Opinion by Jeb Blount
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – I got back to Rio de Janeiro on Sunday after a month in the United States, the longest I’ve been away from my adopted country and my Brazilian family, in two decades.
Yet almost as soon as I returned, the joy of being reunited with my wife and daughter, the pleasure of returning to my home in this marvelous city was overwhelmed by a fear I’ve never felt before.
I’m not saying I haven’t had plenty to be frightened about since I arrived in Brazil’s 26 years ago this week. Brazil may be sweet, but it’s not easy. Beauty abuts ugliness. It’s great wealth and vibrant democracy also breed poverty and injustice. Never, not in the United States or Canada where I lived half my life before moving to Brazil, have I felt such freedom, … or the lack of protection from the unchecked freedom of others.
But until I came back, the current economic crisis, staggering corruption, rising violence and political chaos was merely disturbing and dangerous. I’ve lived through similar problems before and come out fine. So has Brazil.
I’ve feared physical violence too: a cop putting a loaded pistol to my head at a road block; getting robbed at knife-point on Leme Beach; a man, who may or may not have had a gun, who stole my cellphone as I waited in my car at a signal near Central Station. In each case, I came away shaken but tougher and wiser.
Until now, these threats didn’t upset my outlook. Brazil is better today than a quarter century ago. More often than not, crisis and fear of its consequences sparked positive change. Crime may be rising, but it’s still a lot lower than when I arrived.
At least that’s how I felt before I left for the United States in June. I was optimistic that the response to Brazil’s deepest recession in a century and the political chaos caused by the massive Lava Jato, or “Car Wash” corruption probe would follow the same script.
But I’m losing hope. Since I left, efforts to stabilize government finances and fight the corruption upending the world’s seventh-largest economy have suffered serious setbacks.
Not only have shocking corruption allegations against President Temer failed to spark his resignation, they’ve rallied opposition to his government’s unquestionably painful economic austerity measures.
Many wrongly believe Temer’s austerity is itself corrupt, not a necessary, if reluctant, response to an economic crisis deepened by corruption. This has allowed politicians more directly responsible for the devastating corruption scandal to deflect attention from their own transgressions or excuse them as unfortunate but essential means to honest ends. It’s allowed them to promote a populist lie that Brazil’s fragile or bankrupt federal and local governments can spend their way out the crisis.
As a result, private investors from ExxonMobile to the mom and pop owners of Brazilian corner shops are unwilling to spend, either out of disgust at Brazil’s corruption and bureaucracy or doubt that Temer reforms will stick. Without them, Brazil won’t rebound.
And as Temer and his government tries to save off impeachment and the opposition exploits chaos for the same reason, nothing serious is getting done.
Signs of social breakdown are everywhere. Beggar boys near my local supermarket have stopped asking for change and taken to assaulting shoppers, including my wife, something I’ve never seen in my neighborhood. Police, irregularly paid, facing gasoline shortages and repair problems for their cars, have increased random road blocks, a common tactic to solicit bribes. Local shop keepers and community organizations are expanding hiring off duty cops for security.
Strikes mount, universities close, people owed money by the government don’t get paid. In a new homeless shanty in a creek near my house. its trash sits uncollected for weeks. I was laid off my job in November and have never feared or failed as a freelancer, but I’ve never seen the economy so bleak or so few jobs available. Several local restaurants in my fancy neighborhood have cut their prices.
As Temer other Brazilian politicians scramble to avoid their rightful place in jail, I fear for the future. I question the sanity of my decision to make my life here. There’s a good chance that in ten years’ time things in Brazil will, at best, be little better than today and very probably harder and meaner. Until now things have always got better. Brazil doesn’t face a short crisis but a lost decade where fear doesn’t spark positive change but leads to conflict and decline.
* Jeb Blount is a freelance journalist living in Rio de Janeiro. He has lived in Brazil for 25 of the last 27 years, first arriving in the country in 1991. He has worked for such news outlets as Reuters, Bloomberg, the Washington Post, Miami Herald and Los Angeles Times. Follow him on Twitter at @JebBlount