Why Don’t Brazilians React?

Juan Arias

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.

Pitched Debates

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:

1. Brasilia.

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?

4. Education.

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?

7. Globo

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.


  • A good bundling of symptoms, but there´s no mention of the causes. Globo, cultural consensus, civil apathy, all of this are expressions of a deeper, subtler core of our cultural identity, which is basically a more free approach to the social package of rights/duties, like laws, taxes and civil obedience.

    Personally, i think this chaotic civil behavior we have leads to a more independent individual, but costs us our efficiency as a group.

    Obviously, this is just a summary of a much more complex line of thought, but you could see it as an analogy of the Newtonian vs. Quantic physics: what works from afar doesn’t work up close.

    Anyway, i always find interesting to know foreigner´s views about my country, that’s an interesting blog you have. My only peeve being your mentioning of Reinaldo Azevedo, a hatemonger from our Fox News equivalent, Veja Magazine.

    • Thanks for the feedback, Miguel. Well, I don’t subscribe to Azevedo’s view, but it is provocative to examine.

  • As a matter of fact, there WAS a protest yesterday during the parade: http://www.correiobraziliense.com.br/app/noticia/cidades/2011/09/07/interna_cidadesdf,268762/na-esplanada-25-mil-pessoas-marcharam-contra-a-corrupcao.shtml

    If you don’t mind, I’d like to give you some feedback regarding some of the points you raised. Mind you, I’m voicing my opinion as a Brazilian citizen, not as someone knowledgeable about politics:

    1) Brasília – I live here and we do tend to complain quite a lot. At any given time there’s a group of workers on strike and university students (I happen to be one) quite often protest against the government. There were some quite violent upheavals last year, if I recall correctly, when students invaded the city hall.

    3) Personally, and this is where I raise my own point, there IS someone to blame. Namely, ourselves. I’m sure this has been brought up time and again, but the “jeitinho brasileiro” is probably to blame here – and how can we protest against the government when our behaviour is no better? If you read the book “A Cabeça do Brasileiro“, you can see how a sociological study explains why corruption is rife in Brazil – it’s because it’s a bottom-up phenomenon, impregnated in our culture (the line dividing corruption and the “jeitinho brasileiro” is all but clear). As a student, I’m tired of seeing people graduate and then go on to make counterfeit ID’s so they can have discounts (usually 50% off) at all sorts of events – and these are people with +15 years of education! The less education a person has, the worse it tends to get around here. Appalling, really.

    5) I tend to see ourselves not as clueless lemmings without any sense of critical reasoning. Quite the opposite, I’d say: we’re chronic complainers, so much so that instead of trying to organise ourselves and change the situation, we’re stuck complaining because we don’t know what to do next. In my humble opinion, it’s because of what I said in the paragraph above, but it’s quite unpleasant to look at our own navels and realise we’re part of the problem.

    7) Actually, Globo is behind much of the opposition around here. Alexandre Garcia, our most famous newscaster, complains so much on air as to become insufferable. I’ve seen them “fabricate” protests at university, closing up on 6 or so students and making them look like a crowd, in order to publish headlines such as “Students rise against the government” or something of that sort. I don’t know if you were around when Collor was impeached, but Globo played an important role.

    I hope I could contribute with something useful for your understanding. We’re complex just like that 🙂

    • Hi Marcus,
      Great comments and I appreciate the reference to the book– it’s on my list of ‘to-buys’. You make a good point about the bottom-up nature of corruption. The opportunism inherent in personal intereaction can explain a lot. I’m noticing that you Brazilians are much more critical of yourselves than a gringo like me– you’re right about the complaining– people need to speak less and take more action.

  • That’s like a Germany-born professor I met here in Brazil used to say: “Brazilians have big tolerance on ambiguity”.

    Yeah, Brazilians’s social games are complicated and tiring, and it explains a lot of our behavior. A foreigner could feel like Alice in Wonderland, since people don’t actually say what they mean.

    I have some “agrees” and some “disagrees” with your arguments. Mostly, I agree that Brazilians are really politically passive – actually, this is my ongoing PhD thesis’ theme. Our lay-back culture doesn’t help much.

    On the “disagreeing hand”, I must say it is very dangerous to buy the party-blaming arguments from VEJA. It is an anti-PT magazine, you could not expect anything different from blaming the Labors’ Party. Moreover, the same magazine performed shameful roles on well-know scandals. VEJA defended freedom for people caught on our Federal Police’s Satiagraha Operation – which caught the big fishes in our corruption hierarchy, as discussed in this video [ http://www2.camara.gov.br/tv/materias/COMITE-DE-IMPRENSA/184691-JAILTON-DE-CARVALHO-%28O-GLOBO%29-E-LEANDRO-FORTES-%28CARTA-CAPITAL%29:-OS-GRAMPOS-DE-PROTOGENES–.html ] (in Portuguese).

    I don’t think blaming the left or right parties is a good explanation. Corruption is all over the place. As a matter of fact, some PTists consider that PT got into our Government Palace after betraying its formering ideals and swervering to the right.

    As a matter of fact, Brazilians have a right-trended thinking. They voted for Lula after he embraced a more right-handed discourse. Funny thing is that they vote for left parties expecting they act right. And it is hard to find politicians who declare they are right-winged. Some traditionaly right parties are declaring they are lefties.

    Therefore, it is easy to find Brazilians complaing that they can’t tell the difference between left and right. Ok, we must admit it is really complicated to explain that to them. And not only poorly educated people have a hard time trying to understand politics; the 20% who finished High-School and the 3% who have a College Degree suffer the same.

    I don’t think that reducing the number of parties would bring some light of hope. First, because Brazilians do not understand parties. They vote on a candidate, regardless the party s/he is affiliated to. Second, some new parties have rised with the intention to oppose the traditional (meanning corrupted) ones.

    I agree that Brazilians have a hard time on reacting to corruption. Yesterday, the day of our “Walk Against Corruption”, many people tweeted that they wouldn’t go to the streets because they “woke up late” or “felt too lazy” that day. Hard to believe? This is just another day in Brazil…

    Thiago Carneiro

    • Thiago, You make some interesting observations about the ideological inclinations of Brazilians. You’re right about people expecting leftists to act more in-line with the right…
      But let’s keep our spirits up, Thiago, just because Brazilians have ” a hard time reacting to corruption” does not mean that there is no hope– I sense a change coming round, as glacially slow as it might take to become visible. Best wishes, GM

  • Brazilians are probably the most apathetic people in the world. I agree with most of Azevedo’s views, only I think PT have done their very best to intensify the apathy of our people, which already existed long before PT ever took over. So I can’t give them all the credit for Brazil’s apathy.

    By the way, Azevedo is not a hatemonger. He is the most capable and honest articulist in Brazil today. All every single person who claims not to like him will do is call him names – no exception. I have yet to see anyone counter argument even one of Azevedo’s writings with the support of facts and irrefutable evidence. But name-calling is effective in Brazil – apathetic people will gladly sit back and let the ones who yell the loudest tell them what to think.

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