This was published in the New York Times as an Op-Ed piece on Oct. 21, 2104
I like to say that: “Estamos todos de rabo preso”. And if that is true, I think we need to look at the institutional and cultural environment that promotes, condones, tolerates and readily accepts our “bad behavior”.
Here is the article:
We Brazilians suffer from a curious cognitive dysfunction, which occurs with the same frequency in our population as lactose intolerance does among the Japanese, or the inclination for punning among the English. We have the ability to be outraged by corruption, while engaging in our own petty versions of it.
As the second round of presidential voting approaches on Sunday, this evil is spreading like an epidemic. In bars, on the streets and on social networks, advocates of Dilma Rousseff, the Workers Party candidate for re-election, and Senator Aécio Neves, of the Brazilian Social Democracy Party, never tire of reminding us of the “robberies” that their rivals commit.
Workers Party supporters cite the re-election scandal in which Social Democrats were accused of bribing congressmen to approve a constitutional amendment allowing Fernando Henrique Cardoso to compete again for the presidency in 1998. Social Democrats’ supporters mention the “Mensalão,” a case in which congressmen allied with the Workers Party regularly received money diverted from Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s illegal campaign contributions. Those not involved in the party squabbles tend to blame all the politicians, as if the politicians were a separate species, able to corrupt our reputable citizens.
Our citizens don’t really need the help.
My introduction to Brazilians’ cavalier attitude toward corruption came through family. When I was about 7 years old, we went to a Sunday lunch at my uncle Arthur’s. Arthur (not his real name) was my richest uncle, and he lived in a house with a pool. During lunch, he proudly told our family he had found a way to turn off the water register in front of the house and could now fill his pool for free. I do not remember any member of my family reprimanding him.
Today, my uncle is retired, and he sends me angry emails about the corruption in the Workers Party government.
I would like to believe that the country’s advancements in recent decades have made us more ethical, but that is not the case. A friend of mine, a lawyer in her 30s, has a hairdresser’s license so she can get discounts on shampoo. She is a partner in a tax law firm and earns enough in a year to pay for shampoo for three future generations of her family.
A psychoanalyst whom I consulted years ago proposed to charge me less if I paid for my sessions in cash, thus allowing him to bypass the tax authorities.
In Rio de Janeiro, when you ask a taxi driver for a receipt, the usual response is, “What value do you want me to put in?” The reason being, the driver can give you a receipt with an inflated charge that allows you to steal 10 or 20 reais from your employer. Of course, in return for this “favor,” he expects a small percentage in cash.
Even when we go to the movies, Brazilians find a way to bend the rules — if there is a line we will look for a friend who is in a better position and think nothing of jumping ahead. But on Facebook and Twitter, the two parties, or politicians in general, clearly are to blame for all our adversities.
Sure there have been advances in the 20 years that the parties have been in power. Under Mr. Cardoso (1995-2003), hyperinflation ended, the Brazilian real was strengthened, and the economy improved. Mr. da Silva (2003-2011) and Ms. Rousseff (2011 to date) deepened and extended social programs that have lifted more than 40 million people out of poverty. These advances, however, were made without putting an end to old problems: spurious alliances to obtain the majority in Congress, the exchange of favors, cronyism and corruption. These are traces of a country that emerged 514 years ago as Portugal’s overseas pantry, where men were making money far from the law, the church and their wives — first, by exploiting pau brasil (a red tree whose sap was used to dye fabrics and that lent its name to our country), and after that by planting sugar cane, trafficking in slaves, and mining for gold and gems. Much of the disregard for consequences and of the expediency practiced by these explorers still exists today.
Am I the only Brazilian free of these traits? Of course not! Last year, I bought a refrigerator. The store said that, in addition to the delivery, they could install it for 450 reais. I thought that was expensive, and said I would do it myself. When the fridge arrived, however, I realized I couldn’t handle it.
The delivery man coughed and proposed: “If you want it, I can install it now, for 100 reais, but the people from the store cannot find out.”
“Sure,” I nodded. Uncle Arthur would have been proud of me.
The other day, looking at that fridge, I realized that it is an image of today’s Brazil: powerful, showy, forward-looking, but working on the old connections we insist on perpetuating. President Rousseff or Senator Neves will win the election, but it will take longer to solve the problems that hold back Brazil from being a great country.
Antonio Prata is a columnist for the newspaper Folha de São Paulo.