Brazil's favela dwellers are cashing in on campaign season

Signs for political candidates are plastered all over Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro's most populous favela.
Credit: Will Carless

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — Elections are a great time to make a little extra cash in the slums of Rio de Janeiro.

For anyone out of work, or looking for an extra gig, there’s money to be made handing out flyers, waving flags, or guarding billboards to make sure nobody vandalizes or steals them.

For those living in an apartment on a busy street, cash awaits them for letting political parties use their balcony to hang posters of grinning candidates.

Got a car? Election season brings an extra bonus: You can make up to 1,200 reais ($490) — about two-thirds the average Brazilian monthly wage — by plastering your vehicle with campaign ads for a few weeks leading up to the vote.

“People drive from one candidate to another, shopping around,” said 47-year-old Gilmar de Assis Veranda, who runs the local committee for a state legislative candidate in the Mare “favela,” or slum, in northern Rio. “Election time is a time to make money. Everybody around here knows that.”

On Sunday, Brazilians will vote in the country’s most expensive general election to date, in terms of campaign finance. And it's not just the costly campaigns of President Dilma Rousseff, running for re-election, and her opponents. Candidates for president as well as state and local offices, which will also be on the ballot this weekend, are projected to spend about $30 billion, Brazil's UOL reported. Hard numbers won’t be available until after the election, but that's almost three times the cost of putting on the 2014 World Cup — just as economic recession is setting in.

There are two sides to the favela PR push: On the surface, the money pouring into neighborhoods is about simple political advertising — getting names and faces in front of voters. But Dalson Filho, a political science assistant professor at the Federal University of Pernambuco who studies campaign finance, said the campaign spending is also about ingratiating voters by spreading around money and jobs.

“It is very sad how elections are done here,” he said by instant message.

Unlike in the United States, Brazilian political parties can’t buy television time, so campaign cash instead gets funneled into communities, where it’s divvied up into dozens of different jobs, Filho explained.

He said his research has shown that this money has a central role in defining election outcomes in Brazil. That’s especially true in poorer areas, he said.

“In other words, the return of each extra dollar is higher in poor areas,” he wrote.

Adelson Guedes, a candidate for state office in Rio, walks the main street of the Rocinha favela in Rio de Janeiro. (Will Carless/GlobalPost)

In Rio’s huge Rocinha favela, campaign season was in full swing last week.

Adelson Guedes, a candidate for Rio de Janeiro state representative, strolled the main street, wheeling a speaker system blasting campaign jingles and slogans.

Decked out in a traditional Brazilian leather hat, Guedes was coy about some of the tactics employed by the various campaigns.

“People get paid to put these posters on their balconies, but it’s illegal,” Guedes said.

Favela residents whose homes are visible from main streets can earn as much as 200 to 300 reais ($85 to $125) for displaying a campaign poster, Guedes said. Not bad in a country where the minimum wage gets you 724 reais ($302) a month.

Filho confirmed that much of the informal campaigning here is illegal. Renting out one’s wall space for billboards is against election law, he said, though none of the residents interviewed for this story seemed concerned about enforcement of these rules.

Farther up the hill in Rocinha, 49-year-old Maria Rodriguez de Souza hands out flyers to passersby for Guedes and Farias. She said she earns 200 reais ($85) a week for doing that job from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday to Friday.

“It’s great because I need the extra work!” de Souza said. “I’m renting an apartment and I don’t have much money.”

Back in Mare, one of Rio’s largest and most dangerous favelas, Veranda, the committee leader, detailed some of the other jobs that come to the community during election season.

He said he employs seven people full-time. Among the staff is a team of negotiators that travels around the slum, looking for available wall space and bargaining with residents to put up a billboard or two.

Sometimes the payoff for advertising space is cash. Sometimes, in the case of commercial buildings, campaigns find other ways to pay. For example, across the street from Veranda’s campaign headquarters, 60-year-old Gilmar Perreira is hosting some of the candidate’s propaganda on the walls of his mixed-goods warehouse.

Perreira said in exchange for the advertising space, the campaign always comes to him when they need lighting or hardware for their work in the community.

Paulo Sotero, director of the Brazil Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC, said what’s happening in 2014 in cities like Rio is just the latest manifestation of a historic practice in Brazilian politics.

“This is a more organized version of the old ‘currals eleitorals,’ where they organize people to do the legwork of the campaign,” Sotero said, referring to the practice of politicians “rounding up” or “corralling” voters with tactics ranging from intimidation to propaganda.

“You have an inordinate amount of money floating around,” he said. “[Politicians] aren’t particularly worried about what’s going on in these communities. This is an electoral campaign, those are very temporary activities, and once the election is over, the place will revert to its normal environment, with lots of un-busy people around.”

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