The sense that Brazil had avoided the racial acrimony and tensions that plagued other countries was a source of pride for many citizens – and indeed many Brazilophiles globally. Throughout the twentieth century, the government routinely contrasted its lack of racial animosity favorably with what was happening in the US, before and during the civil rights movement. This was not just for domestic consumption: it played into Brazil’s global positioning as the champion of the disenfranchised, a voice for the so-called Global South, and an anti-imperialist power leading the Non-Aligned Movement.
Not surprisingly, several of these ideas have come under scrutiny. The latest reading is that Brazil’s “racial democracy” was a fiction. It was most loudly championed by a white elite to obscure very real, very violent, racial oppression. Indeed, a great many of Brazil’s contemporary challenges, such as inequality, exclusion, impunity and violence, are strongly connected to this unexamined legacy of racial discrimination. And in spite of comparatively recent efforts to reduce discrimination, it’s woven deeply into the fabric of the country’s electoral politics, education systems and labor markets. Today, black Brazilians earn on average 44 per cent less than their white counterparts.
Structural racism is today sustained by the country’s power elite – some of them memorably described by Alex Cuadros’s ‘Brazilionnaires: Wealth, Power, Decadence and Hope in an American Country’. Brazil’s elitism and patronage are legendary, and this has contributed to mind-boggling levels of corruption and impunity. One of the most widely reported instances of corruption is Lava Jato (“Car Wash”), which started in 2014 and ensnared dozens of former presidents, ministers, politicians, businesspeople and others, across Brazil and another dozen Latin American countries.
Lava Jato was exceptional, even by Brazilian standards. What started out as an investigation into suspected money laundering metastasized into a sprawling corruption scandal at the state-oil company, Petrobras. All told, it syphoned up to $13 billion from the public purse, making it one of the biggest corruption schemes not just in the history of Brazil, but of anywhere. The incident even earned its own Netflix series – ‘O Mecanismo’ (“The Mechanism”), surely one measure of notoriety.
The scandal is just the latest iteration of a long and sordid saga. Before Car Wash there was Mensalão – the Big Money scheme – which involved cash for votes and was discovered in 2005. And before that there was the Banestado money-laundering scandal, which took place between 1991 and 2002. Until recently, few paid the price for their crimes. Instead, the ability to cheat the system was tolerated, even grudgingly admired.
But there are signs that Brazilians are waking-up and challenging an intolerable status quo. As in the US and parts of Latin America, calls to redress racial injustice, reduce inequality, and stamp out corruption are growing. Over the past few years, and as corruption scandals stacked up, the mood has changed. Until recently, it was inconceivable to imagine Black Lives Matter protestors marching up Sao Paulo’s largest boulevards or to believe that the CEOs of Brazil’s largest construction firms and members of congress would go to jail, much less stay there.
The convulsions of the past five years, from the impeachment of Dilma Roussef to the rise of Jair Bolsonaro, are not simply a result of collapsing commodity prices, bad governance and antipathy toward the left, though these factors matter. They are also the symptoms of a wider racial awakening and reaction to the progressive politics that threatens the ancien regime and the entitlements of the new middle class.
Whether you agree with them or not, the tenure of the Workers Party between 2003 to 2016 shook the establishment. Massive social advancement programs ranging from Bolsa Família to Minha Casa Minha Vida were ramped-up. New quota systems and cultural projects were introduced, designed to empower the underclass. The elite tolerated these activities so long as their interests were untouched. When the commodity boom ended in 2013, the old guard began the process of jettisoning the Workers Party. Brazilians took to the streets and never left. An entire generation is being immersed in a new kind of politics.
So, where are we in Brazil today? The country is facing a threefold crisis: the COVID-19 pandemic which is still in its first wave; the economic crisis which has long-term consequences; and a political-security crisis that threatens domestic stability. Added to this is a fourth crisis that has implications for the world: the deforestation and degradation of the Amazon. Even before the Bolsonaro administration, land clearances were rising, over 90% of them illegal. Since Bolsonaro’s election, deforestation rates rocketed to the highest levels in about a decade. If land clearances continue at the current rate, we could soon see a massive die-off that would convert the world’s largest tropical forest into its biggest savannah.
As for the health crisis, Brazil documented its first COVID-19 case comparatively late, on 26 February 2020. The initial reaction was slow, but on the right course. Local governments shut down the airports, imposed quarantines, and encouraged people to stay home. Very quickly, however, the situation began to unravel. Bolsonaro was adamantly opposed to lockdowns, since he feared it would negatively affect the economy – and his popularity. He played down and then politicized the evidence, advertised controversial medicines like chloroquine, lost two health ministers, and flagrantly ignored his own government’s health advice.
The results are tragically predictable. Brazil registers 11 percent of all COVID-19-related deaths in the world, with just 2.7 percent of the global population. On a per capita basis, some of its cities have the worst COVID-19-related mortality rates on the planet. Over 185,000 people have died already and researchers say that the real numbers could be over 10 times higher.
The disease shows no sign of letting up: epidemiologists say the numbers will keep rising despite the arrival of vaccinations. Part of the problem is that Brazil has an ageing population. But the truth is that most people contracting the disease and dying are poor, vulnerable, and black. Brazil’s Health Operations and Intelligence Center estimates that 55% of those who have died of COVID-19 are black, compared with 38% of whites.
The health situation is precarious, and hospitals in cities across the country have been at some point overwhelmed. The recovery rate is 50% higher in private institutions compared to public ones. It’s worth noting that more Brazilian nurses have died of COVID-19 than any other nationality. The saving grace for Brazil is its public healthcare system, with over 55,000 treatment centers and over 300,000 doctors, nurses and care professionals. Some of them are fighting back: a group of unions, social organizations and medical professionals (calling themselves the UNI-Saude network) have asked the International Criminal Court to indict the president for “contempt, neglect and denial” which, they say, amounts to a crime against humanity. The chances of this happening are, of course, close to zero.
The economic effects of the pandemic are severe. The government estimates a 4.7% contraction in economic growth (revised down from 0% in March 2020). Fitch, the rating agency, is even less optimistic and predicts a drop of 6% or more. The World Bank is even more bearish, claiming the decline could be as high as 8%. Either way, the country is on route to the steepest drop in GDP in decades.Print