In a small cement house crumbling to ruins in Brazil’s parched Sertao region, Maria da Silva, a graying matriarch struggling to feed her family, opens her empty refrigerator and breaks down in sobs.
The 58-year-old widow, whose creased brown face betrays her burdens, lost her family’s main breadwinner when her brother, who worked in Sao Paulo, died of COVID-19 last year.
Now she and her family of eight, who are squatting in an abandoned shack, are among the 33.1 million Brazilians living in hunger.
The figure — a 73 percent increase in the past two years, according to the Brazilian Network for Research on Food Security — has become the subject of a bitter political battle as Latin America’s biggest economy heads for elections on Oct. 2.
Holding a nearly empty can of powdered milk for the three young grandchildren who live with her, ages three, two and 15 months, Da Silva gives a tour of her dilapidated house, which has no bathroom or running water.
“There are times when [the children] ask for food and I don’t even have a biscuit or bread to give them,” she said through tears on the small plot of land the family farms in Pernambuco State’s Poco da Cruz.
Soaring food prices have forced the family to turn to begging, she said.
“I just pray to God to end my suffering,” she said.
The presidential front-runner, former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, regularly attacks Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro over Brazil’s reappearance on the World Food Programme’s “Hunger Map” last year, with 28.9 percent of the population living in “moderate or severe food insecurity.”
It is a major setback for a country that had been removed from the map in 2014 after an economic boom and landmark social programs helped lift 30 million people from poverty during Lula’s administration.
Bolsonaro has accused Lula of bankrupting Brazil with corruption.
Courting low-income voters, the incumbent has upscaled and rebranded Lula’s signature welfare program, and is campaigning extensively in the impoverished northeast, home to one-quarter of Brazil’s 213 million people.
Sprawled across the northeastern interior, the Sertao, or hinterland, is a semi-arid expanse of brown-and-olive-green scrubland.
Known for cyclical droughts, it is a harsh, beautiful land with an outsize role in Brazilian literature, music and film.
Each generation there remembers its worst drought — 1960, 1993, 2010 — and the misery it caused.
Joao Alfredo de Souza, a community leader in the rural township of Conceicao das Crioulas, weathered all those.
“It cost us a lot of sweat and tears to overcome,” said De Souza, a spry 63-year-old who heads a community founded in the 18th century by former slaves.
Gesturing from his front porch to a paved street lined with neat, trim houses, De Souza described Lula’s time in office as a watershed of ambitious programs promoting housing, electricity, water, welfare, education and “zero hunger.”
However, the retired farmer said that times have been “very tough” since COVID-19 hit Brazil, killing 680,000 people and triggering an economic implosion followed by soaring inflation.
He said that Bolsonaro has won some northeasterners’ support by super-sizing Lula’s Family Stipend welfare program — rebranded Auxilio Brasil.
Bolsonaro tripled the average payment from Lula’s day to 600 reais (US$115) a month and is now pledging to increase it to 800 reais.
De Souza is unimpressed by the election-year spending spree.
“Why is he doing this only now? It’s shameful,” he said.
He said that Lula, a Pernambuco native, “understands the northeast,” where he leads in the polls in every state. “He’s one of us.”
A half-hour drive away down a bone-jarring dirt road, in Regiao de Queimadas, a settlement still dotted with traditional mud-and-stick houses, signs of progress are harder to find.
A team of officials from the federal government’s National Health Foundation is going door-to-door asking whether people have bathrooms.
Many do not.
“This place is the Africa of Brazil,” said one of the officials, reflecting a widespread perception of the region among government bureaucrats in Brazil.
The program’s ostensible goal is to build adequate facilities for those who need them.
The head of the local farmers’ association, Edineia de Souza, is skeptical.
“These guys only come around at election time,” the 40-year-old corn and bean farmer said. “We’re still waiting on the bathrooms from last time.”
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