Brazilian Politics: Navel Gazing in Brasília – Largesse in São Paulo

Brazil is not ready for another general blackout like the one in 2001 One of the most depressing aspects of Brazilian politics is the way many – if not most – of issues being dealt with at official level have nothing to with unleashing the country’s potential and ending its social inequality. For example, the business community has been warning for about a year that Brazil faces a realistic prospect of another energy blackout in 2009. However, instead of being treated as an emergency, this issue is being kicked around like a ball.

President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva finally showed interest in this matter because it could jeopardize his package of measures, which he hopes will increase Brazil’s GDP growth to 5% a year by the end of his term.

He put the blame on the environment minister, Marina Silva, for delaying the approval of a power project over an Amazon fish called the "bagre" which breeds in the area. She responded immediately by announcing that the agency responsible for environmental protection (IBAMA) would be split into two areas – one to issue licenses and the other to protect and monitor the environment.

This unusually speedy decision looks more like a panic response to criticism than a well-formed plan and the threat of a black-out still remains.

The fact is that Brazilian politicians prefer to overlook problems and gaze at their own navels. Why tackle thorny problems when you can discuss issues like Congressmen’s pay and perks, whether presidents or state governors should be allowed to stand for re-election or which party will be able to grab the chairmanship of a state-owned company or public utility?

One Congressman has called for a department to be set up to tell the population about the "good" things the Congress has done. The government is also considering setting up a costly "official" television channel in order to get its views over i.e. a state-controlled propaganda station.

While time is being wasted on matters like this, attempts to update the antiquated labor laws or reform the pension system are downgraded. They drag on for years and are usually watered down or put on hold.

President Lula has spent most of the first four months of his second mandate cobbling together a government from nine different parties. In his latest attempt to reward one of these parties – the PSB – he has created the post of a minister to look ahead over the 20 to 30 years.

Presumably this shows that Brazil is still the country of the future rather than the country of today or tomorrow. This department will be known as the Secretariat of Long-Term Actions and be headed by a former Harvard law professor called Roberto Mangabeira Unger who has been scathing about Lula’s government’s involvement in corruption.

Unger is virtually unknown in Brazil, speaks Portuguese with a strong American accent and has acted as a guru to former (and perhaps future) presidential candidate, Ciro Gomes. Just what this new department will bring, apart from additional costs, is simply a mystery. It will join other equally nebulous ministries and departments looking after cities, women, racial equality etc. 

Congress, for its part, has been fighting over an attempt by the opposition parties to set up a public inquiry into the chaos which has marked air travel since a plane crash in September last year. The opposition is delighted that the Supreme Court overturned a lower court ruling and said the Congressional inquiry (known as a CPI) should be set up immediately.

This means we now face the familiar sight of groups of politicians shouting at each other as they grill witnesses in front of the TV cameras. Some of them will use the occasion to persuade their constituents that they are actually doing something in Brasília while others will exploit the opportunity to achieve a few moments of national fame. At the end of the day a report will be issued with all kinds of recommendations, few of which will be heeded and we will be back where we started. 

Serra Becomes Santa

At state government level, the São Paulo governor, José Serra, has decided to introduce a minimum wage for state employees of 410 reais (US$ 202) which will be higher than the national minimum wage of 380 reais (US$ 187) which comes into effect on May 1st.

Around one million people stand to benefit from this rise – which includes two other levels of 450 (US$ 222) and 490 reais (US$ 242) – which will probably be approved by the state assembly. Other states, including Rio de Janeiro, Paraná and Rio Grande do Sul, already have similar systems. The effect of this rise will not only be to increase the state government’s payroll but will also the pension deficit.

By taking this step, Serra is carrying out a campaign pledge but he is also practically bribing public employees and will use this increase as an important part of his campaign to become the PSDB candidate in the next presidential election.

Lula did the same with the "bolsa família" (family grant) program which provides grants to poor families which send their children to school.

Serra is an economist but balancing the books takes second place to entrenching his own power. At the same time, he has been cozying up to Lula in an attempt to win Lula’s backing for his expected attempt to become president in 2010 when Lula will be unable to stand.

John Fitzpatrick is a Scottish writer and consultant with long experience of Brazil. He is based in São Paulo and runs his own company Celtic Comunicações. This article originally appeared on his site www.brazilpoliticalcomment.com.br. He can be contacted at jf@celt.com.br.

© John Fitzpatrick 2007

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