Curtain Raiser

Brazil Looks Back in Anger, Colltalers

There’s a verse in the Brazilian national anthem that it’s one rare unanimity nowadays in Latin America’s largest economy: everybody seems to hate it. That’s because it may, arguably, underscore a bit too uncomfortably how the country feels about itself, irking everyone to no end in the process.
After meandering about its newly gained independence from Portugal, and natural geographic beauty, the hymn hits a markedly less inspired second stanza, with the loosely translated turkey, ‘Eternally laying down on splendid cradle,’ in Joaquim Osorio Duque-Estrada’s overtly symbolistic lyrics.
It drives Brazilians mad, specially now, that the whole country seems seething with unprecedented anger towards government, politicians, the quirks of its budding democracy, and even with itself, as the also unprecedented period of economic growth seems to be waning. And that without having made much of a dent on Brazil’s ingrained structural foes, appalling income distribution and, once again, historically endangered middle class.
It’s a strikingly bleak picture for a country about to host the world’s biggest sport event, the World Cup, in just three months, and a major Olympic games, two years after. Perhaps almost as depressing as it also looks that it’s been to its reelection seeking president, Dilma Rousseff.
After some of the biggest street protests took it by storm last June, rallying against the cup itself, which is already a radical action for a soccer-crazy population, some of the same political currents are getting ready to stage them all over again during the games. And that won’t be pretty.
While last year’s mass rallies were linked to a smaller (and cheaper) soccer competition, the Confederation Cup, which Brazil won to the relief of many, this time, if such rallies hit a similar pitch under the glare of the whole globe, the consequences may have more serious implications.
Many are not waiting for the kickoff to take place, and public discontent with the way the Rousseff administration managed the massive investments the games attracted, and how little of it has or ever will trickle down to the great majority, has never been so high and potentially explosive.
Much of this anger is directed at Rousseff’s Workers’ Party, in power for almost a decade, and since embroiled in the same corruption schemes, graft allegations and downright fraud as many previous, right-leaning, administrations had been. From PT, as it’s known, though, more was expected.
Take Jose Dirceu, for instance, one of PT’s main leaders, a man who during the military dictatorship of the 1960s became a symbol of the student opposition movement and was imprisoned in 1968 for conducting ‘subversive’ activities, who marked his 68th birthday yesterday, behind bars but for a more prosaic, and deeply demoralizing reason: he was found guilty of leading the vote-buying scandal known as Mensalão.
The scandal, which has seriously tarnished the party’s image of probity, has also potential to compromise the legacy of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, one of Brazil’s most charismatic presidents, who emerged from the unions movement to lead the country in two successive terms.
So far, Lula’s reputation remains untouched, even though Dirceu was his Chief of Staff, unlike Rousseff’s, the first woman ever to preside the country, who owes to Lula her ascension to high office. Once again his help will be crucial for her to remain four more years in Brasilia.
Nevertheless, and despite Dirceu and quite a few members of an entire generation of former guerrilla and opponents to the military rule, who joined PT’s rise to power, only to fall from grace on charges of corruption, a much scarier prospect has reared its ugly head lately, and again, it’s not pretty.
The threat of a coup with some sort of military backing, if it hasn’t ever left the thoughts of Brazilians of a certain age, has discreetly inserted itself in the national debate, judging by some highly articulated segments of the political spectrum, supported by a demographics infused with many not yet born when militaries returned to their barracks in 1985. Suddenly, there’s a nostalgic rewriting of what the dictatorship really did to the country.
Among all the terrors that assault Brazilians trying to keep their minds afloat, amidst the cacophony of accusations, rich in name calling but relatively short of substance, the prospect of reinstating by force and populism, a rule of extreme exception, isn’t just unrealistic; it’s actually absurd.
Almost parallel to this newly-bred, and possibly fabricated, rosy-lightened reevaluation of the role of militaries, there are continuously pesky reminders of how terrible that period really was. The week’s highlight on this topic was the admission, by an unidentified retired colonel, that former congressman Rubens Paiva was indeed murdered, buried, exhumed and finally dumped in some unknown point in the Atlantic Ocean in 1971.
For long, Paiva’s fate following his arrest and disappearance has been widely known, but the disclosure adds sordid details to it, and explains why his body was never found. The colonel, who was involved in the murder and cover up, has testified in a Public Ministry’s criminal process against a group of militaries involved in torture and murder. It’s in every way, shape or form, an accurate portrayal of the military’s stamp on Brazil’s history.
Credit must go to the National Truth Commission, which’s been relentlessly investigating crimes committed by the dictatorship, a great majority of which remains unsolved and their perpetrators, unpunished. It’ll take much more than name calling for Brazil to exhume that dark time of its history.
Baffling, those revelations and the commission’s arduous work have all but failed to capture the outrage of common citizens and their thirst for justice. Brazilians seem more willing to engage in shouting slogans against corruption, than realizing how, at a much more local and individual level, many reproduce faithfully the same lack of ethics and propriety of conduct displayed by the disgraceful politicians they so rightly abhor.
For such an ambivalence towards the law and flawed notions of individual’s rights are at the core of Brazil’s cherished auto-satisfying myths, such as of being friendly and always finding a way of bending rules and regulations. Even if that’s not a widespread indictment of the country’s archetypal nonchalance, or a blame-the-victim reductionism, it’s still the part hardly ever included in the national debate on corruption in the public sphere.
It may continue to be so, judging by how polarized the explosive mix of legitimate public dissatisfaction with manipulated radicalization behind the scenes is affecting Brazil right now. So much so that issues relevant to its long term prospects, such as education, public health, jobs, and an alternative growth model, have had little mileage among the uninterrupted grind of street protests and fraud allegations against public officials.
The lyrics of the national anthem also allude to Brazil’s gigantic size, and it’s often heard how the country’s been a ‘sleepy giant,’ with the implication that it’s finally rising from its ‘splendid cradle,’ and getting ready to take control of its own destiny. Or so many would hope.
For as much as Brazil’s economy did experience a quantum leap from the late 1990s till about three years ago, with a reenergized middle class and the GDP hitting record highs, much of such growth leaned heavily on agricultural commodity exports and the exploration of natural resources. Trade balance continues to be shamefully light on the side of manufactured goods, cutting edge technology, and high skilled labor.
So in some ways, despite great recent strides towards its ambition of becoming a world power, the second decade of this century has seen a turning back to the many nightmares citizens had been told were a thing of the past, such as out of control inflationary spirals and a spike in criminality stats.
Thus, while any possibility for a debate of ideas continue to be run over by the volatility of the streets and absolute lack of tolerance for nuance and critical thought in the political discourse, chances are that the giant is indeed rising up but perhaps not too fortunately, it’s very angry.
Avoiding the crossroads cliche, Brazil is at a critical point and unlike in the past, this time the world has come to watch. Whether it’ll beat this challenge and emerge a more generous nation to its own citizens may be a quest for another cup. For at the moment, there’s an urgent need to prioritize what’s more important for it to tackle and how come such an inspiring promise of democracy has turned into such a sour brew.
There must be a way for Brazilians to aim at taking part rather than dominate the exchange of ideas, and retool institutions so to allow more critical and forward-looking views, rather than return to an obscene, cruel, muzzled reality of being ruled by the barrel of a gun.
Springtime officially starts this week, in the North Hemisphere. Here’s to those who endured an exceptionally nasty winter: you have earned it, now go and enjoy it. WC

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