The Fateful Question of El País Correspondent Juan Arias
Search for the question “por que os brasileiros não reagem?” (Why don’t Brazilians react?) or the phrase, “do Brazilians really not know how to react to hypocrisy and their leaders’ lack of ethics?” (“Será que os brasileiros não sabem reagir à hipocrisia e à falta de ética de muitos dos que os governam?”) and you will find pages upon pages of Brazilian bloggers and media outlets responding to an editorial by Juan Arias, a Brazilian correspondent of El País, and re-published in the Jornal Globo in mid-July.
Corruption scandals have brought down three ministers since President Dilma Rousseff took power, and many forget that Erenice Guerra—who was Rousseff’s first lieutenant while the now-President was Chief of Staff (later to become her replacement when Rousseff joined the 2010 presidential race)— was also sent packing in late 2010 after revelations of nepotism, influence-peddling and corruption.
Unmoved by A Global Movement toward Positive Political Upheaval
Why Brazilians have not reacted strongly against so many high-level corruption dismissals is a question worth asking. Grassroots protests towards corruption and poor governance continue to erupt all around the world. Globally, we are living a moment of positive political upheaval, but Brazil seems unmoved by clear evidence that their democracy is rife with graft.
Here are three significant good governance uprisings in well-established democracies that have occurred within the last three months or so:
1. Spain’s 15-M Movement or “Real Democracy Now movement!” (Democracia Real Ya!) responds to the mis-governance and corruption that has driven Spain to the brink of insolvency, resulting in unemployment rates in excess of 20 percent. Youth unemployment, at more than 40 percent, undoubtedly stands as one of the main drivers of protests. Rallies peaked in mid May, 2011, when more than 130,000 people across Spain protested poor governance, and 50,000 in Madrid alone. One of the key demands is passage of a freedom of information law, a measure promised since 2004 and only introduced to parliament a month ago. Protesters continue to engage in cat-and-mouse tactics with police and politically motivated vandalism has been rampant over the last months.
2. India’s Kisan Baburao Hazare went on a hunger strike in April 2011 in order to protest governmental feet-dragging on an anti-corruption bill. The LokPal bill would create an ombudsmen to investigate corruption in government without the need for the parliament’s to approve of each investigation. When a joint committee failed to meet expectations, Hazare threatened to go on another indefinite hunger strike. Thrown in jail before he could make good on the threat, urban India erupted in protests last week—in one day more than 1100 protesters ended-up in Mumbai’s jails. Authorities had little choice but to release Hazare, who has now given the government a deadline of August 30th to pass the anti-corruption bill. These efforts follow in the legacy of India’s 2005 Right-to-know success, in which citizen efforts led to the passage of one of the world’s most advanced and efficacious freedom of information laws.
3. Chile’s protests for education reform: Beginning in May and evoking concrete political responses, protesters seeking to reform Chile’s complex three-tiered private-public system have conducted massive protests. One of the latest “flash protests” on August 3rd resulted in the arrest of more than 800 students and teachers. President Sebastián Piñera’s public approval ratings have plummeted as a result of these protests against Chile’s allegedly “neoliberal” education system.
So why have Brazilians not responded to corruption scandals – proof of unethical governance – in the same way as protesters in Spain or India? Yes, Brazilians are doing fine economically, but India and Chile are not doing so badly either. And while Brazil has a relatively new democracy, so does Chile. So what might account for a high corruption threshold in Brazil?
Arias’ question inspired pitched debates among the media, activists, and bloggers. A disturbing number of people condemned the audacity of a foreign reporter (“Arias, why don’t you shut up?”) for criticizing Brazil, especially in the light of Spain’s current troubles. Others used Arias’ article as a hook to talk about the muteness of Brazilians on other pressing issues yet to be satisfactorily addressed in Brazil, such as inequality and injustice. Some commentators on Transparencia Hacker, a listserve to which I subscribe, have fatalistically lamented the country’s incorrigible political culture; and still others offered interesting explanations for the malaise of political passivity in Brazil.
“It’s the PT’s fault”
I am most interested in responses that address this last line of reasoning. Why don’t Brazilians take to the streets? Veja’s Reinaldo Azevedo advanced the hypothesis that a lack of political activism in Brazil is a direct result of nearly a decade of PT (Partido Trabalhista) government.
Azevedo views the PT to have co-opted the public domain. He says the PT has exercised a certain “monopoly” over the public space. It has achieved this dominance because it has propagated the idea that “the plaza is of the people, just as the people are of the PT.”In other words, how can the public protest if the party in power is one-and-the-same as the public?
