Bom, Ruim e Muito Feio no Brasil or The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

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Ok, Lets start with the good.  Brazil’s civil society is active and dynamic.  There are tons of voluntary associations where Brazilian engage.  And, it is good to remember that Lula’s Workers’ Party (PT) and the Catholic Church (CEBs Comunidades Eclesiasticas de Base) had an important role in this mobilization.  Of course, one can and should separate the PT’s corrupted political elite from the base of support.

Some organizations are NGOs and supported by foreign associations and some are funded directly through government. A few are truly voluntary and operate on their own using member time and resources and sometimes foundations or religious support.

Alexis de Tocqueville noted in Democracy in America how civic participation made a fairly unique contribution to U.S. democracy. Brazil is slowly developing this tradition. Some of Brazil’s strongest voluntary associations are the groups formed to support the soccer teams. While often associated with hooliganism and violence, these groups have recently tried to soften their image.

One such group, The Torcida Organizada Pela Paz (Torppaz), has been active since 2011. Some groups do charitable work and also participate in politics. Outside of soccer, both the Catholic Church and protestant groups have been active in promoting religious study, charitable activities, and community organization. Together with Brazil’s widespread use of the Internet, active participation has grown and we now see some of this flowing into the political arena. Witness the latest street marches for and against the government. Nevertheless, the political parties lag as voluntary organizations and individual connections are more important than party programs.

Still, the good news is that people are participating and using their voice to achieve some independence from the all-pervasive and ever-present Brazilian state system of syndicates, unions and clubs financed and controlled directly and indirectly by the power elite.   Brazil’s tailing mine disaster last year in Mariana, Minas Gerais, caused by negligence from the Samarco mining company, has left a legacy of destruction against which small groups have mobilized to seek redress and repair. Just another example.

The economy is obviously the bad part of this story. Over a million formal sector jobs have been lost in the last year as Brazil continues to reverse its growth pattern.   The government has long blamed the slowdown in China, the recession in Europe, falling commodity prices and the generally negative international economic environment. Unfortunately, policy makers need to look at their own mistakes. These include a well-known litany of excessive intervention in the market, overspending and non-productive investments by government, high taxes, excessive bureaucracy and of course corruption that has centered on the state-owned Petrobras oil company. And, as always, avaricious political parties and politicians have their hands and hats out.

But with crisis comes opportunity. Some of the positive signs include Brazil’s recent record monthly trade surplus. The Real has strengthened from 4 to 3.6 against the dollar. The Brazilian stock market has posted gains. Foreign capital is moving in seeking bargains. If Dilma goes down, BOVESPA (Sao Paulo’s stock exchange) will go up 10 to 20 percent. If she is not impeached, it will probably drop by an equal amount.

While the economy is bad, the political atmosphere is even uglier. Dilma’s impeachment is moving forward even if only in a lurching fashion. While there’s a better than 50% chance that Dilma will be ousted, the opposition to Vice-President, Michel Temer, has also initiated impeachment proceedings against him.

The next in line to succeed Temer is the notoriously corrupt President of the Chamber, Eduardo Cunha. Swiss authorities have presented convincing evidence that he holds undeclared bank accounts and that his wife has used resources tied to these accounts for luxury shopping and entertainment in Europe and the United State. Cunha’s name also was cited in the recently released Panama Papers.

But malfeasance and corruption are not the monopoly of any one party. They have touched just about all of the major opposition leaders. There are questions about how former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso supported his lover and child in France. Aecio Neves, the candidate that Dilma narrowly defeated, is suspected of taking funds from one of the Brazilian state owned firms (FURNAS). The ugly story marches on.

The repugnance extends to the street and goes beyond the shrinking economy, unemployment and increased poverty. In truth, these are things that Brazilians have long had to live with. The really scary thing is the potential for real civil unrest, something that has not been a tradition in Brazil. Now, radicals on the right and left are stoking the fires. Name calling and stereotyping is becoming universal and predictable, some of which is to be expected. But the call for killing and physical harm is not. So far we have escaped tragedy and major confrontation, even with both sides at times calling for all-out war. This is unacceptable.

Someone asked me recently how this might all end. I said Brazil has a tremendous future and always has had one as the old joke goes. The problem is not so much that the future fails to arrive but rather Brazil is having a hard time finding its way there.

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