This Is What a Leader Looks Like
Why Marina Silva’s message resonates from the Amazon to the Middle East to the White House.
Hope and strong leadership are in short supply these days. But if you want a shot of both as well as a glimpse into a story that resonates worldwide, watch the following video. (It’s in Portuguese. Beneath it is a translation into English that was prepared by the Economist.)
The video is a two-minute-long political commercial for Marina Silva, a woman who rose up from crushing poverty, working as a housekeeper to make ends meet, to become the current front-runner in Brazil’s presidential election. It is an excerpt from a Silva speech in which she addresses the country’s current leader, Dilma Rousseff, responding to Rousseff’s assertion that Silva would shut down the Bolsa Familia, a social program designed to help the poorest Brazilians and one that is widely popular across Latin America’s biggest country.
The Economist‘s translation is:
"Dilma! Know that I’m not going to fight you with your weapons. I’m going to fight you with our truth. With our respect. And with our policies.
"We are going to keep the Bolsa Família. Do you know why? Because I was born in the Seringal Bagaço, and I know what it is to go hungry.
"All that my mother used to have for eight children was an egg and a bit of flour and salt, and some chopped onion. I remember looking at my father and mother and asking: Are you not going to eat? And my mother answered… my mother answered: We are not hungry.
"And a child believed that. But afterwards, I understood that for yet another day, they had nothing to eat.
"Someone who has lived through that will never end the Bolsa Familia.
"This is not a speech. It is a life."
Until mid-August, Silva was not much more than a footnote in Brazil’s political life. That is not to say she was not important. Her story had long been an inspiring one to Brazilians. The 56-year-old was born in the Brazilian state of Acre on a rubber tree plantation. Of mixed racial ancestry, she was raised in a family with 11 children, and spent much of her childhood wracked by tropical diseases. And by the time she was 16, she had been orphaned. Educated in a convent, she became not only the first person in her family to learn to read and write, but by age 26 she had earned a history degree.
Early in her political career she teamed up with Amazon environmental activist Chico Mendes to fight the destruction of the rainforest. Riding the popularity she achieved for her activism, she was elected to Brazil’s Senate in 1994. She continued her activism in this role and fought for the passage of laws and regulations that reversed the trend of the destruction of the Brazilian jungles that are so vital to the global environment that they have been called "the lungs of the planet" because they produce one-fifth of the world’s oxygen.
Her work led to her appointment as a minister in the administration of Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Her colleagues in the government remember her as focused, effective, knowledgeable, and impressive. Ultimately, her passion for the environment produced rifts between her and some who saw her as uncompromising on critical issues of economic development. She resigned from her post in the spring of 2008.
A year later she became the Green Party candidate for president of Brazil and despite winning roughly one out of five votes in the first round of the elections, did not qualify for the runoff stage. She switched to the Socialist Party in 2013 and earlier this year became their candidate for vice president on a ticket headed by Eduardo Campos. But on Aug. 13, Campos was killed in a plane crash. In the weeks that followed, his successor, Silva, rose so quickly in the polls that while she is seen as likely to finish second to Rousseff in the first round of the elections on Oct. 5, currently she is seen as having an advantage to ultimately defeat Rousseff, Lula’s handpicked successor, in the runoff stage. Brazilian political insiders note that it is particularly significant that Lula has remained relatively silent on the issue of his preferences, leading one such insider to conclude that Lula, like many Brazilians, has grown disaffected with Rousseff’s dour, combative stance and her overall lackluster performance as president.
Much can change and certainly to some degree, Silva’s rise has been fueled by the shock and sympathy that followed Campos’s death. But as both the speech at the outset and her impressive career demonstrate, she has been lifted by more than just a twist of fate. This is an extraordinarily formidable woman whose rise offers lessons and resonances that should touch many far beyond Brazil’s borders.
First, it must be noted that the one thing that is certain is that the next president of Brazil will again be a woman. Dilma and Marina lead third-place candidate Aécio Neves by substantial margins and rumors already have him seeking to broker a deal with Silva to announce his support for her immediately after the first-round election results are announced. In a world in which women are still far from being as politically empowered as any sense of equity or justice would dictate, the world’s fifth most populous nation offers the first campaign in memory for the head of state post in a large country where both of the top contenders are women.
Silva — who has indigenous, Afro-Brazilian and Portuguese ancestors, but describes herself as black — would be the first such president in a country that is both proud of its enormous racial diversity but has yet to see that pride produce truly representative results at the highest political levels. She would certainly also represent an extraordinary climb up the country’s socioeconomic ladder. In addition to the above, the Guardian newspaper has indicated that on a planet that is struggling to come to grips with a massive climate crisis, Silva could become the world’s first "green" president. That’s especially important given Brazil’s centrality and leadership on environmental issues.
In all these things, the example offered by the Brazilian elections is one illustrating the promise of democracy for remaking societies, righting old wrongs, and offering a voice to the disenfranchised. To those in corners of the world where democracy has yet to take hold, Brazil’s story and Silva’s should serve as a source of inspiration. Frequently in its history and from 1964 through 1985, Brazil was dominated by military governments, which often employed brutal and repressive tactics. (Rousseff herself was a guerilla who fought the military regime and was brutally tortured as a consequence.) But since then, not only was democracy restored but a form of democracy that has emerged that actively embraced the formerly disenfranchised — from Lula, who left school in second grade to help support his family, to Dilma, to Marina. Today, it seems Brazilians are actively seeking leaders who not only can speak words of caring for the people at large but who viscerally feel it in ways that are instantly clear to those who spend even two minutes watching the brilliantly effective political advertisement above.
Of course, the reason the ad is so effective has little to do with deft editing or smart political consultants. It is not the hocus-pocus or polling mentality of modern politics that gives it its lift. It is the passion behind it and the story behind that passion. In this respect, Silva’s rise should be instructive from Brasilia to Washington, D.C., whether she is elected or not. Dilma is seen as a cerebral technocrat, a drone president who has done little to inspire during her time in office. What fizz there was in her own story — in being the first woman to become president of Brazil — has long since dissipated. Her closeness to the extraordinarily popular Lula has become open to question. Indeed, it seems in many respects that while Dilma may be Lula’s chosen successor, Marina is now being perceived by many as much more his successor in spirit.
Silva, as the first person of Afro-Brazilian background to have a real chance at becoming president, is sometimes referred to as Brazil’s Obama. In that there is one more cautionary tale and one more lesson. Obama too was different, offered a story of unprecedented empowerment, and was inspiring. But in a way, he has become his own Dilma: What once inspired now fuels disappointment at the consequences of a mixed bag of results since he took office. In that, there should be a warning for Brazilians: The passions of election seasons can fade quickly when great speechmakers are asked to govern.
But there should also be a lesson for Obama — a chance to look at Silva and be reminded of what made him a phenomenon in America in 2008. He can look into her eyes, read her story, and see a leader whose heart is still full and whose aspirations are still growing. If she wins, it will be because Brazil’s Obama offered an alternative to a president who was perceived to have gone flat much as Obama is perceived to have lost his "Yes We Can!" mojo.
In this respect, Marina Silva, the woman who may be and should be Brazil’s next president, has in her life and her message something to offer everyone from the poorest, most disenfranchised citizen of a Middle Eastern autocracy to the president of the United States himself.