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The Worse the Better

The Worse the Better

It’s important to note that by and large, Brazilians weren’t exactly
enthralled by their nation’s 500th birthday. To say Brazilians celebrated would be an
overstatement—observed pretty well describes what happened on April 22nd and the days
leading up to it.
By Adhemar Altieri

Way back when the planning began more than a year ago, it was going to be a festive
occasion. The general idea was a celebration of Brazil’s 500th birthday, its
"birth" as a nation being the arrival of Portuguese explorers on the coast of
present day Bahia state, on April 22nd, 1500. But from several quarters came valid
reminders: perhaps the 500-year mark would be a time for more reflection than partying,
more thought and analysis about what worked out and what didn’t.

More consideration for what still needs to happen if the "country of the
future" is ever to become the nation of today. Points well taken: more reflection did
ensue, in the media and throughout society. But in the end Brazil got neither the party
nor a full intellectual exercise. Instead, it got a highly incompetent reaction by the
government to predictable protests, fuelled by an irresistible desire by opponents and
opportunists to cash in on the big event. In the end, it was the protestors who got what
they wanted, sad to say, at the expense of the vast majority of Brazilians, who don’t see
things their way.

By now, Brazzil readers around the world may have seen a short TV news clip of
protesting landless peasants and native Brazilian Indians scuffling with military police,
who prevented their protest march from reaching Porto Seguro, the town that now stands
where the Portuguese first came ashore. In many parts of the world, that clip may well
have been the only news item shown that had to do with Brazil’s 500th birthday. A
superficiality that’s likely to leave viewers with the impression that protests were the
order of the day—repressed, of course, in authoritarian fashion. Points for the
extreme Left, always looking for a way to mess up Brazil’s image abroad, in a never too
clearly explained tactic that seems more appropriate for shooting one’s own foot than
reaching practical objectives.

For years, the Left has been branded with an impromptu slogan in Brazil: "Quanto
pior, melhor", loosely translated in the title of this article: the worse things
are, the better they are. When Brazil returned to civilian rule in 1985 following a
21-year military regime, the outlawed Left returned to political life. Naturally, there
was a lot to say, as they were the most targeted by the repressive outgoing regime. And
most of what they had to say was negative—a stark contrast to the prevalent discourse
during the military years, when Brazilians were often led to believe their country was
steps away from becoming the world’s next superpower. In that context, the phrase actually
made sense: to make political headway, the Left’s chosen strategy was to hammer away at
how bad things were. In most cases their points were valid, but their tone and persistence
made the Left easy to describe as card-carrying, exaggerating "negativists".

The Left would not seriously review that approach until the election of Fernando
Henrique Cardoso in 1994. Their candidate, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of the Workers’
Party (PT), campaigned against the recently-introduced Real Plan, calling it a sham,
nothing more than a short-term ploy designed to elect Cardoso, and end like so many other
economic adjustment plans—in the dustbin of history. Cardoso romped to a first-round
victory, and the Real Plan’s results, ups and downs notwithstanding, are still
around—six years later, the balance is positive.

The negative take had flopped miserably, and finally led part of the Left to search for
a new approach—one they have yet to identify and agree on. The 1998 campaign saw Lula
and the PT accused of bringing loads of dogma to the campaign, and not enough concrete
proposals. Fair criticism, which Lula acknowledged after much arm-twisting from the media:
close to election day, he told reporters the opposition had "no obligation" to
come up with concrete proposals because they were not in power—proposals he said,
would be made after they were elected. Predictably, Cardoso was again re-elected with a
first-round victory.

Since 1998, there’s often been the impression that some in the Left are truly
attempting to find a new, more practical approach, and at last kiss off "Quanto
pior, melhor". Unfortunately, there have been even more numerous occasions when
the Left can’t seem to resist trying to cash in on circumstances, showing it really has
not gotten any closer to that new approach. This was quite visible through much of 1999,
in the aftermath of the devaluation of the Brazilian currency on the heels of the Asian
and then the Russian crisis. While the government attempted to keep things in control, the
Left organized marches and demonstrations, including the so-called "March of
100-thousand" on Brasília, which fell far short of its ambitious title.

There were more and more land invasions by the MST, the organized landless peasants
movement, as well as numerous, often violent protest acts not related with land reform,
supposedly the MST’s priority. And a new slogan was introduced: "Fora FHC",
or out with president Cardoso, an ill-explained proposal—if it could indeed be
described as such—which, when taken literally, would involve institutional breakdown.
How else do you remove an elected president without good reason?

