Bolsonaro courts farm vote with ex-Brazilian agriculture minister

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CAMPO GRANDE, Brazil (AP) — Tereza Cristina pours coffee for visitors to her home surrounded by sprawling soybean plantations in the farming country of Brazil. Guests seated in wicker chairs on his porch are friends and farmers eager to hear how they can help President Jair Bolsonaro’s re-election bid.

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Cristina, Bolsonaro’s former agriculture minister, has become the face of the far-right president in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, one of the strongholds of agribusiness that plays an important role in his efforts to defeat leftist former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

Cristina, 68, resigned as minister in March to run for a Senate seat and won 61% of the vote on October 2. That’s even more than Bolsonaro won in the first round of the presidential race in the state of 2.8 million people.

But Bolsonaro trailed by a few percentage points in the national tally and the two now face off in a deciding second round on Sunday. With the race seemingly tight, the president’s advantage, even in sparsely populated rural areas, can be crucial.

The state’s economy—like that of Brazil as a whole—had boomed under da Silva from 2003 to 2010. But the state also withstood deep national economic recessions in the years that followed.

Its GDP per capita has increased by more than 10% in real terms since 2012, while that of the nation has contracted, according to Sérgio Vale, chief economist at MB Associados.

Cristina focuses on issues such as regularizing land ownership for hundreds of thousands of farmers under Bolsonaro and says they have helped more people than during the export-driven commodity boom under da Silva – which she said had favored large farmers over small ones.

“During these years (as minister), I worked much more for small farmers than for large ones. The great don’t need the government, they need freedom. Small producers need us,” Cristina said Monday in a conversation with herders in the state of Minas Gerais – a reference to Bolsonaro’s position of less intervention in the economy and a certain support for family farming.

His calls seem to help.

“I’m going to vote for Bolsonaro largely because of her,” said rancher and warehouse manager João Pedro Bernardy, who identifies as a moderate and owns soybean fields in Sidrolandia, outside from Campo Grande, the state capital.

Bernardy says he sees risks for agribusiness if Bolsonaro wins re-election: He said the rampant clearing of the Amazon rainforest that critics blame Bolsonaro on could lead to foreign restrictions on Brazilian exports.

But he is also hampered by a history of corruption within da Silva’s Workers’ Party – scandals that led to da Silva himself being jailed before his convictions were overturned by the Supreme Court.

He said Cristina had been effective, recalling that Bolsonaro had not prevented rural workers from showing up during the pandemic and had paid them social benefits. The president has also pushed for road and infrastructure projects in the countryside to help get produce to market.

“It is an important asset to guarantee exports; she knows we cannot remain dependent on China,” he said of Cristina’s efforts to diversify Brazil’s export markets.

Mato Grosso do Sul is just one part of Brazil’s vast agricultural belt in west-central Brazil, where 16 million people live in an area the size of Alaska.

The area’s boom can be seen in Campo Grande, where glitzy restaurants like a Peruvian-Japanese fusion spot are popping up, as well as gated communities with tennis courts and dealerships for Jaguars, Land Rovers and Harley-Davidsons. .

Brazil’s agribusiness has thrived in recent years — regardless of government and despite national economic downturns — thanks in large part to exports to China that began to rise in the early 2000s.

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As Bolsonaro builds on his advantage in Mato Grosso do Sul, da Silva and the left are left behind. There are plenty of roadside billboards supporting Bolsonaro here, but few for da Silva.

It’s a lament from hardcore left-wing activist Militino Domingos de Arruda, 78, a former cattle rancher who now collects recyclables to survive. He points to the fact that tens of millions of Brazilians suffer from hunger, proof that the country’s agri-food model is more focused on feeding foreigners.

He complains that da Silva – universally known as Lula – did not effectively cede the area as he prioritized stumping in other areas.

“His campaign here is so moderate that I can rarely get stickers and flags and things I need to attract more voters,” de Arruda said at his home, surrounded by Workers’ Party flags and protesters. da Silva posters. “Lula didn’t even come here.”

Da Silva tried to gain traction in the world of agribusiness by winning the endorsement of moderate Senator Simone Tebet. She is also from Mato Grosso do Sul, where her family owns extensive land holdings in sugar cane and other crops. Tebet, 52, finished third in the first round and then threw his weight behind da Silva.

“It was the hardest decision of my life,” Tebet told The Associated Press by phone between campaign events. “I saw a very conservative Congress being elected, governors turning to Bolsonaro and the democratic center of which I am a part collapsing. I had never campaigned with the Workers’ Party.

Tebet believes Brazil’s agribusiness embraced Bolsonaro due to outdated fears of the national landless workers’ movement, which for decades occupied unused land and responded with violence when he was forcibly evicted. The movement is also a strong supporter of the Workers’ Party.

Tebet said Bolsonaro’s conservative nationalism also worked well in agricultural countries.

“But that may change if Lula wins. I know my condition. I know that our agribusiness also fears the closure of overseas markets due to Bolsonaro’s anti-environmental agenda,” Tebet said.

Jaime Verruck, agriculture secretary in the center-right government of Mato Grosso do Sul, said he considered Cristina a possible head of Brazil’s Senate.

“The Bolsonaro administration was saved by Cristina’s Ministry of Agriculture. It was the only good thing he had to show in international forums,” he said.

Cristina resonated with Maria Nelzira, 36, a black woman who studied pedagogy and now chairs a local agricultural cooperative. In the past, that profile would make her a da Silva supporter — and indeed, she was in the past. But she said she would vote for Bolsonaro because she believes he and Cristina have boosted her business with initiatives to regularize land ownership and access loans from state banks.

“They fixed the mess, fixed the major bureaucratic issues when they started and that had a big impact on our cooperative,” Nelzira said. “Our income has increased, we have more help now. Family farming now has visibility, people understand that we are helping to feed the country.

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