Pyramids, Pizzas and Pepper-Spray: Brazil’s ‘Midwinter Spring.’


It may be hot and dry in Cairo, but São Paulo in  late June is cool, grey, drab and wet, just like midwinter in any European city.

I was in town to witness an extraordinary week of social convulsion and street protests by an angry middle class, of the kind Brazil experiences every 20 years or so (a march by conservative family groups in 1964 on the eve of the rightist military coup; another in 1984 calling for direct elections to end the military era; in 1992 by ‘carapintadas’ demanding impeachment of the then-president; and now wearing those global ‘anonymous’ masks in 2013 to protest against — well, just about everything).

Screen Shot 2013-07-04 at 12.27.11Screen Shot 2013-07-04 at 16.58.16It wasn’t a revolution, but it was the week that Brazil fell out of love with – or at least called time on a decade of good-natured tolerance of – the left-of centre PT Worker’s Party and its long-term hold on power.

The persistent damp weather called to my mind an incident from December 2012 that for me suddenly crystallized the “meta” of events that magazine editors, commentators, foreign correspondents and many Brazilians themselves struggle to link together.

IMG_1428That month, I was sitting at a lunch-table in Salamanca, Spain with former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso and a group of Brazilian academics and political scientists. Deferentially, we listened to the elder statesman, sociologist and former Sorbonne professor answer a pat-ball question about Europe’s looming contagion. Unaccountably, the old man instead chose to talk about “the coming crisis in Brazil.” The political scientists smirked and rolled their eyes, as though humouring this quaint relic from a former era of inflation, economic weakness and uncertainty. Hadn’t he heard that Brazil was now a great power?

When general conversation resumed at our end of the table, the complacent academics’ consensus was that FHC was talking up an economic crisis that could never happen, thanks to 10 years of sound management by the PT Workers’ Party. My suggestion that FHC was referring to a crisis of values and not economics was met with disdain. No foreigner, sniffed one political scientist, could understand that the forces of historical determinism carrying the PT forward.

Yet fully six months before anyone else saw it coming, the canny old sociologist’s view was right on the money. The crisis has caused a collapse of popular trust in elected politicians of all stripes. And the PT, especially, is reeling as its party flag continues to be torn up, stamped on and burned in public demonstrations.

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Screen Shot 2013-07-04 at 12.27.51Today Brazil is wracked by a crisis of values that’s easier to diagnose than to solve.

A set of street protests that began with a demand to lower city bus fares, has gone into metastasis. Every demand met by government spurs a fresh round of protests with new demands. It’s becoming like a shopping list:

Screen Shot 2013-07-04 at 12.37.30Pent-up complaints about the extravagance of Brazil’s double-whammy spending on the 2014 World Cup and Confederations Cup (US$ 13 billion) and 2016 Olympics (US$14.5 billion), now vie with a myriad of single-issue complaints that focus on the conduct of public policy. After decades of football madness, even legendary hero Pele got it wrong when he advised demonstrators to stop their “nonsense” and get behind supporting the national team in the warm-up Confederations Cup (they won anyway).

Screen Shot 2013-07-04 at 12.34.39Screen Shot 2013-07-04 at 12.27.27The list of protest targets included an attempt by legislators in Brasilia’s congress to deny the public prosecutor’s office the power to scrutinize congressmen for corruption.

Screen Shot 2013-07-04 at 12.35.38And an attempt by right-wing evangelicals to have homosexuality categorised as a “disease” eligible for free health treatment.

The list is seemingly endless and Brazilian’s addiction with social media has gone into overdrive. That’s the place to protest against everything — even that the standard of electric plugs used in Brazil is different from elsewhere. Somebody must be getting a rakeoff.

Screen Shot 2013-07-04 at 12.29.23It would unfair to say the government has been unresponsive. In some ways, it’s been too pliant. Would the country like a nearly-new constitution, asked President Dilma Rousseff? No thanks, answered just about everyone. Perhaps the country would like a plebiscite about reforming the political system? We would rather have a referendum to validate or reject what the congress proposes, responded the street. Would it help to make corruption a serious crime? Only if politicians have their “get out of jail free” cards removed, came the answer.

On top of that, Dilma promised 100% of the as-yet-untapped riches of Brazil’s undersea oil riches would go to education. And she also promised to bring in thousands of foreign doctors. Everyone knows that means the Cuban medics sent to Venezuela on an exchange deal for oil in Fidel Castro’s day, so there’s not much enthusiasm for that among Brazil’s medial profession.

