Things I Could Live Without in Brazil

There are a lot of things I love about Brazil, such as the people, the uniqueness of its culture, and its natural beauty. This is a banal list of things that tourists appreciate about Brazil. But things are a lot different as a tourist than as a resident. When you’re living here, you begin to find things that grate against your sensibility.  There are several infuriating things about Brazil that I might as well get out in the next couple posts or so, right at the beginning of this blog.

Being a political scientist, it’s hard not to critically analyze a country’s faults, so please first be reminded that I think Brazil is a wonderful country with enormous potential.  The main thing that bothers me about Brazil is the same thing I love it for: it’s a developing country with that sense of unrealized potential, beautiful disorder and warmth that developing country’s tend to emanate. For all the hype you hear these days, you’d think Brazil was the first world. But it’s not, and here are a few reasons why:

1. You feel like it’s 1980 on the street and you feel sorry for the temporally disenfranchised masses. If it weren’t for cell phones and the odd modern car, in the downtown of most cities you’d still think you were in the 1980s.  Not in the posh areas; there it’s clearly 2010. But 95% of the country is not posh or modern. They say that Latin America is a “living museum”— it just doesn’t seem to change, and when it does change it’s much the same as before. It’s not just shoddy infrastructure or grinding poverty, it is smaller things too.

2. Line-ups. Take, for example, the line-up. Latin Americans live to line-up, even to line-up to pay for things. In Cuba, line-ups are a way of life. I remember lining up in Cuba one hot August day in 1998. I had seen so many line-ups in my first few days that I thought I would see what all the fuss was about and try one out for myself. Hungry and exhausted from the heat, I lined up in the shade with the vague notion that this line-up would lead to food. After about half an hour I advanced within two bodies of the door, indeed, a restaurant. But that was it, lunch was over.

Admittedly, communist Cuba is an unrepresentative example. But I am constantly amazed at people’s willingness to line-up in Latin America, and equally amazed at owners who apparently prioritize saving costs on labor over the satisfaction of customers.  In downtown, centro Rio, I saw a line-up of more than 30 people yesterday, just to get inside an office tower that had nothing to do with government.

If I intend to buy something mundane or use some service not offered by a government entity, I will avoid line-ups like I avoid going number two in public places. If I see a line-up of more than say, 6 to 8 people, I’ll go somewhere else or come back later. I think to myself, “if you’re not going to take my money expeditiously I’ll try again later or go somewhere else.” Shouldn’t every business ensure that money is taken from customers as efficiently as possible?

Now having spent a good deal of time in Texas, I know what good service is about. The U.S. may have a lot of faults, but service is one of the country’s high points. Thus,

3. Lackluster service. Brazil is not alone in this category, indeed, it’s hard to find anyone who will say a given country’s service is excellent, except perhaps for those who have visited Southeast Asia.  Service often tends to be lackluster in Brazil, especially outside of the food and beverage service area. Food and beverage servers have the incentive of the tip. I am amazed that service is not worse in this sector, because the standard tip is 10%, Brazilians will not expect to pay more for really good service, and the tip is included in the price of the meal–it’s more of an obligation than an affirming gesture.  Food and beverage service can be really excellent in Brazil.

In other sectors, low morale among customer service personnel can be pinned on a number of factors, probabilistically speaking, of course. For one, low wages and low average educational achievement undoubtedly play a part in sub-optimal morale and high levels of incompetence. Minimum wage is around $500R a month, and although most everyone makes more than minimum wage, a lot people make little more. That’s why it is a good idea to seek out the manager if you have a complicated request. Perhaps a greater contributor to low morale is hierarchical power relations. Some owners and managers treat employees with a lack of dignity, respect, trust and honesty, which saps morale. Granted, this happens anywhere, but the colonizers of Latin America left the region with more rigid hierarchical structures than anywhere else in the world. Skewed power relations are evident everywhere, just look at Brazil’s inequality— the most direct product of skewed power-relations. Governments have tried to compensate for the result of skewed power relations, with the result that they have been either bought off, beaten-down, or become so interventionist as to make business and life extremely difficult. But this is a topic for another day.

Coming up tomorrow:

3. Tax burdens.

4. The price of imports, especially technology imports.

5. Current debt and credit practices.

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