At times, when we focus on specific aspects of Brazilian events, it’s difficult to feel
optimistic about the current status and future possibilities for the country. So it is
sometimes necessary to step away from the news of the moment, take in a broader chunk of
what goes on, and hopefully come to some conclusion about where things are headed.
With the exception of the three years (1994-97) that followed the introduction of the
Real Plan, Brazil’s ride has been generally filled with rough spots in the past several
years, some worse than others. There were failed or mishandled economic plans in the
eighties, new currencies introduced so frequently that people lost track of the value of
money and goods, galloping inflation, lackluster economic growth rates and lately, rising
In fact, the nineties began in less than auspicious fashion, with the ousting of
president Fernando Collor de Mello for involvement in a still not totally explained
corruption scheme. For Brazilian society, it was a tough blow psychologically, because
Collor was Brazil’s first civilian president elected by a direct vote in close to 30
years. He was supposed to represent a return to institutional normalcy.
Collor’s departure, on the other hand, was also a moment of national affirmation and
optimism, because he was removed in an entirely proper institutional procedure, not a
stereotypical military overthrow, South American style. Society, the media and
institutions joined together to apply pressure, and obtain the desired result. Brazil
became the only country in the world other than the US (Nixon) to remove a president
"by the book".
This brief, highly condensed rundown of the past few years, may leave you wondering
whether there’s an "up" side to Brazil at all. There is, but to see it, it is
essential to deal with trends, general directions and results that span longer periods.
Negative events tend to grab a moment’s attention and make a lasting impression, but they
don’t necessarily determine an overall direction.
In a recent article for Brazil’s top weekly newsmagazine, Veja, political
scientist Sérgio Abranches argued that it is impossible "to seriously sustain the
argument that we’re much worse off today". And he backed his argument with solid
* Social mobility statistics show that 80 percent of Brazilians are better off than
their parents were, while 20 percent are worse off;
* Brazil’s standing on the UN’s Human Development Index has improved steadily since
1970, which means rising income, health and education levels;
* Poverty, which affected 60 percent of all Brazilians in 1970, dropped to 40 percent
in 1980, and 20 percent now;
After adding the demise of runaway inflationa major accomplishment of extreme
importance to the poorest on the social ladderAbranches concludes that Brazilian
society, overall, is actually much better off now than it ever was. Does that make Brazil
"a tropical paradise" he asks? Of course notthere’s no avoiding the
inequalities and huge problemssocial, economic and structural, that must still be
Still, that’s probably the best way to put where Brazil currently stands: yes, there’s
been movement, there are visible and measurable improvements, but it has not been enough
and major problems remain unsolved. And as society becomes better equipped to assess what
happens, and the democratic game is learned and understood by growing segments of the
population, there is also a greater understanding of what is still wrong, where priorities
lie, and what must be done.
There’s a restlessness in Brazil today, precisely because more and more people have a
better understanding of what surrounds them. And a source of growing frustration is the
disappointing performance of political structures that should be pushing ahead with what
society rightfully wants, and are instead focusing on their own, often small interests,
that tend to boil down to simply "getting there"meaning, getting elected.
A scan of the 15 years since the return of civilian democracy to Brazil in 1985 will
show that politicians of all tendencies have had a shot at every level of public
administration, except for the presidency where no left-wing candidate has been elected.
With very rare exceptions, the end result of most municipal and state administrations and
legislatures has been poor. The disappointments pile up, while those worth mentioning for
their positive performances are few and far between. This applies federally as well: a
quality member of congress or the senate is a very rare bird indeed.
The quality of Brazil’s politicians, then, is a very major obstacle to further gains,
and society is quickly realizing this. While it has progressed, its elected
representatives have not. The most visible expression of what people think is in the
monthly surveys that show President Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s approval ratingor
should we say, more appropriately, disapproval rating.
Cardoso is the most visible of all politicians, and thus, he pays the price, with about
a 60 percent negative rating, and only about 12 percent support from voters. To be honest,
this ought to be the national rating for all politicians in Brazilit would not be
inaccurate. And this is not to excuse the President, who has missed numerous opportunities
that may have changed things profoundly in Brazil, including his own standing with voters.
Many political observers have begun to analyze the current situation in Brazil, and
seek ways for the logjam to be broken up. For now, the conclusion seems to be that the
country is in for more of the same: gradual, not always steady progress,
generallyand hopefullyin the right direction. Whether society will gladly
accept that things must move slowly because its mostly inefficient, selfish and corrupt
politicians want it that way, is clearly another matter.
Political reform is the obvious solution, but it has been bounced around in Congress
for years without significant progressclearly, those who must forge ahead with it
and vote on it, are not terribly interested. The conclusion among many observers has been
that the same mindset that helped to get rid of rampant inflation in Brazil, must be
installed in order for political and other reforms to one day succeed.
Society now understands the importance of keeping prices under control, and behaves in
a manner that will not allow inflation to take off as it did in the past. The next step is
for society to feel the same way about changing the ways of its politicians, and applying
the pressure that will finally make it happen. Until this level of consciousness is in
place, with elected officials responding appropriately, Brazil and its people will
continue to endure lengthy, frustrating negotiations, not always made difficult because
the parties involved are seeking what’s best for the public.
And Brazilians have themselves to look to for an example, when assessing whether such
profound changes are in fact possible: they are the ones who accomplished the ouster of
president Fernando Collor de Mello in 1992. Society was able back then to work together
and set things straight. Voters in São Paulo, Brazil’s largest city, will soon have the
opportunity to show whether at least that particular lesson has been learned: Collor de
Mello has thrown his hat in the ring, and will run for mayor of São Paulo in September of
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 email@example.com
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