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The Obvious Act of Refusing a Bribe Has Become Heroism in Brazil. And This Is a Shame

Lieutenant Disraeli Last month, Brazil took pride in Rio de Janeiro’s police: some of them for their heroism in refusing a drug dealer’s bribe and others for their competence and heroism in occupying the Rocinha favela. But, surprisingly, the pride in some Brazilians’ heroism provokes a sense of shame about the country’s social structure.

After all, where have we gone wrong if honesty has become a heroic gesture? Where have we gone wrong if it is necessary to hoist the Brazilian flag in Brazilian territory, as if this signified the conquest of foreign land?

If honesty were to be adopted as a fundamental value in Brazil, the refusal of a bribe would not be publicized nor would it be a proof of heroism. Neither the heroism of the police nor each Brazilian’s satisfaction and pride can be denied, but we must also reflect why that sense of pride is a source of embarrassment.

Had Brazil invested in its public policies in an efficient, egalitarian manner throughout the country, the military occupation of Rocinha would not now be necessary.

Today’s military occupation, as if we were invading a foreign territory, stems from the fact that, throughout the decades, we have treated Rocinha as if it were a foreign territory. From the point of view of public investments, the social data of Rocinha contrast so sharply with those of the wealthy in Rio de Janeiro that they appear to correspond to a different country.

This can explain the raising of the national flag in Rocinha after the occupation, as if the world’s seventh economic power had invaded the territory of another country in 84th place on the Human Development Index.

The idea of the Police Pacification Units (UPPs) is to occupy militarily and then later confront the disparity in the quality of public services, transforming a favela into a neighborhood. If in the past Rocinha had been treated as a Rio neighborhood, today the military occupation would not be necessary to initiate the favela’s transformation into a neighborhood.

This does not diminish – it even increases – the importance of the decisions made and the successful operations carried out by the Military and Civilian Police, the Secretary of Security, the Governor and Vice-Governor. Above all, by Lieutenant Disraeli, who turned down the bribe.

But the pride in each individual’s behavior shames the country as a whole, since it is proof that, while tolerating the wrong, we are a factory of isolated heroism, of persons who do right by swimming against the current.

Refusing a bribe should be a simple, obvious act, just as investing equally in the quality of life in all the regions should be an obvious act. But we have become accustomed to the corruption and inequality; heroism is the exception, and military occupation, the solution.

The coexistence with the corruption – corruption in behavior as well as in priorities – obscures the perception of the fragility of our pride last month. We have lost the desire for pride for different reasons than those of that week. So much so that we do not believe it possible to take pride in the abolition of illiteracy, in the guarantee of quality schooling for everyone.

That same week in which we applauded Rio police for occupying favelas, the Chinese occupied outer space; they coupled up two spaceships created by their own technology and production. Decades ago, we were ahead of China and India in space research.

Now, our pride is in the occupation of urban soil, while they occupy outer space. In a short time, Iran, South Korea and countries smaller and with less economic potential than ours will surpass us.

In the same way that we stopped perceiving the absurdity of our ethical backwardness – that we consider those heroes who do not let themselves be corrupted, and in fact they are heroes – we have stopped comparing our technical backwardness in relation to the rest of the world.

We have become so accustomed to our backwardness that we are proudly commemorating a personal gesture that should be considered normal and an urban pacification that we should have accomplished long ago.

All this is occurring because we do not consider to be heroes the two million teachers who go without decent salaries, basic labor conditions, or a favorable work environment.

Brazil will be on a good path when honesty is not considered heroic and when a favela is not a favela, but merely a neighborhood. But this will only happen when a teacher is also not a hero, but merely a teacher, dedicated, well paid and well prepared.

Had this already happened, perhaps long ago we would have passed from the time in which being honest is a heroic act and it would not be necessary to commemorate the military occupation of part of our own territory.

Cristovam Buarque is a professor at the University of Brasília and a PDT senator for the Federal District.  You can visit his website at www.cristovam.org.br/portal2/, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SEN_CRISTOVAM in Portuguese and http://twitter.com/cbbrazilianview in English and write to him at cristovam@senado.gov.br

Translated from the Portuguese by Linda Jerome (LinJerome@cs.com).

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