by Guy Gray
In 2011 Greta and I moved to Brazil. We had both retired and we planned to live on the farm Greta had founded with her first husband and was recently reformed by her son. I had visited Brazil before but now I was going to be an expat in a new culture and language. I can tell you about the food and scenery but I will instead concentrate on the impressions of a new resident, not speaking the language well, that would interest the readers of the Left Turn.
One of our first public activities was to join a demonstration against corruption. It was large and lively and filled the main avenue of the capital, Brasilia. What struck me was the variety of people: young and old, people from the left and the right. The current president was Dilma Rousseff, successor to the popular Lula de Silva, both of the Workers Party. Lula had led the country to prosperity, had initiated programs like a guaranteed income (Bolsa Familia) for the very poor, and had improved the education system. Dilma had started a program of affordable small houses for the poor. But Brazil was still a country with great income inequality, and persistent corruption. During Lula’s first term a scandal was uncovered in which many members of congress were receiving secret monthly payments that cost the government millions. In order to govern, neither Lula nor Dilma had worked aggressively to end this corruption, but Dilma had supported the investigations into it. Lula and Dilma also positioned themselves toward the center to work with the business community and the elites and to deal with debt payments. So, the reforms they could initiate were limited. The hospitals are still overcrowded and the schools continue to be underfunded. The mood of many in this demonstration was one of general frustration but there was also playfulness in true Brazilian style. The demonstrators wanted change in the whole system, not just the party in power. The population is much more polarized now.
I have witnessed both much that is good in Brazil that I wish to see in the United States and much that is bad that may forewarn where the US maybe heading. On the positive side, there are large packages of basic foods at a low price in the supermarkets. These are part of the Bolsa Familia program. When I cut myself on the farm I get treated in the hospital with no charge as any person in Brazil is able to do. Older folks like me are given a special shorter line as we wait our turn for many services so we don’t have to stand so long. On the farm we are visited by heath workers once a month to check on how well we are doing.
The Independent Truck Drivers struck in 2018 to protest a sudden rise in fuel prices. They were able to shut the country down for over a week. In our local town the citizens led a parade out to the intersection the truckers had partially blocked. They carried banners and were singing the national anthem. Many people here have family members who drive trucks so it became their struggle too. The demonstration ended with a prayer and several people stayed to give the strikers some food and share an outdoor meal with them. The government finally agreed not to let fuel prices change suddenly and to reform some regulations such as lowered toll rates.
But the negative: There are people selling small items to car drivers waiting for the traffic light to change on most intersections. These people are out in the hot sun all day for a bit of money. There are not enough good jobs for people, especially for the unskilled workers. Medical care is for free, but when I had a hard-to-diagnose injury I ended up visiting several clinics, waited in long lines, and did not get good answers. I finally paid a private doctor who was able to properly diagnose my injury. A potentially good system has been underfunded and private insurance and doctors are profiting from its shortcomings. Most houses have high walls topped with cut glass, barbed wire or electric wire. Whole communities can be gated with a guard house at the entrance. Brazilians seem obsessed with security. As the US society becomes more unequal I fear it could begin to look more like Brazil today.
There has been a decline in the quality of literacy even as the literacy rate has climbed up. To help start a conversation in our English class, I asked the students what books they had read the past year. Only two raised their hands. One mentioned Harry Potter and the other wanted to know whether the Bible counted as a book. WhatsApp is the main source of news for many people here. Bolsonaro was elected in part by misleading memes. One showed the hand of Jesus guiding his hand as he wrote laws. Another showed a baby bottle with a nipple in the shape of a penis. It claimed that his rival Workers Party candidate had distributed these bottles in schools while he was education minister to promote homosexuality. In fact, Bolsonaro’s rival had set up a program to encourage respect for all sexual orientations. One farm extension worker in our community who advocates for sustainability told us that the fires in the Amazon were fake news. He quoted a prominent woman who said that she had flown in a helicopter in her area of the Amazon and had seen no fires. I am reminded of a quote by Steve Bannon: “You just have to flood the news with shit” so nobody knows what the truth is.
But Brazil is also the country that produced Marina Silva, a daughter of rubber tappers in the Amazon, who as a young person worked for Chico Mendes, the famous environmental organizer. Illiterate until she was sixteen, she got educated, entered politics, and rose to be a federal senator. Later, Lula appointed her Environmental Minister. She then oversaw the largest drop in deforestation in the world. She left after Lula backtracked on environmental reforms to appease state governors and agribusiness. She ran for president three times, twice getting 20% or third place in the first round but not making it to the runoff. She now continues to be a progressive voice through her “Rede” party. Her story gives me hope for Brazil.
If you want to stay informed about the current situation in Brazil, I recommend the internet sites The Intercept and The Brazilian Report.
Guy Gray and his wife, Greta Browne, are former residents of the Lehigh Valley who now live on a farm in the central highlands of Brazil, about 70 miles west of Brasilia.