Brazil: The Long Run


It is curious how we demand answers, service and satisfaction.  In the US, things are fast paced and fairly efficient.  In Brazil and particularly in the daily news and in the social media, things too are immediate.  People want solutions but the cascade of events, some random and some predictable, always brings new problems before the old ones are remediated.  Looking back over the past year, we see a choppy ocean with froth and white caps.  It seems that the surface may never calm.  If we look below the surface, however, we might see a slower and less agitated situation.  Everything changes and nothing changes.

The basic problems of economic stagnation, inequality, an ineffective educational system and basic institutional weakness continue to hold the country back.  The question is why can’t Brazil address these fundamentals?  Since civilians wrested power back from the military in 1985, the country has had a rural oligarch (Sarney), a right wing populist (Collor), a left leaning moderate (Itamar Franco), a Social-Democrat (Fernando Henrique Cardoso), a Socialist (Lula), a leftist technocrat (Dilma), a traditional center-right politician (Temer) and finally a right-wing retired Army Captain (Bolsonaro) as Presidents.  All promised change and, undeniably, there has been some progress.  The 1988 Constitution came under Sarney.  Collor promoted an economic opening.  Itamar and Fernando Henrique stabilized the currency ending hyperinflation.  Lula benefited from a favorable expansion in foreign trade (mainly with China), economic growth and some improvement in distribution.  Dilma and Temer, while political opposites, inherited and worsened a declining economy and a political and moral crisis resulting in the election of Bolsonaro who channeled discontent into votes but thus far has failed to deliver growth or maintain popularity.

Through 8 presidential secessions, 2 impeachments, regular elections at all levels, the doubling of the population from 100 million to over 200 million, some 8 World Cups of which Brazil only won 2 in the period, the country has survived but only with a remnant of satisfaction and a huge growth of frustration and political polarization.  The complaints about crime and corruption continue through all with politicians and the political system receiving the blame.

Undoubtedly corruption is rife.  Street crime and organized criminal enterprises have expanded and violence and thievery comingle with individual politicians and have a foothold in politics and the market.  Over the last 20 years, the population has become increasingly skeptical and distrustful of all things political as the press and social media revealed the ever-increasing scale of malfeasance.  Unfortunately, most fail to recognize that corruption and crime are really symptoms while the real causes are the lack of transparency, uneven acceptance or blatant bending of the rules of the game and selective enforcement of the law by policing authorities.   These three factors collectively portray institutional immaturity and weakness.  While Brazil’s media are dynamic, incisive and investigative, oligopolistic groups also largely control them.  Rede Globo commands the lion’s share of broadcast media.  Similarly, newspapers and magazines are consolidated in the hands of relatively small groups.

As people recognize this concentration, they suspect the promotion of special interests.  Likewise, the Brazilian justice system is notoriously slow, inefficient and generally perceived as favoring the powerful.  The maid of color is condemned to years in prison for stealing a pound of butter while the rich and powerful kill and pillage with impunity.  Similarly, the enforcers or the police are also viewed as suspect and in Rio; for instance, the police and milicianos can barely be distinguished or separated.  Again, this is the breakdown or the lack of institutional maturity.  Without a functioning police power, it is hard to impede petty crime and much more difficult to discover and breakdown organized criminal endeavor embedded in the power structure.

Looking at Brazil from this perspective, it is positive to see the progress that has been made in bringing, over the past 10 to 15 years, major politicians and their accomplices to justice.  Yes, there is institutional improvement but it is slow and disproportionate to the challenges.  And again the enforcement and application of the law appears to be uneven.  Brazilians still believe the old saying: “Para meus amigos tudo, para os inimigos a lei.” (For my friends everything, for my enemies, the law.)

The public clamor in support and then in withdrawing support from “populist saviors” or “salvadores da patria” manifests the weaknesses that sufficiently sharp politicos attempt to use to their advantage.  While President Bolsonaro’s campaign against crime and corruption was sufficient for his election, it is proving to be not enough to guarantee governance or even a coherent program.  To date, albeit it is only 6 months, his accomplishments are meager, fortuitous and contradictory.  Meager as exemplified by the removal of radar from the highways, and fortuitous and contradictory as the closing of the Mercosur – EU agreement reveal.  The European Union deal has been in negotiation for over 20 years and Macri’s Argentine government wanted it and need it more than Brazil.  It also contradicts the philosophical guidance promoted by Itamaraty’s current leader, Ernesto Araujo.  Still it is an achievement.

Just as Trump is constantly plagued by his past of womanizing and abuse, Brazil’s polity and openness also brings comeuppance.  Currently, Brazil’s hero of the day, crusading judge and now Justice Minister Sergio Moro, is being tarnished by leaked or hacked communications which purportedly showing him conniving with prosecutors to guarantee Lula’s imprisonment and even trying to illegally interfere in the affairs of Venezuela.  Lava-Jato (Car Wash) has become Vaza-Jato (Empty Wash) at the risk of reversing the supposed gains against corruption.  While it is apparent from the published purloined messages that the judge overstepped all bounds of propriety, he denies all wrongdoing.  In the end, this new scandal may ultimately strengthen respect for and adherence to judicial procedure, but in the short run, the messages and ongoing debate only generate more polarization.  In Brazil, it is generally accepted that the story is more important than the facts and different competing stories separate those who see Moro as a hero and those who see him as a villain.

As in war, truth is the first casualty in Brazil’s tumultuous and conflicted setting.  It is important to question, to try to be informed, to participate and to be present.  Institutional improvement will come as civil society makes its demands and as these demands crystallize and become more coherent.  Democracy is still young in Brazil and it may not even survive. But Brazil is overdue for improvement and economic growth and the reason the country is not growing is because the people do not have confidence in tomorrow as they have to focus on surviving today.  Turning inward is a private solution that many Brazilians will take.  Enjoy the beach, the beer, the holidays but the seeds for improving are there and when the individual alternatives such as emigration become too onerous, and as people and resources create opportunity, education, equality and access will gradually improve, in spite of the obstacles.  Brasil tem jeito, pelo menos ate provar ao contrario.




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