By John Fitzpatrick
April 29, 2007

One of the most depressing aspects of Brazilian politics is the way many – if not most – of issues being dealt with at official level have nothing to do with unleashing the country’s potential and ending its social inequality. For example, the business community has been warning for about a year that Brazil faces a realistic prospect of another energy blackout in 2009. However, instead of being treated as an emergency, this issue is being kicked around like a ball. President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva finally showed interest in this matter because it could jeopardize his package of measures which he hopes will increase Brazil’s GDP growth to 5% a year by the end of his term. He put the blame on the environment minister, Marina Silva, for delaying the approval of a power project over an Amazon fish called the bagre” which breeds in the area. She responded immediately by announcing that the agency responsible for environmental protection (IBAMA) would be split into two areas – one to issue licenses and the other to protect and monitor the environment. This unusually speedy decision looks more like a panic response to criticism than a well-formed plan and the threat of a black-out still remains.

The fact is that Brazilian politicians prefer to overlook problems and gaze at their own navels. Why tackle thorny problems when you can discuss issues like Congressmen’s pay and perks, whether presidents or state governors should be allowed to stand for re-election or which party will be able to grab the chairmanship of a state-owned company or public utility? One Congressman has called for a department to be set up to tell the population about the “good” things the Congress has done. The government is also considering setting up a costly “official” television channel in order to get its views over i.e. a state-controlled propaganda station. While time is being wasted on matters like this, attempts to update the antiquated labor laws or reform the pension system are downgraded. They drag on for years and are usually watered down or put on hold.

President Lula has spent most of the first four months of his second mandate cobbling together a government from nine different parties. In his latest attempt to reward one of these parties – the PSB – he has created the post of a minister to look ahead over the 20 to 30 years. Presumably this shows that Brazil is still the country of the future rather than the country of today or tomorrow. This department will be known as the Secretariat of Long-Term Actions and be headed by a former Harvard law professor called Roberto Mangabeira Unger who has been scathing about Lula’s government’s involvement in corruption. Unger is virtually unknown in Brazil, speaks Portuguese with a strong American accent and has acted as a guru to former (and perhaps future) presidential candidate, Ciro Gomes. Just what this new department will bring, apart from additional costs, is simply a mystery. It will join other equally nebulous ministries and departments looking after cities, women, racial equality etc.

Congress, for its part, has been fighting over an attempt by the opposition parties to set up a public inquiry into the chaos which has marked air travel since a plane crash in September last year. The opposition is delighted that the Supreme Court overturned a lower court ruling and said the Congressional inquiry (known as a CPI) should be set up immediately. This means we now face the familiar sight of groups of politicians shouting at each other as they grill witnesses in front of the TV cameras. Some of them will use the occasion to persuade their constituents that they are actually doing something in Brasilia while others will exploit the opportunity to achieve a few moments of national fame. At the end of the day a report will be issued with all kinds of recommendations, few of which will be heeded and we will be back where we started.

Serra Becomes Santa
At state government level, the São Paulo governor, Jose Serra, has decided to introduce a minimum wage for state employees of R$410 which will be higher than the national minimum wage of R$380 (around US$190) which comes into effect on May 1. Around one million people stand to benefit from this rise – which includes two other levels of R$450 and R$490 – which will probably be approved by the state assembly. Other states, including Rio de Janeiro, Parana and Rio Grande do Sul, already have similar systems. The effect of this rise will not only be to increase the state government’s payroll but will also the pension deficit.

By taking this step, Serra is carrying out a campaign pledge but he is also practically bribing public employees and will use this increase as an important part of his campaign to become the PSDB candidate in the next presidential election. Lula did the same with the “bolsa familia” program which provides grants to poor families which send their children to school. Serra is an economist but balancing the books takes second place to entrenching his own power. At the same time, he has been cozying up to Lula in an attempt to win Lula’s backing for his expected attempt to become president in 2010 when Lula will be unable to stand.

