Welcome to Rousseff country

With state aid, cheap homes and doctors, it’s easy to see why places like Bonito De Minas back the Brazilian president.

Al Jazeera’s Gabriel Elizondo, producer Maria Romero and cameraman Alexandre Rampazzo are spending the week criss-crossing Minas Gerais, a critical state that could decide Brazil’s next president. Minas Gerais is a toss-up, and Al Jazeera is visiting three cities with people who have very opposing views on who is best to lead the country. Part one looked at the importance of the state, and in this post we visit a town where Dilma Rousseff has her strongest support.

Bonito De Minas, Brazil – The beer flows, Brazilian cowboys wrestle steers, and clusters of women in tight jeans and plaid shirts socialise among themselves nearby, while the sounds of sertaneja music ripples in the background.

Welcome to a rural, working class rodeo, Brazil style, where the last thing anybody wants to do is talk politics.

Everyone is having too much fun and besides, the town has already addressed that subject.

In this town of 10,535 people in the far north of Minas Gerais state, 86 percent voted for Dilma Rousseff in the first presidential ballot on October 5, the highest vote total she received in any city in the state.

“I don’t agree 100 percent with the government does,” cowboy Odair Cardozo said, “but we’ve seen lots of positive changes in the rural areas here in agriculture and livestock and Dilma has been very good.”

It doesn’t take too long to see why many here agree.

Not long ago this town was poverty-stricken and lacking hope. But in the last decade, things have changed for the better, we’re told, and the town is awash in federal government programmes that have endeared the residents to Rousseff.

First there’s Jose Oliveira and his wife, Giselie, who soon plan to move out of their thatched roof home, with its dirt floor and chickens, into a neighbouring single family home next door provided to them through a federal government housing programme. They’ll end up paying a total of about $500 for the home, little more than a symbolic sum.

The new home – one of 40 provided to the poor in this town – is tiny and simple, but it’s well-built compared to their old one. It has a roof, electricity, running water, and the kids will have their own room and won’t have to sleep on the floor anymore – a first for them.

“The new house will be much more comfortable and it’s better for our children, it will improve our lives,” Giselie says with a big smile.

The federal assistance doesn’t end there, as the family also receives the equivalent of $150 a month from the government, deposited on a debit card. It’s part of a nationwide social assistance programme which more than 12m families receive that has been credited for drastic reductions in poverty over the past decade.

It’s also part of the reason why even when faced with a stalled economy and a swirl of corruption allegations in her political party, Rousseff is still considered a favorite to win re-election.

Rousseff’s critics say she has made millions dependent on the state. The most skeptical say she’s buying votes.

But Jose Reis, 33, the mayor of Bonito de Minas, said that’s far from the case in his town, where there’s been a cycle of economic development sparked by federal government help.

He said the low-income housing project also put local men to work building the homes, and local businesses benefitted from selling everything from concrete to TVs for the new homes.

The town also received three pieces of heavy machinery from the government.

Federal assistance goes a long way In a poor town, he said. That’s why even though he’s from a party that is not aligned with Rousseff, he says he’s going to vote for her.

But it goes beyond government cash handouts, as was seen at the local health post.

It was there that Carmosina Almeida was being examined for her chest pain by Maylene Zayas, a Cuban doctor who has been in the town 11 months working as part of Rousseff’s wider plan to bring hundreds of foreign doctors to work in rural areas where there are doctor shortages.

Zayas is one of five doctors in the town, speeding up wait times and increasing the number of patients that can be seen per day to nearly 40.

More than 50 million Brazilians directly benefit from government welfare programmes of some kind, and it is in these areas where Rousseff’s support remains almost universal.

Back at the rodeo, the sun is fast beginning to set but, Cardozo, the cowboy, had something else to tell me.  “My vote is for Dilma,” he says, before pausing and adding emphatically, “not only mine, but my entire family.”

With our time up here, next, we’re headed to the other side of the state to a town that doesn’t see things the same way as the people here. That story in the next post.

Follow Gabriel Elizondo on Twitter @elizondogabriel

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