Trip to Brazil

Image: Elyeser Szturm
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By Flávio Aguiar*

The arrival

Curious: to arrive in Brazil, coming from abroad, we need to get rid of a certain amount of luggage, instead of taking it with us. For example: in the media mainstream internationally, Bolsonaro’s pathetic (or goofy?) speech at the opening of the UN General Assembly was described as “nationalist”. Why? Because he claimed the Amazon for his excesses and arbitrariness.

He can?

He can. Because “nationalist” in the North of the world means one thing, and in the South another. Words change meaning as they cross oceans and hemispheres.

There are two words, and “nationalist” is one, that have sown a lot of confusion in reading what is happening in the world. “Populist” is another. And these words, with their transoceanic meaning, have been invading the Brazilian conservative media and even the left.

Traditionally, “populist” was an expression that the right reserved for the left in Brazil. Attention: it was not synonymous with “communist”. Leonel Brizola (I miss you!) was a “populist”. The Vargas of Petrobras and the 100% increase in the minimum wage in 1954 was also. “Nationalists”, for example, were generals Newton Estillac Leal and Horta Barbosa, defenders of the state oil monopoly in the 1950s.

President of the Military Club from 1950 to 1952, Estillac Leal was defeated by General Alcides Etchegoyen, an “Americanophile”, in favor of the total alignment of Brazil with the United States, and leader of the “Democratic Crusade” ticket, in the 1952 election. elected, Alcides Etchegoyen prohibited discussions on the topic of the oil monopoly on the club's premises. But it was too late: Petrobras, the source of eternal hatred on the part of the “delivery” right (another term at the time), would be created on October 03 of the following year.

Idem, “nationalist” was Leonel Brizola, when he took over the Electric Energy Company (subsidiary of the bond and share) in 1959 and Companhia Telefônica Nacional (which was national only in name, being a subsidiary of International Telephone and Telegraph Corporation) in 1962, which earned him the title of “demagogue” in the American media.

In the jargon of the left, Lacerda (for example), who Olavo de Carvalho, Sergio Moro and Dallagnol try to imitate without his intellectual brilliance, was also a “deliver” and “Americanophile”. The same was the first Brazilian ambassador to Washington after the 1964 coup, Juraci Magalhães, author of the phrase “what is good for the United States is good for Brazil”. Bolsonaro is also and does not hide being, in fact, “Americanophile” and “delivery”, in the best tradition of the lacerdista heritage in our country.

But in most of the international media, even those that define themselves as center-left, anti-Trump, “populist” are those who deviate from the liberal economist pattern, appealing to the popular masses directly. There is thus a “right-wing populism” and a “left-wing populism”. For liberal thought, both, like the parallels, meet in infinity, equaling each other at the end of the day. It is this type of thinking that justifies, in the semi-liberal Brazilian media, considering that Haddad (or Lula) and Bolsonaro were different sides of the same coin, as happened during last year's electoral process.

Let's face it: Bolsonaro, although he wants to go over or by the side of the institutions of liberal democracy, is not a "populist". His proposals and measures have nothing to do with “popular”. On the contrary: at most it could be considered a fascist project, with its dictatorial style. He does not govern for the “people”, nor does he address them, but rather for his coreligionists.

Would there be a “right-wing populism” in Brazilian history? It could be, if we consider figures like Ademar de Barros, who supported the 64 coup and, above all, Jânio Quadros of 1961, whose resignation is described by many analysts as an attempt to bypass the institutions and return to power dictatorially, “ led by the masses”. He gave what he gave, that is, he did not.

Well, in conclusion, when we landed in Brazil we left aside, at customs, the expressions “nationalist” and “populist” to observe more closely what is happening in the country. We simply try to report some impressions of a return traveler in his own country.

The Empire Syndrome or the Island Complex

Very large countries, former empires, imperialists or with such a vocation, share something in common with very small ones, especially those that are limited to an island. It is the feeling that “everything” is happening within its limits, or lack thereof. A feeling of isolation or spaciousness tends to lead to this type of feeling.

Just look at the case of the United States, where any championship of anything receives the pompous title of World Series. And in the United Kingdom – which is an island – there are still those who remember the time when it was the seat of an empire where “the sun never sets”. This nostalgia was one of the factors that led many people to vote for Brexit in 2016, according to surveys at the time.

Not only is Brazil no exception to the rule, but it combines both sentiments: that of unmeasured amplitude with insular isolation. I think this is one of the reasons why it is so followed, in comments in the media and beyond, about different controversial and unpleasant situations in the country, as in the case of the Lava Jato excesses, its judicial impunity, and the arbitrariness of the government of Bolsonaro (not to mention other occasions, such as the illegitimate, illegal and unconstitutional impeachment of Dilma Rousseff), expressions such as: “if it were in a civilized country”, “in first world countries”, etc.

