Brazil’s economic downturn and political turmoil will exacerbate existing problems such as poverty, inequality and crime.
For many in the world, Brazil is the land of Pelé and o jogo bonito, or the beautiful game, as Brazilians call football. It is also home to the Amazonian rainforests, providential natural resources, carnival, samba and hauntingly melodious music. To outsiders, the world’s fifth largest country, both by area and population, seems sensuous, joyous and glamorous. Yet not all is well in paradise.
In the late 1930s, Stefan Zweig visited Brazil and called it the “land of the future.” Writing from war torn Europe, Zweig had high hopes for the future of this multiracial land. His hopes have since been repeatedly dashed. As per the Center for Public Security and Criminal Justice, of the 50 most violent cities in the world, 19 are Brazilian. Unemployment has risen to nearly 11%, wages are falling and inflation of 10.6% is a 13-year high. In 2015, Brazil’s economy shrank by 3.8%, vying with Russia as the worst performing major economy of the year.
Political turmoil has accompanied economic meltdown in the South American giant. Both houses of Brazil’s National Congress have voted to begin an impeachment trial against Dilma Rousseff, who is now suspended from the presidency for the next 180 days whilst the trial lasts. She is accused of illegally manipulating government accounts in 2014 before her reelection. Apparently, loans from public banks to the treasury artificially enhanced the budget surplus.
Vice President Michel Temer has taken over. He is a wily constitutional lawyer “known for his quiet yet calculating demeanor, fine suits, and a penchant for poetry.” The 75-year-old’s rather sensual book of verses, Anonymous Intimacy, is supposedly inspired by his third wife, who is 43 years younger than him and a former beauty queen. This youngest of eight children of Maronite Lebanese immigrants heads the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB) that had an alliance with Rousseff’s Workers’ Party (PT). Now, Temer has thrown Rousseff under the bus and appointed Brazil’s first all-male and all-white cabinet since the end of the military dictatorship in 1985.
In a brilliant article in The Guardian, Jonathan Watts describes how Temer has plotted to oust Rousseff. Many see the wily lawyer as “the Captain of the Coup” and for good reason. In December, Temer penned a letter to Rousseff that began dramatically with a Latin proverb: Verba volant, scripta manent, “Words fly, writings remain.” This supposedly confidential letter was conveniently leaked to the public, ratcheting the pressure on Rousseff and preparing the path for her impeachment. In April, he followed this letter with a WhatsApp recording of a speech outlining Brazil’s need of a “government to save the country.”
Temer has proved to be a real-life Frank Underwood of the popular television series, House of Cards. The only difference is that Temer is far more colorful, both in his political machinations and luscious love life. For two decades, he has been kingmaker in a system characterized by institutional corruption. As Watts writes, Temer has been “described as the ‘godfather’ who secured the appointments of key figures in the ongoing Petrobras scandal.” Temer and his party, PMDB, have avoided ideological positions. They have chased patronage, prestige and bribes with aplomb.
Temer is a fitting leader of a country where the political elite has a reputation for rapaciously robbing its people. Andrew Jacobs of The New York Times called Brazil’s graft-prone congress a circus that even has a clown. This legislator named Grumpy had the last laugh by getting 1.3 million votes, the highest in the country. Fellow members of Grumpy’s circus include aging football stars, suspects accused of murder and drug trafficking, and some bearded men who purportedly lead a women’s movement. To add insult to injury, one of the members of the Party of the Brazilian Woman was accused of sexually abusing his young niece.
Eduardo Cunha, the previous speaker of the lower house, a PMDB politician and Rousseff’s bitter rival, did better. An evangelical Christian radio commentator with a penchant for tweeting biblical verses, Cunha was recently removed from his position by the Supreme Court because of charges that he had siphoned off millions to Swiss bank accounts. Brazil’s circus is far more entertaining than House of Cards. Truth is indeed stranger than fiction.
Many emerging economies and poorer countries have problems similar to Brazil’s. In these countries graft is a way of life. People vote but do not participate in running the county. They fail to come together to create and administer public goods such as schools, hospitals, roads et al. The taxes they pay are stolen by corrupt elites. Because taxes are stolen, most evade taxes. This in turn enables tax collectors to extort bribes from citizens. Voters with little trust are often trapped between elitist reactionaries and power-hungry populists.
