CAMPO GRANDE, Brazil (AP) — Tereza Cristina pours coffee for visitors to her home surrounded by vast soybean plantations in Brazil’s farm country. The guests sitting in wicker chairs on her porch are friends and farmers keen to hear how they can help President Jair Bolsonaro’s re-election bid.
Cristina, Bolsonaro’s former agriculture minister, has become the face of the far-right president in Mato Grosso do Sul state — one of the agribusiness strongholds that is an important part of his effort to overcome leftist former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
The 68-year-old Cristina resigned as minister in March to run for a Senate seat and won a whopping 61% of the Oct. 2 vote. That’s even more than Bolsonaro earned in the first round of the presidential race in the state of 2.8 million people.
But Bolsonaro trailed by a few percentage points in the national tally and the two now are competing in a decisive Sunday runoff. With the race apparently close, the president's advantage even in sparsely populated rural regions can be crucial.
The state's economy — like that of Brazil as a whole— had boomed under da Silva from 2003 through 2010. But the state also weathered deep national economic downturns in the years since.
Its per capita GDP grew by more than 10% in real terms since 2012, while that of the nation contracted, according to Sérgio Vale, chief economist at MB Associados.
Cristina focuses on issues such as the regularization of land ownership for hundreds of thousands of farmers under Bolsonaro and says they helped more people than during the export-driven commodities boom under da Silva — who she said had favored big farmers over small ones.
“During these years (as minister) I worked much more for small farmers than for the big ones. The big ones don’t need the government, they need freedom. The small producers need us,” Cristina said Monday during a conversation with ranchers in the state of Minas Gerais — a reference to Bolsonaro's stance of less intervention in the economy and some support to family agriculture.
Her appeals seem to be helping.
“I’m going to vote for Bolsonaro in large part because of her,” said rancher and warehouse manager João Pedro Bernardy, who identifies as a moderate and has soybean fields in Sidrolandia, outside Campo Grande, the state’s capital.
Bernardy says he sees risks to agribusiness if Bolsonaro is reelected: He said rampant clearing of the Amazon rainforest that critics blame on Bolsonaro could lead to foreign restrictions on Brazilian exports.
But he is also bothered by the history of corruption in da Silva’s Workers’ Party — scandals that led to da Silva himself being imprisoned before his convictions were thrown out by the Supreme Court.
He said Cristina has been effective, recalling that Bolsonaro did not stop rural workers from showing up during the pandemic and paid them welfare money. The president also pushed road and infrastructure projects in the countryside to help get products to market.
“She is an important asset to guarantee exports; she knows that we can’t remain China-dependent,” he said of Cristina's efforts to diversify Brazil's export markets.
Mato Grosso do Sul is just one part of Brazil's sprawling center-western farming belt — where 16 million people live in an area the size of Alaska.
The region's boom can be seen In Campo Grande, where glitzy restaurants like a Peruvian-Japanese fusion spot are popping up, as well as gated communities with tennis courts and dealerships for Jaguars, Land Rovers and Harley-Davidsons.
Brazilian agribusiness has thrived in recent years — regardless of government, and despite national economic downturns — thanks largely to exports to China that began surging in the early 2000s.
While Bolsonaro is building on his advantage in Mato Grosso do Sul, da Silva and the left are being left behind. There are many roadside billboards supporting Bolsonaro here, but few for da Silva.
That’s a lament of hardcore leftist Militino Domingos de Arruda, 78, a former cattle tender who now collects recyclables to survive. He points to the fact that tens of millions of Brazilians are going hungry as evidence the nation’s agribusiness model is more focused on feeding foreigners.
He complains that da Silva — universally known as Lula — hadn’t effectively surrendered the region as he prioritized stumping in other areas.
“His campaign here is so subdued that I can rarely get stickers, flags and things I need to bring in more voters,” said de Arruda at his home, surrounded by Workers’ Party flags and da Silva posters. “Lula didn’t even come here.”
Da Silva has tried to gain traction in the agribusiness world winning the runoff endorsement of moderate Sen. Simone Tebet. She is also from Mato Grosso do Sul, where her family has vast landholdings in sugarcane and other crops. Tebet, 52, finished a distant third in the first round, then threw her weight behind da Silva.
“It was the toughest decision of my life,” Tebet told The Associated Press by phone in between campaign events. “I saw a very conservative Congress being elected, governors going for Bolsonaro and the democratic center I’m part of basically crumbling. I had never campaigned with the Workers’ Party.”
Tebet believes Brazil’s agribusiness embraced Bolsonaro due to outdated fears of the nation’s Landless Workers Movement which for decades occupied idle land and responded with violence when forcibly expelled. The movement is also a staunch supporter of the Workers’ Party.
Tebet said Bolsonaro’s conservative nationalism also plays well in farm country.
“But this can change if Lula wins. I know my state. I know our agribusiness also fears closing markets abroad due to Bolsonaro’s anti-environment agenda,” Tebet said.
Jaime Verruck, the agriculture secretary of Mato Grosso do Sul’s center-right government, said he saw Cristina as a possible head of Brazil's Senate.
“Bolsonaro’s administration was saved by Cristina’s Agriculture Ministry. It was the only good thing he had to show in international forums,” he said.
Cristina has resonated with Maria Nelzira, 36, a Black woman who studied pedagogy and now chairs a local farm cooperative. In the past, that profile would make her a da Silva supporter — and indeed she was in the past. But she said she will vote for Bolsonaro because she feels he and Cristina boosted her business with initiatives to regularize land ownership and access loans from state banks.
“They corrected the mess, addressed key bureaucratic problems when they started and that had a big impact for our cooperative,” Nelzira said. “Our income rose, we have more assistance now. Family farming has visibility now, people understand we help feed the country.”