This article was last modified on July 13, 2012.


Empire Strikes First: Brazil, Revisited

We last discussed Brazil in March 2011, and this month we shall return to check up on them. Why, you might ask, is this column again covering Brazil when other countries are making headlines with civil war, and there is more than enough news right here at home to report? The answer is simple: with Brazil being the fourth-largest democracy and having the sixth-largest economy, it is a powerful nation that rarely gets attention. And if this column can in some small way rectify that, it will.

Since 1982, Brazil and much of Latin America faced economic stagnation and social misery due to policies imposed on them by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The organization is notorious for offering deals countries cannot refuse — appearing to solve debt crises only to leave the countries beholden to foreign powers. (The IMF was discussed in detail in the January 2010 column.)

President Fernando Cardoso tried to save Brazil by introducing a new currency in 1994 called the “real”. This money, linked to the American dollar, seemed to work at first: inflation rapidly decreased and foreign capital flooded the market. US investment was $3.9 billion in 1995 and had mushroomed to $30.5 billion by 2000. This appeared to be a miracle, but it was coupled with a terrible curse: the privatization of state companies. Soon, foreign corporations owned important Brazilian industries and the people were at the mercy of outsiders.

The Brazilian people suffered. Unemployment soared, with 25 million citizens classified as indigent, and for those who did keep their jobs, the average wages fell 10.8% from 1997 to 2001. Crime also increased: between 1987 and 2001, an astounding 3,937 children were killed by guns in Rio de Janeiro, eight times the amount of children that were killed in the Israel-Palestine conflict; you can imagine the total number of children killed from all causes throughout the country.

The left-leaning Workers’ Party, founded on the ideas of Marxian philosopher Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937), had been gaining influence for many years, even winning the mayoralty of Sao Paulo, the world’s seventh largest city by population, in 2000. (New York City is ranked 20th.) The party is openly socialist, but stresses that they preach a “radically democratic” variety of socialism. The party’s most charismatic member was Luiz Inacio da Silva, better known as “Lula”, who brought the political ideas of the party to the masses by ridding their pamphlets of technical jargon and presenting concepts that the layman could understand.

Lula’s election as president was “a key moment in Brazil’s history, like the abolition of slavery”, according to sociologist Francisco de Oliveira. Noted historian Eric Hobsbawm said that the election “gives us hope for the rest of the century.”

After five months in office, even after the left-wing began to be disillusioned with his unexpected moderate policies, Lula still maintained an 85% approval rating. (Internal bickering had always been the party’s weakness, just as factionalism had lead to the Left’s disorganization in America. The Republican Party, love them or not, is very skilled at crafting and repeating a unified message.)

Lula “move to the center” was not simply a political ploy, but an attempt at fairness in governing. As he said, “A negotiated solution is always better than a law passed by a majority against the wish of a minority.” (Governor Walker, take note.) His integrationalism was both domestic and foreign. Although Mexico is seen as little more than an American colony by South Americans, Lula saw the importance of joining the remaining Latin countries together in order to increase their collective financial power. “We must launch an ambitious programme to integrate Latin America,” he said.

When Lula left office in December 2010, he was still unhappy with the relationship that the United States had with South America. But this never affected his ability to compromise — he could strike deals with Hugo Chavez one day, and enjoy a diplomatic dinner with President Obama the next.

His successor, Dilma Rousseff, is even more moderate. She is pro-life and opposes same-sex marriage, and does not favor any drug decriminalization. Her favored policies only differ from American domestic policies in two key areas: a stronger opposition to the death penalty and a principled stand against privatization and American corporate takeover of Brazilian interests. This last point should not be surprising after the Cordozo days, but even privatization is flexible. Rousseff finds it “favorable to grant to private enterprise the construction of new power plants and roads, when it is cheaper to do them through grants than through public works”.

Her presidency quickly encountered opposition and protest from one of her key support groups: the indigenous tribes. Rousseff has pushed for the creation of the Belo Monte Hydroelectric Dam in the Amazon River, over the complaints of tribes and environmental groups that say such a dam will cause flooding and dislocate tribal villages and farmland. Rousseff has insisted the construction should continue, and has pushed for work crews to operate twenty hours each day in harsh conditions and for paltry compensation. Not surprisingly, this has caused massive strikes. Another contested dam, the Jirau Dam, had a three-week strike of 17,000 workers in Spring of this year. Someone even lit the semi-constructed dam on fire.

She has also been unpopular with the LGBT community. Last year, the Brazilian Supreme Federal Court ruled unanimously (10-0) to legalize same-sex unions. Despite this decision and Brazil’s broad support for homosexual rights and tolerance, Rousseff has made a slight push in the other direction. She suspended the distribution of sex education videos to high school for not being “objective” in their discussion of homosexuality. Indeed, she was right to call them not objective — the videos include a section on the dangers of homophobia. But how would she wish this to be balanced out? By explaining the “evils” of homosexuality or transgenderism?

Rousseff and Obama have had their quarrels, despite a generally healthy relationship. The Brazilian leader has bemoaned the monetary policy of the United States, saying that low lending rates may be good for the American economy, but it floods the foreign markets with “speculative money”. Basically, it stunts the growth of Brazil’s growing economy when investment in America becomes easier for Brazilians than investing in each other. (In Obama’s defense, this monetary policy is decided by the Federal Reserve, not the president or Congress.) Brazil has also pushed for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, the most powerful international committee in the world. For the last 66 years, the Council has had the same five members: China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States. I would not be surprised if Brazil is the one to break into this exclusive club.

Brazil is a country to watch. They may not have the biggest military (although tenth is not bad) and may not have as vocal a leader as Iran or Venezuela. But they have an influence far beyond what the American public realizes. Within the next twenty years, the world giants will include Brazil and India alongside China and the United States. Ignoring them is only at our peril — they will be crucial allies in any international cause, whether it is political, economic or military.

Gavin Schmitt (gavin6942@yahoo.com) recognizes the power of Brazil, but it will be a cold day in Hell before he recognizes the Portuguese language!

Also try another article under Historical / Biographical
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

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