Cuban Doctors and Schisms in Brazil

Brazil has top notch health care for those who can afford it.  Even treatment through public health programs such as SUS and INSS hospitals is, if you know how to work the system and have friends, not really that terrible.  Although I have to admit that I have not used the system for a long time.

So the debate on the hiring of 4000 Cuban doctors is interesting and perplexing at the same time.  Those in favor state the need for better health care especially in rural and poor regions where the Cuban doctors are supposedly heading.  I think everyone can agree on that point but it is not quite so simple.  The Brazilian medical association and most of its members are up in arms, stating that the Cuban doctors are a threat to the medical class and the health of Brazilians.  They say Cuban doctors don’t speak Portuguese and have not been adequately trained or lack the qualifications of a “real” Brazilian MD.  There was even a very ugly incident today where protesting medical students and interns were reportedly shouting at and directing derogatory and racist remarks at black Cuban doctors arriving to work.

The schism, in my opinion, reflects the increasing polarization that is preceding the 2014 presidential election.  The street protests of June seemed to place Dilma’s easy reelection in doubt. The left, led by the PT (Lula’s worker’s party), has gone on the offensive to make up for lost ground.  At the same time, the center left Tucanos (PSDB and allies) are trying to portray Dilma as imcompetent and her administration as just a continuation of the same corrupt practices that were revealed in the mensalao, the Congressional vote buying scandal.

The polarization in some arenas has gotten so bad that some on the more radical left have stated that there is a coup in the works planned for September 7, Brazilian Independence Day.  The radicals on the other side are alleging that Dilma and the PT have totally lost their legitimacy and that the Cuban doctors are, in reality, guerilla fighters, seeking to impose socialism or communism.  It is hard to believe but this is the kind of stuff that is going around and being brought up and, unfortunately, not only on the fringes.

I have been reading Jose Murilo de Carvalho’s book Os Bestalizados about the Republic and how political participation was controlled and co-opted in the First Republic (1889-1930).  The book makes one think that Brazil is still in that long process of acquiring a civic society, building citizenship and political participation.   The recent protests show that Brazilians want change but want it within the confines of a working political system.  The danger is that a minority might be able to convince and cajole the majority into accepting a “revolutionary” change.  That is what the military and the technocrats called the 1964 coup against the supposedly leftist “revolutionary” forces of Jango and Brizola.

A friend of mine posted a quote from Buckminster Fuller the other day.  In Portuguese, it read: “Voce nao muda as coisas lutando contra a realidade atual.  Para mudar algo e preciso constuir um novo modelo que tornara o atual modelo obsoleto.”  In English, (forgive me any mistake here Bucky) “You cannot change things by fighting reality.  To change, you must create a new model that will make the old model obsolete.”  Both left and right affirm they have new models but they are not very convincing.  Probably, the best we can do is to participate in the slow construction of education, institutions, and participation taking into account new technologies and systems without throwing out the advances toward freedom and political democracy that have been made.

Energy Secretary Moniz in Brazil

U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz  travelled to Latin America last week representing Obama at the inauguration of Paraguay’s new president. On the way, Moniz stopped in Brazil and met with Edison Lobao, Brazil’s Minister of Mines and Energy.  The meeting, mainly due to Paraguay, turned out to be productive.

Here is a link to the White House Fact Sheet on energy related issues that were discussed at the meeting:

The U.S. is lobbying Brazil for a greater presence in the development of its vast energy resources from the Pre-Sal oil fields to “clean energy” such as wind and biofuels.  From published reports, it looks like the popular topic was the possible role that the U.S. could play in the development of Brazil’s shale resources mainly for the extraction of natural gas.

Given the fracking rush in the U.S., I am curious about what resources and interest are actually available.  Nevertheless, the political and business visit demonstrates that after the street protests, things are returning to the Brazilian “normal”.  Investments continue to be made in spite of difficulties,  bureaucratic obstacles and obscure political interests standing in the way.  It is business as “unusual” in its usual fashion in Brazil.

There is certainly interest in alternative projects such as solar and wind, but money and returns dictate the action in the tried-and-true paths where the traditional players have already mapped out the players and have an idea of what they can do.

Certainly, with the devaluation of the Real and the threat of inflation, American and other foreign investors gain a bit more leverage as the Brazilian government once again finds itself in need of maintaining a strong flow of foreign direct investment in an increasingly adverse economic environment.

Secretary Kerry in Brazil

US Secretary of State John Kerry is spending the dog days of summer on a Latin American tour. According to published reports , Kerry’s agenda has been to try and smooth the diplomatic feathers ruffled by Edward Snowden’s “revelations” about electronic espionage. Personally, I am shocked! Right!

I am not sure how tall Kerry is but Antonio Patriota, Brazil’s foreign minister sure looked short in the pictures I saw. This is totally irrelevant as is, in my opinion the nationalistic pride and posturing taking place around the “Spygate” incident. Brazil and Dilma might be more concerned about going back to the historical archives on how the US covertly and overtly supported the coup and the military regimes after 1964.

