RIO DE JANEIRO -- Let's say that you're an incumbent president with a
life-threatening illness. Your economy is a mess, with inflation pushing 25
percent a year and store-bought goods like milk and eggs rare as buried treasure.
Bridges are collapsing,
a giant oil refinery goes up in a deadly fireball,
and flipping a switch may or may not turn on the lights. So much the better for
the busy criminals, who have turned
your city streets into some of the bloodiest in the world. What can you
possibly do to win re-election?
Call João Santana, of course. That, at any rate, is what Hugo
Chávez did ahead of the hotly disputed presidential elections in Venezuela last
month. Sure, the Venezuelan clown prince was already a political legend, and
his heavy-handed use of electoral resources -- such as his near-unchallenged
domination of the media and the judiciary and the looting of the state treasury
to finance handouts to voters -- didn't hurt. But sometimes even the gods need
a hand, and after 14 bruising years in office, with his own popularity sagging
and a united opposition rising fast, Chávez knew that it was time for
reinforcements. And in Latin American electoral politics these days, that means
in the Brazilians.
These days the Brazilian consultant to beat is Santana.
After running winning campaigns at home for Workers' Party (PT) President Luiz
Inácio Lula da Silva and his successor, Dilma
Rousseff, Santana has gone on to lead dark horses and dullards to power
across the Americas, from onetime coup-maker Ollanta
Humala in Peru to the wonky economist Danilo
Medina in the Dominican Republic. But in Venezuela, he had his work cut out
for him. Chávez was convalescing from three straight bouts of surgery for an
unspecified cancer after doctors removed a baseball-sized tumor from his
pelvis. The ailment kept him shuttling back and forth to Havana for weeks for
punishing bouts of radiation therapy that left him bloated and exhausted. His
challenger, Henrique Capriles -- smart, youthful, and telegenic -- was running
at the head of the first truly unified opposition campaign in recent memory. (It says a lot that Capriles also hired a team of Brazilian consultants.)
Santana went to work with a will. He skillfully airbrushed
the Chávez campaign, compensating for the president's visible fatigue and long
absences from the public eye with heroic close-ups and slow-motion takes of the
candidate hailing imaginary multitudes. Instead of resorting to familiar
imagery of the irrepressible showman wading through adoring throngs or
thundering from the dais, the campaign spun Chávez as statesmanlike and
avuncular, waxing beatific in carefully edited sound bites. "The Heart of My Fatherland,"
was the official campaign slogan.
All this played well on the airwaves. "The campaign was masterfully
orchestrated," admits Diego Arria,
an ex-Venezuelan diplomat and former presidential candidate himself. "There
were six or seven camera crews following Chávez around and shooting every
rally. The Brazilians gave a shot in the arm to Venezuelan politics." In the
end, Chávez romped to a 55 to 44 percent victory over Capriles, the incumbent's
third-straight election triumph, and one that extended his mandate until 2019.
Santana and his ilk have had plenty of practice. The rise of
the Brazilian political consultant is part of the backstory of a remarkable
shift in fortunes sweeping Latin America. As electoral democracy has reawakened
across the hemisphere, the scramble for votes has grown intense. These days --
in stark contrast to the era when dictatorships reigned -- dozens of political
wannabes throughout Central America, the Caribbean, and South America angle for
seats, from city hall to the presidential palace. To grab voters' attention,
brand a candidate, and sway doubters in an ever more competitive field,
professionals and pretenders alike are increasingly turning to hired political
advisors from within the region.
Not so long ago, campaign strategizing in Latin America was
still the province of an elite group of U.S. super consultants. They parachuted
into foreign venues, rewrote the rules of campaigning, and checked out again,
collecting fortunes in fees. Bill Clinton's campaign guru Dick Morris coached Felipe Calderón to
victory in Mexico, in 2006, and Vicente Fox before him. Morris also advised
Argentina's Fernando de la Rúa and
Uruguay's Jorge Batlle. The web-savvy Ravi Singh squired Colombia's Juan
Manuel Santos to victory in 2010. James
Carville, one of the engineers of Clinton's presidential election victory
in 1992, was also a frequent flyer to Latin America.
But those days are over. As popular elections spread from
Mexico to Chile, the drive-by political snipers were replaced by native
experts, who were fluent in the local culture and vernacular. Digging in for
weeks or even months, they developed a shoe-leather feel for the territory and
issues driving each campaign, and never blinked at the quirks of Latin politicians
and powerbrokers. ("I remember one president interrupting a cabinet meeting to
take a call from his mother," says Ralph Murphine, an American consultant who has
spent his career in Ecuador.)
