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Sao Paulo's multifaceted mayor takes on city of contradictions

Suplicy mix of upper class, anti-establishment

Sao Paulo's Mayor Marta Suplicy talks with  U.S. journalists about issues such as poverty, wealth, energy and debt in Brazil.
Sao Paulo's Mayor Marta Suplicy talks with U.S. journalists about issues such as poverty, wealth, energy and debt in Brazil.  

CNN's Roy Wadia was one of 12 U.S.-based journalists who traveled recently to Brazil as part of the Pew Gatekeeper Fellowship program. The fact-finding trip was sponsored by the Pew International Journalism Program at International Studies (SAIS) of the Johns Hopkins University.

SAO PAULO, Brazil (CNN) -- January was a red-letter month for the leftist Workers' Party of Brazil. That's when the party (known by its acronym in Portuguese, PT) took power in six major cities: Porto Alegre, Belém, Recife, Goiânia, Aracaju and, most important, Sao Paulo.

In all, PT candidates became mayors of 187 urban centers across the country, dealing a collective political blow to the federal government of President Fernando Henrique Cardoso.

Politics and power: Brazil's energy crunch  

Many observers say it's a bad omen for the Cardoso administration ahead of next year's presidential election, and puts the PT in a better position than before to field a strong candidate in what's likely to be a crowded field.

The PT candidate is once again likely to be the party leader, Luis Inacio Lula da Silva. "Lula", as he is popularly known, narrowly lost to Fernando Collor de Mello in 1989. Since then, his party has worked hard to expand its base from a core blue-collar constituency to one that encompasses voters across various economic strata.

Luis Inacio Lula da Silva,  or
Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, or "Lula," head of the Workers' Party, whose members hope Cardoso's problems will drive Brazilians to their side for solutions.  

Exemplifying this is Marta Suplicy, the PT mayor of Sao Paulo. "Sampa" -- as its nearly 20 million residents affectionately call their huge, widespread city -- is a bastion of corporate wealth, home to Brazil's stock exchange and high-flying business leaders.

It's also a city of extreme poverty, where economic deprivation fuels an ever-soaring crime rate. Now governing this city of contradictions is a mayor with an equally complex background.

Marta Suplicy hails from a very wealthy family -- but her most fervent admirers are among Sao Paulo's poor. In a megalopolis long controlled by powerful men in business and professional circles, she is an unabashed feminist and anti-corruption crusader.

A sociologist by training, she once hosted a television show where she offered frank sexual advice, as well as strong support for gay rights. The program endeared her to millions, but angered others. Suplicy's political critics -- many of whom were once her friends -- accuse her of betraying her social class with her leftist, liberal views.

Her campaign last year faced a formidable challenge from Paulo Maluf, a well-entrenched former mayor of Sao Paulo city and former governor of Sao Paulo state.

Maluf, with close ties to the Cardoso-led coalition in Brasilia, fought what many observers termed a dirty campaign against Suplicy -- accusing her of taking orders from abortionists and drug dealers. Suplicy responded by calling Maluf a corrupt liar who represented the worst of the "establishment."

A majority of Sao Paulo's voters agreed, and gave her a resounding victory.

Once in office, Suplicy was forced to come to terms with her city's mounting fiscal woes. The previous city government, accused of massive corruption, had run up a huge debt -- a debt which the Cardoso government insists must be paid by Sao Paulo before new federal financing is available.

Moreover, Sao Paulo's business leaders view Suplicy and the Workers' Party with suspicion, displaying a reluctance so far to join forces with her administration in tackling the city's range of problems, including poverty, crime and health-care issues. And on a personal note, Suplicy recently separated from her husband of 36 years, Eduardo Matarazzo Suplicy, a federal senator and potential presidential candidate.

Suplicy recently sat down in her office with a group of U.S.-based journalists visiting Brazil on a Pew Fellowship grant, and discussed the hurdles that she faces. Here are excerpts from that interview:

Q: What is behind the PT's recent political successes in various cities?