What’s certain is that the government of President Dilma Rousseff has shown itself to be complacent, weak, inflexible and unprepared. Military police showed an almost child-like ingenuousness about the role of social media in organising protest and monitoring police behaviour. The leading Folha de S. Paulo newspaper charted the rise in internet traffic linked to messaging about about protests:

Screen Shot 2013-07-04 at 17.17.45For a generation of militia officers accustomed to calling newsrooms with an order to wipe any revealing newsgatherers’ videotapes before broadcast, the thousands of youTube-linked cameraphones held up by middle class protesters were alien objects. When more than 80,000 people clicked “I’m going” on a Facebook page calling a rally in São Paulo’s Largo da Batata right by my office, the police were the last to know. In Brasilia, Dilma sidelined the four-star general in charge of the ABIN intelligence agency.

Screen Shot 2013-07-04 at 13.08.20I wasn’t there when things got rough. What I saw were people in suits leaving their offices in Avenida Paulista to join marches after work; middle class families heading off in a carnival atmosphere. Children carried on parents’ on shoulders. This one carries a placard saying “My nappies are cleaner than the National Congress.”

Screen Shot 2013-07-04 at 12.35.56All my friends had been out marching for lower bus fares, even though themselves they never use public transport. Later on, there was outrage when protesting seniors, retired doctors and even judges were indiscriminately tear-gassed and harrassed by militia. Journalists were shot in the face at short range with rubber bullets.

Screen Shot 2013-07-04 at 13.07.52The working classes were curiously absent: doormen, lift operators and drivers warned us about joining protests because of police violence. They should know: one social media posting (was it ironic?) proclaimed the view of the shantytowns: “here in our favela we still get the old-fashioned lead bullets when the police come calling. We would really like to graduate to having the nice new rubber bullets they use on middle class demonstrations. What can we do to get an upgrade?”

And therein lies the key to the current sorry state of Brazil’s civic values. I want to advance an argument that Brazil is living – albeit unconsciously – through a great “Pizza and Pyramid” moment. In business school management-speak, Pizzas (or Pancakes) and Pyramids are shorthand for new and old ways to manage organisations.

I’ll try and persuade you that these two images provide a perfect means of understanding what’s happening to this lovable but poorly-managed organisation of over 180 million people. It’s attractive (as other editors are doing) to make Brazil fit into a “global protest” mode. But there are so many circumstances unique to Brazil — and so few Muslims unlike Turkey or Egypt — that I’m not sure you can force this square peg into a round hole. Brazil is unique.

Let’s start with the Pizza.

Screen Shot 2013-07-04 at 12.59.20One of the great charms of São Paulo’s heterogenous, immigrant-based society, is the richness of its Italian cuisine. Sorry Italy, but your de facto national dish has evolved and left you standing after crossing the Atlantic to Brazil. Not least because of the charming tradition of “meia-meia” practised in the city’s pizzarias. This means you can mix and match just about any flavour on the menu in a single crunchy-thin, custom-made pizza. Washed down with an iced chopp lager, the multi-segmented Paulista pizza is a high culinary artform. At my favourite eatery, Camelo, you can order your own rainbow pizza with a side-order of deep-fried chicken chunks called frango a passarinho.

Exactly the same rule applies in the two fan-shaped chambers of Brasilia’s legislature. For form’s sake, politicians talk about “government” and “opposition.” But really there’s only one flavour: being in power. Everything else is dry pizza crust with no mozzarella. Wikipedia records over 30 political parties, and that’s before the extra toppings and cheese.

Brazilian journalists have their own word for what Americans call the pork-barrel: “fisiologismo.” This means the unprincipled pursuit of power and privilege for its own sake. Over the last decade, the PT Workers’ Party has made congressional alliances with the whole political smorgasbord, right-wing evangelical right-to-life parties, with scions of former military rule, environmentalists, communists, you name it.

Screen Shot 2013-07-04 at 12.24.46Everyone has their price and the political wheels were greased. The long-running Mensalao cash-for congressional votes scandal resulted in the trial and conviction in the Supreme Court of some of former president Lula’s closest aides for corruption. Yet all the condemned have successfully used their “get out of jail free” privileges. No one has been punished for the biggest pizza-making corruption scandal of the Lula era.

