Brazil: The Price of Progress

Rio de Janeiro, 20 June 2013

With the election of President Dilma Roussef, Brazil sought to accelerate the pace in turning itself into a global power. Many of the initiatives in this direction came from beforehand, but they had a new impetus: the UN Conference on the Environment, Rio+20 in 2012, the World Cup in 2014, Olympic Games in 2016, the battle for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, an active role in the increasing prominence of the “emerging economies”, the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), the naming of José Graziano da Silva as the director general of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in 2012 and Roberto Azevedo as director general of the World Trade Organisation from 2013 onward, an aggressive policy of exploiting natural resources, both in Brazil and in Africa, mainly in Mozambique, the development of major industrial agriculture, especially in the production of soya, biofuels and livestock.

Benefiting from a good international public image sown by President Lula and his policies of social inclusion, this developmentalist Brazil confronts the world as a power of a new kind, one that is benevolent and inclusive. The international surprise, then, could not have been greater with regard to the demonstrations which during the past week brought hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets of the main cities in the country. If the reading of the recent demonstrations in Turkey as one of “two Turkeys” was immediate, in the case of Brazil it was more difficult to recognise the existence of “two Brazils”. But it can be seen by everyone. The difficulty in recognising it lies in the very nature of the “other Brazil”, a Brazil that eludes simplistic analyses. This Brazil is made of three narratives and temporalities.

The first is the narrative of social exclusion (one of the most unequal countries in the world), of landowning oligarchies, of violent caciquism, of narrow and racist political elites — a narrative that dates back to colonialism and which has reproduced itself on always mutating forms to this day.

The second narrative is that of the demand for participative democracy, which dates back this past 25 years and had its highest points in the constituent process that led to the Constitution of 1988, the participative budgets on urban policies in hundreds of municipalities, the impeachment of president Collor de Mello in 1992, in the creation of citizen councils in the main areas of public policy, especially in health and education, at different levels of state action (municipal, regional and federal).

The third narrative is less than ten years old and relates to the vast policies of social inclusion adopted by president Lula da Silva from 2003, which led to a significant reduction in poverty, the creation of a middle class with a high consumerist drive, the recognition of racial discrimination against the Afro-descendant and indigenous population, and policies of affirmative action, and the widening of the recognition of Quilombola [slave descendant] and indigenous territories.

What happened from when President Dilma took power was the slowing down or even the stagnation of the last two narratives. And since there is no vacuum in politics, the waste ground they left behind was put to use by the first and oldest narrative, strengthened under the new garb of capitalist development and the new (and old) forms of corruption. The forms of participative democracy were co-opted, neutralised in the domain of major infrastructure and mega-projects, and they ceased to motivate the youngest generations, orphaned of an integrating family and community life, dazzled by the new consumerism or obsessed by the desire for it. The policies of social inclusion petered out and ceased to respond to the expectations of those who felt they deserved more and better. The quality of urban life worsened in the name of international prestige events, which soaked up the investments that ought to have improved transport, education and public services in general. Racism showed its persistence in the social fabric and in the police forces. There was a rise in murders of indigenous and peasant leaders, demonised by those in political power as “obstacles to growth”, simply for struggling for their lands and ways of life, against agri-business and mining and hydro-electrical mega-projects (such as the damn at Belo Monte, intended to supply cheap energy to the extractive industry).

President Dilma was the thermometer of this insidious change. She adopted an attitude of unconcealed hostility towards indigenous peoples and social movements, a drastic change from her predecessor. She fought against corruption, but left to her most conservative political allies those agendas she deemed less important. Hence the Human Rights Commission, historically committed to the rights of minorities, was handed over to a homophobic evangelical pastor, who promoted a legislative proposal known as ‘cura gay‘ (gay cure).

The demonstrations reveal that, far from it being the country that awoke, it was the president who awoke. With an eye on the international experience and also on the presidential elections of 2014, President Dilma made clear that repressive responses only sharpened conflicts and isolated governments. In this vein, the mayors of nine capitals have already decided to lower the price of public transport. It is barely a start. For it to be consistent, there is a need for the two narratives (participative democracy and intercultural social inclusion) to resume the dynamism they previously had. If this were to happen, Brazil would show the world that the price of progress is only worth paying by deepening democracy, redistributing the wealth generated, and by recognising the cultural and political difference of those who consider that progress without dignity is regression.

Boaven­tura de Sousa San­tos is Pro­fessor of Soci­ology at the School of Eco­nom­ics, Uni­ver­sity of Coim­bra (Por­tugal), Dis­tin­guished Legal Scholar at the Uni­ver­sity of Wisconsin-​Madison Law School and Global Legal Scholar at the Uni­ver­sity of Warwick.

Trans­lated by Richard McAleavey for Cun­ning Hired Knaves and ori­gin­ally pub­lished on 21st June in Público.

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Boaventura de Sousa Santos

Boaventura de Sousa Santos is Professor of Sociology at the School of Economics, University of Coimbra (Portugal), Distinguished Legal Scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School and Global Legal Scholar at the University of Warwick. 

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