Why you should care

Because the left in this region has muscle that gets flexed way beyond the continent.

On a recent Friday night in southernmost Brazil’s Rio Grande do Sul state legislature, Luciana Genro stood in a circle with more than 200 other people, her hands clasping those of the people next to her. The circle surrounded an environmentalist wearing a handwoven blue vest and shaking a maraca of hollowed-out mango seeds. The topic: grisly killings across the nation, among them an indigenous baby beheaded at a bus stop in December; in November, five young Black men shot by the police while on their way to get a snack; also in November, more than 16 miners drowned in toxic mud after a dam burst.

Genro, 45, is not just any participant — at that launch of a group called Raiz, which aims to be Brazil’s 36th political party, she represented the Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL), which she helped found. Amid Brazil’s messy, coalition-strewn political landscape, Genro, a former schoolteacher, is hoping to fortify a “coherent left” among former members of nominally progressive parties and the people who were never inspired by them. The PSOL is still small, with just 120,000 or so registered members to 1.75 million in Dilma Rousseff’s Workers’ Party (PT), but on Brazil’s left, the search is open for credible leaders. The 2014 presidential election almost saw environmentalist Marina Silva ascend that throne; after a brief sprint in the polls, she came in third. Just behind Silva? Genro.

Genro … is hoping to fortify a “coherent left” among former members of nominally progressive parties and the people who were never inspired by them.

Today, Genro is aiming smaller: for the title of mayor of Porto Alegre, the capital of historically wealthy Rio Grande do Sul. Porto Alegre is no backwater town: Home to protests against bus fare hikes that spread to nationwide anti–World Cup activism two years ago, it has long been a launchpad for ambitious politicians. Things look good for Genro so far: At a wonky economic policy panel, local fans wearing T-shirts emblazoned with her image were in attendance. Genro’s only threatening competitor, according to recent polls, has announced she is not running.

On a continent where the long-reigning left threatens to recede — from Bolivia’s Evo Morales to Ecuador’s Rafael Correa — mapping progressives requires some serious cartographic talent. In Brazil, it’s no different. The media casts political conflict as a debate between the center-left PT and the center-right Brazilian Social Democratic Party, says Celso Barros, political scientist and columnist for Brazil’s second-largest newspaper, Folha de São Paulo. “But,” he adds, “the reality is more complex.” Silva, for example, lost support from left-wingers in the last election when she made late-game allies in the banking sector.

Which helps with Genro’s call for insurgency; she tells OZY that she objects to “the logic of choosing the lesser evil.” She’s refusing to follow the calls of some on Brazil’s left to avoid criticizing Rousseff. Genro, gray eyes direct behind rimless glass and wig-inspiring curly hair recently cut short, says it’s crucial that an anti-corruption investigation into bribery at the state oil company under Rousseff’s leadership run its full course.

Communications student Kassiele Nascimento, 20, came to the Rio Grande do Sul legislature at 9 a.m. on Saturday for Genro’s panel, and sees the latest incarnation of left-wing agitation everywhere — like the December student takeovers and teach-ins at more than 200 São Paulo public high schools slated for shutdown due to budget cuts. These young-pulse topics are Genro’s expertise. She tells OZY that she “came of political age around the time the Berlin Wall fell, and I studied how a supposedly socialist regime had deteriorated into a bureaucracy run by a political caste.”

Genro first learned politics from her father (a mayor, governor and “Lula” da Silva cabinet member) and grandfather (a vice mayor), activists who fled Brazil during the military dictatorship. In 1985, at age 14, Genro asked to attend a Porto Alegre public school “known for rebellion” instead of the private high school of her parents’ choice, according to classmate and fellow PSOL founder Roberto Robaina, who dated her at the time. There, he says, “Luciana became known for acting in collectives in a very competent and serious way.” He and Genro joined a subgroup inside the nascent PT that was even further to the left of Genro’s father. At 23, she won a seat in state congress, and spent her days uncooking the books at the state sanitation company. True renown came when she was dramatically kicked out of the Workers’ Party in 2003 for refusing to vote along the party line after she felt Lula grew closer to private interests.

Despite Brazil’s young leftists’ energy, the perennial question of protests and progressives remains: How soon can they translate passion into policy? Folha columnist Barros believes that PSOL’s economic policies “should mature some” before they can be relevant nationally — for example, he suggests they stop calling for an audit of Brazil’s national debt, which, he says, would save little public money. Although Barros may vote in October for a PSOL mayoral candidate whose human rights record he admires, he says the party is far from winning over the Brazilian media: “Generally speaking, the editorial line of all major Brazilian newspapers is to the right of the Workers’ Party.”

Mature or not, it’s clear that Genro’s radical story is capturing the public imagination. Here, class tensions abound as the rich and upwardly mobile ensconce in private schools, private health plans, cars, malls and gated communities. Genro isn’t much for anything with the word “private” in it. She held her January birthday party in a public park.

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