It is little surprise that states are failing and flailing in many parts of the world. In Brazil—as in India or Nigeria—the state barely functions because it is too diverse and disconnected from people’s lives. Like many other societies, Brazilians sip deeply from the poisoned chalice of the past. This is a former Portuguese colony where white settlers slaughtered natives, helped themselves to gold, silver, timber et al, and imported slaves from Africa to work on sugar plantations.
Bizarre to go to bed in a country with a center-left government, then wake up with a right-wing one, with no election in between. #Brazil
— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) May 13, 2016
Brazilians repeatedly point out that they are a multiracial and multicultural society. Indeed, the story of Pelé would not be possible in lily white Argentina where many still hark back to their European roots and look down on people with more melanin in their skin. In Brazil, class and wealth instead of race and religion matter more, but it turns out that those at the top of the food chain tend to be disproportionately white. It is for this reason that Watts says, “Brazil’s image as a socially liberal, multi-ethnic democracy may always have been more myth than reality.”
While Brazil did castoff the colonial yoke of Portugal by 1825, it never attained the political stability of English colonies like Australia, Canada and the United States. Turmoil has plagued it to this day. Some smart alecks from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) blame geography. They point out that it lacks the harbors, rivers and topography that allow for easy transportation of goods. The Grand Escarpment comes right down to the ocean, forcing cities to develop on small enclaves of relatively flat land. Tropical jungles and cerrado, a vast tropical savannah with acidic soils, do not help. Hence, as per this argument, Brazil still lacks a decent system of roads and railways. Throw in Max Weber’s ideas and you can blame Catholicism with its papal infallibility as a cultural barrier to economic dynamism and even democracy.
Whilst the gentlemen of the CIA might have a point, their agency has hurt Brazil perhaps more grievously than geography. In 1964, the CIA was terrified by the specter of spreading communism. Cuba had fallen. Vietnam was troubling and would soon consume resources. The US had to save Brazil from satanic communism. The CIA came up with Operation Condor. Killings, kidnappings, torture, imprisonment and brutal repression by South American military dictatorships were seen as messy means to the noble end of combating communism. One of those who was imprisoned and tortured during these days was Rousseff herself.
Only in 1985 did Brazil become a democracy. By 1992, it had impeached a president. Fernando Henrique Cardoso, first as finance minister and then as president, brought inflation under control at a time when the post-Soviet globalization was starting to take off. Cardoso’s measures increased consumption and created stability. At the same time, the Chinese economy grew stunningly throughout the 1990s and 2000s. As this author pointed out last year, Sino-Brazilian trade increased from little over $10 billion to $255.5 billion between 2000 and 2012, a rise of 2,550%. As China has sneezed, Brazil has caught a cold.
During the boom years, interest rates were low, credit was easy and consumption based on monthly instalments for cars, refrigerators, cellphones and even good clothes de rigueur. In 2012, The Economist reported that credit in Brazil had doubled in 10 years. During the global recession, policymakers slashed taxes and interest rates to boost demand. Neither Rousseff nor her predecessor and mentor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, were good stewards of the economy. Like grasshoppers and unlike ants, they failed to save for winter and Brazil is now drowning in debt.
Rousseff and Lula had won elections thanks to the support of the poor and focused on distributing largesse. They lacked vision, competence and, according to some, even integrity. Lula was affected by the Mensalão scandal. Monthly payments were apparently made to legislators to back the government. Operation Car Wash investigation during the Rousseff era revealed that Petrobas, a state-owned oil giant, overpaid construction companies who passed off some of that money to executives and politicians.
Many accuse of Lula and Rousseff of becoming too greedy after remaining in power too long. They are certainly guilty of populism and of sacrificing long-term interests for short-term gains. Yet they did make Brazilian politics a bit more democratic, plural and plebian. During their time, the Bolsa Familia Program made cash transfers to the poorest sections of society, helping reduce poverty as well as improving the health and education of children.
Like many other leaders around the world, Lula and Rousseff made terrible decisions regarding the Brazilian economy. Temer is no knight in shining armor though. He evokes terrifying ghosts from the past. With Temer’s rise to the throne, Brazil’s “bold old elite” has staged a stunning comeback. Already, ultra-conservative lawmaker Jair Bolsonaro has dedicated his impeachment vote to Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, the dictatorship-era torturer-in-chief. Glenn Greenwald and The Intercept are right to point out that Brazil’s democracy itself is under threat as ruthless robbers take over the country’s safes.
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Photo Credit: Eduardo Girao / Marcos Queiroz