A weeklong tour of Brazil’s ‘swing state’

Minas Gerais in so many ways represents a larger, divided Brazilian electoral canvass in the presidential election.

Belo Horizonte, Brazil – Your feet don’t even need to touch the ground here to understand the power of the Neves family name in this capital city in a state that might decide the next president of Brazil.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we are beginning our descent into Confins, Tancredo Neves international airport……” the flight attendant says over the loud speaker.

Tancredo Neves, the godfather of politics of Brazil’s Minas Gerais state, was elected president in 1985, but died from illness before he could take office. They named the airport after him a year later.

Flash forward to 2014, and his youthful grandson and family heir apparent, Aecio Neves, is now deadlocked in a presidential race with Dilma Rousseff in an election that is one of the tightest races in decades.

Brazil has 26 states and one federal district, but in national politics Minas Gerais ranks in the top three in importance.

You don’t become president of Brazil without either winning (or doing very well) in Minas, as it’s called locally.

And the Neves brand in Minas is what the Kennedy brand is to Massachusetts.

With a population of 20.5 million, Minas is home to nearly 11 percent of the total Brazilian electorate, second only to Sao Paulo in terms of voters.

It’s a state with an area larger than Thailand, and a local economy equal to Ireland.

Aecio Neves, a senator from the state, carried on his grandfather’s political dynasty being a two-time governor. He remains popular locally for cutting his own salary and slashing state bureaucracy and costs. He left office with over 90 percent approval ratings.

Credentials like that in a state like Minas Gerais make you instant presidential material. Add the last name Neves and the presidency should be low-lying fruit.

But here’s what makes Minas interesting: It’s an enigma, a constant puzzle in national politics that everyone is trying to figure out. It’s a rich state, but also has poverty, as well as a dominate and thriving middle class. Its residents are white, black, and everything in between – perfectly Brazilian. They’re conservative, moderate, and leftist all in one. Minas is the Rubik’s Cube of Brazil.

How else can you explain Rousseff getting 41 percent of the state vote on October 5, compared to 33 percent for Neves – the guy who left the governorship in 2010 with more than 90 percent approvals?

To add insult to injury to Neves, Rousseff’s hand-picked candidate for governor in the state easily defeated Neves’ candidate in the last election earlier this month.

Minas Gerais in so many ways perfectly represents a larger, divided Brazilian electoral canvass in this election.

That’s why we’re here this week, cross-crossing the state to talk to as many people in as many towns as possible.

In the run-up to Sunday’s presidential election we’ll visit three towns in Minas that we think will help tell the larger story of the choices facing a country so complex but often over-simplified.

We’ll visit Bonito de Minas (population 9,600), a poor town in the north of the state that voted 86 percent for Rousseff and only 10 percent for Neves on October 5. We’ll stop in at a local rodeo along the way to chat up the local cowboys.

We’ll then drive to “Neves territory,” the town of Sao Roque de Minas (population 6,600), on the western part of the state, a family-farming community that specialises in making a rare cheese you can find nowhere else. Here the people voted 76 percent in favour of Neves on October 5.

We’ll finish the week in the city of Arcos (population: 35,500), where half the town voted for Rousseff, the other half for Neves. It’s split, right down the middle, just like Brazil.

To try to figure out the paradoxes of Brazil and what’s at stake in this election, we think there’s no better place to start than in Minas Gerais, a place both of the candidates for president call home, and the state that so wonderfully encompasses all of Brazil’s swirling of opinions, hopes, and desires.

Where has Brazil been, where is it now, and where can it go from here, and whose best to lead it there? We look for answers this week through the lens of the people of Minas Gerais.

I invite you to join us in this blog, and follow on Twitter for thoughts from the road all week.

Follow Gabriel Elizondo on Twitter @elizondogabriel

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