For the last several years, I have started the year with a guessing exercise and have attempted to predict certain political, economic and other events in Brazil. Often I have erred but have occasionally been correct. For example, I did not predict Germany winning the Cup in 2014 and much less the 7 x 1 thrashing. However, last year I did correctly state that Brazil would pull off the Olympics as an event made for TV and the country did so in spite of all the negatives that preceded and now follows. I have been right about the direction of the economy but off on the quantitative predictions say for the exchange or inflation rate. Educated guesses both hit and miss.
Thinking about 2017 and those that might read this, it might be more interesting to look at topics not directly related to Brazil’s political economy, and instead, examine other vagaries of the New Year. On New Year’s Eve, those that celebrated did so wearing all white clothes, new undergarments and overtly or covertly thought about blessing that Iemanjá might bring. Brazilian desires are fairly universal. Almost all seek health, prosperity, spiritual blessings and love for themselves and their families. Some also wish for the passing of the current government, the end to the many tiresome ongoing scandals and occasionally some Brazilians were even pleading for respect for the environment reflecting perhaps a larger global awareness in the collective conscience.
Of course, Brazil’s New Year was marred not only by scandals and crimes, but also the mass murders that took a dozen lives in Campinas and then the one allowed by Brazil’s perpetually abhorrent prison system which led to some 50 to 60 plus deaths and many convicts on the loose in the state of Amazonas.
While wishing for God’s blessings, love, peace and prosperity, the question that confronts the population is: Has God renounced his Brazilian citizenship causing the country to lose its way? Many fear this to be true. With the economy collapsing, unemployment growing, street crime, and total cynicism about the politicians, Brazilians are indeed pessimistic and lacking in hope. Brazil’s “new middle class” is rapidly sinking with debt and unemployment, while those that have a bit more are being constantly assaulted by taxes and new tariffs. The latest creative gem is the tax on Netflix and other streaming services. There is a general feeling of impotence in spite of the desire to want and seek betterment with the passage of the old year. The current president has rejection ratings as high impeached Rousseff but at least he still has a majority in Congress and in that represents an improvement over his predecessor. President Temer, at times, seems to be taking the message of fiscal control seriously and has succeeded in pushing through an amendment to cap government spending. But, at the same time, he has failed to control current expenditures and has appeared to be at the mercy of the vested interests in the bureaucracy and in Congress that effectively circumvent stated intentions and weaken the already precarious legitimacy through special favors and privilege. Without his own votes and by sending a mixed message, Temer appears weak and may not be able to finish out his term if street demonstrations and the Lava Jato investigation turn against him. Recently, Veja magazine, a prominent opponent of the previous administration, put the President’s much younger and attractive wife on its cover in what appears to be an attempt to deflect criticism and attention from the President himself.
Newly elected mayors took office on January first. Interestingly, most new mayors of Brazil’s major cities are not from the President’s party or the PT party of the previous administration. The new mayors may represent new faces and the disenchantment but still their populist actions (street sweeping in Sao Paulo and giving blood in Rio) while voting or approving increased salaries for councilmen and bureaucrats portray the ongoing realities of Brazilian politics. It is still pay to play and negotiate benefits and deals once in power.
Politics tends to depress people and not only in Brazil, but it is important not to lose sight of multiple currents and events that have been emerging. The connectivity and activism on Brazil’s social media is of major importance. People have used social media to mobilize support of say anti corruption and individual expression in a fairly effective manner. However, the tendency in Brazil, as elsewhere, is to only listen to those who are similar and reject or not associate with those of different views. Many Brazilians condemned the wanton killers of a street vendor who had defended an LBGT person but Brazil’s machismo and homophobia still are deeply embedded nevertheless. Feminist movements, artists, actors, intellectuals, students and minorities of all types are finding ways to organize. Still racism, sexism and the traditional power structure reinforce all of the traditional differentiations. While Brazilians are favorable to democracy, their ardor has waned and increasingly the authoritarian temptations once again reemerge. Thus it is again common to hear calls for military intervention, for jailing all the “bad” actors and for killings by death squads or militias to supposedly rid society of its bad elements. For many there is still a disassociation between means and ends. Perhaps a majority still fails to recognize the rule of the law must be accompanied by respect for the individual and that the individual actions need to be rewarded and/or punished based not on class, gender, race or wealth but on the merits and consequences of the actions as judged by the law. The arrest, conviction and actual jail time for elite businessmen and politicians in the recent years show progress in the direction. However, the hundreds of cases associated with the Petrobras and other related scandals are still different and distinct from the millions of cases, indignities and crimes, which most directly touch Brazil’s poor. If you are white, college educated, dressed appropriately and a man, you will still be treated with much greater deference at all levels than someone who is poor, dark skinned and female.
Last year was difficult in Brazil. The house seemed to be slowly crumbling as the economy continued its slide and fiscal crisis wore down the already inefficient public services. Brazil’s institutions have been damaged by the impeachment but have also shown resiliency in the ongoing investigations and the arrest and jailing of notorious figures such as Eduardo Cunha, the former Speaker of the House of Representative. Brazil is seesawing back and forth on its path to economic development and democratic construction. It has a long way to go but perhaps in 10 years we will look back and see that the country had to go through a deep crisis to find its path. On the other hand, though, it is also possible that Brazil and the rest of the world may succumb to demagoguery, apocalyptical visions, authoritarianism and involution. This new year of 2017 will only be another stepping stone on the path to something better or perhaps something not as great as we might desire. To a certain extent, the direction will depend on how and if people participate, act and actually feel empowered to make a difference.