John Fitzpatrick 2007

John Fitzpatrick is a Scottish writer and consultant with long experience of Brazil. He is based in São Paulo and runs his own company Celtic Comunicaes. This article originally appeared on his site http://www.brazilpoliticalcomment.com.br. He can be contacted at jf@celt.com.br.

Previous articles by John Fitzpatrick on www.gringoes.com:

Brazil’s Politicians Share the Spoils
Cida – A Brazilian Entrepreneur
Ten Top Brazilian Songs to Download on Your iPod
Lula Lets Brazilians Down by Failing to Exercise His Authority
Brazil: Laid Back Lula Finally Gets His Team (Almost) Together
The George W. Bush PR Show Comes to Brazil
Briefing Bush on Brazil the CIA Way
US Authorities Tackle Brazil’s White Collar Criminals
Brazil’s Opposition Parties Try to End Disarray
Lula Faces Arm-Wrestling Contest with New Congress
Brazil Waits for Lula to Return from Holiday
Around Brazil: Santana de Parnaiba
Brazilians Start to Stand Up for Their Rights
Darfur – Brazil’s African Side Show
Economics and Politics in Brazil – a Tangled Web
Brazil’s Strange Idea of Democracy
Brazil: John Pizzarelli – the Boy from Ipanema
Brazil’s Stock Market: the Path to Riches or Rags?
Brazil: Lula Unlikely to Change Course after His Massive Victory
Brazil: Privatization – Lula and Alckmin Defend the Indefensible
Brazil: Many Emigrants, Fewer Immigrants Part 2
Brazil: Many Emigrants, Fewer Immigrants Part 1
Brazil: Alckmin Hits Lula but Lands No Killer Blow
Brazil: Lula Pays the Penalty for Complacency
Brazil: Does Lula Deserve to Win?
Brazil: Cardoso Writes a Poison Pen Letter
Monte Verde – Brazil’s Green Mountain
Brazil’s Gross Disappointing Product
Brazil’s Election – Alckmin Hands Lula Victory on a Plate
Lula Hits Back at Congress
Brazil’s Presidential Election May Not be a Walkover for Lula
Pity the Brazilian Voter
Brazil’s Fainthearts Let the Nation Down
Now is the Winter of Brazil’s Discontent
World Cup brings Out the Best and Worst in Brazil
Brazil’s Big Spender
Brazil: The Dogs of War are Unleashed in São Paulo
Brazil: Self-Righteous Indignation Marks Bolivian Nationalization
Brazil: Lula Still Vulnerable
Brazil: The PSDB Takes the Hard Road
Fooling Around with Brazilian Politics and History Part 3
Fooling Around with Brazilian Politics and History Part 2
Fooling Around with Brazilian Politics and History Part 1
Brazil: Alckmin the Hare Takes on Serra the Tortoise
Patronizing Brazilians the Politically Correct Way
Brazil: Election Gives Voters Chance to Clean Up Congress
Brazil: João Pessoa – a Victim of its Own Success
No Consistency in Brazil’s Foreign Policy
Brazil: Sitting in the Shadow of Sarney and Magalhes
Brazil: Gentrification Creeps Up On São Paulo
Dirt Flies as Brazilian Parties Aim for Presidency
Brazilians Vote for Guns and Death Not Peace and Love
Brazil’s Gun Lobby Launches Hysterical Campaign Against Arms Ban
Jews and Arabs Find Success in Brazil
Brazil’s Politicians Start Looking Ahead to Next Year
Brazil: Lula Down but Certainly Not Out
Brazil’s Congress Struggles to Cope with Ongoing Crisis
Brazil: Scandal Threatens Presidential Mandate System
Brazil: If Lula is to Survive He Needs to Change His Tactics
Brazil: Many Parties – Few Ideas
Brazil Through Foreign Eyes
Helping the Helpless in Brazil
Pinheiros – São Paulo’s Best District
Growing Old (Dis)gracefully in Brazil
Canudos, Still With Us 100 Years Later
The Rise of the Brazilian Empire
Brazil and Portugal – The Samba and the Fado
Brazil – Just A State Of Mind
Brazil: For Lula, is Ignorance Bliss?
Brazil: Pay Day – or Pay Dirt?

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