My reunion with Brazil

By Miguel Urbano Rodrigues

The author is a Portuguese writer, editor and Communist activist, who was exiled in Brazil from 1957 to 1974 and was editor-in-chief of the daily newspaper, O Estado do a Paolo, during that period. Later he edited Avante, the weekly newspaper of the Portuguese Communist Party from 1974 to 1975 and then the Lisbon daily O Diario from 1976 to 1985. He datelines this story Nov. 28 in São Paolo.

I returned to Brazil in November. I had decided that this would be my last visit.

This certainly contributed to making the re-encounter very painful.

I was in São Paulo and Rio in 2012. Hence the surprise.

In the brief space of two years, the atmosphere, the behavior of a substantial portion of the bourgeois social strata and the media that form the opinion of the majority of the population have changed dramatically. In this farewell visit I felt almost like a visitor in a strange land.

The joy of reuniting with a people whom I deeply love was neutralized by the knowledge that Brazilian society had acquired the characteristics of a swamp.

Absolute poverty declined during the Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff governments. Paradoxically, the gap between the privileged minority and the vast majority increased. The rich grew enormously rich. According to the daily O Estado de S. Paulo, Brazil currently has 61 billionaires, whose fortunes amount to more than 161 billion dollars.

Social tension is transparent. It’s different from what I experienced during the years of military dictatorship [from 1964 to 1974, when the author returned to Portugal]. But it is a type of tension that does not lead immediately to an explosive rise in the class struggle.

Objective conditions are favorable to broad social struggles. The protests against the government in Rio, São Paulo and other states, some called out by the rightwing, have become almost daily events. Opposition politicians have even asked that the Congress prevent Dilma Rousseff from taking office and have called for the immediate resignation of the government. In São Paulo, the demand on social networks is for “the resignation of the entire political class” and “the end of the financing of political parties.” By itself this seems a harmless spontaneity behind these demands.

At the present juncture, the righteous indignation of the workers expresses only their rejection of a rotten system. The absence of a revolutionary organization with a strong presence among the masses favors the ruling class and marks the limits of popular protest.

The increasing social tension will not lead to a pre-revolutionary situation because the subjective conditions for this are absent.

Dilma Rousseff’s fragility

Rousseff was elected in the second round with 52 percent of votes cast after a tough campaign, characterized by its low ideological level.

The current government has 39 ministers, an unimaginable number in European administrations, and all indications are that the next administration will have a similar size. There is intense speculation about the names, but Dilma Rousseff already confirmed that the finance minister will be Joaquim Levy, a banker (he was vice president in Washington of the Inter-American Development Bank) who was part of the center-right government of Fernando Henrique Cardoso and who defended to the end the neoliberal measures that big capital demands. His declarations about the need for an austerity policy clarified his ideological choice.

Katia Abreu, the future minister of agriculture is an opponent of the agrarian reform program. The “rural caucus,” whose members represent the interests of the big landlords and agribusiness in the House, celebrated the news of her nomination.

During the campaign, progressive intellectuals characterized Rousseff as “the lesser evil” because the election of Aecio Neves, backed by Washington and Brazil’s big bourgeoisie, would have meant a total submission to U.S. imperialism and big transnational capital. When Rousseff’s opponent, a politician with a playboy profile, addressed foreign policy, he made his position very clear: He advocated closer ties with the U.S. and a review of Brazil’s currently favorable relations with Cuba and with the progressive governments of Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador.

A sea of corruption

Corruption is an evil endemic in the Brazilian state apparatus.

But during the governments of Lula and Dilma it grew out of all proportion. José Dirceu was Lula’s chief of staff, a post that in Brazil corresponds to that of prime minister. The Mensalão scandal, which had led to the arrest of Dirceu, among many others, has now been largely outdone by a bigger swamp involving Petrobras, the largest company in the country. Petrobras’ ex-services director, Renato Duque, along with dozens of oil giant executives (currently Petrobras is one of the major oil producers in the world) and leaders of some of the largest construction companies in Brazil, have been arrested for fraud and corruption, offenses committed in the performance of their duties. Many senators and representatives are also mixed up in these sleazy deals.

For now it is not possible to assess the total amount stolen. But it is admitted that the total bribes paid to officials of Petrobras for illegal contracts and other fraud that favored contractors exceeds the equivalent of many billions of dollars.

The Brazilian people reacted with satisfaction to arrests already carried out by the federal police during Operation Car Wash, better known as “the Last Judgment.”