SUPLICY: Quite simply, people are fed up of years of corruption and exclusion. We in the PT have policies of inclusion. We reach out to people who are tired of politics as usual.

We promise zero corruption, and we stick to our promise. We include all sorts of people in our party and our politics -- blacks, poor people everywhere -- not just those who are from more fortunate backgrounds.

Q: Your party and its leader Lula have lashed out at President Cardoso, but hasn't he implemented more reform than other presidents in the past?

SUPLICY: When Fernando Henrique was elected, yes, I had hopes just like everyone else. But he has been a disappointment.

We have an energy crisis in Brazil now, and worse is to come. Privatization was done in a way without regulation, protection to the consumer. It's been a disaster in so many areas. The distribution of wealth has not improved.

Yes, Cardoso has also done more than previous governments in areas like land reform. Also, inflation control is an achievement, but I have a hard time pointing to anything else.

A lot more has to be done. For example, unemployment. In the Sao Paulo main city area alone, there are some 1.5 million jobless people. We need programs from the government to address this sort of situation.

Q: What are the biggest problems that your administration currently faces?

SUPLICY: The budget. We inherited a huge debt -- a debt that's twice my budget.

We want to implement income tax credit programs, programs for youth, work programs for the unemployed, microcredit programs for those who want to start small businesses.

But we can't do anything because our budget problems are so big. And they were not problems that we made, but the previous government. Still, we are trying. We have made education a top priority in Sao Paulo, despite budget cuts.

Q: Have you tried to speak directly to the Cardoso government for help in addressing your budget crisis?

SUPLICY: Well, we have tried, but you know it's very political. Let me tell you what happened recently. We want to help people avoid the trap of endless personal debt by trying to overhaul the minimum wage structure with a formula that would encourage people to work and keep more of their money.

We offered to work with the Cardoso government to come up with a formula that would match federal government policy and local Sao Paulo policy -- that way we could work together to help millions of people, without any politics involved. But the government wouldn't even respond to our offer to talk.

So, no, there is no response from Brasilia.

Q: With such problems, how can you deliver results to the people who elected you?

SUPLICY: Well, that's the issue. You have to be honest with the people.

For example, in the past if a road had to be repaired in a poor area, the politicians would make promises and never do the work. Now, when I go to that area, I tell the people there that the road will not be ready tomorrow -- not even next month, or in six months. I tell them the truth, and they appreciate the honest answer. And they give us time hopefully, because they understand what's going on.

We also try to encourage people in Sao Paulo to have a public conscience. That sort of culture hasn't existed so far. But it's just starting. I'm going to be meeting heads of big corporations in the city. I'll invite them to be part of a forum . . .that will help with different scenarios and suggest different solutions.

Q: What strikes you the most about Sao Paulo now that you're in charge of the city?

SUPLICY: Before I took office, I thought I knew a lot about the city. But there is so much I have to learn.

It's very interesting if you take a helicopter ride and fly above Sao Paulo. You will see clearly that the city has a center of businesses and rich areas, and a ring of poverty around it. In many poor areas, half the population is under the age of 18. Can you imagine all that youth, without education or opportunity or hope?

Not surprising, therefore, that we have violence and crime from those that are marginalized. Five million people live like this in and around Sao Paulo.

Q: What do you feel are Lula's chances in next year's presidential election, especially considering that he's unsuccessfully tried twice in the past?

SUPLICY: Lula has learned a lot from his experiences as a party leader and presidential candidate. Sometimes I feel that he has overcome his negatives, sometimes not.

But when you see how the present government has ignored so many people in Brazil, the PT offers a choice. The party has grown, become more inclusive. So let's see if we can take that message to the people.

We are not against privatization if it's done with safeguards for the people. We are not anti-business. But we must protect those who would otherwise be ignored. Lula understands that, I think.

Q: You recently suggested that you might run for president yourself in 2006. Does that still hold true?

SUPLICY: Well, right now I'm mayor of Sao Paulo. 2006 is still far away. Let's see what happens here and now. We'll discuss the future later.

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