A labyrinthine litany of crises


A labyrinthine litany of crises

Annabel Britton, Charlotte Street Partners’ very first intern reports from São Paulo on the current political situation in Brazil.

"São Paulo and Manaus are as similar as Wales and China. Comparing Rio de Janeiro and Palmas is like comparing a shoe with a rocket. Porto Alegre and Rio Branco like a frog to a cup of coffee. Belo Horizonte and Salvador like an Other-Human hair to a constellation. The sum of these differences is called Brazil".

I find this quotation, from an old issue of Granta, the magazine of new writing, immensely comforting: trying to make sense of Brazil is a losing battle. Even more so, when the foreign press conflates the series of crises the country is currently facing into one big mess. Brazilians and foreign spectators alike have little hope of getting a real grip on what’s going on — so, masochistic as I am, I am going to attempt to shed some light.

Setting aside a rapidly contracting economy, the Zika virus, and bidders’ remorse for the 2016 Rio Olympics, there are numerous corruption scandals at play. National oil company Petrobras is the subject of an enormous investigation for corruption; ex-president ‘Lula’ has been charged for taking kickbacks from the construction industry, and President Dilma Rousseff, his protégée, is about to undergo an impeachment trial over a financial scandal.

The dangers of over-simplifying these crises are two-fold. Firstly, it goes without saying that a nuanced understanding of this series of problems is a prerequisite for any solution. Secondly, by recognising that there are several corruption scandals engulfing the great and "good" on both political sides of the aisle, Brazil can acknowledge that a culture of entitlement has well and truly wrapped its tentacles around Brasilia.

However, it is Lula who is presented as the Medusa, on last week’s cover of right-wing weekly Veja. Its television counterpart, Rede Globo, also does its bit to demonise the left — that seems to have been its raison d’être since its creation in 1965. The biggest commercial television network in the world, after the American Broadcasting Company, its programmes regularly receive audiences which represent a majority of the entire Brazilian population. Its owner, Roberto Marinho, makes Rupert Murdoch look like a cuddly granddad. In a 1993 BBC documentary about the network, musician Chico Buarque sums up Marinho’s monopoly on Brazilian discourse: "nothing happens in Brazil without his say-so. It’s frightening".

Twenty-three years later, his words still hold true. At Friday’s pro-government demonstration on São Paulo’s Avenida Paulista, Rede Globo was the main object of indignation. I was there myself to hear the cries of "O povo não é Globo, abaixo a Rede Globo" — "Globo is not the people, down with Globo". A large part of this anger boils down to the network’s support for the 1964–85 military dictatorship — many demonstrators held signs commemorating those murdered and tortured by the state during this period, and accused Globo of being "golpista" (golpe means coup).

"I was there myself to hear the cries of "O povo não é Globo, abaixo a Rede Globo" — "Globo is not the people, down with Globo"

Several people tried to discourage me from attending this demonstration, including my own (Brazilian) flatmate, citing fears of violence on the part of the leftists who would be in attendance. I took the precaution of wearing Doc Martens, in the hope that this would make me look "hard" — as hard as a blonde gringa can get, anyway.

It transpired that these fears were unfounded — I didn’t encounter a single jot of aggression during the hours I was on Paulista, but instead was pleasantly surprised by the inclusive atmosphere. More than once the various orators demanded to know if there were any women/people of colour/LGBT people in the crowd; each time their question was answered with whoops and applause.

The make-up of the protesters couldn’t have been more distinct than that of the estimated 500,000 who took to the avenue the preceding Sunday, calling for Dilma’s impeachment. I went down to take a look, and it was the first time in Brazil that I haven’t stood out as a pale blonde woman. My way home took me past Bella Paulista, an upmarket 24-hour restaurant and bakery, and indeed a veritable São Paulo institution. Pro-impeachment demonstrators, resplendent in green and yellow, were queuing out the door. I think the British equivalent would be Yes/No protesters rounding off a day of demonstrating with a calzone at Jamie’s Italian. I like to think they would be lambasted for this.

I arrived home to find my flatmate’s family all watching the protests (on Globo, of course) on their enormous corner group sofa, which probably cost something approaching the Brazilian median income.

I don’t deny that Brazilians have reason to feel aggrieved with the government, but your credibility is dented when you are watching the demonstration on a television bigger than the entire cardboard dwelling of the homeless guy who lives on the street outside.

Annabel Britton