“Civilized” in this context translates to “in Western Europe” or “in the United States”. Even Canada and Japan are left out of the connotative meaning of the expression.

This intensifies the painful feeling that we are a cripple in the concert of nations, supported by considerations that “we were the last country to abolish slavery” (which is not true, although it is a shame that the country maintained it for 66 years after Independence, and abolished it as incompletely as it did).

Is it true that Bolsonaro and the lawfare Lava Jato are extreme cases. But they are by no means isolated. Intensify world trends. Just look at the procession of illegal barbarities committed by Trump, in addition to his political atrocities, or by Salvini in Italy, or even the entire performance of extreme right-wing forces in “civilized” Europe. And it must be taken into account that the entire Lava-Jato industry was intellectually set up in the United States, in a similar way to what happened with the torturers of the recent past, trained by North American specialists or followers of the models that the French applied in the Algeria, for example.

The neoliberal dictates that are applied with iron and fire today in Brazil are similar to the principles that govern the hegemonic austerity policies throughout Europe, with some exceptions, and in the United States, where they were applied without iron or fire, many times by so-called governments social democrats, socialists or democrats. It is true that there are broader and more effective protection cushions than the Brazilian ones in countries like Germany and France, but even so, the withdrawal of rights from the world of work has been dramatic and overwhelming, although not devastating, as in our case.

Let this not sound like a mitigating factor, but simply as a framework for our Brazil in a world context.

Changes in the landscape: God, helplessness and despair

With all these caveats in mind, the panorama unfolding in Brazil is bleak. It should be noted that I visited large and medium-sized cities, not the countryside. The astonishing increase in the number of homeless people enters through our tired retinas. Where there were dozens before, there are now hundreds; where there were hundreds, now there are thousands.

A novelty: in relation to past historical moments, poverty has become more stratified. I explain. For me, historically, misery was something absolute, a block of lack, abandonment and lack. When I visited India for the first time, during the 2004 World Social Forum, I was amazed to see that poverty followed a hierarchy.

In Mumbai the number of homeless people was unbelievable. When they slept, you could see the stratification. There were those who slept on the rough floor; those with cardboard underneath; those that, in addition to this, had cardboard on top; next, those who had a blanket, even if it was a rag; and there were those who had a mattress, and then a mattress and a blanket. Finally, there were the families that had a quarter (I couldn't find another expression), in which people took turns during the night, sleeping some inside, others outside.

Well then: albeit in a different way, the stratification of poverty is more evident in Brazil today than it was fifty years ago. It reveals itself in the number of blankets, in the clothes available, in the outdoor space that each one has. A significant detail: this picture of social impoverishment seemed to me to be more poignant in cities in the South, such as São Paulo and Porto Alegre, than in the Northeast, such as Fortaleza or Salvador. Print? Could it be. Sharper perception than before? It can be too. The record remains.

Scenes of abandonment multiplied. In São Paulo I saw buildings from the old Singapore projects completely abandoned, surrounded by newly built slums. I saw houses (?) made of wood, cardboard and zinc put up for sale.

The dominant feeling – not just among the poorest – is helplessness, followed by despair that nothing will change in the life span that people have. Cities like São Paulo and Porto Alegre seem abandoned to God-will.

This perception is followed by the fact that I have never heard the invocation of the name of God so many times per square meter, from the disastrous propaganda of federal rulers to that spoken by those who no longer have anyone to trust.

The middle class factor and others

Continuing on the journey: few times in our history has the expression “middle class” been so invoked. It is an expression of difficult and imprecise outline, to the point that each user of it should explain what he means when he uses it. Is it defined by an income level, as in official accounts? A certain social status? A level of consumption? Is it the equivalent of what Marxists define as the “petty bourgeoisie”? Is it all this together and something else?

Could it be. But the fact is that judging by certain statements and analyses, the so-called middle class has become the culprit for everything in Brazil. Besides being white, racist, homophobic, misogynistic, and much more.

Calm down: there is all this in the middle class, and there is still the fact that many members of this income bracket identify with the upper floor and look with panic to the lower floor of the social stratification, for fear of falling into it or for fear to see him go up. Even more so in a society like the Brazilian one, where the notion of “rights” is confused with that of “privileges”. “Is it fair to have to pay the minimum wage for an employee?”, etc. etc.

It so happens that sometimes the fervor to criticize the middle class hides the reality and preponderance of rentiers and other upper-floor bourgeois. And the fact that without these, and their heralds in the media and beyond, there would be no Bolsonaro elected. Come on: the resentment of part of the middle class, pressured by quota policies, the helplessness of many poor people, the discredit in politics and in “traditional” politicians, whether from the right, center or left, the reactionary preaching of many evangelical churches , all this was essential to elect him.

