The Search for Intelligent Life on Planet Brazil

The Search for Intelligent
Life on Planet Brazil

No one seems to be seriously considering cooperation across party
lines on a grand scale for the good of the nation. What threat could be more serious than
the general threats of economic and social instability to Brazilian society today?
By Phillip Wagner

Before you cave into the urge to protest, I freely admit I could just as easily have
written something on the search for intelligent life on planet USA, or even planet earth.
But this is Brazzil magazine, not USA Today or World Book. And the
title was very seriously considered and settled on; a culmination of four years
deliberation leading up to the present time.

I feel a mixture of amusement and despair as I watch Brazil, and Brazilians, tussle
over the appropriateness of celebrating 500 years following Portuguese discovery. I
certainly appreciate the fact that the arrival of Portuguese foreshadowed the beginning of
an untimely and cruel demise for indigenous Brazilians. It also foreshadowed the holocaust
of African "sugar slavery", although an apparently institutionalized denial of
black heritage seems to preclude any possibility that this second issue will be so
enthusiastically embraced. In any event, I’m principally opposed to this self-flagellation
on grounds that it seems largely misdirected and counter productive.

Why bother to pretend that celebrating the anniversary offends sensibilities when
economics, not genocide, is at the root of Brazil’s collective frustrations. Wasn’t it
lavish spending after all, on 500 years of Brazil projects that triggered the outcry? It
seems to me that the plight of native Brazilians provided a context for the protests, but
was not the actual catalyst for protesting.

I personally feel that the Brazilian culture that evolved over these 500 years is worth
celebrating. Hasn’t the marriage of immigrant peoples, whether forced or voluntary, and
tropical biomes produced a unique and wonderful offspring? Most Brazilians I know here in
the United States feel saudades for home. Most Brazilians I know, here and
in Brazil, share a genuine sense of intimacy for their food, their music and each other.
These characteristics are attractive and compelling. The world will be diminished as
Brazil becomes increasingly "Americanized". It depresses me to concede there are
telltale signs suggesting that Brazilian culture has become diluted, or is it
"polluted", by global corporate influences. When my Bahian fiancée, Danielle
Valim, and I met recently in Rio we were both distressed to note the differences. Lunch
schedules are increasingly being realigned to match up with American business practices.
There are more dress shirts with ties in offices, fewer embraces and kisses as people
greet one another in the street. I’m already feeling saudades for the Brazil I knew
only four years ago.

I agree with those who decry the waste of resources by Brazilian government officials,
but I see a great need for Brazilians to recognize that they have something to be proud
of. "500 years", for me, is more a reminder that Brazilians and Brazilian
culture have evolved over time to become what they are today. I’m not suggesting that I
too am not frustrated with the way things are in Brazil. I love Brazil, but criticize it.
I criticize Brazil, but love it. But I want to separate the "state of" Brazil
from Brazilians and Brazilian culture.

I’m as baffled by the current state of affairs in Brazil as I am by the controversy
surrounding the 500-year celebrations. Brazilian politicians seem to view each other as
"the enemy", when the real enemy is the weight of strain on the fabric of
Brazilian society. I appreciate President Cardoso for stabilizing the Brazilian currency
after years of runaway inflation. I admire him for taking unpopular bold steps to
denationalize industry, and for cutting the real loose to find its own value. He isn’t
perfect, but he’s performed credibly under worse-than-only-difficult circumstances.

I’m a great fan of the creative genius of Paraná’s governor Jaime Lerner, who refuses
to be constrained by traditional paradigms. I respect the way Lula, the leader of the PT
(Partido dos Trabalhadores—Workers’ Party) has adapted to a changing political
landscape, and I’m impressed with his passion to improve the lives of workers and the less
fortunate. I’m even willing to give ACM (right-wing senator Antônio Carlos Magalhães),
in Bahia, a chance to prove that he’s really changed following the tragic death of his
son. But, by and large, I remain distressed because Brazil’s challenges are so great that
they can’t be effectively addressed piecemeal by individuals representing different
political parties and (with the exception of Cardoso) in different geographic regions.

