Scrounging up votes in New York.

Brazil Goes Stumping at the UN

Mac Margolis writes about Latin America for Bloomberg View. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”
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With the Brazilian presidential race in its final days, and President Dilma Rousseff gunning for reelection, the world is her stump. This week, she took the campaign to First Avenue in Manhattan, where, in shimmering blue and a power bouffant, she hailed the nations, with a nod and a wink to the constituents back home.

Not that her address to the 69th General Assembly was especially moving. As an orator, Rousseff makes a fine technocrat. Yes, she made the obligatory nod to the demands of emerging nations to reform global governance, such as the United Nations Security Council, where Brazil has been angling for a permanent seat.

She took a ritual poke at powers that would bomb enemies instead of negotiating for peace and understanding. Then she scolded the rich world for fumbling the global financial order, apres Lehman Brothers, a crisis she said that Brazil finessed ("Brazil created 12 million jobs") as everyone else issued pink slips.

Notably absent from her narrative was mention of Washington's global espionage dragnet, which consumed close to a third of her speech at the General Assembly in 2013, after Rousseff learned she'd been targeted by the National Security Agency.

That was last year's outrage. With her job at stake, Rousseff did what only sitting heads of state can do: Try to turn a diplomatic parley into partisan rally. Poverty relief, economic crisis management, corruption busting, even championing gay and lesbian rights: Brazil was doing it all, she said.

Rousseff isn't alone in seeing the UN Assembly as a shortcut to the voting booth. Argentine President Cristina Kirchner, hoping to groom a successor next year, lashed out at recalcitrant creditors whom she blames for forcing the nation into its eighth debt default since independence. "Terrorists are not just those who throw bombs, but also those who destabilize the economy of a country through the sin of speculation," she told the assembly.

Venezuela's Nicolas Maduro was less successful. Hoping to channel the late Hugo Chavez, whose anti-Yanqui sound bites were flypaper to the news media, the embattled Venezuelan president spoke instead to an empty chamber. Balling a fist and raising his voice, Maduro called for a "refounding " of the U.N., blasted "imperial forces" of the U.S. "that have sought again and again to undermine democracy," and had kind words for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, for fighting Islamic State terrorists.

Rousseff was a bigger draw, partly because she spoke just before Barack Obama, but also because Brazil is the world's seventh economy and, despite a stall in growth, the Western Hemisphere's ranking emerging nation.

Rousseff's Workers' Party gets plaudits for reducing poverty and shrinking the gap between haves and have-nots, which has fallen steeply since 2003, even as the economy expanded last decade. It didn't invent cash transfers to the poor -- that was Milton Friedman's initiative -- but expanded existing aid programs from the prior government into a nationwide network. Brazil's Bolsa Familia, or the Family Stipend, is now a model for poverty busting around the developing world.

It has also become Rousseff's campaign trump card. Though the program has failings -- there are few incentives to quit the dole and its rolls conveniently swell at election time -- rival candidates criticize it at their peril.

That reality hasn't been lost on the Rousseff campaign, which has shamelessly suggested that her chief rival, Marina Silva, by supporting such outrages as an independent central bank and rationalizing social programs, will take food from voters' plates.

That's a tough rap to pin on Silva, who grew up in a rubber grove, learned to read at age 16, and tells of eight siblings sharing an egg and a bit of flour for dinner. Funny, that story was one that the UN Assembly didn't hear.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Mac Margolis at mmargolis14@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net