Azevedo also blames the PT for having co-opted those public actors most likely to lead protests. He alleges that the PT has bought-off most of the traditional corporatist sectors, such as the National Student Union (UNE). In this view, the ones most likely to lead protests are public-sector unions and PT-linked movements such as the Landless Movement for Agrarian Reform (Movimento Sem Terra). This corporatist perspective of protest seems to be excessively 1970s.
Finally, Azevedo blames the media, who he views to have ceded too much space to the left; so much, indeed, that the country no longer allots any space for a right-leaning discourse. In short, Azevedo views the PT to have exercised so much control over the public, traditional activists, and the media that Brazilians have become passive observers.
These are provocative explanations for Brazil’s political apathy, but I think there are a couple of other hypotheses that deserve further exploration:
They protested in New Delhi outside of parliament; they protested outside the Palacio de las Cortes in Madrid; they protested in government plazas in Santiago. But can you really expect anyone to protest in Brasilia? The city is more than a thousand kilometers away from Brazil’s largest cities, São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Moreover, practically everyone who lives in Brasilia works directly or indirectly for the government. Who’s to protest? When the capital was Rio de Janeiro, prior to the 1960s, this country was much more politicized. Indeed, hyper-politicization and stalemate in Congress contributed to the military coup of 1964. In short, the location of the capital renders politics distant from the everyday lives of Brazilians, literally and figuratively.
2. Brazil has come a long way in a short time.
Since hyper-inflation in the 1980s and early 1990s to stable macro-economics, stable presidents, and the deliverance of tens of millions from poverty to the working class, Brazil has made huge strides. Sure, corruption is bad, but things get done (“rouba, mas faz”).
3. There’s no one to blame.
In india, Chile, and Spain there are two dominant political parties or coalitions. In Brazil, party arrangements are much more fluid. Sure, it’s government versus opposition, but the governing PT has less than 20 percent of seats in Congress, forcing it to form coalitions with close to a dozen parties (of 23 total). Opposition parties may join the government coalition, and government coalition members may drop out to become opposition. Two of the three Ministers who resigned from their posts were from allied, coalition parties. Should Rousseff be held responsible for parties that expect to enrich themselves at the public expense in return for their support in Congress? Who should take the blame when there are so many parties? Perhaps if there were four parties protests could be better directed…but 23?
The average time spent in formal education is just above seven years in Brazil. Politics is complex; and a reasonable education—formal or informal—is usually required to understand and expect basic standards of political behavior. In Chile, the average years spent in school is over nine and most importantly, the best educated of Chile’s citizens live at the doorstep of power, in the protest-ready capital, Santiago.
5. What’s to complain about?
The system works for the middle classes upwards, so why should these more educated sectors protest? The economy is doing well, and a strong Real means more trips to go shopping in Miami. The public sector is so large and their salaries and benefits so luxurious that they rival those of most northern countries. As I write about here, scholars Wendy Hunter and Natasha Sugiyama observed that about a quarter of Brazil’s education budget goes to universities, which enroll less than two percent of the total student population (mostly from wealthier families, to be sure). Public sector corruption does result in higher taxes, but with a little ingenuity many in the elite can find ways around these annoyances. That’s Brazil’s got an enormous burden of value-added taxes, which tend to fall hardest on the poor. So if you’re well educated, what’s there to complain about?
6. Cultures of consensus.
“Tudo bom?” (“Everything good?”)
“Everything’s well” (“tudo bem.”).
For better or for worse, Brazil is a country where it is culturally expected that people will conform to agreement, happiness, and accord. This idea is elegantly captured by Brazil’s quizzical everyday greetings: “tudo bom?” (everything good?), “tudo joia?” (everything like a jewel?), “Beleza?” (beauty?). It is a place where there is a strong social aversion to discord. To question is not native to the culture. Criticism and constructive criticism are often viewed as one and the same. In short, it is the kind of place where most people would prefer to steer clear of the negative. I write about these issues in different ways, here and here. Beleza? Joia?
The TV network has over 70 percent of the national market and is the third largest network in the world. They own interests in newspapers, magazines, broadband, you name it. With this type of influence, you’d want to make sure that things stay even-keeled too.
I love Brazil. My children will be Brazilian. That’s why I believe it’s essential we debate questions like Juan Arias’, to face-up to the corruption that keeps Brazil perpetually the country of the future.