For the lucky few, Rio de Janeiro is a playground filled with beach soccer, bikinis and samba. But the reality is bleak for those living in the lowlands of Belford Roxo on the outskirts of the city. This town was once known as the most dangerous city in the world, and the few politicians who have tried to change things there have been silenced.
But as Belford Roxo’s mayoral campaign heats up, FRONTLINE/World’s Andrés Cediel reports that many residents have turned to one candidate who, inspired by the historic U.S. elections, has been sounding a message of change and hope. His name is Claudio Henrique, but the people have given him a new name, which they chant wherever he goes: “Barack Obama! Barack Obama!”
“It started as a joke, in a playful, affectionate way,” explains Henrique. “And then it picked up steam, until it became serious. At the party convention after the announcement of my name the members began to shout, ‘That’s our Barack Obama!’ When it came time to register, I chose the name: Claudio Henrique Barack Obama.”
It turns out Brazilian law allows candidates to run under any name they choose, as long as it is not offensive. So, what started out as a small joke turned into an international phenomenon, as commentators around the world ran with the story of Obama Mania in Brazil. The punch line was that Claudio was not alone: At least seven other candidates across the country were using Obama’s name.
But for these black politicians trying to break Brazil’s political color barrier, the reality was no joke.
“I think Brazil is living in a moment of Obama proliferation,” says João Luiz de Souza, a professor of Brazilian literature. “And this is very good for us, because Obama is a symbol of affirmation for Brazil and for all the populations that have suffered the stigma of not having the possibility or lack of access to power.”
At least half of the country’s population has African ancestry – making Brazil the largest black nation on earth, after Nigeria. But these numbers have not translated to political power, as black politicians are virtually absent from government.
“I’m not sure Americans understand what Obama means to the world,” says de Souza. “I think that just as Brazil has many Obamas, there should be Obamas scattered all over the world. Everyone now wants to be a bit like Obama. Everyone wants to be a proponent of dialogue and exchange.”
Back in Belford Roxo, with two days left before the election, Claudio is campaigning hard to become the first black mayor of his town. Of the five candidates in the race, Claudio is the only black man running. He needs to place second to force a run-off in the next round. Even though he’s a political outsider, Claudio seems to be generating a lot of buzz.
“I’m getting an overwhelming response from people of different groups, young and old,” says Claudio, “and I think it stems from the fact that I have responded to their anxieties and this is why their love for me has flowered, which is a new thing for me. To be stopped and have my picture taken, to give people my autograph, it’s very gratifying, especially at the beginning of my career.”
As Claudio works his way through a crowd of supporters chanting “Barack Obama! Barack Obama!” his brother describes the risks of the campaign.
“Every person who emerges, stirs things up, and that’s dangerous,” he says. “It’s dangerous for a rising politician in this city. I accompany my brother wherever he goes. Together with some friends, we make up his security team.”
The campaign caravan, made up of a small group of family and friends, never stays in the same place for too long, but with one day before the vote there is still some time for last minute campaigning.
“If all the people in the streets who embrace Claudio and show support, if they really vote for him, he’ll make it to the second round for sure,” says Henrique’s P.R. secretary. “And I wouldn’t be surprised if he ended up winning outright in the first round. It’s going to come down to the voters, and if what they say in the streets is true.”
Elections in Brazil are on Sundays and voting is mandatory, which is common in Latin America.
“When it came time to vote I felt the weight on my shoulders of everything I had seen on the campaign,” says Henrique. “Women telling me I was their hope, the affection from the children, contrasting with the images of open sewers, the hospitals that weren’t working. In those final minutes, it came to me like a flash in my mind, my responsibility to do everything I could for my city.”
“The energy is good,” says Henrique. “I’m happy, I’m at peace. Waiting for the results. The people’s decision is blessed by God.”
Party officials later report that Henrique received 30,000 votes, a third place finish that knocks him out of the race. Adding insult to injury, the election board disqualifies him on a technicality. His previous political party never withdrew his membership, and the board deemed him double registered.
However, Henrique isn’t giving up his political aspirations, and is fighting to reform the system that shut him out.
“Am I disappointed? No, I’ve come out stronger from the process. I started out with one vote, which was mine. Today I have 30,000 people who believe. So I’ve grown politically,” Henrique says.
And even though Claudio lost – along with all the other Brazilian Obamas – the American Obama continues to be an inspiration.
“He influenced, contributed, helped, or even just lent his name to the people,” says Henrique. “And if they used his name to promote change, or to create a more just society, then we welcome 8, 80, 800 or even 8 million Obamas.”