By the final quarter of 1999, the Left realized it was all for naught. Brazil didn’t
have a great year, but all things considered, it was no disaster—certainly nothing
remotely close to what the Left insinuated all along. The end result was another whack on
the Left’s credibility. The most prominent left-wing voices in Brazil went silent for a
few months, in an obvious retreat following yet another tactical flop. Then, along came
"Descobrimento", the approaching 500th anniversary of the so-called discovery of
Brazil by the Portuguese. Another opportunity not to be missed…

It’s important to note that by and large, Brazilians weren’t exactly enthralled by
their nation’s 500th birthday. To say Brazilians celebrated would be an
overstatement—observed pretty well describes what happened on April 22nd and the days
leading up to it. As one long-time foreign resident of São Paulo put it, "this was
no World Cup Final". Instead of attending mostly small, isolated "500
Years" events scattered throughout the country, Brazilians were far more likely to be
seen on the beach, enjoying the long weekend which got under way on Thursday because of
Easter—most got the day off work on Good Friday. Exceptions were a free outdoor
concert in Brasília with several pop stars performing live, thus the big turnout, and the
marquee event in Porto Seguro on Saturday the 22nd, attended by Presidents Fernando
Henrique Cardoso and his Portuguese counterpart, Jorge Sampaio. The latter was the desired
focal point of most organized protests.

There are numerous plausible explanations for this apparent lack of interest. First,
Brazil is no longer essentially Portuguese, so the former "motherland" is only
seen as such by a minority of Brazilians. The last century saw inflows of immigrants from
various parts of the world, which dramatically changed the makeup, look and feel of
Brazil. Western and Eastern Europeans, Asians, Jews and Arabs, and the largest Japanese
community outside Japan, are integral parts of today’s Brazil—all intertwined with
the original Portuguese, Afro-Brazilians and their traditions brought in with slavery, and
native Indians.

A true melting pot, Brazil has developed pretty much its own culture, which includes
aspects from all newcomers, but has a way of its own—to a point where it now heavily
influences Portugal, especially through television, while little if anything of current
Portuguese culture finds its way into Brazil. Another explanation would be that Brazilians
realize their nation isn’t a "finished product"—there’s much to be done,
including many wrongs to be corrected: against the Indians, blacks, and more broadly, the
excluded. Not the best party material.

The government seemed to read the national mood accurately, and did not go overboard
with 500 Year celebrations. The event in Porto Seguro was pretty well it—again, an
observance more than a celebration. The media got it right as well: there were special
programs on television, 500 Year issues and pullout sections in major papers and
magazines, but nothing beyond the expected, or in any way exaggerated or overdone. In
fact, whatever celebratory mood existed changed dramatically in the past two or three
months, as much more questioning took place. Indian issues were very prominent, with their
status examined and re-examined in numerous media specials and open events.

The status of blacks in Brazil became a topic of heated discussion—they were
introduced as slaves in the 1600s, freed in the late 1800s, and continue to occupy the
bottom rungs of the social ladder. Even environmental consequences got plenty of
discussion space, although it’s a bit childish to blame explorers from five centuries ago,
or settlers from two or three centuries back, for not displaying today’s levels of
awareness and concern about preserving biodiversities.

Still, judging from the amplitude and intensity of the protests organized to converge
on the 500th birthday, one could easily conclude Brazil was partying blindly and ignoring
the many issues that surround its first five centuries of nationhood. The protestors’
message seemed to be that no level of observance or positive recognition of the date would
be appropriate—many were quoted as saying "there is nothing to celebrate",
which comes off like a totally unacceptable imposition, a "my way or no way"
stance that Brazil’s Left, so victimized by authoritarian regimes in the past, should be
smart enough to steer clear of, but apparently isn’t. Here’s how they went about driving
home their 500 Year message:

* Weeks before the date, the Landless Peasants Movement (MST), which works in tandem
with left-wing political parties, intensified its land invasions throughout Brazil, adding
to the list invasions of public buildings, including the INCRA (Land Reform Institute)
offices in Salvador, state capital of Bahia, where the main 500 Year event was scheduled
to take place. Some 450 MST members kept INCRA employees hostage and later released them,
but remained in command of the building, demanding a meeting with Land Reform Minister
Raul Jungmann.

He refused to meet them until they vacated the building. This has become typical of MST
actions. To put it in perspective: the Justice Ministry has just received a report
outlining unlawful captivity of government employees by MST members: since January of
1999, 530 officials have been held hostage in numerous separate incidents. Tough to
understand how an organization that bases its claims on the respect for human rights can
defend this.

* Mid April, MST members invaded the Bahia State Security Secretariat, the state
government office in charge of security and policing, and thrashed the building, including
numerous vehicles in its parking lot. Television footage captured MST leaders taking
active part in the destruction. Following this, The Workers’ Party (PT) announced in its
website that it was not supportive of MST-led invasions of public buildings, nor of its
most radical leaders. Likewise, the National Confederation of Agricultural Workers
(CONTAG), often an MST ally, declared that the landless movement had "reached the
limit", and announced it would also keep its distance.

