Optimistic Dilma in 2016 – Photo by Roberto Stuckert Filho
Some readers have followed, not necessarily religiously, this blog since it went public in January of 2013. Comments have generally been gracious and insightful.
As long-time readers know, I do a New Year’s prediction for how Brazil will fare over the coming 12 months. As part of this, it’s only fair to go back and assess what I got right and wrong. I’m giving my 2016 predictions a gentlemanly B-. Here, for verification, is the link to those year-old predictions: https://allabroadconsulting.wordpress.com/2016/01/01/brazil-predictions-for-2016/
My biggest 2016 prediction mistake was stating outright that President Dilma would not be impeached. I sincerely believed that she could and would marshal the political forces necessary for her survival. Instead, she went down with hardly a whimper and with little or no political or economic support. . A worsening recession, growing unemployment and above all, her indecisiveness in the economic sphere and her disconnect from Congress ultimately doomed her. Her incompetence and distance even from her own party showed her lack of political skill and desire to save her presidency.
While I missed on Dilma, I predicted correctly Cunha’s (former President of House and the main force in Congress behind the impeachment) ouster and Renan Calheiro’s survival (as the President of the Senate). Mr. Calheiros has indeed prevailed but notably weakened and will soon lose the presidency of the Senate. The new President, Michel Temer, has kept his distance from Calheiros preferring other cronies instead. In my predictions, I did not mention Temer (as I did not think he would actually take over) and I should have looked at his ambitions more closely.
On the economy, like most everyone, I correctly anticipated the continued recession but also expected the cycle to reach bottom by the end of the year and naturally perk up from there. It now appears that the upswing may not begin until the second or third quarter of 2017. The recession, the major increase in unemployment and the consequent lack of demand has kept inflation relatively low. I had expected inflation (again with Dilma) to hit or top 10% due to her maneuvering to please supporters. President Temer has pushed a cap on spending through Congress and this along with lack of demand has held inflation to around 6.5% in 2017 with a current tendency to fall. Brazil’s Central Bank is predicting inflation of less than 5% in 2017. While the official numbers appear reasonable, the impact of price increases certainly feels higher and more worrisome on the street.
Speaking of worrisome, Brazil is mastering the art of year-end crises. It used to be mudslides with summer rains creating havoc. These were largely man made catastrophes because of unregulated and uncontrolled development of unsafe areas. Because the deadly slides were associated with the seasonal downpours, they could be blamed on nature. Similarly, Zika was the New Year concern from 2015 to 16 when thousands of cases appeared and hundreds of babies were born with microcephaly. In this case, nature again was blamed but Brazilians also know that mosquitoes breed and propagate due to a lack of basic infrastructure and sanitation. By August and the Olympics, the pandemic was no longer an international threat and Brazil, as I predicted, successfully held the Games. Of course, the major beneficiaries were not the people of Rio but instead NBC and the Olympic Committee. Rio is now bankrupt and many of the so-called Olympics improvements are rapidly falling into disrepair. This 2017 New Year disaster cannot be blamed on nature but must be laid at the heart of the contradictions inherent in Brazil’s barbaric inequality and violent past. Prison riots in the first days of the year have caused well over 100 deaths and the government seems paralyzed in how to address the gangs that control the prisons, their historically abhorrent (mis)management, and the Justice system itself that operates willy-nilly and condemns the poor, black and powerless. The rebellions and deaths show the bankruptcy of the government and paradoxically the strength for those who have nothing to lose and know that life is cheap. The gangs rule in the absence of any other intervening power.
Last year, I also mentioned the continuity of the corruption investigations and, especially the Lava Jato (Car Wash) with its revelations of unprecedented bribery and the chummy network of exchanges between construction companies, politicians and political nominees positioned to take bribes and distribute contracts favoring the “empreiteiras” (construction companies) and their political allies. Again, thinking that Dilma would hold on to power, I imagined the extension of the investigations to other areas such as the National Development Bank (BNDES) and more specific projects like the transposition of the San Francisco River. Indeed, there has been mention in this direction but no action. Instead, the Temer government sought to quietly dismantle the main investigations and it has only been through strong public pressure within Brazil and from abroad including the US Department of Justice that the prosecutions actually survive.
Interestingly as predicted, Brazil continues to receive massive amounts of FDI (Foreign Direct Investment) some 69 billion in 2016. Some of this money is going into the primary sector for land purchases, soybean and pulp plantations. Other sectors are less clear, with industry in decline, the money is likely going to opportunistic acquisitions in manufacturing or processing (i.e. the Petrobras sale of the notorious costly refinery in Pernambuco negotiated recently for 10 cents to the dollar. Other investments are going into education, services, distribution and logistics. Still these have not sufficed to revive the economy. More money is starting to come from China but the Chinese still lack confidence in how to deal with Brazil.
Unfortunately, Dilma’s ouster is still yielding negative returns for Brazil’s institutions. While she was bad, her replacement has not improved the economic situation, slowed the firings, enhanced productive investments or inspired confidence. Dilma, though apparently personally honest, could or would not govern. President Temer’s rectitude is perhaps less certain. His government is corrupt and weak but more politically adept in dealing with the venal politicians in Congress. Hopefully, the electoral court will not have time to disqualify the Dilma/Temer slate, which would force Temer out and the indirect election of a new interim president who would have filler role to the elections of 2018. If this happens, it will further confuse the public and inhibit the possible emergence of candidates not tied to corrupt schemes or past malfeasance.
Pulling off the Olympics and winning the missing gold medal for the first time in futbol* were the high points, and now Brazil continues to flounder but such is the world in 2017.
*The Olympic gold medal was only major soccer title that Brazil had never won.