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Belém’s Left-Wing Mayor Could Have a Winning Formula for the Brazilian Left

Last November, left candidate Edmilson Rodrigues defeated a Bolsonaro ally to become mayor of Belém in the Brazilian Amazon. The Belém experiment could be a chance to push back against a destructive far-right government that grossly mismanaged the pandemic.

Architect, professor of human geography, and longtime deputy for the state of Pará, Edmilson Rodrigues was elected to city government in Belém, Brazil during the municipal elections in 2020. (Jeso Carneiro / Flickr)

Belém, the capital of Brazil’s northern state of Pará and the door to the Amazon, elected a left-wing city government in the November 2020 municipal elections, with Edmilson Rodrigues of the Socialism and Freedom Party (PSOL) winning nearly 52 percent of valid votes. This unique victory of the Brazilian left, led not by a candidate of the long-established Workers’ Party (PT) that formerly held the Brazilian presidency, but by a rising force, PSOL, has not been widely discussed. It contains some important strategic implications for resistance in a time of social crisis and emergency.

Edmilson Rodrigues is a well-known figure in Belém. An architect, professor of human geography, and longtime deputy for the state of Pará, he had already served as mayor of the city from 1997 to 2005. In spite of this profile, the fake-news machine of Brazil’s extreme right nearly imposed itself on last year’s election. The candidate supporting President Jair Bolsonaro, Everaldo Eguchi from the Patriota Party, led a close race into the second round.

The risk that Eguchi might win led a range of Brazilian cultural leaders, from Chico Buarque to Caetano Veloso, to announce their support for Edmilson. Edmilson himself referred to the deep social crisis confronting the people of the city in the wake of his victory:

Belém is a capital of the Amazon, which is in the global spotlight because of fires, deforestation, land grabbing, genocide against the indigenous population and violence against landless rural workers. We are not facing a liberal candidate. We are facing a candidate who represents the ideas of the far right. So this was a victory against fascism and a defeat for President Bolsonaro, who supported my opponent.

On the evening of the victory, thousands gathered at the market of São Brás to sing, dance, and celebrate, demonstrating the popularity of Edmilson’s campaign, Belém das Novas Ideias (“Belém of New Ideas”). The candidate’s program emphasized social protection and income, especially for precarious sections of the population. The mayor’s advisor Luiz Arnaldo Dias Campos identified three main strengths of the campaign: the memory of Edmilson’s previous leadership, cross-party unity of the left parties, and the failure of the traditional right to agree on one candidate.

Edmilson’s Track Record

Even skeptical observers express respect for Edimilson’s previous municipal governments. Edmilson, who was then a member of the PT, managed to implement some major changes in a period of extreme financial constraint. In the cidade ribeirinha or “riverine city,” which includes thirty-nine islands, with the poorest neighborhoods worst affected by flooding, rainfall, and sewage, Edmilson launched macro-drainage projects in the Tucunduba and Una basins, in collaboration with the state government and with financial support from the World Bank.

In the early 2000s, his city government introduced participatory urban and budget planning known as Orçamento Participativo, and school scholarships for its poor and homeless citizens. In addition to social and cultural programs, Edmilson realized a vision of public urban space, including the revival of Belém’s famous Ver-o-peso market and the construction of the Ver-o-Rio recreational park. This was all done in defiance of the control exerted by capitalist interests like cargo shipping companies over the city’s development.

Two decades later, there is an emergency political situation with COVID-19 and rising levels of unemployment, poverty, and hunger. In its first five months, the municipal government has again been addressing the most urgent social needs. Its first major policy was the basic income project Bora Belém (“Let’s Go Belém”) promised in the election campaign.

By January 8, the city council had approved the funds that would initially benefit about nine thousand people in extreme need who were already registered and would receive R$450 (approximately ninety US dollars). In addition, the Sanitation Authority, headed by Ivanise Gasparim (PT), immediately started to clean the city’s sewers and canals. It is extending this work to the islands, and plans to install the largest sewage treatment plant in the Amazon.