Nowhere is the change more visible than in Brazil. In Latin
America's biggest nation, the political consulting industry grew out of a
combination of historical happenstance and social engineering. After a long
night of autocratic rule (1964-1985), Brazil gradually thawed to democracy.
As the military eased its grip, a generation of appointed mayors and governors
was replaced by elected leaders. The process culminated in 1989, when the
popular vote for president was finally restored after a 29-year hiatus. Now
it's the rare calendar year when there is no election somewhere in this continental
country. This fall, more than 15,000 candidates vied for votes in mayoral
contests in 5,568 Brazilian cities and towns, each one with a pitch slicker
than the next.
With the return to wide-open elections came worries about
how to level the playing field. Policymakers wanted to encourage political
newcomers and prevent elite contenders with deep pockets from dominating the
scene. The solution -- a pearl of populism dating from the early 1960s and
resurrected in the 1988 constitution -- was to set aside generous timeslots on
the national airwaves for free political advertising. The Free Electoral Hour
put campaigning on steroids, driving the country's fractious parties to strike
up alliances of convenience to amass TV time.
Thanks to Brazil's wildly popular television novelas, or soap
operas, that draw tens of millions of faithful viewers, ad wizards had
learned to hawk everything from credit cards to shampoo during station breaks.
The Electoral Hour gave them a laboratory to try out their riffs and jingles
before nationwide audiences. "From early on, Brazilians learned how to tell a
story in 30 seconds," says Chico Mendez, a Brazilian strategist who advised Chávez's
Another crucial advantage was that Brazilian strategists had
learned to crunch numbers. Thanks to professional census-taking dating back to
the 1950s, campaign advisors found a wealth of demographic data that enabled
them to target key voters, size up swing states, and hone their pitches.
"Pollsters need to have a statistical data base to work out samples, and Brazil
has had outstanding surveys since the 1940s and 50s," political scientist
Amaury de Souza told me before his death earlier this year. "You need the same
techniques to sell products and services used to sell politics, personalities."
Many of the initial campaign programs were laughably
forgettable, but Brazilians, consummate couch potatoes, were fascinated to
watch democracy bloom in their living rooms. In time, Brazilian consultants got
so good at selling politics at home that they began to peddle their services
One of the first test cases for Brazil's flying consultants
was Angola, the former Portuguese colony, which in the early 1990s was emerging
from a bloody civil war. In the country's first-ever national multiparty election in 1992,
the Marxist president José Eduardo dos Santos faced a formidable challenger in
Jonas Savimbi, the charismatic guerrilla leader whose insurgent UNITA party had
the blessings of Washington and the apartheid regime in South Africa. Santos
knew he needed advice but was loath to ring up marketers from Portugal,
Angola's erstwhile colonizer. Instead he looked across the Atlantic to Brazil.
At the time, Brazilians had just elected Fernando Collor de
Mello, a fire-breathing young governor from the boonies who was virtually
unknown as a national figure until his campaign alchemists recast him as an
avenger on a white horse. In the 1989 election, Collor bested a crowded field
of alpha politicians, ultimately defeating the already legendary ex-factory worker
Lula in a runoff. (Collor was later impeached
for corruption, but his rocket rise to power remains a watershed in Brazilian
electoral politics.) The makeover was not lost on Francisco Romão, Angola's
ambassador to Brazil, who contacted Collor's campaign manager, Claudio Humberto.
Humberto introduced him to consulting firm Propeg.
One of the reasons for Propeg's success was Ricardo Noblat,
a career journalist who had been sacked by his newspaper but soon found other
ways to put his intimate knowledge of the electoral system to use. By 1992,
Noblat was on a plane to Luanda to join Propeg's team in the mission to retool
Santos's struggling campaign. He ran a team of nearly a hundred advisers, led
by a cadre of eight Brazilian campaigners whose numbers grew to 44 before the
race was over. The imported marketers started from scratch.
