Urucubaca, Systems and the Brazil Problem

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Urucubaca is a wonderful word often use in Brazil. Sometimes it is just a lack of luck but it also implies the existence of an evil eye and the casting of a spell. The solution is to be cleansed and pay tribute to otherworldly figures.

Brazil’s current situation might represent the lack of luck. President Dilma is in New York paying her tributes, anxious to escape impeachment. If she could only bring the Orixas and other gods to her rescue, she might have a chance but…the spell she suffers under is a heavy one and it looks like her urucubaca may be too strong.

While she is out of the country, Brazil continues to suffer. Yesterday, April 21, a holiday for getting to the beach and relaxing, the beautiful cliff hanging new bike path connecting Leblon to Sao Conrado collapsed in a high tide with strong waves. At least 2 people were killed and others were injured. The “ciclovia”, described by mayor Eduardo Paes, as the most beautiful in the world was suppose to be another showcase of Rio’s readiness to host the Olympics.

Today in Sao Paulo, another building collapsed and killed at least one person. More urucubaca.

The problem however goes beyond bad luck and, in reality, is systemic. Brazil has a long-standing aspiration to world-class status. The World Cup, the Olympics and 2010 Economist cover were all supposed to be indicators of the country’s success in achieving that goal. Like construction projects that sometimes fail, the aspiration has crashed and the country is keenly aware of the distance it must travel from its current reality and its future as a relevant power. Instead the system languishes and declines and Brazil moves from dream to nightmare.

In the rush to succeed, many have cut corners and resorted to the famous or perhaps infamous “jeitinho”. Brazilians have always been good at improvising and while they love to plan, the need to get, achieve, gain, win and take advantage has put to waste the good intentions. Instead of speaking of the “Brasil maravilha” (wonderful Brazil), the feeling is not even a miracle can provide respite.

The news today in Rio reports a close association between the mayor and the builder of the collapsed bike path. In technical competence and experience, Brazilians know better and have a long, solid and indeed outstanding record in building reinforced concrete structures. There is great pride in its stadiums, in Brasilia, in the Rio-Niteroi Bridge and basically anywhere you find Niemeyer project or a Brazilian engineer or architect. But the mixture of tradition, personal relationships, opportunity, greed, cronyism and closed door back slapping have deepened and entrenched a long standing practice of illicit innovation associated with outright corruption.

Now, it seems that outright avarice has penetrated too deeply. Jacques Warner, Dilma’s former chief of staff once commented, to the effect, that those who had never previously tasted honey, when they do so for the first time get sticky fingers. Perhaps the comment was a Freudian slip or made in a careless fashion but it can be taken to reflect disgust and disappointment with how the PT took over the State apparatus to its private advantage. The State no longer provides minimum basic services in health, education and security but instead has become the source of income for interests that have taken over its mechanisms. Bribes get approvals and the consequences are readily apparent. Things collapse and not only physical structures.

President Dilma rails against the coup. She affirms her personal uprightness but she has allowed and turned a blind eye to all of the malfeasance at the top and we see the results. In quality control, the term “stacking of tolerances” is used to illustrate how minimum errors can lead to major mistakes. Dilma has allowed the slippage to accumulate to a point that she can no longer control.   While it is not clear what technical errors resulted in the tragic deaths on the collapsed bike path, it is transparent that President has failed. She refuses, as does her party, to take responsibility for the crimes, mistakes and errors that have happened on her watch. Thus, she reaps the consequences of impeachment, in spite of no direct proven personal criminal activity on her part. Simultaneously, people suffer and die with the collapse of Brazil’s physical, political and management structures and systems. Urucubaca indeed!

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