I would like to believe that Kerry’s trip has a more practical purpose. I am wondering about any proposals to increase trade and investment and if Brazilians are really interested in listening. Brazil is in a tight skirt (saia justa) and needs to strengthen its industrial base, figure out how to keep agricultural and mineral exports going in the face of falling demand, control inflation, increase its savings rate and attract more foreign investment in spite of all the bureaucracy and deficient infra-structure.

Perhaps Kerry will meet with Carlos Alberto Sicupira and his partners at 3G Capital and they can figure out to get Brazil running like Burger King, Heinz and Budweiser. Sicupira, along with his billionaire partners Jorge Paulo Lemann and Marcel Telles, own Anheuser-Busch, the world’s largest beer company. Their firm, 3G Capital, partnered with Warren Buffett to buy Heinz in February 2013.

Kerry’s wife, Teresa Heinz, is a Portuguese–American businesswoman whose late husband, Henry John Heinz III, was heir to the Heinz company before Buffet and 3G Capital bought it for $23 billion.

The United States does not necessarily have to recapture its 100-year role as Brazil’s largest business and trade partner.  But both sides need to focus more on the nuts and bolts of business rather than on unproductive spying and the blame game.

The Pope, Protests and How Brazilians Feel About God

Brazil is a funny country.  When a foreigner visits Rio, Sao Paulo or even Salvador for the  first time, he will probably walk away with the impression that Brazilians are very modern and perhaps post Christian, much like the Europeans, such as say Italians.  That is while religious symbols are prevalent, they are really accepted more for their cultural significance rather than due to a deep rooted belief in God, scripture, dogma of any type and religious teachings.  On a typical Sunday in Rio, for example, you will find many more Brazilians at the beach and bars than at church.

Still if you poll Brazilians about their belief in God, more than 90% will respond affirmatively.  At the same time, church attendance declines as one moves up the social ladder.  Church attendance tends to be inversely proportional to income.  Indeed, the evangelical movement in Brazil has made its greatest advances among the lumpen and the working class.

The Pope’s recent visit on the heels of Brazil’s largest protest movement in the last 20 years tells a lot about how people feel.   Some claimed that the visit was just entertainment and a sort of Catholic Woodstock; however, very few acts are capable of mobilizing millions, Rock in Rio, not withstanding.  Copacabana, with 3 million attendees at mass, became Popacabana.

The heartfelt warmth that the great cross section of the Brazilian people showed the Pope was indeed sincere.  Proximity to the leader of the church, brings Brazilians out in mass because of the desire for connection to something higher and to each other.  This aspiration, this desire for solidarity and belonging, curiously runs parallel to the protest movements.  The Pope, perhaps, attracts a wider audience drawing from all strata, while the protest movements were driven mainly by the middle class.  Still the emotional feelings have parallels.  Brazilians have turned in great numbers over the past decades to the evangelical movement.  Much of this has been out of frustration with the traditional preaching of the Catholic church.  The evangelicals have succeeded by offering promises that are closer to the heart of working poor.  They offer both participation, fulfillment and even the promise of material advance.  The traditional Catholic mass has certainly been shy about offering a “gospel of prosperity” and immediate hope.  It has favored mainly patience and long suffering, except maybe for the Liberation Theology minority wing which has had less impact than in its heyday of the 80’s.

Turning to a higher power, seeking an ideal, and coming together with purpose occurred with the presence of the Pope and in the protest movements.  At the Copacabana mass, the people were drawn by an individualistic need to express collectively their feelings and love for a symbolic representation of God on earth.  And the Pope corresponded with support of their need to participate and expressed their desires for equality, progress, material and spiritual improvement.  The Pope emphasized participation, the role that people have to play in interacting with their government, participating in politics and social movements.  Overall, he was sympathetic to the broader demands of the protest movement and the broader aspirations of the Brazilian people vis a vis their elected officials.  In the protests,  in spite of minority violence, the overall mood was  peaceful and orderly, not barring however the natural jocularity and fun poking nature of the Brazilian character.

In essence, Brazilians (like most people) believe in a higher power but not necessarily the doctrines of organized religion.  They strive for improvement, they want a better and more responsive political organization and they need the feeling that they are being heard and taken into account.  They would like to know that there is a chance for improvement and that this is available to all.  Unfortunately. the Brazilian political and social system traditionally has been unequal and access depends on a personal exchange of favors.  In the absence of the Pope, Brazilians have believed that their politicians could deliver, if not miracles, at least personal benefits.  However, the system has failed and is now too large and massive for this populist/patrimonial exchange.  The Pope resonates with the masses much more strongly than the politicians, President Dilma and even Lula.  Pope Francis has a sympathetic feel and is perceived as down to earth, humble, and close to the people.  Thus his popularity in the press and with the people.

Now that the Pope is gone, the governing class will most likely revert back to trying to convince the populace that God is indeed a Brazilian and that everything will work out as successfully as the Pope’s visit.  However, it is more and more difficult for the government and the elite to find the golden thread that can bring the people together.  The government and the elites may still reign but their grip on ruling is slowly being loosened.  I think this is the meaning behind the protest turnout and the popularity of the Pope.