Brazil’s Shaken Optimism

Recent months have been pretty discouraging for Brazilians like me who were thrilled when Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva took over the office of president in 2003. Many of us believed that Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers Party) would finally turn our nation into a fair country. But corruption scandals, an economic recession and opportunistic alliances with former rivals have replaced optimism with an old sinking feeling: The defeatism that had been dormant since the early 1990s is now knocking at the door again, whispering to us, “Nothing will ever work.”

In the last decade, for the first time in my life, it was exciting to be Brazilian. Despite the global crisis, the country’s economy was growing and inequality was decreasing. “That’s the guy!” United States President Barack Obama was heard to say while patting the shoulder of President da Silva. Brazil played host to the soccer World Cup in 2014 and is going to hold the Summer Olympics in 2016. The statue of Christ the Redeemer, a major national symbol, was on the cover of the British magazine The Economist, lifting off like a rocket. It seemed that we had outgrown our old fate of being a rich country inhabited by poor people. It seemed that the prophecy of the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, the one that said Brazil was “the country of the future,” had been fulfilled. The future, finally, had arrived.

I was born in 1977, during the military dictatorship. One of my earliest memories is of a rally in 1984 where 400,000 people called for direct presidential elections. At one point, my father put me on his shoulders so I could see my childhood hero on the stage: Socrates, who played for Corinthians, São Paulo’s best soccer team, and the Brazilian national team. Next to him was a chubby, bearded, floppy-eared guy to whom I didn’t pay any attention: Lula. During my adolescence, though, Lula would become one of my heroes as well.

Partido dos Trabalhadores, or P.T., was founded in 1980, as a union of workers, intellectuals and artists. Lula, a migrant from one of the poorest regions in the country, a former metalworker and union leader, led many critical strikes and helped bring down the military dictatorship in 1985.

The dictatorship had only deepened our historical inequality. While taking the bus to and from school as a child, I could see the social apartheid. My friends and I on our way to a private school — white kids with braces on our teeth, Walkmans in our backpacks, Nike sneakers on our feet — while most passengers, black or biracial, had missing teeth, wore cheap Havaiana flip-flops, and carried their belongings in plastic bags.

For the elections after the dictatorship, I wore P.T. T-shirts or pins with the same conviction I wore the Corinthians jersey on game days. Unfortunately, that bearded guy’s speeches were not as effective as Socrates’ backheel passes, so P.T. ended up losing more elections than Corinthians won games. Only in late 2002, running in his fourth consecutive election, striking a much softer tone, did Lula finally win the office of president.

To some extent, the party fulfilled our expectations after 13 years in power. Lula — and Dilma Rousseff after him — created social programs and raised the minimum wage to hoist more than 40 million people out of poverty and into the middle class. When I was born, many people were still plagued by hunger; now one of Brazil’s major health issues is obesity. The buses now are full of people playing on their smartphones, with mouths full of teeth, and Mizuno sneakers on their feet. If you see someone wearing Havaianas here in São Paulo, it’s probably a foreigner.

The problem is that beyond material goods, not much has changed for the poor. The educational system is weak, and access to good health care is limited. Many homes have flat-screen TVs, but are not hooked up to public sewers. Many say these 40 million whose living standards have been raised are not a new middle class but are just “poor people with money.” Because being middle class means more than just being able to buy things; it means having access to the common repertoire of civilized society. It means knowing, for example, that Picasso was the Spanish artist who painted “Guernica”; that Freud is the “cigar guy” who created psychoanalysis; that “The Girl From Ipanema” is a bossa nova classic written by Antônio Carlos Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes.

The current economic and political crisis raises many fears. Will all the recent gains be washed down the drain? Will the Mizuno sneakers and smartphones disappear, to be replaced by flip-flops and plastic bags?

Many believe that the recession and recent political upheavals will soon be overcome. A new finance minister is putting the economy in order, and economic growth is predicted to return in 2016. An independent prosecutor has been investigating cases of corruption and has already sent several politicians and businessmen to jail.

On the streets, protesters shout “P.T. Out!” as if the party were responsible for all our problems. It is not. P.T. has done the most to reduce inequality in Brazil — but its efforts have come up short.

Perhaps as important as overcoming the current crisis is finding new paths to ensure that Brazil is a country where everyone has a fair chance. A country with a middle class that not only can buy imported shoes and mobile phones, but also be moved by a Picasso painting or get distracted by whistling “The Girl From Ipanema.”

This Brazil, unfortunately, remains in the future.

Antonio Prata, a writer, is also a columnist for the newspaper Folha de São Paulo.

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