Screen Shot 2013-07-04 at 12.28.53Not to be outdone, Lula’s successor Dilma Rousseff has delivered her own masterclass in political pizza-making. While no restaurant in São Paulo would dream of offering a pizza with more than 4 flavours, Dilma’s 39-strong ministerial team now vies with Gabon for the ‘world’s largest cabinet’ trophy. Just one more, say jokers, and it will be Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.

One consequence of the Pizza approach to government is that it has lulled the PT into a dream of historical determinism that I sensed in Spain. Apparatchiks now seem to believe the PT can roll on forever, to achieve its multi-decade mission of transforming Brazilian society and creating a ‘level playing field’. Elections are infinitely manageable thanks to divide and rule policies among the multitude of parties. For hardcore PT types the concept of real alternation of power through the ballot box is scorned as a bourgeois fetish.

There is a horrible parallel here that I’m reluctant to draw. But I will. In 1979 I was a young journalist in London covering the Lancaster House talks when Robert Mugabe (ZANU) and Joshua Nkomo (ZAPU) strode into town as victorious superheroes.

Screen Shot 2013-07-04 at 15.30.32They dazzled the British left with their guerrilla chic. With the then-British Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington’s assent, Mugabe seized power and began the process of easing out Nkomo, whose ZAPU party he annexed. By 1987 Zimbabwe was a one party state.

Young Dilma Rousseff on trial for terrorism charges before military judges

Lula wasn’t ever a guerrilla, but Dilma was. This picture shows her on trial before a military tribunal for urban terrorism offences. Was there — just like Mugabe — an attempt to create a de facto one party state that the middle class protestors have called time on?

The PT is traditionally presented as a spontaneously generated workers’ movement of the kind visible in other Latin American countries (notably Bolivia or Peru) built around the cuddly yet charismatic personality of Lula. There was even a cloying feature film, entitled ‘Lula: Son of Brazil.’

Screen Shot 2013-07-04 at 13.01.10Socialist activism in Brazil might have been fronted by Lula following the PT’s launch in 1980, but high-minded intellectuals with a leftist bent have always been the guiding hand. In the early 1980s I was an occasional visitor to the elegant home of Senator Eduardo Suplicy and his then-wife Marta Suplicy (who went on to become mayor of Sao Paulo). It was they who helped groom Lula for stardom and themselves rose mightily on his coat-tails.

Screen Shot 2013-07-04 at 13.02.42In fact Brazilian academic leftists have always had an ideological heritage — via the Communist Party of Brazil (PC do B) and Brazilian Communist Party (PCB) that stretches right back to the Comintern or Third International and its ruthless “ends justify the means” revolutionary rhetoric.

It would be wrong to conclude the practice of striking unsavoury deals is a new habit for leftists. The great hero of Brazil’s communist left, Luis Carlos Prestes, sealed a political deal with Brazil’s populist dictator Getulio Vargas in 1942, weeks after the latter had extradited Olga Benario, the revolutionary German wife of Prestes, back to Hitler’s Germany where she died in the Nazi deathcamps. Prestes justified the “historical imperative” of shaking hands with the man who signed his wife’s death-warrant.

Using this less comforting lens, there is a serious charge to lay that the PT has also been quietly and deliberately building the foundations of a one-party state. Not just by congressional tactics. But by the insertion of party activists into public office at multiple levels in the ballooning federal, state and municipal administrations. By 2010, there were reportedly over 900,000 state sector jobs at the behest of the Executive — leaving aside other arms of government, or state, city and municipal levels.

Public sector jobs in Brazil have competitive entry. But once you’re in, you can’t be removed. I haven’t found convincing data on the numbers of PT card-carriers holding public sector jobs. I suggest its an avenue worthy of research.

If you look at the PT’s trajectory over the last 10 years there may well be a discernable game-plan: first win power and “load the bases” of public office with party faithful. Then maintain power by cutting alliances of every stripe to create a “virtual” one-party state, in which elections are always winnable. For as long as the middle class remained quiet and biddable, it was easy.

So it’s come as a shock, then, that the sleeping bourgeois giant has woken up. There were a number of violent incidents in the street protests involving the burning of PT’s red flag, and the expulsion of party militants trying to join in.

Screen Shot 2013-07-04 at 16.58.51Suddenly, nobody in my circle will admit they voted PT. Party T shirts have gone in the trash.