"The communist government was trailing in nearly every
region of the country," says Noblat. So they slicked up Santos's pitch,
softening the hard-knuckle Marxist's image. Taking a cue from former São Paulo
mayor Paulo Maluf, they ginned up a fence-mending slogan, "Peace and Order,"
that went over well in a country still torn from its long civil war. Angolans
loved television and were huge fans of imported Brazilian soaps, but were bored
by politics as usual, with its cookie-cutter campaign ads and plodding
Portuguese-style TV editing. So Noblat's team juiced up the media campaign,
cutting up-tempo takes of Santos on the move and toggling to slow-mo shots of
adoring crowds, all set to lushly scored sound tracks for the nationwide state
On the hush, he hired a Brazilian folk guitar duo, Sá e
Guaiabira, to write a soft-touch campaign theme song, Angola in My Heart. "We had to
invent a story that these were Angolan musicians," says Noblat. The jingle
caught on and became kind of a popular anthem in the vein of the 1985 charity
anthem We Are the World (minus Michael
Jackson and Dionne Warwick). "It was a kind of musical exaltation of Angola,"
says Noblat. "To this day, Angolans sing it on patriotic occasions."
Luck also helped. Noblat's crew stumbled upon a political
marketing plan that an unwitting Savimbi staffer had left behind in a
restaurant. It also didn't hurt that in the middle of the campaign Pope John
Paul II touched down in Luanda to a red carpet welcome by the communist head of
state who promptly squired the pontiff around the country. Santos surged in the
polls and won the first round of voting, but fell a few thousand votes shy of
the absolute majority of ballots needed to win outright. A runoff was called,
and Santos's popularity soared. But when violence swept the country, Savimbi
quit the race and took refuge in the jungle, where he turned up dead a few
years later. Santos won the election by default and has remained in power ever
since, though not always democratically. He was last re-elected in September -- with
the help of João Santana.
Few Brazilians can boast Santana's political scorecard.
Affable and quietly intellectual, Santana is surprisingly publicity-averse for
the heat-seeking métier of professional politics. (He did not return this
reporter's many phone calls.) He also has become arguably Latin America's most
formidable kingmaker. A onetime political reporter, he learned his chops on the
campaign trail as Brazil's reset from dictatorship to popular democracy, then
parlayed his story telling skills into a communications consultancy. With a
languid twang typical of his native state of Bahia, in northeast Brazil, he
earned his name grooming candidates in some of the toughest electoral contests
in Brazil and abroad.
In 2006, President Lula saw his prospects for re-election
sinking as some of his top advisors were fingered in a massive vote-buying scandal
known as the mensalão, for "big
monthly payoff." (The Brazilian Supreme Court has just found
25 people guilty for corruption in the
payola case, including Lula's closest confidants.) He turned to Santana,
who promptly flipped the narrative, recasting Lula in polished campaign spots
as a radiant everyman, worshipped by the meek and maligned by envious rivals.
"Let the man work!" was the campaign money note. Lula roared back, winning
handily in the runoff vote.
After crowning Lula, Santana went on to craft the winning
campaign for the workingman hero's successor, Dilma Rousseff, Lula's former
chief of staff and a consummate bureaucrat who had never run for office.
Santana put her in designer suits, powered up her coiffure, had her teeth
straightened, and flattened her brow with Botox. Most importantly, he sent her
to mingle with the povão, the common
folk, turning the stiff contender that critics dismissed as a walking spreadsheet
into a winning candidate.
Today, Santana is to the resurgent Latin American left what
Carville and George W. Bush confidant Karl Rove were for Democratic and
Republican hopefuls in the 1990s, with less lip and slightly lower consulting
fees. Though he has worked all shades of the political spectrum, Santana has
excelled at electing little-known socialists. In 2009, he led former leftist
guerrilla fighter Maurício
Funes to victory in El Salvador. Last year, he "Lulafied" Peruvian
firebrand Ollanta Humala, turning the onetime coup-maker into a solid centrist
in sober blue suits, winning over conservatives and middle-class Peruvians
after a hotly contested runoff vote. And last month, he split his team between
continents, deploying one platoon to Santos' campaign in Angola and another to
the Caribbean, coaching economist Danilo Medina to office in the Dominican
On Oct. 28, Santana added yet another push pin to his
political map when a little-known client, Fernando Haddad, a
former education minister so lackluster his rivals derided him as a "light
pole," came from behind to become mayor of São Paulo, trouncing seasoned former
governor José Serra in the runoff. (Haddad is shown in the photo above at bottom right, hugging Rousseff during the race last month.) The pundits were quick to credit the win to
Lula, who had squired the neophyte Haddad into politics just as he had groomed
his successor, Rousseff. "From pole to pole, we are lighting up Brazil," Lula
quipped. What he neglected to mention was the quiet figure behind it all,
throwing the switches.