• Tuesday, May 21, 2024
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The choices before Brazil


The German novelist Stefan Zweig famously described Brazil as “a Country of the Future”. This famous remark has been a cause for both anguish and hope. I have always been fascinated by Brazil. It is among the great footballing nations — the land of Pele, Garrincha, Ronaldo, Zico and Romario. I like the electrifying style with which Brazilians play the beautiful game. Although the national team were a disappointment during the last World Cup, they are still considered to be among the masters of the game.

I have been in love with Brazil for other reasons. Coming right behind Nigeria, Brazil is the country with the second largest population of black people in the world. Some of the greatest influences in my intellectual development have been Brazilians such as the educator and philosopher Paulo Freire;the philosopher Roberto Mangabeira Unger who  taught Barack Obama at Harvard; Dom Helder Camara, late catholic Archbishop of Olinda and Recife, a radical theologian who took sides with the poor, the oppressed and downtrodden of the favelas. Archbishop Dom Helder once remarked: “When I gave food to the poor, they called me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they called me a communist.” I also feel some affinity with the spiritual quest of the writer Paulo Coelho.

Brazil held its national elections on Sunday the 5th of October.  The presidentials were rather inconclusive, as no clear winner emerged with the required 50 percent of the votes. The incumbent, Dilma Rousseff of the Workers’ Party (PT), had 41.6 percent of the votes; followed by Aécio Neves of the Social Democracy Party (PSDB) with 33.5 percent; and Marina Silva of the Socialist Party (PSB) trailing at 21.3 percent. A run-off is scheduled for the 26th of this month.

Brazil faces enormous choices not only during the coming elections but also in the critical years that lie ahead. With a population of over 200 million and a GDP of US$2.5 trillion, it is the seventh largest economy in the world. Its per capita income of US$12,526 puts it easily among the top middle-income emerging economies. Brazil is a veritable land of promise. With its abundant agricultural land, rich forests and vast natural resources, the country is projected to be among the top 5 world economies within the coming two decades.

After years of brutal dictatorship, Brazil entered upon a democratic transition in the 1980s. The country faced enormous social problems deriving from hyper-inflation, corruption, misrule, low growth, weak institutions, deepening inequality and widespread poverty.

One of the most important figures in the transformation of contemporary Brazil was the sociologist and statesman Henrique Fernando Cardoso. Cardoso was one of the celebrated professors in the Sorbonne during my post-graduate years in Paris. After stints at Berkeley, Stanford and Cambridge, he returned home to pursue a stellar political career as minister of finance and as a reformist president during the crucial years 1995—2003.Through the famous Plano Real, he succeeded in wrestling down hyperinflation, stabilising the exchange rate and reforming key macroeconomic institutions. Cardoso did not buy into the doctrinaire dogmatism of the so-called Washington Consensus. He took, instead, a pragmatic approach based on the historical conditions of Brazil and its institutional realities.

It was also during Cardoso’s presidency that courageous efforts were made to address the question of race which had largely remained a taboo among Brazilian statesmen and intelligentsia. For example, in 1891, a Minister of Finance ordered a bonfire of all the books that had anything to do with slavery and the slave trade.  Racism remains a pernicious disease of Brazilian society. But it is a disease covered in layers of hypocrisy and denial.

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva succeeded Cardoso as president during 2003—2011. He built on the foundations laid by his illustrious predecessor, setting Brazil irrevocably on the path of progress that it has followed until today. During the Lula years, Petrobras, the state national oil company, was transformed into a world-class energy firm. Lula was a socialist reformer who sought to expand jobs while reducing poverty and placing his country among the progressive nations of the twenty-first century. The Zero-Hunger Programme, in combination with the Bolsa Familia scheme of social transfers to the poorest families, has succeeded in lifting over 40 million Brazilians from extreme poverty in less than two decades.He also implemented affirmative policies that called into question the millennial inequities that denied black people educational and employment opportunities within Brazilian society. Lula was also an internationalist who identified with Africa and sought to forge an alliance with our continent for mutual prosperity.

After leaving the Presidency in a blaze of glory, Lula was succeeded by his former Chief of Staff, Dilma Rousseff, in 2011. She is the first woman president in the history of Brazil. As she returns to the electorate in quest of a second mandate, she has been greeted with a barrage of criticisms. The expenditure of over US$80 billion for the 2014 World Cup provoked massive strikes across the country. There have been allegations of corruption in the awards of contracts. The shoddy construction of stadiums and other infrastructures fell well below global minimum standards for such projects. Many Brazilians have felt that taxpayers’ money could have been put to better use in such critical areas as education, health and social welfare. It did not matter that the country has benefitted from inflows of over US$60 billion from tourism and other business opportunities, in addition to the creation of 3.6 million jobs.

One thing is clear: Dilma Rousseff is no Lula. Gone is the drama and sheer poetry of the Lula years. Rousseff does not seem to have firm grasp of the policies necessary to make Brazil a first-rate nation. Whether the electorate will give her a second mandate remains to be seen. However it turns out, I am persuaded that we in Nigeria have enormous lessons to learn from the triumphs as well as disasters of the emerging colossus that is Brazil.