As the United States’ election upset dominates global headlines and concern, we look at the deep political turmoil in Brazil, which has also vaulted a polarizing figure to the country’s helm in a turn to the right. Brazil is anything but calm now that the Olympics are over. Dramas playing out include the aftermath of a presidential impeachment – which is growing more common regionally – and battles over natural resources, territorial control of cities, and how over thirty million people recently risen out of poverty will change life in the South American giant.
Taylor Barnes and Catherine Osborn are independent journalists covering Brazil. Taylor was based in Rio de Janeiro from 2010 to 2016, where she wrote for the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Islamic Monthly. Taylor studies Arabic, having practiced the language with many newly arrived Syrian refugees in Rio and now planning her move to the Middle East in 2017. Catherine has been based in Rio since 2012 and has reported for Public Radio International’s The World, National Public Radio, Foreign Policy, and The Atlantic.
Fun facts: Taylor and Catherine have also covered Brazilian cuisine and Rio’s finest local haunts off the tourist circuit for the site Culinary Backstreets. Taylor has a lot to say about Ryan Lochte. Ask Catherine about Rio’s unusual history of electronic music.
FPI: What the heck is going on in Brazil right now? We’ve read something about an impeachment. As well as an economic apocalypse…
Catherine: Brazil’s economy boomed from 2003 to 2011 when, after getting historic inflation under control, it saw offshore oil finds and rising Chinese demand for commodities. During that time, some thirty million people rose out of poverty. But the center-left Worker’s Party (PT) government presiding over these changes grew intransparently cozy with some big businesses, and empowered, increasingly online citizens became more critical of those relationships (personified by discontent with the World Cup and Olympics). Economic growth slowed sharply beginning in 2011. In June 2013, amidst rising consumer prices and public transportation fees, months of countrywide antigovernment protests broke out, inspired by Turkey’s Gezi Park, Occupy, and a string of local events. Demonstrators critiqued government failure to ensure that rising national prosperity translated to improvements in basic public services.
The PT under Dilma Rousseff oversaw arrests and police repression of these protesters, which contributed to a rupture in which many in the grassroots left grew reluctant to defend the party. From 2014 onward a sweeping anticorruption probe unearthed widespread bribery among the political class during the PT years, centered on semipublic oil company Petrobras. Rousseff was re-elected by a thin margin in October 2014 and shortly afterward, her right-wing opponents filed impeachment charges against her for accounting measures that concealed a growing deficit. She struggled to pass austerity throughout 2015 due to congressional obstruction. That congress voted to impeach her in August shows the consolidation of many lawmakers around a position to Rousseff’s right; a leaked recording also showed top politicians planned to move impeachment forward in an attempt to stop anticorruption investigations into their own activities. Brazil is now in its worst recession on record, with unemployment at 11.8 percent. Current national debate is around an austerity proposal and which social strata should suffer the greatest cuts.
Taylor: You would be forgiven for thinking that President Rousseff was removed from office for corruption, because we had been reporting the story of the massive “Car Wash” corruption investigation for two years and then one day the president was impeached. Actually, her impeachment was over allegations she manipulated the budget to cover shortfalls. She’s yet to be charged in the two-and-a-half-year-long corruption investigation, and that’s saying something, because the field of Brasília political figures under investigations for crimes is vast. Whether that charge was an impeachable offense or an opportunistic power grab using a popular exasperation over corruption as cover, or both, is a debate Brazilians are still having as they look ahead to two years of an unelected president with the country’s reigns. Had President Michel Temer had to run for office, polls suggest he might have earned two percent of a popular vote.
FPI: Street demonstrations in 2013 seemed to rock the country. Have they fizzled? Did they effect any change?
