Monday, 11 November 2013


(Salvador de Bahia, Brazil) – The day I arrived here, Brazil’s most important newspaper carried the following three front-page stories:

*Ninety-seven employees from four ministries in the São Paulo city government are under investigation for a series of corruption schemes including allegations they were bribed to slash property tax bills for developers. The investigation is focusing (à la Al Capone) on individuals whose impressive wealth could not be explained by their salaries and whose telephones were then wiretapped by prosecutors searching for an explanation.

(Let it be noted that the guy thought to be the mastermind of this scheme, Undersecretary of Municipal Revenue Ronilson Rodrigues, earned a monthly salary of 24,063 Brazilian reales: or US$ 10,935 at current exchange rates. But that was not enough to finance his Peugeot sports car.)

*A sitting and a former member of the state supreme court of Bahia are under investigation for misusing their office to deprive the state of $200 million.

*Four other SP ministries—Environmental Protection, Housing, Labor and Administration—are also under the inspectors’ gaze over “evidence of irregularities.”

And that’s just one day’s news.

Brazil is sometimes treated as a powerful new player on the verge of joining the big fellows at some sort of neoliberal power table. We hear a lot about the BRICs countries—Brazil, Russia, India and China—as the new counterweight to the old key states of Europe, the U.S. and Japan. (Sometimes Indonesia gets stuck in there as another “I” country.) But these breathless accounts about these countries’ growing GDPs tend to downplay just how fucked up they are as if a larger GDP is all you need. Size really matters for these guys.

I’m here for a national meeting of the AIDS nonprofits that are trying their best to salvage Brazil’s ground-breakingly humane national strategy for that disease, which included massive antiretroviral coverage for everyone at a time when the experts said it was crazy. The approach was hailed as a huge success and imitated everywhere, most notably in Bush II’s PePFAR program, which brought modern HIV treatment to poor countries in Africa.

But that was then, and this is now. The AIDS program is facing serious difficulties, which I’ll save for later comment. What’s more interesting is how Brazil’s apparent ‘success’ as another neoliberal poster child masks the unease and discomfort experienced by the people who live here. How does growth translate into well-being for the majority?

As became evident during the June-July demonstrations in response to a public transit fare hike in São Paulo from 2.75 reales to 3, Brazilians aren’t at all convinced that the shiny new country they’re supposed to be so enamored of is benefitting them. The corruption stories that greeted me last week are one symptom of a deep malaise.

Carlos Melo writing in O Estado de São Paulo warns of boring the reader by listing all the most recent corruption scandals that can no longer be said to ‘rock’ the country given that most people are too weary of them to pay much attention. The latest, however, is also the largest: even the payoff scandal known as the ‘mensalão’ of a few years ago that toppled Lula’s chief of staff, only involved 50 million reales (20-30 million dollars depending on the exchange rate). This one cost the city of São Paulo something like 10 times that.

Melo laments what he calls the ‘democratization of pillage’, a frequent comment heard from people who suffered greatly to restore democracy after a ferocious military dicatorship (1964-1985) that proceeded to teach other Latin American countries exactly how to torture and disappear their enemies.

The perception that corruption is generalized generates much more perverse effects than the corruption itself. On top of undermining belief in political activity of any kind, it subjectively liberates everyone to become a criminal. A vicious cycle then blooms: if the authorities do it, why shouldn’t an average citizen? What can we say about a society in which it’s worse to be called a fool than to be called a thief?
--which sheds a certain light on the notorious insecurity and uncontrolled street crime of many Brazilian cities. Melo goes on to say that when everyone is found with a thumb in the potpie, no electoral channels remain by which the citizenry can put a stop to it, and ballot box fights degenerate into mere gladiatorial spectacles. ‘Mortars are launched by each side at the other in a pleasant, shared game of imbeciles in which both sides are right without being right at all’. In this arena the Brazilians and in fact many in Latin America are way ahead of us—at least they see what is happening.

So when the authorities tried last June to jack up the price of public transport by a fairly measly amount, hundreds of thousands of fed-up users poured into the streets of São Paulo, Rio and other cities, not to protest the few extra cents but to object to the ongoing looting of their city and state treasuries by elected and unelected officials who openly sneer at the idea of public service. They didn’t wait for the next election because they have no illusions about the impact of reshuffling the faces at the top.

That’s what my colleagues in the HIV/AIDS service industry and advocacy movement are trying to articulate as well—that Brazil once held out the promise of development with a human face in which people with needs, like medication to stave off a deadly virus, could count on the country’s new-found wealth to take care of them. Instead, they see a ruling elite bent on cashing in as quickly as possible through any deal, licit or under-the-table, that can generate a quick pay-off. This has nothing to do with building a sustainable, health society over the long run, which would require investment in the people who comprise it.

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