Opinion, by Michael Royster
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – A reader has asked the Curmudgeon the “philosophical” question in the title. As he points out, the economy is in shambles, corruption continues rampant, inflation threatens to run away, protests seem futile because no politicians seem to do anything except cover their backsides and pad their bank accounts.
The Curmudgeon is pleased to reply that, notwithstanding the ills assailing all who live here, he does not believe Brazil is a failed state, nor will it be.
Over a century ago, historian Capistrano de Abreu proposed Brazil have a Constitution with only one Article: “Every Brazilian is obligated to have a sense of shame.” Nowadays, Brazil’s executive and legislative branches are shameless, but the judicial branch has a thriving sense of shame; the Curmudgeon believes that is almost (but not quite) sufficient to keep it from becoming a failed state.
Besides an independent judiciary, the other essential institution for any democracy is freedom of speech and assembly. These freedoms foster protests and exposés and investigations, and eventually transparency, so that people know what their government is (or is not) doing. Brazil still has a vibrant press, and protests are rarely repressed.
The Mensalão and the Petrolão investigations would not have been scandals if shrouded in secrecy. The judicial branch has been unfailingly diligent, at all levels, in its attempts to uncover corruption of public officials and punish the guilty. It is also adept at publicizing its efforts. In a failed state, that would not happen.
In a failed state, Presidents would have forced the Minister of Justice to order the Federal Police to cease investigating powerful politicians and their crooked cronies. In a failed state, the government would have muzzled and eventually dismantled the crusading Public Prosecutor’s Office, and would have ordered crusading Judge Moro to cease his inquiries.
In a failed state, the public would not have known about any investigations into corruption. In a failed state, powerful politicians would not be in jail. In a failed state, calls for impeachment and resignation would not arise.
If Brazil were to become a failed state, what would happen? Capistrano de Abreu is said to have added a second Article to his brief Constitution: “All provisions to the contrary are hereby revoked.” Brazil’s military dictators determined that the freedoms of speech and assembly were “shameless” and revoked them. They abolished habeas corpus and the right to appeal any governmental decision in court.
During the 25 years while Brazilian citizens had no power over their government, they realized that the military dictatorship was itself a failed state. Ashamed of that, they struggled, peacefully and democratically, to create a successful state. They are still struggling, 25 years later.
Political scientists classify Brazil as an “emerging democracy” meaning it has emerged from authoritarian governments. Consolidating democracy is a difficult and time-consuming process, and relapses can occur. However, relapses not hidden from citizens’ eyes are correctable, by persons of good will.
The Curmudgeon has lived in Brazil for more than forty years; he knows that almost all Brazilians are, in fact and in deed, persons of good will.