January 2003

I'll Miss You, Fernando

Brazilians live under threat and are easily intimidated.
This belies the idea that Brazil is a laid-back, tolerant country.
It is only laid back and tolerant because it allows you to do
what you want but won't allow you to complain when somebody
else does what he wants. Brazil needs a mental revolution

John Fitzpatrick

My time in Brazil has coincided with the two Fernando Henrique Cardoso administrations and I will be sad to see him go, not only because he was a good president, but because it will mark the end of an epoch for me. I hope readers will let me indulge in a few personal comments on present-day Brazil which, despite the critical tone, are made with respect for the country which is now my permanent home.

Cardoso leaves a different Brazil from the one he inherited but whether it is a better Brazil is unsure. Compared with his predecessors, such as Itamar Franco, José Sarney and Fernando Collor, Cardoso was a statesman. He was impressive enough to stand up on a world stage and, by being somewhat aloof domestically, generally rose above the unseemly fray, which constantly marked his uneasy coalition governments.

His achievements included ending hyperinflation and privatizing sectors which had been run inefficiently by the state. He opened the Brazilian economy to the world although, whether he had any choice at a time of globalization, is another matter. Despite having to kowtow, at times, to unsavory political allies he maintained reasonably honest administrations. His calm approach helped Brazil weather a number of economic crises including the devaluation of the Real, the Asian and Russian crises, the collapse of Argentina and the ongoing world economic slump.

Yet, for all that, he leaves much to be done economically and socially. That is why voters overwhelmingly chose the main opposition candidate, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of the left-wing Workers Party, to be their new leader. No Brazilian president will quickly relieve the country of the appalling misery and poverty which marks the lives of so many of its inhabitants, nor stamp out the corruption and bureaucracy which makes the radical change needed so difficult.

The weight of 500 years of history, during which the law has been treated with contempt, is simply too heavy to bear. It is almost impossible to see Brazil becoming an economic power like the United States, even though it has the same riches in terms of natural and human resources. Whereas the US developed dynamically to become the world's undisputed superpower within a century, Brazil has languished. Nor can one imagine the kind of overnight miracle which turned post-war Japan and Korea into economic superpowers.

All kinds of hypotheses can be put forward — the pushy Protestant ethic in the US versus submissive Catholicism here, a weak colonial power without the resources to people such a vast territory, an unfair distribution of land, fragmented political parties, an insufficiently impartial judiciary, etc.— but the fact is that Brazil is languishing. It still does not have strong enough institutions nor a sufficiently educated population to make the vital step forward. For the foreseeable future Brazil will continue to be a sleeping giant, important only because of its size.

Brazilians Need to Assume Personal Responsibility

Personally speaking, I feel Brazil will not develop until there has been a mental revolution among the people. Brazilians need to develop their minds, change their cultural attitudes and assume more personal responsibility for their actions. Unlike the US experience, the great ethnic stew pot, of which Brazilians are so proud, has not produced a dynamic citizen ready to work hard and defend his rights.

This could arise from the fact that before mass immigration brought in millions of ambitious Italians, Spaniards, Arabs, Japanese, Jews, etc., a century ago, the bulk of the people were poorly educated and had no motivation to improve their lot. Centuries of oppression had made them passive rather than resistant and, in turn, they were overtaken by the pushier immigrants who transformed the south into the country's industrial heartland.

The gap between the "newer" Brazilians and the "older" Brazilians is enormous. Millions of migrants from the Northeast come to the bigger cities to work but, in some ways, they are like the Turkish "guest workers" in Germany. These migrants are visible outsiders because, first of all, most are of mixed race whereas your average Paulistano is of European stock. Secondly, in cultural terms they are slow, easily intimidated and outsmarted by their southern countrymen. The Northeasterners do the menial work and most live in poorer districts or favela shanty towns.

There are similarities with South Africa where blacks used to be restricted to certain areas. I visited Johannesburg at the height of the apartheid system and remember the daily mass movement of maids, gardeners, workmen, etc., to and from the townships like Soweto and Orlando to the white suburbs of Johannesburg.

I still recall the sight of groups of black women, often carrying bundles on their heads, walking along the roads and flagging down rickety buses and communal taxis to take them to their homes miles away. The situation in São Paulo is not so different today, with hundreds of thousands of domestic workers, security men, shop girls heading back to places like Guarulhos and Osasco at the end of the day.

There is no apartheid system here but the fact is that these Brazilians do not share the same benefits as their more-recently arrived, better-educated compatriots. This is not an attempt to blame the richer Paulistanos but to point to the fact that on one hand, the worse-off Brazilians are passive and accept their lot and, on the other hand, the better-educated part of society accepts an underclass as a normal part of life.

