Leader of Brazil’s homeless movement eyes presidential palace

Presidential candidate Guilherme Boulos says Brazil is ripe for a new face willing to take on the corrupt and powerful in upcoming presidential elections

Sao Paulo (AFP) – He’s got barely one percent in the polls so far, but 35-year-old leftist Guilherme Boulos says Brazil is ripe for a new face willing to take on the corrupt and powerful in October presidential elections.

“It’s David against Goliath,” Boulos acknowledged in an interview at his small office in Sao Paulo. “But it’s possible, because people are searching for a new form of doing politics.”

Boulos represents the opposite end of the spectrum to the wealthy, establishment figures currently in power in Brazil’s center-right government.

As head of the Homeless Workers’ Movement — a well-organized group known for high-profile occupations of vacant land and other stunts — he is also more radical and hands-on than many on the left.

But this university professor trained in philosophy and psychoanalysis might have remained on the national fringes if not for a spectacular endorsement from none other than leftist icon and ex-president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

In a barn-storming speech in April just before surrendering to go to prison to serve a 12-year sentence for corruption, Lula surprised many by speaking of Boulos as his political heir, telling him live on national television “never to give up.”

Boulos’s profile is also inextricably linked now to another big political drama — the gunning down of a popular, hard-hitting leftist councilwoman in Rio de Janeiro, Marielle Franco.

Like him, she belonged to the Socialism and Liberty Party. And her still unsolved murder deepened the feeling among many that Brazil is sliding into a period of bitter political confrontation.

Boulos said he’s made for this kind of climate, with no hesitancy about taking the debate into the areas that the current crop of politicians refuses to confront.

“I’m not afraid to take on taboos like abortion, racism, sexual diversity and public security from a new angle,” he said.

He may have rock-bottom polling figures, but Boulos said that can change.

“People can’t vote for someone they don’t know,” he said.

Signs of high voter abstention suggest Brazilians aren’t satisfied with the standard candidates. 

“There’s dissatisfaction with the political system but that doesn’t mean that they don’t want to have someone they can believe in,” said Boulos.

– Passion for action –

A well-educated child of doctors, Boulos could lead a quiet, comfortable life. But he said he was driven not just to politics, but to activism, especially in support of Brazil’s vast number of poor and homeless.

He has been working with the Homeless Workers’ Movement for almost 20 years in some capacity and says that more on the left should practice what they preach.

“What really bothers me is that many on the left talk about being there for the people but they aren’t ready really to listen to them, to stand at their side, to live with them,” he said.

“Social inequality in Brazil is scandalous and you see it on every corner… This bothered me, so I began to act.”

And Franco’s brutal killing shows that this isn’t a time to stay on the sidelines, he said, calling it “the dramatic expression (of)… political violence, intolerance and hatred” in the country.

According to Boulos, that same shift to radicalism can be seen in the 2016 impeachment and ejection from office of then leftist president Dilma Rousseff. With her replacement by today’s President Michel Temer, Brazil entered “a retreat from social and democratic rights,” according to Boulos.

But he conceded that if he ever became president, those divisions would not suddenly go away.

“You can’t get on with everyone in Brazil. You have to choose your side,” he added.