Dilma, informed of the arrests while in Brisbane, when she was in Australia taking part in the meeting of the G-20, expressed satisfaction at the action of the law. “They demonstrate,” she said, “that Brazil is ending impunity (…) I think this can actually change the country forever.”

This opinion did not impress the opposition. Most influential media rained criticism on the president, to whom they deny credibility.

There is also a widespread belief that those most responsible for these crimes, which caused Petrobras shares to fall precipitously, will not be punished; the convictions will mainly affect the junior functionaries.

The decision of Marta Suplicy to resign as culture minister, announced at the height of the scandal, was interpreted as a prologue to a deepening of the crisis of the Labor Party (PT) with which Suplicy, an ambitious opportunist, was about to break.

Democratic facade

As in Portugal, the politicians within the system in Brazil abuse the word “democracy” to characterize the regime.

They lie. In fact, the country is under a bourgeois dictatorship with a democratic façade.

How the system functions has aspects of a caricature.

The elections — presidential, legislative and those held by the state governments — were contested by 28 parties, which elected 553 federal deputies.

Coalitions, regulated by an absurd law, allow in some cases the election of candidates from parties opposing the one the citizens vote for.

Few rely on Dilma Rousseff’s promise to “reorganize Brazilian society, giving the directing role to those who live from their work and culture.”

In her first term she systematically forgot all her promises.

In practice, it didn’t take the almost neoliberal PT government long to abandon the program that brought Lula to the presidency. In practice, it believes that it administers the capitalist society better than the traditional right. The populism of Dilma Rousseff and Lula da Silva fools fewer and fewer workers.

A considerable portion of the Brazilian people, whose opinions are shaped by an alienating media, has not yet assimilated this evidence.

Multiple crises

The country fell into technical recession.

In October, the trade balance showed a deficit of $1.2 billion. The fall in gross domestic product reflects the decrease in raw material prices, the basis of Brazil’s exports.

The official unemployment rate lacks credibility. Layoffs in the private sector meet no serious legal obstacles. An example: HSBC, the British giant — the largest bank in the world — recently announced the upcoming dismissal of about a thousand workers from its branches in Brazil.

In the automotive industry, one of the largest in the world, vehicle production fell 16 percent compared to last year.

The inability of municipalities to respond satisfactorily to decent housing requirements for people flocking to the Brazilian megacities to seek employment has contributed to a wave of housing occupations.

In downtown São Paulo, the atmosphere today is very different from what I experienced in my years of exile from 1957 to 1974.

Families associated with the homeless movement have occupied degraded buildings that had been built between the two world wars.

The owners and influential politicians demand that occupants be moved out, but the mayor has not acted on these calls, fearing increased social tension.

More serious is the concentration of drug addicts in some residential neighborhoods. In Jaguaré, a hundred meters from a large supermarket, dozens of addicts remain night and day on the sidewalks, rummaging through piles of junk. I saw some injecting themselves.

The place is known as “Crackland” (“Cracolandia”), named after the drug they consume.

Slums have not disappeared from São Paolo. But Rio de Janeiro is where their proliferation strikes visitors hardest. Planted here and there around the city, including spread across hills that surround the upscale neighborhoods of the seafront, they are the face of a social tragedy and a challenge for which no government up to now has been able to find an effective solution.

More than 80 percent of slum dwellers are workers, peaceful citizens, participating in social life, reflecting Brazilian cordiality. But it is the minority of people living on the margin, the criminals and drug addicts, who project the image of the favela.

The military occupation of some of the favelas that took place in the months before the Soccer World Cup did not resolve, as was feared, the social problem whose degrading image is visible in the hub of misery that are the city’s favelas, where organized crime is firmly installed, with the complicity of corrupt cops.

What can be done? That terrible reality is painful. But I could not dare even to address the issue of the long sequence of debates generated by the social scourge of the slums.

In the large Brazilian cities — like in the capitals of Colombia, Peru, Mexico, San Salvador, among others — the population has been suffering from the problem of violence. This has not decreased.

The statistics are alarming. In 2013, some 53,000 were murdered in Brazil. A woman is raped every four minutes.

Anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote in “Tristes Tropiques” (“Sad Tropics”) that Brazil is “the country of the decay of the unfinished.” By using this expression, he conveyed the impression made by the large residential buildings and monumental works that showed cracks in their construction, aging before being completed.

