It seems like an ideal equation. An abundance of natural resources, multiple emerging middle classes, democracy in one of its purest forms (on paper), people who can dance… So what is the problem? Why can’t Brazil forge ahead?
Here is my opinion, to which I welcome your insights and arguments. In advance, I ask your forgiveness for any generalizations.
1. No respect for the working class
A couple weeks ago, I was standing in line at the snack bar at our club waiting to order. Next to the line was a young woman barking orders at the people behind the counter. The man taking orders called out a general request for everyone to please get into the line – aimed at her. She ignored him and shifted her demands to another employee. I called her out. She responded with a whiney stream of excuses. I told her to talk to the hand.
This is not an uncommon scene. The middle to upper classes in Brazil engage with the working class (defined for the purposes of this post as those generally in the services industry, including those people who work at the Pão de Açucar) in two ways. Either they treat them like dirt, or they offer up some condescending friendliness, later congratulating themselves on the contribution they’ve made to society. As an outcome, when someone of the working class is actually treated with respect, it is often regarded with suspicion. Combine this with the government’s attempts to give people more power and rights, and things begin to get dangerous. An expat friend of mine described the consequence of this shifting of attitudes, the coupling of being empowered with still being looked-down upon, to a tee. It results in… rage. (Yes, go ahead and picture that one chilling scene with the monkeys from the film 28 Days Later – I did.)
Why is this an obstacle? Powerful countries are built on the masses working to achieve their dreams. If people aren’t encouraged to work hard for something, a country stays stagnant.
2. Little respect for teachers
While in most developed countries, teachers are revered as heroes (at least in the movies), my expat friends who have found themselves in teaching position have been shocked to be considered one step up from a babá (nanny). This is especially prevalent at the schools where the average wealth tends to be higher (except for the British run schools) – and where the kids will eventually have more impact on the way the country goes. But even in the Brazilian schools, it takes a lot to collect respect from students. So let me ask you this – if kids don’t respect what the teacher says, how the hell are they going to learn anything?
I had to have a tough conversation with a professional, 30-something client of mine about what he was going to have to do to achieve his stated objectives. The next day I received an email from… you guessed it… his mother. The mother, in a typical passive aggressive way, made a series of excuses for her son and tried to turn the tables on why he couldn’t get his shit together, including a couple digs about my American tactics. This is the stuff that sitcoms are made of, yet I wasn’t totally shocked that a Brazilian man’s mother might infringe on his professional life. Brazilian mothers have a tendency to distance themselves from their kids during those troubling years – like when they are infants – leaving those kinds of upbringing nuisances to uneducated people who come from the countryside and are treated like slaves (see 1. No respect for the working class). Then, once their kids are teenagers, they forcefully inject themselves, attempting to control every aspect of their offsprings’ lives. This lasts generally until their own expiration. What kind of message does this send? I have no idea, only that it results in a serious handicapping of adults. Adults who may find themselves in charge of something important purely by nepotism. Adults who will be forwarding all their uncomfortable emails to their mothers.
4. No regard for rules
In 2013, the people of Brazil took to the streets in outrage of what the government had been doing with all the money it had collected from its citizens. Corruption, mismanagement of funds, and the breaking of rules were all on the list of complaints. Yet, as pointed out by reader Andrew Francis, this is all a little hypocritical. An average Brazilian breaks more rules than I can imagine on the typical day. Disregarding traffic laws, insurance fraud, passing points for driving infringements onto others… most never bat an eye when trying to get around or out of something they don’t want to do. The classic name for this behavior is jeitinho, and considered a cultural cuteness, but when compiled, its impact is detrimental to society. How do you control chaos when no one bothers with the rules?
5. Misplaced priorities
Did you happen to watch the Rio de Janeiro carnaval parade on TV? Maybe you sat in the Sambadrome in Sao Paulo and witnessed the thousands of people that danced along the route, dressed in costumes that would have put Marie Antoinette to shame. How nice that all those favela dwellers spend their year putting together this kind of show, gathering funds to create a world-renowned event. Did you know that one of the costumes marching behind the float in the parade, I’m not even talking the ones on top of the floats or the headliners in front, can cost more than a month’s salary of the average laborer? And its not like they are going to use it again next year – oh no! (Totally taboo.) I like a good carnaval as much as the next person, but in a country where so many sub-societies are in distress, is this the best place to be putting resources? How many public hospitals and schools could one carnaval support? Just asking.
Yes, political problems are at the top of the list as to why Brazil has been held back. But I believe that cultural issues should be seriously considered as well. Which is more easily shifted? I think it is a tie.