Taylor: The spontaneity of the 2013 protests have not been seen since that year, but they influenced many actors who are still influential today in both grassroots and party politics. The majority of the 2013 protestors had a leftist agenda, which involved denouncing mega-sporting events and fighting for reform around public transportation, housing, and human rights in Brazil’s violent drug war. Some pro-impeachment demonstrators from 2014 onward say they too participated in 2013 amidst broad sentiment that elected officials did not represent citizens; their activism denounced corruption in general but focused especially on removing the Worker’s Party from power. Many of them remain active today in right-wing circles that call for shrinking the size of the Brazilian state.
Catherine: Mass protest in Brazil, which defined the fight to end twenty years of military rule in the 1980s and to depose a scandal-ridden president in the early 1990s, became less common during the country’s recent boom. June 2013’s system shock re-introduced the idea that direct action may be necessary for key social and economic rights to be fulfilled. It also increased awareness that a political project based on progressivism had over time fallen prey to conservatism inside Brazil’s Congress. This is visible not only on urban disputes around housing and low-quality transportation, but on issues like Amazon deforestation, dramatically on the rise since 2013, and on unfulfilled promises to reform Brazil’s regressive tax code. Brazilian banks still enjoy some of the largest spreads in the world, charge extremely high interest rates, and continue to profit amidst the country’s woes; Rousseff until the end of her tenure still mandated tax breaks for Brazil’s largest companies.
“Generation June” protestors influenced today’s civil society protagonists, including a high school takeover movement that fights for better public education and against austerity. Some also went on to start nonpartisan initiatives to elect progressives to local government in the 2016 elections such as “The Activist Caucus” and “Vote for a Feminist.” Protestors of all stripes amplified critiques of bureaucracy and inefficiency in Brazil that hold back the private and public sectors, and some were early critics of high deficit spending and the overextension of consumer credit by the Rousseff government which would aggravate the country’s problems down the line.
FPI: What do the international community and western media get wrong when it comes to Brazil? What are the problematic stereotypes and narratives we should dismantle?
Taylor: Brazil has very “good” currency abroad. In addition to outsiders not harboring resentment over, say, Brazil’s foreign policy/role in international conflicts, or strong political sentiments over its political system as is the case in, for example, Venezuela or Cuba, foreigners generally have an impression of Brazilians as peace-and-love fun-loving people.
There is indeed much to be admired and emulated about Brazilians and Brazilian culture, but that impression doesn’t tell you about the deep wounds here. Brazil annually leads the UN’s count of homicides worldwide, topping 50,000 per year. I’ve been covering public security in Brazil for six years now and sometimes I still stop and am overwhelmed by that number. It’s an extraordinary loss of life. And it’s largely happens during the “War on Drugs” and petty and personal crime that quickly escalates to lethal when shootings and impunity becomes part of normalized daily life. Like people who live in war zones, Brazilians are likely to come across images of grotesque violence on their morning Facebook scrolls. A vibrant crime tabloid culture, alarmist TV programs, and often spurious social media sites that “report” on local violence encourage popular reactionary attitudes, prejudice, and misinformation.
On top of that is a tragically high number of killings by police. One report calculated that police commit between 15 to 20 percent of killings in Rio de Janeiro in a given year. Police themselves are killed in similarly alarming numbers – it’s a lose-lose battle for those who fight Rio’s drug wars on its streets. One recent research project that interviewed more than five thousand police officers in Rio said more than half reported having been shot at in the previous year; a third said someone close to them had been murdered during their childhood. Civil society has made great strides in addressing public security issues in recent years, but attention is largely limited to population centers Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. The country’s homicide rates are at their highest and rising in the poor northeast and northern states, where there is less media and activism around the issue.
Foreigners who do understand Brazil has a deep public security issue misunderstand its nature. Foreigners are almost never the target of the worst crime in Brazil – they may suffer robberies and pickpocketings, but foreigners often think that, say, they can’t visit poor neighborhoods because of violent episodes there. You’ll have to search hard to find the very infrequent stories of a foreigner hurt in urban violence in Brazil. The insecurity is for locals.