But without the competition, the support, the complicity, the instigation from above, its media, its funding from the fake news, none of this would be happening. And this slice of Brazilian society continues to be fundamental to maintain what is left of support for the increasingly shaky Bolsonaro government (which does not mean that it will fall any time soon).

I give two examples, also taken almost by chance on this trip. A friend lives in financial circles, for professional reasons. They are people in the vast majority of the right, of course. Until then we are in the world of normality. They formed a group of WhatsApp, where my friend was included. It was enough for Bolsonaro to say that he would not sign the Camões award given to Chico Buarque for the majority of the group to begin to speak ill of the composer and his work. Suspension of intelligence? Walking bad faith?

Second example: a friend keeps replying to posts from common acquaintances (also from the financial world) on Facebook, which I also visit from time to time to find out what “they” are ranting about. At one point she questioned him about something he had written: “This is a lie,” she wrote. “If it's against the PT, it doesn't matter”, was the answer. It wasn't a joke, even if it was in bad taste. It was exactly what he thought. And so on.

The Rhetoric of Imbecility

I've been listening and reading comments that the innumerable stupidities that the rulers say and do are mere smokescreen to disguise what they really think and are doing, that is, the destruction of rights, of the Brazilian State, the institutional rupture with the Constitution of 88, the dismantling of everything that had been built since the 30s, despite the dictatorships. Date reverence, I disagree. I don't see a smokescreen there. The rulers – the president in front – do and say stupid things because that is what they really think: they are stupid and really stupid. They are like the children of a family that goes to a party and only does things there that embarrass them.

Take the case of the president against European rulers. Once the agreement between Mercosur and the European Union was signed, it was said that Trump did not like it. Immediately the president, who was previously proud of the achievement, began to sabotage it, and in the most shameful way possible: insulting not only the French president, but even his wife. And in this he was accompanied by Minister Paulo Guedes, who wants to show that he is the “intelligent side” of the government.

Perhaps he is, deep down, its most pathetic member. Just look at the photos in which she appears, always with her mouth open, as if praying, and her hands waving in front of her, as if throwing herbs into a mandinga cauldron. Well, this is what he actually does: what he says has the value of a prayer; what he preaches has never worked anywhere; is nothing more than a sorcerer's apprentice who daily prays the mantra of Social Security reform as if it were the pir-lim-pim-pim powder that will lead us to redemption and promises to sell everything the State has to, deep down, finance the benefits that will guarantee the votes for that one in Congress.

I don't even need to talk about the others.

Lights inside the tunnel

I was healthily surprised by the extent and creativity of the Resistance – thus, with a capital letter – against one of the main targets of the Bolsonaro government and the metastasis that took over the Brazilian legal apparatus after Operation Lava-Jato. They are targets and metastases that aim at building a police and censorship State that watches over and hinders the freedom of citizens, men and women, hearts and minds. There is censorship – stimulated or spontaneous – in everything, from funding to art and culture, passing through legal persecution – of which the one against ex-president Lula is the spearhead and tip of the iceberg – to the watchful eye of digital militias or in the streets over everything that is a symbol of that Resistance.

I cannot expand on everything I saw, watched, heard, felt, so I will have to stick to a few manifestations, but which are symbols of the others.

I watched the re-editing of Roda Viva, performed by Teatro Oficina in São Paulo, with special participation (there is no stage…) by Zé Celso himself. Extremely up-to-date, although faithful to the original spirit of the XNUMXs, extremely entertaining and other things at its finest, testifying to the vitality of our theater and of the entire scene in Brazil, which continues to be lavish in intelligence, pertinence and other things in "science", such as patience and vehemence. What rhymes, by the way, with the extraordinary resistance shown by educators and students to the stupid and arbitrary diatribes of the minister of (mis)education and his inspiring “philosopher”.

And I witnessed the vitality of Brazilian cinema, certainly still heir to the days of Manoel Rangel's administration at Ancine, which opened up broad horizons for directors, producers, actors, moviegoers, etc., leaving a legacy that will mark generations. Of course: “Bacurau” was at the top of the list, a must-see (check out Ricardo Musse’s analysis at The Earth is Round). But I also saw the unmissable “Legalidade”, before which I could not contain my emotion as a witness that I was that heroic Resistance of the Brazilian people to the first coup of the sixties. And nostalgia for nostalgia, I must say that I missed the “populist caudillo” who helped me open this traveling commentary, Leonel Brizola. I also watched valuable films like “Domingo” and “Socrates”, approaching different aspects of our social crises, from the high bourgeoisie to the programmatic abandonment of our childhood and adolescence.

All this and much more, in sunny or moonlit conversations, gave me the certainty that, if we are still far from seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, we certainly have torches of intelligence that help us in the passage.

*Flavio Aguiar is a writer, journalist and teacher. Author, among other books, of The Bible according to Beliel: from Creation to the End of the World: how everything actually happened and will happen (boitempo, 2012)

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