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Out Of Tragedy, A New Brazilian Presidential Contender Emerges


In Brazil, a new presidential candidate is up and in the race. Her name is Marina Silva and polls show her possibly beating the incumbent. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro has this profile - the 56-year-old black woman whose uncommon past is making her an attractive alternative for Brazil's future.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: Marina Silva grew up in the Amazonian state of Acre - the daughter of rubber tappers who scraped together a living. She was orphaned young. She put herself through school working as a maid. She didn't become fully literate until she was in her teens. Her close childhood connection with the forest then led her to environmental activism. She was an associate of Chico Mendes, the union leader and environmentalist who was assassinated in the 1980's here. Eventually she became a senator and then environment minister under former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. NPR interviewed her last year and she spoke to us about her passionate dedication to conservation.

MARINA SILVA: (Through translator). Brazil is a country that can make an important contribution to this world in crisis. We have the best conditions to switch to a sustainable model of consumption. We have 11 percent of the planet's freshwater, 20 percent of the living species of the planet and we still have more than 200 indigenous tribes speaking more than 200 languages.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Silva has always gone her own way. She left Lula's government and then ran for president under the banner of the Green Party in 2010, where she came in an impressive third-place. She then broke with them too. When she was unable to form her own party last year, she joined Eduardo Campo's ticket as vice president. His sudden death in a plane crash has raised her to the top spot.

THIAGO DE ARAGAO: What Marina brings is something new. She represents something that was never experienced in Brazilian terms of past administrations - a new way of doing politics in Brazil.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Thiago de Aragao, a political analyst with Arko Advice, a consultancy group in Latin America. He says that newness has excited what has been a lackluster race until now. Dilma Rouseff, the incumbent, is struggling in the polls. Aecio Neves, her right of center opponent, has also failed to connect with voters. But in many ways, Aragao says, despite her popularity, Silva is still a mystery.

ARAGAO: We know a lot about her history and her past, but it is not clear how she positions in the era of economy, for example - what her views on foreign affairs are, how she would relate with the immensity of other political parties that we have in Brazil. All of these are big questions marks.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And her rivals are already taking aim. The Neves camp is suggesting her environmental credentials could be a threat to Brazil’s booming agro business interests. Her outsider status, according to Rousseff’s, people might show she doesn’t know how to govern. But she also has another very powerful group that may back her. Silva is an Evangelical Christian. Alexandre Barros is a political analyst and columnist who says she will get votes from those who identify with her religion.

ALEXANDRE BARROS: Because this is a - a religious group that has been growing in numbers very, very intensely in the last few years.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Analysts warn - it's still too early in the campaign to know how viable of a threat she will be in these elections. But at the end of our interview last year, Marina Silva warned she should not be underestimated. People ask me if I am an optimist or a pessimist, she said. I say, I am neither. I am only persistent. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Sao Paulo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.