Our Land

In early May, the city government launched the citizen council platform Tá Selado (“It’s Agreed”), that organizes real and virtual assemblies with citizens in all neighborhoods of the city. Its aim is for politics to reflect the city’s diversity in city panning. Seventy percent of Pará’s population identifies as pardo or caboclo, and Belém is characterized by a mixture of indigenous, black, and European-colonial cultural diversity, as well as by the persistent marginalization of the majority in access to social services and political participation.

Edmilson, in collaboration with the state government, also launched the community land regularization program Terra da Gente (“Our Land”) in February. By December of this year, the program will have granted four thousand land titles — as many as previous administrations had granted in a full sixteen years. This represents a concrete approach to social security for the poorest, since about 60 percent of Belém’s land plots — roughly 360,000 in total — are irregular.

Edmilson supports indigenous and traditional communities in their resistance to Bolsonaro’s racist development agenda as well as the neoliberal discourse of “green growth.” The city’s role as a portal to the Amazon gives it a vital platform in the global climate change debate. On April 15, Edmilson urged US president Joe Biden to show solidarity with the peoples of Amazonia by opposing a controversial economic pact with the Bolsonaro government.

An important part of this strategy will involve hosting the Pan-Amazon Social Forum in 2022, twenty years after the forum’s origin in Belém. This institutional space for regional alliances between social movements and organizations offers a way to strengthen their voices and their autonomy, helping them to present local alternatives in a debate dominated by Brazil’s southern regions and by domestic and transnational agro-industrial interests.

Like many cities in Brazil, Belém has severe ecological problems, including a neglect of green spaces. According to journalist Catarina Barbosa, the previous mayor, Zenaldo Coutinho of the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB), ordered the cutting down of many trees and the planting of other species that were unsuitable for the city’s conditions. Edmilson’s programs for environmental sustainability in the city face the enormous challenge of reconciling conflicting interests among Belém’s citizens in order to meet social needs for infrastructure, sanitation, reforestation and urban mobility.

Among other things, the mayor will support a market for organic products from family farmers and landless settlements. In the nationwide system of Brazilian budgeting, which favors the south of the country, Belém has received very little funding for social services, sanitation, and culture, compared to other historic centers such as Salvador in Bahia. The mayor’s team is seeking to counter these difficulties by working with the population and enlisting help from experts at the local university.

Facing the Pandemic

Edmilson’s predecessor Zenaldo Coutinho has left behind several dubious construction schemes, such as the repeatedly postponed Belém BRT project, which had promised to improve transport networks in the metropolitan region since 2013. But the first, enormous task for the city government is to vaccinate the population against COVID-19, in the face of sabotage from the federal government.

Edmilson is vice president of the Committee of City Councils that coordinates vaccine procurement. He is implementing a comprehensive vaccination program in collaboration with the state government. Many people are counting on the mayor’s expertise and his ability to negotiate to steer this through. He has previously involved all parties in government, seeking pragmatic cooperation across ideological lines, and Edmilson’s campaign in 2020 received informal support from some of his former opponents.

It is the implementation of left policies and the forging of alliances that may offer lessons for the Left in Brazil and further. As the diplomat Antonio Freitas has observed, the Belém government will be an important experiment for PSOL. The party has been more involved in the legislature than in city governments, with its support especially concentrated in São Paulo and the Brazilian south.

The relative success of the traditional right-wing parties in the municipal elections shows how persistent anti-PT sentiment is in Brazil. While Edmilson himself left the PT after his previous terms as mayor and founded PSOL in Pará in 2005, his government includes many PT politicians, including his vice mayor, Edilson Moura.

However, Jair Bolsonaro’s popularity is also waning. Never before had so many black and indigenous deputies been elected as in the municipal elections of 2020. PSOL is now emerging as an alternative to the political approach associated with Lula and the PT, giving voice to representatives of previously marginalized sectors. This points to a qualitative change in the scenario facing the democratic and left-wing camp in Brazil.

As the Brazilian people face rising hunger and unemployment, environmental degradation, police violence, and the ongoing pandemic, with Bolsonaro’s far-right government still at the helm of the state, the Belém experiment offers the chance for a reversal of these destructive trends.