Now let’s talk about Pyramids.

Screen Shot 2013-07-04 at 16.13.09One of the great objects of government pride in Brazil is the creation of a 40 million-strong “emerging middle class” over the last 10 years, thanks in part to a massive cash transfer programme called “Bolsa Familia.” On a good day, it looks like a perfect example of Keynesian pump-priming in action and it’s been lionised by the world’s press.

Bolsa Familia was started in 2003 (although piloted by Lula’s predecessor) and distributes around R$11 billion (US$ 5 billion) to help around 14 million families each year. This Conditional Cash Transfer is an income supplement for families earning less than R$140 per head per month. It’s been widely copied. Even New York City has a module based on it.

When in opposition Lula was a vocal and persistent opponent of the “cesta Basica” food handouts that he claimed created political clientelism among the poor. No longer.

Screen Shot 2013-07-04 at 17.35.44Bolsa Familia provides guaranteed cash on a swipecard for the mothers working families – provided their children stay in school. Putting money in the hands of the people – and not in the pockets of bankers – proved a macro-economic masterstroke in 2008/2009 when the stimulating effect of this massive handout meant the global recession never reached Brazil. When then-president Lula received the ‘Man of the Year” prize from London’s Chatham House in 2009, I was there to hear him tease British policymakers about the piffling effects of their ‘bail out the bankers’ stimulus package compared to Brazil’s more populist alternative.

Brazil’s ungainly social pyramid (at 51.9 in 2012 it still has one of the world’s highest GINI coefficients for its per capita income) is transforming rapidly. There are people joining the ranks of the global super-rich, and fewer people stuck at the bottom of the heap.

So the middle is beginning to get crowded. For a decade, the established middle classes have been told that a miraculous “win-win” policy has delivered them greater economic stability, better lifestyle, and social justice. Forty million new consumers have created opportunities for business that trickle down to the salary-earning classes.

They should be happy. But they’re not.

The whole point of being middle class is that it’s aspirational. You want a better car, a bigger flat, better life chances for your children than you enjoyed. So when you see more and more coming up effortlessly from below to enjoy what you already have — while your own chances of exiting upwards into a world of yachts and helicopters dwindle visibly — you start to get pissed off.

The middle classes are the ones paying taxes; for state sector education; for public security; for public healthcare. They pay these taxes, and then they have to shell out again for private schools, private security, and private healthcare. Anyway, these public resources are overcrowded and poorly administered.

Screen Shot 2013-07-04 at 12.30.40Screen Shot 2013-07-04 at 12.31.28Worse, the government’s policy of raising unskilled worker salaries by at least 5% a year means the middle class family’s “support staff” of nannies, cleaners, drivers and cooks, has become unaffordable. The New York Times profiles the headhunters pitching newly-wealthy nannies in São Paulo. Bolivian guest workers now form the second largest immigrant group in São Paulo. Even the best (free) federal universities where middle class students were accustomed to go, are now becoming choked with up-and-comers.

Screen Shot 2013-07-04 at 12.35.12Needless to say, you didn’t find many recipients of Bolsa Familia at the barricades or street protests. The middle classes pay taxes so stay-at-homes can get Bolsa Familia. And the tough young hoods with balaclavas or T shirts swathing their faces, ready to burn buses and loot shops, weren’t on the programme as they’re not family types.

No wonder, then that one of the most powerful rumours mingling with the teargas on São Paulo’s streets concerned Bolsa Familia. The government were stopping it. (The other rumour was that London mayor Boris Johnson had made a special plea to FIFA to allow London to host the 2014 world Cup, as Brazil was clearly unable to guarantee security). To the conspiratorially-minded, this looked like fine examples of threatening to withdraw the ‘bread and circuses’ that ensure public order.

But don’t forget this is a middle-class revolution going on. So everyone’s really considerate and polite and respectful. Nobody is getting personal about the throngs of newly-a bit-richer people jamming the favoured beaches – just yet. Brazil is friendly, democratic, expansive, cordial. There’s no class hatred. we’re talking about a nation where employers regularly kiss their domestic servants.

For now, they’re simply complaining in generic terms about the government that has caused their social niche to become so crowded. But it’s becoming intolerable. São Paulo’s streets are now so clogged with brand new market-entry model cars sold on long-term credit, that you can’t move. The airports are heaving with former cleaning ladies flying up to the Northeast to visit family. As meat consumption has gone skyward, so has the price: a decent cut for the weekend barbecue might cost US$25.

