Brazil’s Half-Miracle

On all the social media networks, there’s a hashtag that I have kept seeing the last few days: #ChangeBrazil, associated with unrest across Brazil. Since I may be going there soon for the huge FISL open source conference,  I wondered exactly what was going on.  I asked one of my friends in Brazil and she sent me a link to a video to explain it.

That does a pretty good job explaining the current situation; the coverage on the BBC lacked any kind of context. I’ve been to Brazil often, read a few books, even shaken hands with former President Lula, so I’ve a little background to go on.  Certainly visiting Brazil over the last decade I have seen a huge change.

From what I can tell, the bus fares are just the last straw in a problem that has been developing throughout that decade.  The reforms of President Cardoso (the one before Lula) are having the effect he anticipated and Brazil is actually faced with an economic miracle. His basic economic reforms — notably introduction of the Real as Brazil’s currency — led to the building of a middle class that has revived and energised Brazil’s economy. His autobiography is an excellent and readable source on this subject.

But since Cardoso, the Presidents haven’t been able to follow through on Cardoso’s work; it’s only half a miracle. In the two terms of Lula and now of his chosen successor Dilma there is a problem. They failed to fix the systemic corruption inherited from before Cardoso — many say they have participated in it — but they have not realised that more is needed than just creating a middle class. To grasp the depth of the corruption before Cardoso, I recommend Peter Robb’s gripping account of the fall of President Fernando Collor de Mello.

The truth is that a middle class paying high taxes and facing inflation that’s eroding their income expects health care, expects safety, expects fair representation, expects fiscal security, expects all the things the very-rich people expect, in return for their taxes. But instead of delivering those things, Lula and Dilma have focussed on their own popularity and international reputation and neglected the reforms Brazil needs.

Notably, they have spent astonishing amounts of money on the World Cup and the Olympics, while spending little on the hospital system and neglecting taxation reform.   That means that while they show the world the high life, they have left the middle classes who are powering Brazil’s revival to face the life of the poor while paying the taxes of the rich.

The expensive stadium for the World Cup may well be the real last straw, rather than the bus fares that are hitting the headlines; that’s why so many of the protests have the previously unthinkable spectacle of Brazilians booing FIFA and the President at the opening of the new stadium and calling for a boycott of the World Cup. It looks like rank-and-file Brazilians are not going to take it any more.

Their protests have been mostly peaceful, but the heavy-handedness of the police is fanning middle-class disquiet into social angst of a calibre to feed a revolution. Dilma is attempting to spin the situation, but she doesn’t have the almost supernatural charisma of her predecessor that allowed him to tearfully brush-off scandal after scandal and survive association with deeply discredited colleagues who might have expected his loyalty after their “fixing”.

The situation is dire, and the only reason most of us don’t know is the problem is masked by other international issues. Could it be a modern Diretas Já?

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