Values and Character v. Political Identity: Some Personal Reflections

The Brazilian firefighter, union leader, evangelical and ex-Congressman Cabo Daciolo was once embraced by the left, but is now vilified by them as a "hater" of LGBTs. Many vital lessons are here.

I published a short essay this week in Portuguese about an evangelical pastor, firefighter, union leader, and former Congressman in Brazil named Cabo Daciolo. The reaction to it in Brazil made me conclude it would be quite worthwhile to translate it into English and publish it here, as the lessons I believe it conveys — about the growing problems faced by left-wing political movements, how politics is often used as a substitute for more meaningful connections to community and to one another, and how we judge one another as human beings — are universal or, at the very least, just as applicable to the context of American and Western politics as they are to Brazilian politics. First, some context is necessary for non-Brazilian readers to understand the essay:

Cabo Daciolo became a nationally famous figure in Brazil in 2011 when, at the age of 35, he led a strike by the firefighters union of Rio de Janeiro. The striking workers demanded better pay, benefits and other worker protections (at the time, the minimum salary was the equivalent of US$ 190/month; the union was demanding an increase to US$ 400/month). He was one of the leaders of his union and attracted a great deal of media attention because he is telegenic, handsome, quite charismatic, and a naturally skilled orator who cut an impressive figure both on the street and in interviews. The strike ended up soliciting a great deal of public sympathy in support of firefighters. He spent nine days in jail for having led a union occupation of the Rio State Legislature.

All of this, for obvious reasons, catapulted Daciolo into overnight political stardom: someone who denounced with great force and charisma the exploitation of workers by the corporate and oligarchical elite, not as an academic theorist like so many leftist leaders, but someone who lived that exploitation. The Brazilian left was delirious with glee over the potential to recruit as a political leader not yet another of their endless horde of highly educated, effete college professors who speak eloquently about “workers” as an abstraction, but an actual worker who naturally exudes a working-class posture and speech because that is what he is. Daciolo is not someone play-acting as a defender of the “working class” but someone whose entire life was and is shaped by a working-class life. And he often expressed his defense of workers’ rights in religious terms, citing with great conviction the Gospels and other religious principles to justify the need to provide workers with a minimally decent standard of living. Imagining a more valuable gift to the left than he was virtually impossible.

Daciolo, for obvious reasons, was recruited by many political parties to run for office. He ended up joining PSOL, a left-wing party that was founded in 2004 by disgruntled members of Lula’s Workers Party (PT) who complained that PT had become both corrupt and neoliberal: doing business with the very establishment forces it claimed to oppose. PSOL was, in essence, a left-wing party designed to oppose the hegemony of PT and Lula from the working-class left (as it happens, today is Election Day in Brazil, and most polls show Lula with a large lead to regain the presidency from Bolsonaro after being term-limited out of office in 2010; during the 2018 campaign, Lula was barred from running due to his 2017 imprisonment on corruption charges as he was preparing to run against Bolsonaro, but those convictions were reversed in 2020 when our reporting showed that Lula’s conviction was the by-product of judicial and prosecutorial corruption, enabling Lula to seek the presidency this year).

In 2014, Daciolo — still riding high on his national fame from having led the firefighter strike — ran for a seat in the national Congress on the PSOL line and was easily elected. But soon after his election, serious tensions began to arise between him and the leftist party he had joined, largely over social issues. Daciolo, like millions of workers throughout Brazil, is deeply religious. Though Brazil is still the country with the world’s largest Catholic population, Daciolo is entrenched in the rapidly growing evangelical sector. He is so devoted to his religious practice that he became an evangelical pastor. And that led him to embrace a wide range of views that were not only in conflict with the left-wing party he had joined but made him deeply anathema to it.

At the time when social justice issues began to assume much greater importance among the Brazilian left at the expense of working-class politics (following in the footsteps of the American left), Daciolo remained steadfastly opposed to same-sex marriage and the legalization of abortion. The animus toward Daciolo from the left over those heresies was intensified when Daciolo began supporting police officers in controversies where much of the left was denouncing the police as racist and genocidal; one case in particular, which resulted in the torture and death of a resident of one of Rio’s favelas, split Daciolo and the left with great hostility. But the final straw occurred in 2015, just one year after he was elected with PSOL, when the party voted overwhelmingly to expel him due to Daciolo’s support for a Constitutional amendment that would include in the Constitution the phrase that “all power emanates from God.”

After his expulsion from PSOL, Daciolo migrated to a different party and served out his term in Congress, which ended in 2018. Instead of seeking re-election, he decided to run for President, knowing he had little chance to win given his lack of party support or major funding. But, largely due to powerful and authentic performances in the nationally televised debates, his campaign exceeded all expectations as he ended up winning more than a million votes nationwide, ahead of far more well-financed establishment candidates.

As the 2022 presidential election approached, and it began to appear that the election would be a highly polarized contest between the right-wing incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro and his left(ish) challenger, former President Lula da Silva, Daciolo decided he wanted to support neither. He threw his support behind the former Governor and Finance Minister Ciro Gomes, who has long been a center-left figure (having served as Industry Minister in Lula’s government) but who was offering himself as a more modernized, technocratic and corruption-free alternative to both Lula and Bolsonaro. Daciolo joined Ciro’s party, Brazil’s Democratic Labor Party (PDT), and announced his candidacy for Senate on the PDT line.

Roughly around the same time — in January of this year — my husband, the Congressman David Miranda, was growing increasingly disenchanted with his long-time party, PSOL: the same that had expelled Daciolo back in 2015 before my husband joined. He decided to leave PSOL to seek re-election this year. When leaving PSOL, David explained his reasons: dissatisfaction with the growing fixation on cultural and social justice issues at the expense of the working-class-based politics that drove him to enter politics; the growing intolerance among the cultural left for any dissent on newfound dogma regarding social issues; and his discomfort with the fact that PSOL — founded to oppose Lula and PT — was clearly positioning itself to support Lula in the first round of voting for the first time since it was created, rather than running its own candidate.

As David pondered his options for leaving PSOL, he decided he also wanted to support Ciro Gomes’ presidential campaign. In January, David became one of the only prominent elected officials on the Brazilian left to refuse to support Lula. He instead announced his support for Ciro, and then formally joined PDT — the same party where Daciolo had landed.

Over the next several months, as David and Daciolo were at many PDT events together, they began forming what many viewed as an improbable friendship. By this point, the claim that Daciolo “hated LGBTs” was basically unquestioned canon on the left, while David has become one of the most visible if not the most visible openly gay politician in Brazil. David’s marriage to me and our adoption of three children together has made us a symbol of LGBT equality, even though our focus is usually on other issues. I personally was not surprised that David and Daciolo developed a friendship — David, having been raised in extreme poverty, taking care of himself on the streets — is the kind of person who befriends most people. Even some prominent Bolsonaro supporters in Congress are among the people with whom he developed an affinity.

But much of the Brazilian left was shocked, and more than a little outraged, when David began speaking positively about Daciolo and, especially, when he posted two different photos of them together on his social media accounts. But that indignant reaction from the left illustrated a major reason why David left his prior party: he knows meaningful politics are impossible if it is prohibited to work with or even form friendships with those who think differently. In particular, there is no way to claim to represent the interests of the working class if you simultaneously declare the social and religious values of working-class people to be so grotesque and hateful that even friendly and respectful interactions, let alone political alliances, are prohibited.

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