"Foreigners, leave us alone and let us do things our own way!"

Brazilians are also surprisingly lacking in self-confidence. A year ago I wrote an article for Brazzil, criticizing the lack of response by the Brazilian public and government to the terrorist attacks in the US. I received around 80 replies, mainly from Brazilians, of which around 60 were critical of my stance and were anti-American.

The overall feeling I had was of a self-pitying people who saw themselves as the helpless victims of more powerful forces. I could not believe that these correspondents were living in the world's 8th largest economy, a country with an envious potential. Much of the correspondence I receive from Brazilian readers is along the lines of: "We're not Americans or Europeans so leave us alone to do things our own way".

In a sense, one can understand this because Brazilians are used to feeling helpless. Maybe having a former metal worker like Lula in the presidential palace will change things but I doubt it. Brazilians are treated scandalously not only by their political rulers but also in their daily lives. Visit any bank and you will find a long queue. Armed guards will screen you and, if a metal detector goes off when you try to go through the revolving doors you will be publicly humiliated by having to empty your bag and turn out your pockets.

Go into a post office and after queuing for 20 minutes be told that it has no stamps. Travel on a municipal bus and hope, for the sake of your backbone, it is new because until recently many buses had chasses designed to carry freight, not human beings. Don't even think of using a train (except the Metro and the CPTM) because they are ancient, dirty and frequented by thieves. Ask a tradesman to do a repair on Monday morning and he will turn up on Tuesday afternoon with the wrong tools.

Arrange a business meeting and the person will arrive half an hour late without any apology. Try and park in some areas and a lurking semi-criminal will offer to "look after" your car, providing you pay him of course. If you refuse you and/or your car will be damaged. Don't expect the law to help because the police will do nothing and some will be in cahoots with the thug who makes a good living out of intimidating motorists.

Stand Up for Your Rights? You Must be Joking?

As a foreigner I constantly complain but rarely get support from Brazilians, even when they are suffering too. Recently I was roughed up by a lout after complaining when he pushed his way to the front of a queue in a corner bakery. No-one else objected to his behavior and, when we had our altercation, no-one interfered. Even the owner of the shop and his assistants stayed out of it.

Another time a beggar type entered a bus without paying and started spitting on the floor. When I told him to stop he became abusive. Once again no-one, including the driver or bus conductor backed me up. This is typical. I have lost count of the number of times I have had arguments with motorists who have gone through red lights while I was crossing the street.

Brazilians do not behave as Europeans or Americans would because they are frightened that the other person will react violently. The everyday reality is that the Brazilian lives under threat and is easily intimidated. This belies the idea that Brazil is a laid-back, tolerant country. It is only laid back and tolerant because it allows you to do what you want but won't allow you to complain when somebody else does what he wants.

So if you see someone drop a McDonald's carton in the middle of the street don't say anything because he won't complain if you do the same. It goes well beyond dropping litter, of course. If you see a middle-aged man blatantly trying to seduce two under-age girls, as I once saw in a hotel in Manaus, then don't do anything because if he sees you doing it then he won't interfere. When you do insist in complaining, the Brazilian generally refuses to admit he has done anything wrong and, in many cases, the confrontation becomes violent.

The Brazilian, therefore, avoids confrontation and by doing so sweeps the dirt under the carpet and avoids reality. The election of Lula may be a breakthrough in this sense, as people are finally standing up for themselves and voting for someone who is honest and a fighter. When the military were intimidating Brazilians, it was the organized car workers, led by Lula, who defied them, not the middle-class intellectuals whose attempts at forming urban guerrilla bands got nowhere. The estimated 300,000 people who held a mass meeting in front of São Paulo's cathedral in the Praça da Sé in January 1984 to demand direct elections were showing a fighting spirit, which is generally, sadly, missing.

As already mentioned, Brazilians do not like to assume responsibility. On the day of the first round of voting, a truck collided with a bus and a car in the northeastern state of Sergipe. A total of 29 people were killed, most burned alive, and around 20 others injured. The truck driver jumped out of his vehicle and ran away. This is an extreme but not untypical example of how Brazilians will try to save their own skin, even to the extent of leaving people dying in front of their eyes.

In Recife, about 12 years ago, I saw a car which was going too fast knock over a woman and just drive on. I think the woman was actually decapitated by the force of the collision. A driver in São Paulo recently drove into a motorbike, knocking off the cyclist and his girlfriend, because he thought the rider had once robbed him. The motorcyclist was innocent but the driver then sped off on a mad dash across the city, driving on pavements, knocking other people down, racing through streets on the wrong side of the road and crossing onto other lanes, regardless of the consequences. Miraculously, no-one on was killed. When the driver was finally caught by the police and taken into custody his son told reporters that his father had done nothing wrong and gscriticized the police for shooting out the tires of the speeding car.

