Wow! Brazil has messed up my head once again. You know the clichés: land of contradictions. Carnaval, spelled with an “a” to emphasize that the carnal has just come to an end, but not before the President remonstrates against licentiousness. How? By posting his own pornographic video and inquiring about a type of shower. Mangueira, one of the most traditional samba schools wins the parade competition with a liberal, alternative retelling of Brazil’s history with an emphasis on the evils of slavery and pays homage to assassinated councilwoman, Marielle Franco. But, most samba schools including Mangueira are sponsored by the Brazilian version of the numbers game and the illegality comes with ties to paramilitary militias, the drug traffic and various and assorted corrupt connections to politicians at all levels of government. Liberal, pornographic, creative, conservative, corrupt: It is all there.
We are not even 90 days into the New Year and the new presidency and Brazil has suffered a slew of predictable but avoidable tragedies. In the past few days, torrential rains have destroyed homes and killed in São Paulo. Everyone knows the rains will come and that mudslides will follow. So as people say, destiny or better still in Portuguese: “falalidade”. In Rio, 10 teen athletes were tragically burned to death in a fire at Flamengo Football Club training center. Of course, the converted ocean container had never been inspected or approved for safety. Another “falalidade” followed the police “intervention” in Santa Teresa, which took out 13 “bandits” apparently shot in close quarters after not “surrendering”. In January, Vale, the world’s largest iron ore exporter, and the protagonist of Brazil’s biggest environmental disaster in November 2015 did it again. This time in Brumadinho. Instead of killing only a few the body count is higher than 300. Nevertheless, the local, state and national government feel the need to preserve this “jewel” of Brazil’s productive system. Vale is one of the major sources of revenue in Minas Gerais and typically accounts for over 80 percent of municipal budgets in towns where it operates.
Underdevelopment, like war, has been defined as boredom interrupted by tragedy. Such is the case in Brazil. Once the country hoped to be a modern industrial power, but its manufacturing has been far surpassed by China and even South Korea, both of which were behind Brazil in the late 70’s. Brazil has gradually reverted to its comparative advantage in agriculture but the inefficiencies of logistics and infrastructure make it much less competitive than it could be. Moreover, it is worth remembering that Brazil is over 80% urban and that soybeans and cattle do not require much labor. The agricultural sector is highly mechanized on large properties and income concentrates at the top with a reduced multiplier effect. Agriculture, especially monocultures such as soybeans and eucalyptus for pulp, will contribute little to reducing inequality. At the same time, although the government likes to state its environmental concerns, the agricultural advance is in competition with the preservation of the rainforest.
President Bolsonaro was swept into power with a landslide victory as people wearied of the PT and beause of his promise to fight crime and corruption for which the left took perhaps more than its fair share of punishment. Yet since he has been in office, his family has been tainted with numerous scandals ranging from the kick backs controlled by his sons to the extended family being favored through policy as exotic as inhibiting the import of bananas. Apart from Bolsonaro and his family problems, corruption became systemic and touches the whole political spectrum.
Olavo Carvalho, a Brazilian residing in Virginia, appears to be the eminence grilse of the current government. He claims to be a philosopher but has no degree and before becoming popular on YouTube had seriously studied astrology. He is reputedly behind the selection of Ernesto Araujo as Brazil’s Foreign Minister and Ricardo Velez, as the Education Minister. Araujo had never occupied an Embassy and is basing his programs, not on Itamaraty’s vaunted traditions but rather on the so-called Christian and nationalistic outlook favored by Steve Bannon and his ilk. Velez, although he has been in Brazil for over 40 years, reportedly speaks Portuguese heavily accented by his home country Colombian Spanish and is said not to be able to write well in the Brazilian idiom.
On the left, the outcry against the current government is immense. And as a result, the supporters of Bolsonaro resort to calling everyone critical of the government a communist or socialist. Thus Brazil’s largest media organization, which has always been aligned with the right, now is attacked as a left wing radical opponent, even though it took the lead in promoting the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff.
The left hates Sergio Moro, the judge who condemned Lula to prison and who became Moro’s Justice Minister promising to fight crime and corruption. As a judge, Moro presented himself as above politics but now he is in a tight spot as his reputation has shrunk due to his presence in the new government. His failure to address the various scandals have shaken the new government. Reportedly, the popular judge would like to parlay this into a run for the presidency an obvious contradiction with his statement that he was not political.
While the opposition piles on any and every misstep (and there are many), they fail to give any credit. Thus while Bolsonaro recently tweeted and promoted support for the much needed reform of the social security system, the press focus was instead on the failure to find Marielle’s assassin and the dearth of females in the administration. Bolsonaro then responded that his 2 females Ministers were each equivalent to 10 men so things were even. He also proclaimed on the International Day of Women that he was eliminating “femicidio” by calling it homicide thus solving the problem.
Brazil’s big problems are well known and pressing, but the impression is that the government is failing to address them. The economy needs to find a path to sustainable growth and Brazil’s gross inequalities need to be reduced. The right blames the PT for the recent and ongoing low growth and lack of investment. The government has promised to reduce the presence of the state through privatizations as a solution. Indeed, the Presidents tweets about privatizing the airports and some infrastructure but in Brazil things take time. Everyone agrees that bureaucracy is excessive. But it is also true that any change affects special interests and cliques within the state. Judges, prosecutors and other in the judiciary are jealous of their privileges, as are large groups of high-ranking public servants. These “patriots” slyly attack reforms as harmful to the working class poor and thus need to be stopped in the “best” interests of the nation.
Education and basic sanitation are keys to both a lasting path forward and a reduction of inequality. Yet, the Ministry of Education, which recently copied, many say plagiarized, a patriotic representation from Mexico is more concerned about fighting an inexistent “socialist/gramsci” inspired agenda of cultural dominance rather than actually teaching the ABCs and math. Under the PT, the educational system expanded but declined significantly in quality. What was “politically correct” on the left, i.e. sex education and gender equality were vented as important and progressive. The new right appears to want to reverse the PT by essentially repeating the same ideological error (now from Olavo Carvalho) on the other side by pushing for salutes to the flag and singing the national anthem, with boys dressed in blue and girls in pink.
While all of this commotion is taking place, Brazilians are forced to live their day-to-day lives thankful that they have not yet experienced the anarchy of Venezuela but skeptical that change will really happen. Unprecedented numbers want to leave Brazil for better pastures. But with a slowing world economy and increasing restrictions on immigration, many of the opportunities that existed a few years ago are now gone. So people have to do the best they can and largely they do. They are creative and develop survival strategies. Brazil, given its size and potential, still offers much opportunity. Brazilians continue to be torn by pride and shame, by the will to progress and by the weight of so many obstacles that seem intractable. It is not an easy situation but Brazilians are resilient even in the face of such daunting odds and a history of accommodation, inertia and passivity.
It is unlikely that DeGaulle actually said, “Brazil is not a serious country.” But given all the contradictions, tragedies, crimes and only halting progress, the saying has its own validity. Composer Tom Jobim also stated “Brazil is not for beginners.” And even though my Brazil experience goes back to the early sixties, I am ever confounded and surprised, yet still optimistic about this beautiful land and its crazy inhabitants. It clearly has a future, but it remains to be seen if the country can actually find its way.