Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Brazil: No, It’s Not about 20 Cents.

A few days ago, I shared a photo of Dona Nair from São Paulo, 101 years young, on my FaceBook page. In it, she was holding a sign that read, in Portuguese, “I’ve seen two world wars and the Depression of 1929. I lived through the Revolution of 1932. I survived the Dictatorship. Believe me: it’s not just about 20 cents. ".  I neither translated nor explained her sign. It is time I do so.

Last week, the streets of São Paulo exploded with rage when the municipal government announced an increase of R$0.20 (about 10¢ of a US dollar) in bus fares. The police were liberal in firing tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowds without provocation. The media and the local government were long on showing scenes of random acts of violence and vandalism and horribly short on context. In fact, one photo published was labeled to the effect that demonstrators were knocking over a small structure when, in fact, the sequence of photos clearly shows they were setting it back upright, after someone else had turned it over. Protests have since spread throughout the county. Yesterday, over 250,000 took to the streets in at least 25 major cities. So, what is going on?

People are frustrated. People are angry. But why? Well, like everything else here, it gets a little bit complicated. Even if it were just about twenty cents – which it isn’t – that would amount to a significant increase. Consider that the bus fare was already R$3.00.  (To convert Brazilian reais to dollars, simply divide by two.) In a megalopolis like São Paulo, with a population of over 17 million, those who do the work do not live nearby. The poor tend to live in slums on the outskirts of the city and they will might well have to take a combination of at least two buses and/or subway trains to get to work and two more to return home. That’s four fares a day, five times a week, at least twenty times a month. In other words, they are paying at least eighty fares in a month, which already amounted to some R$240. And this in a country where the minimum legal salary is R$678. That is how much many of them earn. A hike of R$0.20 knocks at least another R$16 – another two and a half percent – from their already paltry wages,

As for the transportation itself, trust me, I know it well. I have ridden those buses and subways. Frequently. Sometimes 12 to 17 times a day. They are overcrowded, uncomfortable, and, consequently, not an experience to be enjoyed. While living in São Paulo, I would spend a minimum of three hours a day on public transport – if I was lucky enough to avoid rush hour. When I wasn’t, that time would easily double.

But, remember, this is not about twenty cents. Nor is it about just about public transportation. It’s about health care and education and public safety and crime and violence. And, ultimately, it is about corruption.

I have been reluctant to talk about some of these things to people in the United States because I love this country, because I don’t want to create the wrong image of this nation. I don’t want you to think badly about where I have chosen to live and raise my family. Where I will probably be buried after I die.

This also isn’t about all the bad things I will inevitably have to talk about. It’s about human dignity. It’s about perseverance. It’s about recovering the values that have made this the land where I want my children to grow up, where I want them learn what it means to be a citizen.

So, what is it about? We’ll have to answer this bit by bit, a piece at a time. A comprehensive examination is beyond the scope of what I can do in the small space provided here – but at least we can make a beginning.

It’s about health care. Brazil has a system of universal free medical care. That’s good, isn’t it? Well, that depends. If you are moderately well off, you can afford health insurance and, consequently do not have to depend on the public health care system. Here, once again we need to talk about dollars and cents, or, rather, reais and centavos. The 2010 Census shows that 39.2% of the population earn one minimum salary a month or less and another 32.9% earn between one and two minimum salaries. To put that in perspective, my wife and children have health insurance with moderately good coverage. It costs roughly one half of a minimum salary to insure them. (I depend on SUS – the public health system,) What this means is that roughly three quarters of Brazilians cannot even consider affording the luxury of not depending on the public health system. And what about how they, we, are being treated by that system? The country’s population has grown significantly, but funding for health has not. Public hospitals are overcrowded and understaffed. Infrastructure is crumbling as insufficient resources are not funneled into upkeep and updating what there is and corruption tends to chip away at those resources that are provided. If you are sick or injured, you will be cared for, but sometimes the wait is excruciating. On a recent Saturday evening, there was only one doctor on duty at one of Rio’s busiest public hospitals. One doctor to take care of all the accident victims, heart attacks, comas, children with flu or diarrhea, mothers in labor... One doctor for everyone... And, this, in a hospital damaged by a fire two years ago which still shows the effects of that incident. Yes, it’s about health care.

