Finding Faith in the Feuding

In the midst of Brazil’s political division, Wheaton students who call the country home share how their Christian beliefs keep them grounded.

The Smoak family at Christmas. Photo submitted by Magnolia Smoak.

Churrasco crackles on the grill while Samantha Ferreira’s grandmas and great uncles clutch signs and chant “Bolsonaro won the election” in Portuguese.

Magnolia Smoak’s family tells her about military encampments full of “the Brazilians you don’t want to cross on the street.”

Fernanda Lopes’s family friends stay awake all Christmas night in the camps, waiting for a miracle to happen, hoping for an alternative to the election results. 

In the aftermath of a disputed election, Brazilians feel like the country is torn at the seams, and students from Brazil are still feeling the ripples of the turmoil even after returning to Wheaton.

On Oct. 30, 2022, the left-wing former president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, socialist and former trade unionist, won the election with 50.9 percent of the vote, beating the right-wing incumbent president and populist Jair Bolsonaro. In response, Bolsonaro supporters lit buses on fire and protested in military encampments around the country, calling for a military intervention to oust Lula from the presidency.   

The New York Times interviewed protesters calling for democracy in Brazil’s three largest cities, Brasília, São Paulo and Rio Janeiro, as well as others who, faced with a Lula presidency, said it was time for a military government. 

 43-year-old protester Daniell Morta told The New York Times, “We do want a military intervention,” she said. “Just like in 1964.”

In 1964, the armed forces, with U.S. support, overthrew the government and installed a military dictatorship for 21 years. The Brazilian Armed Forces killed and tortured thousands of political opponents, but drastically grew the economy

Referred to as the “Brazilian miracle” of the 1968-1973 period, per capita income increased while income inequalities were exacerbated by the regime’s economic policies. 

According to Fernanda Lopes, a sophomore psychology and neuroscience major who grew up in Brazil, much of the older generation remembers the “Brazilian miracle” time period fondly.

“If you were a right-wing, white Brazilian, you were really happy,” Lopes said. “There was an economic boom and it was a good time. If you were left-wing and protesting, you probably remember torture and remember a lot of abuse of power.” 

These dramatically different memories of the past played into the protests after Brazil’s 2022 presidential election. Brazil is the sixth most populous country in the world and maintains the largest economy in Latin America. 

Smoak, a sophomore English writing major, grew up in São Paulo, Brazil with her missionary parents, and believes that the heightened impact of politics on the lives of Brazilians due to economic hardship and the lasting effects of the COVID-19 pandemic prompted this uproar in response to the election. 

“Everyone is pretty impacted by the corruption and by who’s president and by the policies in place,” she said. “There are so many poor people and so few rich people, and the middle class doesn’t exist. There is no middle class there.” 

In addition, Bolsonaro’s handling of the pandemic divided the country, as some supporters praised him while the Brazilian federal police attempted to charge Bolsonaro with spreading fake information about the coronavirus outbreak. Some leaders such as centrist Senator Renan Calheiros, called for the Senate panel reviewing Bolsonaro’s actions during the pandemic to charge him with crimes against humanity and submit the complaint to the International Criminal Court (ICC). 

Political divides can split churches and even families. Smoak’s sister disagrees with Bolsonaro’s politics. She lives with young Brazilian friends who greatly benefited from Lula’s socialist welfare policies and doesn’t believe that people should automatically support Bolsonaro for having “a little bit of faith.” Because of this, Smoak’s family does not often discuss politics at home.

While visiting São Paulo over winter break, Smoak drove through the military encampments in smaller, rural towns. 

Magnolia and her two cousins at the Iguaçu Falls. Photo submitted by Magnolia Smoak.

“There was so much hope, and a lot of money involved,” Smoak said. “One of my mom’s friends was in the base, making huge pans of food every day. There was a lot of economic support.” 

Ferreira’s grandma was one such supporter. 

“During Christmas, she just sent a picture in the family group chat of her at a military encampment,” Ferreira said, leaning back in her chair, laughing. “I was like, ‘OK, so that’s what we’re doing now?”’ 

Ferreira, despite believing that Lula is a “corrupt communist,” relies on her belief that “God is in charge of the world” to help settle her anxieties regarding the upcoming Lula presidency.   

Lopes similarly has relied on her faith to help her make sense of the country’s political turmoil. Last semester, during the election, she was taking New Testament with Professor Carlos Sosa Siliezar. She said her study of the early church in class encouraged her in the midst of political turmoil back home in Brazil. 

“They didn’t need to change the Roman Empire and put someone who is Christian there, they started from the margins and they grew so much that they made such a big difference,” Lopes said. “We can start from the margins and grow just like the early church did. God used the class to help me realize that he is in control.” 

Anna Mares

Anna Mares

Anna Mares is a freshman International Relations Major with a Certificate in Journalism and minor in Spanish. Originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, she loves drinking tea, thrifting, collecting and listening to records, photography, and her family.

Anna Mares

Anna Mares

Anna Mares is a sophomore international relations and English writing major with a minor in Spanish from Pittsburgh, Penn. She loves travel, teahouses and collecting flowers.

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