Saturday, October 9, 2010

A Small Dictatorship in a Democracy

The first time I saw the above flag, I thought of Cuba - but, no: This is the flag of the state of Maranhão (located in the Northeast Region), one of the poorest states in Brazil and with an HDI on par with sub-Saharan Africa. If this were not enough, the state has been under uninterrupted rulership of the Sarney clan for 44 years. José Sarney is a classical old-school "coronel" (in the "traditional" style of politics, the local coronel in alliance with other large farmers, controlled the votes of mostly rural inhabitants. The local political chiefs in turn exchanged votes with state politicians in return for political favors) - in other words, a political situation rife for corruption.

Sarney has been active in the Maranhão state politics since the 1950s as member of the parliament, senator and governor - after leaving office, to become running mate for president of the late Tancredo Neves in 1984, he made sure the state remained under family control and pushed his daughter, Roseana, into government.

He assumed the presidency after the Tancredo Neves passed away on the eve before assuming office in 1985 (surely a great topic for conspiracy theorists). Ms Sarney has just been reelected governor, which does not mean much hope for the Maranhão state and it's people - but at least she states it will be her last time in office.

When the highly polemical (but very enjoyable) biography, "Honorable Bandits" (available in Portuguese) was presented in Maranhão last year, a student group allied to Sarney stormed the building where the book was presented, and attacked the authors. Fortunately nobody was seriously injured. For a more neutral external view, please refer to The Economist article "Where Dinosaurs Still Roam".

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