Unlike Zimbabwe, Brazil hasn’t gone in for serious land reform to displace rich foreign farmers. But it’s arguable that Bolsa Familia is doing something similar among the middle classes who pay for the government’s popularity.

And just in case you thought only the middle classes were suffering in this demographic shake-up, spare a thought for Eike Batista, once Screen Shot 2012-07-05 at 10.46.00Brazil’s richest man, but now on the skids after the near-collapse of his OGX oil business. It’s been and “easy come, easy go” story for a man who had a $30 billion fortune and the number seven slot on the Forbes rich list. Reports say he’s now down to his last billion dollars. But no, you can’t blame the PT for all of this.

So the truth is that this vast ideological experiment to change the shape of Brazil’s class pyramid is exacerbating the tensions that are spilling onto the streets. It’s a Catch-22 situation. Too little wealth distribution and you have instability. Too much, and the middle class pips begin to squeak.

Leaving aside Pizzas, Pyramids and — we hope soon — the pepper-spray, where does all this leave Brazil’s body politic?

Anything can happen. There’s an election in October 2014, and the PT can happily say there are no serious rival candidates.The only alternative in town is Marina Silva, a senator and former environment minister whose “Ecology Anti-Party” doesn’t even exist yet. But polls suggest that were a presidential poll held today, it is she who would challenge Dilma in a runoff. The social democrats are riven into factions, and almost all other parties have lost credibility by flirting with the PT. So bad with Dilma, worse without her. But what if her poll numbers (down 27 points in 3 weeks) collapse?

Six months ago it would have been laughable to suggest that former president Lula (now in remission from throat cancer) could “do a Vladimir Putin” and return to office as president in the October 2014 elections after sitting out an obligatory term. Meanwhile Dilma (playing the role of Dmitri Medvedev) would honour a promise of keeping the presidential sash warm for him during a single mandate.

Dilma, all the pundits said, had outgrown her mentor and though she was never truly of the PT, she had finally made it obey her steely will. And Lula was now tarnished history.

The Mensalão scandal had come right to his door. So too had “Rosegate” – a story about presidential favourite Rosemary Noronha installed in the Executive’s offices in São Paulo and afterward arrested on corruption charges. On top of that, persistent (but unconfirmed) stories have been circulating the Lula’s son (who once worked as a nightwatchman at São Paulo Botanical Gardens) had acquired a Gulfstream GIII executive jet and some capitalist partners of questionable habits. Not bad for the son of a former metalworker.

And yet as the clouds of teargas billowed, Lula and Dilma huddled together in the presidential palace to work out a joint gameplan. What’s been happening since is a nightmare for both. Every time Dilma accedes to a demand, demonstrators on the streets up the ante. The latest one is this poster which encapsulates strategic thinking on the street:

Screen Shot 2013-07-04 at 12.30.07– Dilma must immediately execute the Supreme Court sentence that will send Lula’s already-convicted cronies to jail for the Mensalão scandal.

– Dilma must immediately start a criminal corruption inquiry into Lula’s presidency.

– If she won’t, then protesters will lobby Brasilia to start impeachment proceedings against Dilma herself.

What this boils down to is that there is only room for one leader in the basket of the PT’s sagging red hot air balloon. If Dilma doesn’t throw Lula to the dogs by agreeing to jail his Mensalão chums and open some kind of inquiry into his conduct, the dogs will go after her. But if she tries it, he will appeal to the PT rank and file over her head and seize the nomination for 2014. With his status among Brazil’s working class (though no longer among the middle classes), he might just pull it off.

Given what’s happened in Egypt, you might ask: “What about the military?” Provided they get their FX-2 fighter jets, nuclear powered submarines and other hardware, I’ll bet they’re happy with what’s happening. After all, it’s getting harder and harder for any of their alleged former victims from the bad old days of military rule, to summon the moral standing to point a finger at the conduct of army officers, in the Truth Commission.

Don’t ask me where this goes from here. Probably nowhere. By mid July, the  protests had withered away to small niche groups. Commentators had the whole thing neatly packaged away and the movement docketed as “the June 2013 Protests“. But the Brazilians have a way of saying: “Tudo acaba em Pizza.” This time, how about a plain single-favoured Margarita? I’ll be back for another slice.

Richard House