Everyone pretty much agrees that Brazil is going through another major crisis. There is less agreement as to if and when the crisis will achieve some sort of resolution. Personally in my experience in Brazil since the early 60’s, I cannot remember a time when Brazil was not in crisis. We have an ongoing process of ebbs and flows dating back to discovery. There are many explanations ranging from bureaucratic fatalism associated with the Portuguese crown, the geopolitical one derived from Brazil’s less favorable locational aspects, the racial one that blames Brazil’s underdevelopment on its ethnic mix, the political explanation derived from the lack of tradition in participation and voting, the economics due to lack of savings and investment, the educational narrative that notes the lack of functional literacy or the historic one that combines all of the above and more. Each of these brings something to understanding but still the crises are never resolved and only change a bit in players and personalities.
With all of this, Brazilians remain generally optimistic, happy and compare their country in favorable terms to other places. For most, Brazil remains the best place to be born and to live. Even those that participate in the diaspora want to eventually return when things improve. So how do we reconcile this contradiction? In spite of violence, mayhem, disorganization, gross inequality, open thievery and poverty, Brazilians still affirm that life is good. In spite of the recession, now extending to year 3 from 2015 to possibly 2018, Brazil still ranks in the top 10 economies worldwide as measured by GDP having dropped from 6 to 9 in the ranking. Even so wealth and wealth creating potential abound.
Amazingly to some, back some 30 plus years, Brazil was in a similar situation. Jose Sarney (PMDB) was president, supported by Congressman Temer and his colleagues. Formal unemployment was around 17%, the direct elections movement has lost its chance in 1985 but achieved the open elections of 1989 resulting in Fernando Collor’s election and Lula’s first presidential defeat. Inflation was higher than that Venezuela’s is now topping 1000% per year. Like Temer, Collor was called to the carpet on accusations of gross corruption. Unlike Temer, Collor had no base in Congress and was impeached. Although Collor had more charisma than Temer, he also failed on the economic front and his different attempts at controlling inflation are remembered with contempt and derision. Collor’s impeachment in 1992 placed his VP Itamar Franco in the presidency and led to Fernando Henrique Cardoso (FHC) becoming Finance Minister and the implementation of the Plano Real.
In the subsequent elections, FHC trounced Lula two times. But Cardoso’s second term was made possible by satisfying the venality of Congress (it had to vote a Constitutional amendment allowing a second term). While the Congressional penchant for the buy off had long existed and had been condoned by the military governments and greatly enhanced by Sarney, FHC also drank from the tainted cup of expediency and now stands accused of having committed the original sin. In this Cardoso just followed the long tradition of what he has described as “A Arte da Politica” but it is really the dirty business of sausage making, (now “nobly” carried on by JBS, the world’s largest meat processor, thanks to the generosity of Lula, Dilma and the national champion policy which started back with the military governments.)
Things change but remain the same. What goes around comes around. Can Brazil break the cycle of miracle years followed by crisis. Can it the country go beyond boom and bust? My answer is an optimistic yes. And here is my prediction, no matter how foolhardy. Today’s Congressional vote allows Temer to survive until the 2018 elections. The field in 2018 will include the new and the old. Most likely, the old will win. It could be Lula if he is not in jail or it could even be the rightist Bolsonaro the messianic ex-military Congressman who sings the praises the military and disdains minorities. It really does not matter in the long run. The important fact is to hold the election, gradually renew Congress, put up with whoever is elected and gradually reconstruct civil society based on meeting basic social demands in education, health, and basic sanitation.
This Congress has decided to protect itself by protecting Temer. The President, in turn, has promised reforms and continues with in their pursuit to maintain a bit of legitimacy bestowed by the market, if no one else. Given the horse trading that has taken place in order to keep power, it is likely that any further reforms will be more symbolic than real. The government has already gone beyond its spending cap for this year and now is raising taxes. Temer will end his mandate as one of Brazil’s most unpopular figures. Clearly he desires power, is venal and shameless in his own perpetuation. Still, there no immediate obvious better alternative. Dilma’s impeachment solved nothing and further surrendered power to corrupt politicians. Her one virtue was that she allowed and did not block investigations. Temer has less personal virtue but certainly is a better political wheeler and dealer. On the positive side though his administration at least opened space for social security, labor and spending reforms. To all but the most obtuse, there is recognition for this need. Delfim Neto, now the ranking academic conservative economist is not optimistic but suggests that the “least bad solution” is to let Temer “end his mission and postpone the proceedings” until there is a new administration in place on Jan. 1, 2019.
Brazil continues it herky-jerky halting progress. In spite of the poor governance, things will gradually improve but the rate will depend heavily on how and if people decide to get involved. The opportunities are many in civil society and even in the political realm as Temer and cohorts eventually die off.