Catherine: To further chip away at the “peaceful and fun-loving” myth, violence is not only visible in Brazil’s war on drugs, which kills and incarcerates black Brazilians disproportionally, but also through normalized rape and sexual harassment. The “liberated” Brazilian spirit seen in images of carnival, in which women and LGBT people have ownership of their bodies, only exists in some social pockets of the country; others are highly conservative and growing more so as the religious right expands. That’s not to say Brazilian art and culture are not incredibly vibrant; they historically had been at the global vanguard and are an important method of political subversion.
Another dangerous oversimplification is that all was wonderful during Brazil’s economic boom, and all is lost now. As growth skyrocketed, government planners failed to address key productivity lags in the country, from infrastructure to education. And despite current challenges, Brazil has high foreign currency reserves, rich natural resources, highly qualified economists, and an engaged public that wants solutions for the country. Reaching them is a question of political organization. The now famous Car Wash probe has shown it’s possible for corruption in business and government to be seriously combatted. It remains to be seen how much that will prevent cronyism going forward and how much the Brazilian saying “rouba, mas faz”—“he steals, but he gets things done” will still excuse the misdeeds of public officials.
FPI: Brazil — and the “Global South” for that matter — doesn’t rank as high in international news cycles as, say, the Middle East. In short, why should we care? We should we pay more attention?
Catherine: Brazil moves the world toward multipolarity through diplomatic and trade partnerships such as Mercosur, the BRICS development bank, and the Asian Infrastructure Development Bank. It is home to half of South America’s people, innovations in poverty reduction and healthcare provision, the largest group of oil findings this century, and world’s largest freshwater reserves and rainforest. Despite this, “water traffickers” in São Paulo state during a 2015 drought offer an example of what poor natural resource management may increasingly look like in population centers. Several Brazilian cities are also home to instructive public policy experiments around integrating rural migrants into city life, demonstrating some choices that led to increased conflict; others, to increased prosperity.
Brazil’s history of unorthodox economic planning continues to offer lessons as crises keep rippling through our global financial systems. After policymaking constrictions from international lenders in the 1980s led to a “lost decade” of growth, Brazil implemented innovative reforms of its currency and financial sector in the mid 90s. It then used counter-cyclical measures to better weather the shock of the post-2008 crisis, while the Eurozone instead suffered under strict international loan agreements. Now that Brazil has become the latest in a string of impeachments that one scholar dubbed “Latin America’s new political instability” and the new president is saddled with his own scandals and unpopularity, it is up for grabs which strategies will shape Brazilian economic development going forward.
Black Brazilians—the largest black population outside of Africa—are fighting long-entrenched racism through campaigns against police violence that now collaborate directly with America’s Black Lives Matter movement. In addition to the raging consequences in and beyond Brazil of an exported War on Drugs that the US has started to roll back on its own soil, Brazil also pulses with exported American Pentecostalism, which has strengthened and reshaped the political right here. Rising Brazilian right-wing leaders have been trained at international free-market organizations funded by America’s Charles Koch Foundation, and prominent right-wing commentators take cues from Breitbart News. Brazil will continue to be a frontline for battles over privacy and net neutrality due to its large and vocal online population, zealous judges, and digerati responsible for a comprehensive Internet Bill of Rights, and the battle against fake news about crucial national issues on social media. In the week leading up to a congressional vote on impeachment, a study found 60% of the most shared articles on Brazilian Facebook were false, and partisan bots now flood online debate.
As other countries try to achieve Brazil’s scale of poverty reduction, the question remains open of what the social ascent of thirty million people means for their desires and worldviews. Despite the current recession, these Brazilians have been exposed in recent years to knowledge, culture, and networks that aren’t easily erased. The PT’s project was often criticized for bringing people into middle class citizenship via consumption alone. But through a robust political culture Brazilians teach each other much outside of the classroom, and continue to make new demands on power.
