Note: This post began life as an op-ed; I have amended it slightly from the version shared on Facebook to add more social scientific perspective.
The United States set new single-day record for new COVID cases on June 24th through 26th, surpassing what had been hoped would the highest point of the curve on April 24. The United States is now in a two-horse race with Brazil to be the epicenter of the COVID pandemic. The economic and social sacrifices made to attempt to flatten the curve—sacrifices that include the highest unemployment rate since the Great Depression and school closures that will have lifelong consequences for student outcomes—from March to May have essentially been rendered completely moot.
This has many observers saying the United States is a failed state. George Packer argued this in the Atlantic. Chinese state media has leveled similar claims.
The United States is not a failed state. It is something much more disturbing: it is a society that has the means but has decided not to try.
In under two weeks, Brazil will have the second round of its presidential election. Former military officer and fan of fascists Jair Bolsonaro looks set after a strong first-round showing to defeat Workers’ Party (PT) candidate Fernando Haddad. If he wins, Bolsonaro will have strong party backing in Congress, though he does not care much for the legislature—in 1999, Bolsonaro said Brazil’s 1964-1985 military dictatorship “should have killed 30,000 people more, starting with Congress and [then-President] Fernando Henrique Cardoso.” Bolsonaro’s running mate is retired General Hamilton Mourão, his planning adviser and likely Minister of Transport is General Oswaldo Ferreira, an anti-environmentalist who looks for inspiration to infrastructure projects enacted by Brazil’s military government, and Bolsonaro has promised to stack his cabinet with generals. Current and retired military officers have been prominent backers of Bolsonaro, and Bolsonaro announced that he would not accept any result other than victory, menacingly saying “I cannot speak for military” but that there “could be a reaction by the Armed Forces” if he lost and deemed it due to PT fraud (never mind that the PT is not currently in power).
As Michael Albertus highlighted, the military is returning to Brazilian politics in a big way. While the military in Argentina was punished for its dictatorial Dirty War, elites with ties to dictatorship never faced sanctions or fully left the political scene in countries like Brazil and Chile. In Brazil, civilian leaders managed to weaken the military during the transition to democracy, but it retained a broad scope of activities, including internal security and development, especially in combating the drug trade, a mission with which current President Michel Temer tasked the military earlier this year in Rio de Janeiro. Bolsonaro spent his time as a representative in Congress “interested in helping the military above all else,” and his message that he will restore law and order both resonates with a Brazilian public fed up with high rates of violent crime and with a military keen to reassert itself. Continue reading
Two weeks ago as part of our class, we visited Brasilia’s landfill site, known as Lixão, which again underscored some of the incredible contradictions in the country. It is a vast site, with six open dumping sites, this is one of the largest landfills in all of Latin America. Controversy surrounds this landfill, as it is slated to be closed and moved some 45km away. The government is shutting down landfills like this one in favor of lined landfills with water protection systems. They have already closed Rio’s massive dump in 2012. Brasilia’s landfill harkens back to an earlier age, when unlined landfills with no specially designed containment ponds existed. However, this landfill won’t shut quietly.
So, at this point, I’ve been all over Brazil, though that’s like saying I’ve toured the United States in five weeks. That said, I’ve been in five or six cities all over the country (I’ll load a better map soon), and the internet speed has invariably been crap, even in pretty expensive hotels. I’m not sure what that tells you about the country’s fortunes in the 21st century, but it does mean access to information and commerce in Brazil is limited, let alone the ability for people to watch streaming video of Game of Thrones or Orange is the New Black or local soccer. It also makes it so much harder for Brazilian voices to get their stories heard outside of official media. Continue reading
Here are some stories we’ve been reading about Brazil:
- Street artist captures iconic image of impending World Cup (see mural above)
- Rio residents ambivalent about the World Cup
A long overdue post from Brazil. I’ve been here about two weeks, first in Rio and have just concluded the second week in the Amazonian city of Belém. I hope to come back with more substantive thoughts about the country’s direction, but here are some preliminary thoughts. The Brazilians we met were somewhat ambivalent about the World Cup. Many of them expressed the concern that this was a lot of money that the country could have used to address its myriad social needs.
When I think about whether Brazil can be a major player internationally, even more important than it is now, I’ve generally been struck by the contrasts, between the rich cosmopolitan parts of Rio and the rougher, grittier favelas that intersperse the city. Similar contrasts abound between the Rio’s relatively nice beach neighborhoods (like Ipanema) and Belém. Belém looks like it has seen better days since the time when it was a major port city exporter of rubber. The agencies and individuals we met with here have treated us with great kindness and generosity, but the city itself has aging infrastructure, cracked sidewalks, inadequate sewerage, and a fair amount of garbage. Continue reading