In these weeks, in this rush revisit to Brazil, the ostensible contradiction between modernity and archaism reminded me of Lévi-Strauss’ comment.

In multiple branches of the advanced sector, Brazil is located at the global vanguard of scientific and technical progress. But this transformation of the country where I lived almost two decades, before the 1974 Portuguese Revolution, coexists with another Brazil, even in urban areas — slums and tenements, in particular — where I had the feeling that time had stopped.

In the immensity of the South American giant, as we move away from the major centers of the coast, we are plunged into a space where stagnation reigns, in a remote past.

In the backlands of the Northeast and in the density of the Amazon forest, life has changed little across huge regions; there the people and things push one’s memory and imagination to African archaisms. A Caboclo person of the Upper Rio Negro in Amazonas state or from Madeira is culturally closer to a village dweller in Kuando Kubango [Angola] than to a worker in São Paulo or Rio de Janeiro.


I know few other countries where the contradictions so deeply mark the flow of life.

One of the most surprising things for foreigners is what separates a bright and creative intelligentsia from the so-called elites, a beehive of ambitious and mediocre adventurers (many of them corrupt) who exercise a decisive influence within the rotten world of politics.

The Brazil where such intellectuals emerged as the architect Oscar Niemeyer and the sociologist and politician Florestan Fernandes, also generated public figures as sordid as Jânio da Silva Quadros, Adhemar de Barros and Paolo Maluf, and mass-produces deputies and senators that typify admirably what Karl Marx called “parliamentary idiocy.”

The contrast between these two Brazils, coexisting and antagonistic, is identifiable. Here’s an example — even in a simple visit to the great bookstores of São Paulo and Rio.

On the shelves can be found the best that humanity has created since antiquity in the fields of thought, art and science. Leading publishers also launch on the market, translated, innovative, recent works, whether essays or novels published in Europe, in the USA, in different countries defined as emerging.

I consider it indispensable to make a special reference to the São Paolo publishers, Boitempo, directed by Ivana Jinkings, which launched in Brazil, along with the principle Marxist classics, contemporary authors like the Hungarian Istvan Meszaros and the Briton David Harvey.

But, in a country where a wave of counterculture exported by the USA weighs decisively on the mentality and tastes of the middle class, the bestselling books are other than those mentioned above. They are the garbage printed on issues of the type of how to get rich, how to change your profession or personality, how to win friends, and about occultism, astral issues, exotic religions and other inanities make up the bestsellers.


My four days in Minas Gerais, revisiting Ouro Preto, Mariana and Congonhas do Campo, gave me a strange journey through history and through my life, remembering someone who lived in my body.

It was more than 40 years ago. Then, I walked the hills and valleys where the explorer Fernão Dias Pais found the gold, which, passing through Portugal, contributed to financing the English industrial revolution.

I accompanied on this visit two friends who are historians: the Frenchman Albert Soboul and the Portuguese Barradas de Carvalho.

Many of the eighteenth century mansions of Ouro Preto threatened at that time to crumble. They were recovered and the city is now a tourist zone where people pour in from around the world.

Aleijadinho, the architect and sculptor who gave international dimension to the baroque period, had no recognition of his genius during his lifetime. He died poor and almost ignored by his contemporaries.

Meditating on the dead time in their churches, or caressing the dark stone of the Prophets of Congonhas, walking though the Conspiracy Museum rooms, I went through this winter of life on the invisible bridge linking Brazil in its formation that ambled through the independence of Brazil to the giant today, an unimaginable country and people.

Where is this unique land headed, one which has not been fully completed as a nation?

I dare not make predictions.

In Brazil, offensive inequalities of the human condition persist. A repulsive ruling class concentrates political power in its hands, while sharing economic exploitation with imperialism.

Although the present situation is grim and the immediate future foggy, I concede that Brazil is geared to play a significant role in tomorrow’s humanity.

I repeat: I love the Brazilian people deeply. The violence, which now spreads like plague in major cities, will end when the social causes that generate it are eliminated in a distant socialist society. The Brazilian warmth, tenderness and joy — these will remain.

I do not find in the chaotic Brazilian mishmash a prologue to future disasters. On the contrary.

When I imagine the distant future, the people of Brazil appear to me to anticipate the mixed-root humanity that will slowly arise from today’s world.

Source:, Dec. 3. Translation: John Catalinotto, managing editor, Workers World (USA).

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