Pires-O'Brien, Joaquina, Contemporary Review
BRAZIL has entered the twenty-first century amid a national identity crisis, just as it celebrates the fifth centenary of its discovery. Brazil's crisis is not simply a matter of the current economic difficulties nor is it due to the long absence of a World Cup win. It is a self-defeating belief that things can only get worse because in the past nothing ever worked properly. Such determinism is caused by the prolonged uncertainty regarding the national ethos and where Brazil stands in the global context. Brazil's national identity crisis can be personified by a mischievous Janus that beckons both the future and the past at the same time. Should Brazil follow the path of the Asian tigers or dwindle within itself whilst whinging for commiseration?
The greatest leap into the future took place in 1992, when Brazil finally opened its market and lifted most of the existing barriers to importation. This move conveyed a positive message to the rest of the world and resulted in attracting vast amounts of foreian investments. Meanwhile, state companies were privatized and the national ownership requirement was removed from formerly closed sectors of the economy. Borders between neighbouring countries were opened and a regional trade market created. However, the most fundamental change is the undergoing programme of reforms which began in 1995 with the objective to correct the existing impediments to economic growth. Although the reforms still have a long way to go they have already achieved important results such as making the Brazilian institutions more transparent and those responsible for them fully accountable.
It is obvious that the building of a modern state requires people with the right education and training. This is no longer a problem as Brazil is now benefiting from investments made in post-graduation training in the last two decades. President Fernando Cardoso is a worldly scholar and a polyglot and his cabinet is formed by officials whose CVs reveal many PhDs and MBAs obtained in universities in the United States and Europe, and who also have experience in global companies and international institutions. A growing number of Brazilians now choose to finish off their education in Harvard, Yale, Chicago, Stanford, London, Frankfurt and Zurich. Many Brazilians working in the areas of business and finance have passed through major global banks, finance and consulting companies such as Arthur Andersen, McKinsey, Goldman Sachs and Merryll Lynch. Due to the falling of the immigration barriers for skilled workers, an increasing number of Brazilians now work in engineering firms and internet companies in the United States and Europe. In Brazil, 10 per cent of the population has access to a computer. About 14 million Brazilians already have access to the internet and the number of new internet connections is growing steadily.
Given a choice between having running hot water or no water at all, Brazilians would certainly prefer the first. Indeed, in the last decade the consumption of electrical goods in Brazil has grown steadily, what is compatible with the 4% increase in the consumption of electricity during the same period. Given that the supply of electricity in the same period grew by only 3%, under normal conditions there was already a shortage of 8000 MW in supply. The recent lack of rain has kept low the levels of Brazil's hydro-electric dams, worsening the energy shortage. At first the government announced that heavy fines were going to be imposed for over-consumption of electricity in the home, although it later decided to postpone the rationing in fear that the measure would trigger panic which could de-stabilize the economy. Hoping to score against the neo-liberal government of President Cardoso, Brazil's left-wingers blame the energy crisis on privatization. The flaw of this accusation lies in the fact that most of the e nergy companies in Brazil are still state-owned. There is a solution to the energy problem, which is to use gas-fired power stations, taking advantage of the huge gas reserves found in Bolivia and other areas of Latin America. Perhaps the current crisis will spring-board the building of such stations by the private sector. In the meantime Brazilians will have to economize on the use of electricity or put up with staggering black-outs.
Although many Brazilians have chosen modernity, there are also many reactionnaires who have opted for the past rather than the future. The other face of Brazil is the backwardness of those who preach the return of a closed economy, re-nationalization, the moratorium of paying the foreign debt and the super nanny state. It was the unrealistic expectations of the Utopian ideologues that led to the over-generous but distorted welfare state stipulated by the 1988 Constitution, which eventually caused the gigantic deficit that today chokes the economy.
Both the far-left and the emerging far-right fiercely oppose the reforms and blame neo-liberalism for the country's economic hardships. Two points are worth making on this subject. The first is that President Cardoso is not a liberal but a social-democrat, as his reformist endeavours in the pursuit of social change reveal. The second point is that Brazil, like the rest of Latin America, is nowhere near the true, classical liberalism characterized by the policy of minimum interference from the State on personal choices of individuals.
Zealots from the far-left and the far-right have introduced ideologies that blur existing organic values, and this aggravates the national identity crisis. One example of the latter is the proposal to fragment Brazil into many states in order to give independent status to every existing Indian tribe. The 'one culture one nation' is not an organic idea from any tribal council but an idea borrowed from the European Enlightenment. Another example was last year's ban on the celebrations of the 500 years of discovery, which was denounced as a fraud. Brazilians complied with the imposed ban but since nothing was said about the 501 years, the celebrations were transferred to 2001. A huge New Year's reveillon took place in Rio de Janeiro, culminating in a display of fireworks in three colours, to symbolise the three races that form the Brazilian people. Carnival parties took place all over the country on April 22 and a replica of the Portuguese discovery ship sailed alongside the coast, stopping in all the ports.
A panorama of Brazil on the 501st anniversary of the discovery also reveals many other aspects of the country which are not as flattering as modernity. Two phenomena capture the essence of the Brazilian society now: the increase in violent crimes and in the number of new religious sects and denominations. These two phenomena are thought to be linked with the disenfranchisement of a large section of the population. The biggest problem is obviously the widespread violence, especially because of the chaotic situation of the Brazilian prisons. An average of 46 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants was registered in Rio and Sao Paulo in 1997, five times the rate in New York City and very close to the rate in some Latin American neighbours under drug-related civil wars. A lot of money is needed to put things right both in the prison system and in policing.
The national identity crisis of Brazil prevents the compounding of efforts and resources that is necessary to solve its acutest problems. While everyone agrees that social inequality is Brazil's biggest problem, it is difficult to find anyone prepared to let go any entitlement obtained from the distorted legislations that caused the inequality in the first place. The problem with Brazil is that Brazilians want to have their cake and eat it too. Where has one heard this before?
Dr Joaquina Pires-O 'Brien is a Brazilian writer. A further article in next month's issue will discuss various reforms.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Brazil 501. Contributors: Pires-O'Brien, Joaquina - Author. Magazine title: Contemporary Review. Volume: 279. Issue: 1626 Publication date: July 2001. Page number: 9. © 1999 Contemporary Review Company Ltd. COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group.
This material is protected by copyright and, with the exception of fair use, may not be further copied, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means.