Brazil’s Poorest Need a Hero. Is Flávio Dino the Right Guy?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
This underdog may be able to save some lives — if his policies work.
By Shannon Sims
Flávio Dino had settled in for an evening of TV when his assistant called and told him to change the channel. The images shocked him: dirty children with distended bellies living in palm frond huts with no water, at risk of starvation. The program, Hunger Road, documented the extreme poverty in four towns linked to a road in the state of Maranhão. Dino says he felt absolutely sick.
That’s because he’s the new governor of Maranhão. And after 50 years of state mismanagement, those starving kids and the rest of Maranhão are now depending on him to fix it.
It’s a heavy burden for the 47-year-old, who’s still got the fresh energy and natural laugh of a political newcomer. This morning, on day 90 of his term, he’s a world away from underprivileged constituents, in the centuries-old Palace of Lions, a brilliantly white compound overlooking a vast beige horizon of sand at low tide, the symbol of better times in Maranhão. “It’s tough to take over a state after a 40-year oligarchy,” he says, pushing up his glasses and leaning on the balcony overlooking landscaped grounds and a modern pool. The fallout of a coup is in the air, of an intruder in the palace.
Replacing a dynasty is never easy — just ask anyone who’s ever run against a Gandhi or Kennedy.
Dino’s done what for decades the people of Maranhão thought impossible, and stolen the palace away from one of the last great political dynasties of Brazil, the Sarneys, who controlled not only the politics of the state but also the roads, the hospitals and the libraries (which all bear the Sarney name). Now, in rather rapid fashion, he has reversed course and given one of Brazil’s poorest states a measure of hope for the first time in a generation, with a series of eye-catching reforms that are out of place in today’s world, from supplementing a family welfare program to proposing to tax the rich. “He is one of the people in Brazil who could have the greatest impact on education and development,” says Alberto Lourenço, secretary of sustainable development for Brazil’s Office of Strategic Affairs.
But replacing a dynasty is never easy — just ask anyone who’s ever run against a Gandhi or Kennedy. Dynasties have a habit of digging in, and in some parts of the world they create what political scientists call the dynastic cycle, where the first dynasty becomes corrupt and authoritarian, only to be replaced by a newcomer who creates a legacy that soon falls prey to the same fate. It’s a theory based upon Chinese political history, but Brazilians fear it may be applied to Maranhão as well. “I hope that he brings a real change,” says one young lawyer, “but I’m still not sure.”
Travel through this region as Dino has and it becomes clear that although the state’s GDP ranks 16th out of Brazil’s 26, the wealth has not been spread around. Of Brazil’s 50 poorest municipalities, more than half of them — including the four along Hunger Road — are located in Dino’s state. Maranhão has the second-lowest Human Development Index across all of the country’s states. Half of the population lacks clean water, while 90 percent doesn’t have sewage. And, if that weren’t bad enough, as various government agencies report, more children die here than in any other state, at a rate double the national average. But even those who make it past adolescence here die sooner — five years earlier than the national average of 75.
In this hell-scape, the capital city of São Luís looks like it’s been left for dead, with its UNESCO-recognized historical center in ruins and crack dealers running the night. But feeling safe in the historical center is a far cry from the concerns of those who live in the state’s interior. A visit there makes you wonder how people survive at all. Mud homes are scattered in the shrubbery, almost completely disconnected from modern life. Brown water comes from wells. Those with any kind of health issue are like limping gazelles. The lower life expectancy and the high rate of childhood mortality here start to make sense when you see it firsthand.
Which Dino has. He campaigned for years in the state’s interior, though he comes from a different world. He grew up in a São Luís family of lawyers, attending Catholic school. As a teenager under the military dictatorship of the early 1980s, he got involved with youth movements right as the country was clamoring for democracy. He points to his Catholic values as the reason for which he decided to become a government lawyer. Before long, he’d reached the job many lawyers want: federal judge. With a guaranteed salary for life, all he had to do was coast. He laughs, “It’s a good wave to ride.”
But after 12 years as a judge, Dino decided it wasn’t for him. “As a judge you have to be at a distance from society and its conflicts,” he explains. “I thought I could contribute better to society as a politician.” Perceiving weakness in the Sarney dynasty — “because they couldn’t handle the development of our state anymore” — he took his shot in 2005, winning a seat in Congress under the Communist Party. He then ran for mayor of São Luís in 2008 but lost, and for governor in 2010 but lost that too — beat out by a Sarney. With support from President Dilma Rousseff, he took over the presidency of the Brazilian Tourism Institute, setting him up for a comfortable life in Brasília. That is, until the unthinkable happened.
It took a communist to bring capitalism to Maranhão.
On Feb. 14, 2012, Dino’s 13-year-old son went to the hospital for routine treatment of an asthma attack. Hours later, he was dead, the recipient of an incorrect injection dosage. As Dino tells the story, he twists a paper into shreds. He’s filed a lawsuit against the hospital, which is still pending. In the wake of the tragedy, he redoubled his efforts to become governor, touring the state and hosting a series of “dialogues” aimed at allowing people to air their many grievances. When election time came this year, those people sent a clear message by casting out the Sarneys.
First up: dismantling endemic corruption. He’s brought to the Supreme Court an action to enforce the taxation of “great fortunes,” an unregulated loophole that allows the country’s wealthiest to be taxed at meager rates. In house, he’s sliced and diced decades-old third-party contracts, eliminating such costs as some $3.50 for cups of milk schools have been forced to pay. He proclaims Maranhão is open for business and no longer a nepotistic, closed game. “It took a communist to bring capitalism to Maranhão,” he jokes. He’s using the cuts to bankroll programs attacking childhood poverty, “to help give them the life my child was denied,” he says. To start, he’s replacing mud-and-palm-frond schools with actual cement buildings.
Sounds nice, but many Brazilians disagree with his strategy. After a close presidential election, the country is starkly divided, and on one side are folks like Adriano Sarney, a 34-year-old congressman, one of the last Sarneys in office. He calls Dino’s bold shift away from an “oligarchy” “just political marketing blabber” and a “twisting” of the Sarney legacy. He and many conservative Brazilians disagree with Dino’s social assistance policies. “They will never leave poverty if they live off assistance,” says Sarney.
As a storm kicks up from the ocean beyond the palace, Dino sits stiffly in a suit at the head of a massive, glass-topped table in a cavernous salon of carved jacaranda wood and crown molding. Armed guards, relics of past governments, wait just beyond the arching doors. It’s a setting better suited to a Downton Abbey dinner party than a discussion about the long-term societal consequences of mud-hut schools.
“It’s almost a feeling of desperation when you look at the challenge we have,” he says, staring down at his full glass of water, turning it slowly with his fingertips as he describes watching Hunger Road. The lights are off, and as the rolling storm dims the scene, lantern-lit portraits of political leaders begin to glow behind him. He extends his arms, pushing back against the table and into his oversize royal chair. “We can’t make miracles,” he says in a firm, clear voice that echoes through the grand room. “But sometimes change is necessary to guarantee that history won’t repeat itself.”