising was an insistence on São Paulo’s superiority as the bulwark of order and progress, and the incapacity of the poorer and “darker” regions of Brazil, especially the Northeast, to form a foundation for a modern nation. It was not just that the Northeast—portrayed as Vargas’s principal base of support—was poorer than São Paulo, but that its population was consequently unfit to make decisions that could impact conditions in Brazil’s leading state. In effect, São Paulo’s self-styled “Liberal Constitutionalists” adopted an anti-populist stance, grounded in a racialized, hierarchical vision of Brazilian society that inclined them to interpret the expansion of popular political participation as a potential threat to the nation they imagined.

This racialized vision of regional difference endured even as successive governments touted the nation as a “racial democracy.” An older historiography tended to celebrate Brazil’s more fluid attitudes regarding race, especially when compared with rigid categories of blackness and whiteness in the United States. But most scholars writing about Brazil today would argue that color lines need not be rigid for racism to operate. When paulista elites first began depicting their region as whiter than those to the north, it was partly due to the influx of (subsidized) European immigrants to replace the emancipated slaves on coffee plantations. But it was also a discursive process that portrayed São Paulo as having qualities that made it “naturally” hospitable to modernity and whiteness. The fact that many of the politicians and publicists making such arguments had some non-European ancestry hardly made these claims less racist.

An expanded franchise, in and of itself, does not translate into a more democratic political culture. There are many ways besides a military coup to frustrate the will of the majority.

One irony of the paulista regionalists’ insistence on their superiority was that Vargas the dictator was better positioned than the paulista elites to pivot to a democratic-­popular politics after his fall from power in 1945, as Brazil shifted to the period (1945–64) known as the Populist Republic. Vargas rode a wave of popular support into the presidency in 1950, and his more radically populist acolyte, João Goulart, was elected vice president in 1960 and then assumed the presidency in 1961. But neither completed his term in office: Vargas’s adversaries initiated a campaign to drive him from power, which culminated in his suicide in 1954, and Goulart was overthrown in 1964 by a military coup that launched 21 years of authoritarian rule. The two leading daily papers in São Paulo announced the ouster of Goulart and the seizure of power by the armed forces in jubilant tones; alluding to the “spirit of 1932,” the mainstream paulista press drew on the memories of the Constitutionalist revolt to legitimize its support for the overthrow of a legally elected government that had threatened to enfranchise “illiterate nordestinos.”

Despite the many economic and cultural shifts in Brazilian society over the last half century, racialized regional identities and hierarchies that position certain segments of the population as less deserving of participation in political processes than others have endured. There are also troubling signs of political discord, once again, being grafted onto regional divisions. In the last two presidential elections, almost all the states in the northern half of Brazil gave a majority of their votes to the Workers’ Party (PT) candidate, Dilma Rousseff, while a solid majority of voters in the southern states have cast their ballots for her opponent. Since Brazil has direct popular elections for president, such geographic divisions in voting patterns do not necessarily skew the outcome. But this divided electoral map has produced spatially defined animosities, as was evident, in its most unsavory form, in comments on the web following both Dilma’s election and her reelection. Many paulistas attributed her victories to the heavy support she enjoyed from nordestinos, assumed to be the primary beneficiaries of PT-backed social welfare programs. The most derisive remarks portrayed nordestinos as “lazy bums” who live off the hardworking paulistas. In an extreme case following the 2010 election, one paulista law student infamously tweeted, “Do SP a favor: strangle a nordestino to death!”

Which brings us to the current state of Brazilian democracy, such as it is. After four straight presidential elections in which the left-leaning Workers’ Party emerged victorious, its right-wing opponents are seeking to gain control of the federal government by other means. Since the still-raw memories of the dictatorship have (for now) eliminated the option of military intervention, the opposition has had recourse instead to impeachment proceedings, accusing Dilma of juggling accounts in state-owned banks to cover up holes in the budget, an offense many regard as mild or even spurious compared to the fraud and graft allegedly committed by some of her staunchest adversaries. Those who oppose the impeachment campaign argue that what is happening should be regarded as a legislative “coup.”

The historical regionalization of political alliances was evident in the recent impeachment vote and in the many demonstrations that preceded it. Support for impeachment was strong in the São Paulo congressional delegation, in contrast to delegations from the northeastern states of Ceará and Bahia, whose members overwhelmingly opposed impeachment. However, for me, what best epitomized the political uses of such divisions was a pro-impeachment sign distributed at a major São Paulo demonstration this past March. Against a background of the Brazilian flag, it read simply “+Coxinha/–Acarajé.” The meaning of the poster’s double metonym would be obvious to anyone familiar with current Brazilian political slang. “Coxinha” literally means “little thigh,” but it’s also a common snack made of mashed potatoes and chicken; it has become a popular term for middle-class paulistas who see themselves as representing hard work and meritocracy. Acarajé is the classic street food of Bahia, with African culinary roots, and typically cooked and sold by bahianas—women in West African garb. So “more coxinha” and “less acarajé” equals more political attention/influence for middle-class/whiter paulistas and less for poorer and darker nordestinos.

What historical lessons can we draw from this drastically abridged narrative of the last 86 years of Brazilian politics, in which the procedural formalities of democracy have repeatedly failed to ensure effective political participation and social change? First, it indicates that an expanded franchise, in and of itself, does not translate into a more democratic political culture, and that there are many ways besides a military coup to frustrate the will of the majority. More specifically, it tells us that regional inequalities can produce the kinds of racist discourses about internal populations that elsewhere have been directed at recent immigrants. The self-proclaimed middle-class Brazilians who carry signs with slogans like “+Coxinha/–Acarajé” cannot, for obvious reasons, question the nordestinos’ right to inhabit the physical space of the Brazilian nation, but they are questioning the nordestinos’ capacity to inhabit Brazil’s political sphere. This sentiment echoes the paulista politico’s comment in 1932 that Brazil is an “immense democracy of illiterates” that “inevitably acquires features of a dictatorship.” But I would argue that it is precisely this fear of “too much” democracy, rooted in deeply anti-popular and implicitly racist politics, that has punctuated Brazil’s last century with various versions of authoritarian rule.

Barbara Weinstein is professor of history at New York University and a past president of the AHA.


1.Leven Vampré, São Paulo Terra Conquistada (São Paulo: Ed. Paulista, 1932), 13.

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