A lot of Brazilians seem to dwell on the impact of corruption. Corruption is a fact of
life. It’s admittedly worse in Brazil than in other places, but Brazilians haven’t
"cornered the market". Any student of American politics can point to an endless
litany of scandal and subterfuge. Does anyone remember the senator who was dubbed the
"Champagne campaigner"? He charged lobbyists large sums of money to have
breakfast with him, then stayed only in the finest accommodations while on the campaign

A vice president was charged with accepting bribes while serving as a state governor.
There’s evidence to suggest that one of our most beloved presidents was catapulted into
office by primary and general election victories in key states that were
"orchestrated" by organized crime. Another president was forced to resign. And
still another was reputed to have regularly "strong armed " (or was it
blackmailed?) congressmen, senators and other public officials to get his way.

Many congressmen were involved in Abscam, the House Banking Scandal, the Savings and
Loan Scandal and so on. Pork barrel politics, exorbitant contributions and the power of
well-funded lobbyists are frequently credited with unjustifiable allocations of incredible
sums of money, inexplicable decision-making and the fate of important legislation.

What I find most perplexing about the current state of Brazil though, is the inability
to recognize natural opportunities for improvement. Brazil is noted for its judo athletes.
In judo, an athlete relies on his, or her, ability to capitalize on the momentum of an
opponent; to turn it against them. Throughout Brazil groups have organized to instill
pride and self-discipline, promote education, and create opportunity within their

Nowhere is this as well institutionalized as among the Afro Blocos of Bahia. It seems
to me a "no brainer" that there are tremendous advantages in publicizing and
supporting these programs. Provided politicians avoid creating bureaucracies and allow the
programs to govern themselves, helping people help themselves offers the most
cost-effective way to address severe, complex, social problems. It encourages personal
responsibility and, when effectively recognized, becomes contagious. In other words, it
plays on its own momentum _ just like judo.

Given the magnitude of Brazil’s problems, I’m also troubled that no one seems to be
seriously considering cooperation across party lines on a grand scale for the good of the
nation. What threat, short of nuclear holocaust, could be more serious than the general
threats of economic and social instability to Brazilian society today? How bad does it
have to get before politicians concede that everyone working together is in their own best
interests? If society should collapse, then power and wealth and prestige will probably be
lost and/or redistributed. Public officials can best consolidate their own advantage by
assuring the future of Brazil itself.

And, lest I forget, the general population bears responsibility too. In fact, the idea
of personal responsibility seems so foreign to most Brazilians that littering has become a
national pastime. Carlinhos Brown singing about the waters of Candeal symbolizes the need
for people of every social class to realize that they’re contributing to their own
problems. Politicians can’t be blamed for everything because, ultimately, they can only
influence a small portion of daily activity in Brazil.

Finally, I see tremendous potential for common interest groups to pull together and
organize, but little indication that it will happen anytime soon. I tried to encourage the
idea by getting Netcard, a Brazilian free virtual postcard website, to establish an
entirely new category of offerings for programs that are involved in "constructive
social engagement", like the Afro Blocos of Bahia. I reasoned that if these groups
became aware of how many of them there were around Brazil they might feel encouraged to
organize, and pool their collective weight to generate political influence.

The idea never caught hold, largely I think because Netcard has been unable, or
unwilling, to respond to additional requests to add entries*; so the category never
reached the "critical mass" required to create momentum. I’d also entertained
the idea that these programs might seize on an opportunity for mass e-mailing to publicize
themselves. But many of them have limited IT (information technology) resources, or are
fighting the IT learning curve. Besides, who would the director of a program providing
instruction for homeless children be sending a virtual postcard to when, as is often the
case, that individual is him (or her) self all but living on the margins of society?

I still believe that my original idea of groups pulling together through a
"clearinghouse" like Netcard is a good one, and compassionate IT literate
individuals could be encouraged to send the e-cards to friends. Perhaps some of them would
even be inspired to provide the funding, or other resources, required to bring these
programs "up to speed" with IT. I think there’s plenty of intelligent life on
Planet Brazil, but if it doesn’t do something soon it may be too late. The clock is

("Como ajudar/how to help"; a selection from Phillip’s "Trabalhos de Ajuda
ao Brasil" web-site at

Phillip Wagner is a freelance photojournalist, a frequent traveler to
Brazil and a contributor to many publications with credits that include stories on the
Israeli-PLO peace accords, film and music industry activity and travel to Latin America.
Visit his Página da Casa do Phillip do Brasil website at
. One of Phillip’s goals is to pursue a postgraduate degree in Latin American Studies
focusing on Brazil. You can e-mail him at

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