Look what the Brazilian has to endure in just voting. By law, fixed by politicians who pay scant attention to the laws they themselves pass, voting is compulsory. In the first round of the latest presidential election, many voters queued for hours in temperatures over 30 degrees Celsius in the streets of São Paulo, which were littered with unread political propaganda. They then waited in cramped school hallways and when they finally got to the ballot station and had problems understanding the complicated procedure — remember people were also voting for governors, senators and federal deputies — the assistants were generally the kind of vacant young girls who make checking in at any reception area in Brazil an ordeal. Any question is met with a look of blank incomprehension, followed by a consultation with another dim-witted bimbo who generally knows even less.

São Paulo's Streets of Shame

A walk down almost any street in São Paulo shows what the Brazilian has to put up with. Not only will the pavement be broken and filthy, strewn with litter and dog dirt, but the road will be uneven, with potholes, and likely to flood during the rainy season. The litter, which people casually throw on the street, adds to the misery as it is washed away and blocks the drainage system, which is inefficient in any case.

Unless the pedestrian is walking through an extremely rich area, the buildings will be scrawled with graffiti. In many areas the pedestrian will be unable to walk on the pavement as it has been taken over by stalls selling cheap items, most of which are contraband. Every so often the city government will send out a force to get rid of the street vendors but this is a cynical exercise in public relations because as soon as the men from the council have gone the vendors are back. These street vendors are often violent and, when thwarted, will smash the windows of neighboring shops and go on the rampage. They pay no taxes but use the social security system financed by the shopkeepers whose windows they have smashed. Motorcyclists will ride on the pavement, regardless of pedestrians, to avoid traffic jams.

As for security, the Brazilian does not depend on the state to protect him. Recent events in Rio de Janeiro have shown that drug traffickers can almost paralyze parts of the city at will. If some adolescent gang leader is killed they can order inhabitants and businesses to close down as a sign of "respect". Politically important buildings have been attacked by machine-gun-wielding gangsters, grenades have been lobbed, groups of favela dwellers have been kidnapped and ordered to go to prisons, as human shields, while the gangsters organized break outs. The police are so inefficient and untrustworthy that most people don't even report muggings even when arms are used. Known murderers walk free.

The Folha de S. Paulo recently ran an article on clandestine cemeteries in a Rio favela where gangsters dumped the bodies of their victims. As most victims are local people, the police make no real effort to track down the murderers. In one case, cited by the paper, a woman spoke of how her teenage son had gone out one day with his girlfriend and neither of them had ever been seen again. She was sure they had been killed by the girl's former boyfriend whom she knew.

Will Lula be the new Getúlio Vargas or
Juscelino Kubitschek? No Chance.

How Brazilians cope with all this and remain cheerful is a mystery. However, one thing I have learned since coming to live here is that no-one will change the Brazilian mentality by force. The country has an extraordinary ability to absorb all kinds of cultures and influences and make it native. Whereas the US is full of hyphenated citizens e— Irish-Americans, Italian-Americans, Polish-Americans — Brazil is full of Brazilians, regardless of where their parents or grandparents came from.

So, if the Brazilian is to change his mentality, then it will need a Brazilian to make him do so. In the 20th century, two presidents stamped themselves on Brazil and brought about profound changes in society: Getúlio Vargas, who dominated the country from 1930 to 1954 and created the Estado Novo (New State), and Juscelino Kubitschek, who ruled from 1955 until 1960 under the slogan "Fifty years in five" aimed at rapid economic development. Present-day Brazil is still marked by their terms of office, for good or bad.

Whether Lula will be able to follow in their footsteps and force his countrymen to create a "new state" or cram 50 years' development into five is doubtful because he does not have the vision of Kubitschek or the intellectual flexibility of Getúlio Vargas, who managed to found a state based on the fascist corporatism of Mussolini's Italy yet, at the same time, declared war against Italy and Germany and sent Brazilian troops to fight in Italy alongside the Allies.

John Fitzpatrick is a Scottish journalist who first visited Brazil in 1987 and has lived in São Paulo since 1995. He writes on politics and finance and runs his own company, Celtic Comunicações—, which specializes in editorial and translation services for Brazilian and foreign clients. You can reach him at 

© John Fitzpatrick 2002

You can also read John Fitzpatrick's articles in Infobrazil, at

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