Taylor: Brazil is huge – it’s landmass is larger than the continental United States, and its 200 million people make it the world’s fifth largest country. That’s two-thirds the size of the U.S. population. It’s not only a powerful influence in Latin America but is increasingly a force across the Global South and in international forums. Brazilian soap operas and mega-churches have popular followings in Africa; Brazilian soldiers are well-known faces in Haiti, Lebanon and the Congo. Portuguese is the sixth most widely spoken language in the world.
When it comes to covering conflict and human rights, I believe Brazil gets less scrutiny and attention than, say, the Middle East because it is not a traditionally defined conflict zone of declared warring parties with advanced weapon systems. I disagree that this makes it undeserving of coverage; see my answer above. What is going on in Brazil is a crisis for human rights and a parallel to many of our deepest troubles domestically in the United States.
For American readers, I think it is important to understand how Brazil often regards the U.S. as its “looking glass,” and Americans could learn plenty about their society by seeing something of a parallel society to the south. It’s routine to hear Brazilians compare their country to the United States – even more so than, say, their Latin neighbors – citing their demographics, size, political movements and cultural production.
FPI: Any book or film recommendations for those looking to learn more about the Latin American giant?
Juliana Barbassa’s Dancing With the Devil in the City of God is a character-driven portrait of Rio de Janeiro from its boom and optimism moments around its successful Olympic bid to its current reality check. Stay tuned for an FPI Book Club on Juliana’s book!
Alex Cuadros’s Brazillionaires is an enlightening and often hilarious ride through the relationships between business and government that grew fortunes of the most powerful Brazilians. Read it to know the ideas that drive the country.
Quase Dois Irmãos (“Almost Two Brothers”) is a film about the roots of Brazil’s most famous drug gang, the Red Command, during the 1964-85 military dictatorship in a prison where so-called “common” criminals mixed with political prisoners.
“Cidade dos Homens“ (“City of Men”) is a beautiful television series about two young boys coming of age in a Rio favela, a low-income community.
O Que é Isso Companheiro? (“Seven Days in September”) is an action film which recounts the kidnapping of the American ambassador by young radicals during the military dictatorship. One of the lead kidnappers would later run for mayor in Rio, and the daughter of the ambassador told the New York Times the former radical was “a charming man” and that she would have worked on his campaign had she not been working on Obama’s.
FPI: Which other interruptors — journalists or analysts — should we be following?
Juliana Barbassa, Cecília Oliveira, Julia Michaels, Lulu Garcia-Navarro, Tai Nalon, Stephanie Nolen, Kiratiana Freelon, Carol Pires, Joana Varon, Rachel Glickhouse, Claire Rigby, Theresa Williamson, Ilona Szabó, Vanessa Barbara, Jill Langlois, Anna Kaiser, Nadia Sussman, Anna Edgerton, Paula Daibert, Lianne Milton
FPI: Any advice for fellow interruptors?
Taylor: For journalists, seek and give affirmation and criticism horizontally. We often look for those two things vertically – did my boss like my work? See just as much value in the feedback that comes from the peers whose work you most respect. What advice do people doing similar work to mine have for me?
And for those of us who work in reporting and research: There is no substitute for approaching our sources with genuine curiosity to understand their worldview and to seeing them as partners in this complex art of distilling stories and making some sense of events. This may not mean we agree with them or even think they have their facts right; it does mean we engage them smartly and sharply, as we do our peers. The traditional model of foreign correspondence is often criticized – rightly so – for being too top-down and Western-led, or, outsiders telling the stories of insiders by grafting their categories and common sense onto an individual. When speaking with new people, take the time to let sources describe the completeness of their experience. Let them put it in their own words instead of fishing for the soundbite you predict they will say. They are the owners of their own reality.
Catherine: For journalists, interview across class and political leaning, making sure to hear women and people of color. This is especially important in a country like Brazil where 53 percent of people identify as black or mixed race. Take the time to develop these sources and pass excellent contacts on to colleagues.