* Indian chiefs representing some 140 nations throughout Brazil met near Porto Seguro
in what they described as an "anticelebration". A strongly worded document was
released, describing Brazil’s history as "infamous and undignified", and listing
20 demands from the federal government, including land demarcations, removal of invaders,
and compensation for environmental damage to Indian lands—primarily by gold
prospectors who pollute rivers by using mercury to separate gold from silt. All valid
demands, except for the direct involvement in creating the document by CIMI, the
Indigenist Missionary Council, a left-wing sector of the Catholic Church. The irony here
is that historically, the church in Brazil was notorious for not supporting Indian causes,
and always siding with the ruler of the day against Indians. From that Indian meeting, an
April 22nd march congregating several protesting organizations began towards Porto Seguro,
and was blocked by a large contingent of Bahia state Military Police—this is the
conflict that made it on worldwide television.

* In various cities, the MST and members of the less prominent urban version of the
movement, the MTST (Homeless Workers’ Movement), promoted numerous violent acts, in some
cases using Molotov cocktails, often attempting to destroy a number of 500 Year
"countdown clocks" installed nationwide by TV Globo, Brazil’s largest television
network. The clocks were created by Globo’s multi-award winning graphic artist Hans
Donner, and attacking them might only serve as a general protest against past positions by
the network, traditionally anti-left. In the 500 Year context, there was no discernible
reason for destroying the clocks, except as a violent response to the 500 Year observance
they symbolize.

From all this, two conclusions: the government certainly played into the situation, by
ordering heavy police contingents to keep demonstrators out of Porto Seguro on April 22nd.
The MST and other groups planning demonstrations had been making their intentions crystal
clear for several days, perhaps weeks. Ordering a blockade was almost like guaranteeing
there would be a clash, although it’s difficult to say whether more dialogue might have
prevented violence, given the declared intentions of the protestors—many actually
promised or implied violence on the big date. President Cardoso actually engaged
protestors in a verbal media battle, but retreated in his Discovery day speech, in which
he accepted as valid the reasons behind protests by Indians, blacks and the excluded.

The way things turned out is also a direct consequence of the federal government’s
incredible tolerance when it comes to the endless list of illegal acts committed routinely
by MST militants—acts which are then exploited at the political level by left-wing
parties. It is, indeed, a tandem: the MST does the field work, and the PT and other less
prominent parties on the Left take advantage of it on the political arena. Brasilia has
allowed this to grow to a point where it will now have extreme difficulty enforcing the
rule of law.

The MST has long ago moved away from its priority—land reform, to take on a
broader political stance, often using violence to reach its goals. Why this is tolerated
has yet to be properly explained by Brasília, especially since it does little to promote
its own accomplishment when it comes to land reform: some 300 thousand families settled
since Cardoso’s first election, more than all previous Brazilian governments put together.

Finally, it is disappointing to see the same old methods and approach firmly entrenched
in Brazil’s left wing, and particularly in the Workers’ Party. Worse, the PT leadership is
talking out of both sides of its mouth—it says it is not supportive of the violence
promoted by the MST in the past few days, but then… some of its most prominent
leaders, including party president and São Paulo congressman José Dirceu, were present
when those marchers clashed with police in Bahia. So which is it? For, against, or just
another "opportunity" to take advantage of?

None of this is to say the Brazilian government requires no criticism or makes no
mistakes—any regular Brazzil reader knows how we feel about this government’s
performance, which falls short on numerous items. Which is why expecting the Left to play
a more prominent role in the political arena is only natural. They will not accomplish the
prominence they ought to have until they shed the idea that they must continue to play to
the lowest common denominator.

Things remaining as they are, the PT will continue to spin its wheels come election
time—hoping for the best, which in their case will always be the worst. Voters will
take note, as they’ve done consistently, and keep the Left, once again, on the sidelines.
There’s just no more time to waste diving to the bottom of the pit, to then look for ways
to rise back to the top—which is, in no uncertain terms, what the Brazilian left wing
insists on asking Brazilians to do.

Adhemar Altieri is a veteran with major news outlets in Brazil, Canada
and the United States. He holds a Master’s Degree in Journalism from Northwestern
University in Evanston, Illinois, and spent ten years with CBS News reporting from Canada
and Brazil. Altieri is a member of the Virtual Intelligence Community, formed by The
Greenfield Consulting Group to identify future trends for Latin America. He is also the
editor of InfoBrazil (http://www.infobrazil.com),
an English-language weekly e-zine with analysis and opinions on Brazilian politics and
economy. You can reach the author at editors@infobrazil.com
 

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