It is also about education. The base salary for a public school teacher in the state of Minas Gerais, where I now live, is R$1,178.10 for a twenty-four hour work week. That comes to less than US$600 a month. Schools frequently hold two session of classes per day, which means that a teacher can sometimes work two shifts and receive double the base salary. As a teacher, if you want to be able to pay a few bills and, just maybe, support your family, you really have no choice but to do so. For the record, Minas Gerais is one of the better paying states in the country. We are also talking about the earnings of professionals with at least a four year college degree. The infrastructure of Brazil’s public schools is on par with that of its public hospitals. Needless to say, public education at the primary and secondary levels is not really a priority and, like public health, those schools are understaffed, overcrowded and falling apart. On the other hand, at the university level, it is another story.  You see, if you want to get into a public university – which is free to those who qualify, you need to attend a quality private school. This, once again, is out of reach for the vast majority of the poor, the majority of Brazil’s population. If they can’t afford decent health care, they also can’t afford to send their children to better schools. So, those who can afford to send their children to private schools are the only ones who can afford to prepare them to study in the country’s best universities – free of charge.

It is also about public safety and the law.  Brazil has a wonderful constitution which is an example of social guarantees. Unfortunately, the country is also saddled with a morose and woefully ineffective justice system. Impunity is rampant. Money buys delays which prevent the wealthy from facing serious consequences for wrong doings. For the poor, however, justice is swift... and the prisons are cruel. And that impunity, which runs from top to bottom, means that crimes aren’t prosecuted and that the police are often as ineffective as the courts. They are poorly trained and poorly paid. I have had the privilege of meeting a small number of policemen who are truly committed to a just and democratic society, and yesterday, there was photo published of uniformed officers sitting and conversing with protesters in São Paulo, but, as policemen and woman, they are fighting an uphill battle. They are, if we believe what the media tells us, a very small minority.

It is also about the enormous corruption that seems to be endemic in Brazil and how that affects the population as a whole. During the current protests, I have seen a plethora of signs with the following message: “The World Cup – R$33 billion, The Olympics – R$26 Billion, Corruption – R$50 billion, Minimum Salary– R$678. And you still think it’s about 20 cents?” Some are crudely scrawled on posterboard, while others look like they were professionally printed, but they all point out the same thing.  A recent study by the São Paulo State Federation of Industries (FIESP) estimates that corruption sucks up R$50 BILLION a year. That’s 50 billion down a toilet hole that benefits only those who are already at the pinnacle of society. That is enough money to build 57 THOUSAND schools a year in a nation whose public school system has been turned into a scrap heap.  Combine that with the other billions being spent on the World Soccer Cup in 2014 and the 2016 Olympics –figures cited in the sign that are also presenting succulent opportunities for syphoning off even more money into the black waters of corruption. Compare that to a minimum salary of R$678 per month. No wonder people are angry. After all, those glorious stadiums and sports facilities will lie idle and deteriorate after these events and the cost of living in the cities where they are being built is already being driven up. All we have to do to see that is look at the twenty cents that broke the camel’s back last week. The people who are paying for all of this with their taxes see little or no benefit from them. Most – the 72% of the population that earn minimum salaries a month or less – won’t even be able to afford tickets to see the offer of “bread and circus” that is being now being rubbed in their faces when those events do take place. And afterwards? Please...

And, finally, it is about the Dona Nairs, the João da Silvas, the Josés and Marias  who make up this country’s population. It is about my children – Jack, Melissa and Georgia, all Brazilian citizens – and their future. It is about a population that wants to recover its dignity and its humanity. It is about people who have long endured and have finally begun to shout “Enough!” at the top of their lungs. It is about remembering courageous examples from Brazil’s past: Tiradentes, the Cabanagem and Farrapo Revolts in the 1830s and 1840s, popular resistance to the Estado Novo in the 1930s and ‘40s and the military dictatorship that governed this country from 1964 through 1986, resistance that helped bring about a return to democratic rule. And it is about many, many other examples throughout this country’s history. People here and around the world have commented that this is the first widespread social movement to rock Brazil since the caras pintadas took to the streets over twenty years ago to demand the impeachment and removal of any extremely corrupt president: Fernando Collor de Mello. Millions marched and eventually Collor fell. I was one of them. We have done this before. We can do it again. Brasil, presente!

No, as Dona Nair says, it’s not about twenty cents.



    In a private message, my friend Patricia de Luna, made the following comment, which I have chosen to share publicly... It is very pertinent to this discussion:

    " I would add that it's also about proposals to amend the Constitution that would prevent public prosecutors from investigating crimes (PEC 37) and would submit Supreme Court decisions to approval by Congress (PEC 33) - both of which are a threat to the judicial system."

    If these constitutional amendments, now awaiting approval by Congress, are approved, they will effectively destroy what little credibility the justice system now has and completely undercut the Supreme Court. In short, Brazil will no longer have an independent judiciary.

    And that, my friends, is another reason why I hope to see you in the streets!

  2. I just wrote about PEC 37 actually. It is scary!

    1. You are absolutely right. I will definitely check out what you wrote.