Brazil in decline?

The sluggish economic situation is much less worrisome to Brazil’s future than the measures being approved in the National Congress.

Izabela Correa
23 May 2015
Two men holding guns in the LAAD Defence and Security Fair 2015, Rio de Janeiro.

Two men holding guns in the LAAD Defence and Security Fair 2015, Rio de Janeiro. Demotix/Marcelo Fonseca. All rights reserved.

“Brazil is the country of the future and always will be.” So went the clichéd adage that for decades underscored Brazil’s perennially unfulfilled potential. But then Latin America’s sleepy giant finally seemed to awake from its slumber. Coupling progressive social policies with economic growth, Brazil looked set to claim its place in the sun during the 2000s. That moment, however, is long gone. And now it’s the country’s the future that is lying in jeopardy.

It is no secret that the economy is performing poorly: In April, the IMF lowered its 2015 growth forecast from 0.3% to 1% contraction. According to the Fund, investments have been “sluggish” and despite the fact that consumption has been just moderate, the Brazilian Central Bank (BCB) is fiercely increasing interest rates in order to fight inflation. The current base interest rate of the BCB is 12.75%. At the same time, investment in Petrobrás, the semi-public Brazilian oil corporation, has dropped significantly due to a major corruption scandal. In late April, after Petrobrás published its first accounting report since investigations began, Moody’s justifiably downgraded the company’s rating to Ba2.

Much less noted internationally, yet arguably much more worrisome to Brazil’s future than the economy, are the measures currently being adopted in the National Congress. Elected in 2014, the current legislature of the Chamber of Deputies is the most conservative since the end of the Brazilian dictatorship. Simply put, it is economically liberal, socially conservative and retrogressive on human rights. Of its 513 deputies, more than one hundred are members of parliamentary caucuses that are against homosexual rights and legalisation of abortion and marihuana, and in favour of opening up Brazil’s indigenous territories to industries, of reducing the criminal age and of repealing the Brazilian Statute against Gun Fires. And it is the area of public safety that the recently elected Congress is taking Brazil backward first.

The power of the Bullet Caucus

In March 2015, the Constitution and Justice Committee of the Chamber of Deputies approved the constitutionality of the Proposal for Constitutional Amendment (PEC), which reduces the criminal age from 18 to 16. The main argument put forward by members of the Reduction of Criminal Age Caucus was that minors were being used by adults to commit crimes, because the former wouldn’t be imprisoned. It follows that the cognitive capacity of a 16-year-old is not different from that of an 18-year-old and thus they should face equal treatment before the law. The arguments are put forth without shame, without mercy and with lots of prejudice. Prejudice because the target is known, i.e. poor and little educated black youngsters, probably the same ones that are the victims of 77% of the youth homicides in the country. In 2012, while the Ferguson case sparked an uproar in the US and then internationally, as many as 30,000 young people between the ages of 15 and 29 were killed in Brazil. Nearly 80% of them were black. Less than 8% of the cases have been tried. Little is heard of it outside of Brazil.

To strengthen their position, representatives in favour of the reduction of the criminal age argue that more than 80% of Brazilians support their proposal. The data comes from a major poll conducted during the second half of 2014, whose results were aligned with another survey from 2013, according to which 93% of the population supported the reduction of criminal age.

Ironically, less than ten years ago, representatives of the “Bullet Caucus” had simply ignored all the polls which showed that citizens were against the production of fire guns in the Brazilian territory.  Instead, they launched an intensive PR campaign to change public opinion. In October 2005, when asked in a referendum whether the commercialisation of fire guns and ammunition should be prohibited in Brazil, 64% of the population voted no and 36% voted yes. The outcome was drastically different from polls conducted only three months before the referendum, when 80% of citizens agreed that the commercialisation of gunfire should be prohibited. So, what happened in between?

First, the two biggest producers of gunfire and ammunition in Brazil invested over US$2 million in the “No” campaign; more than double all expenses of the “Yes” campaign. Second, the “No” campaign confronted those that were in favour of prohibition by accusing them of taking away from citizens the right to self-defence. In three months, the population feared the consequences of not being armed. The Bullet Caucus had proved its strength for the first time.

In a country where youth homicides committed with gunfire grew by 314,7% between 1980 and 2010, restrictions on gun ownership is a dire necessity. Clearly not for the Bullet Caucus, which is now pushing to loosen the rules of the Statute against Gun Fires. In a highly conservative Congress, there is no tribute to or acknowledgment of the serious and extensive amount of research available in Brazil demonstrating the inadequacy of and the damage caused by the proposed policies.

An embattled president

Against this backdrop stands a beleaguered President Dilma Roussef, whose approval ratings have been plummeting ever since her eventful re-election last October. In mid-March they stood at a dismal 13%, while 62% of the population considered her government terrible or bad. She has faced street protests on two occasions, where some called for her impeachment because of the corruption scandal at Petrobrás. Around two million took to the streets people on the 15 March and 700,000 thousand 12 April. In Belo Horizonte, the capital of Minas Gerais, a survey showed the conservative profile of the protesters: around 80% were supporters of the centre-right Social Democrat Party, most were in favour of the reduction of the criminal age and did not believe that poorer people were informed enough to make public choices.

These have weakened Dilma’s hand vis-à-vis the Congress. She is weaker than her predecessor, Lula, who had a notable influence on the gun control debate in 2005, but also weaker compared to her first mandate as president. Known as a tough manager of the Federal Executive, Dilma lacks some of the political skills of her predecessor. In her first mandate, she established little dialogue with the Congress and took long to negotiate specific issues. That relationship has since deteriorated and become more thorny, after the Labor Party lost 19 seats and the president’s base another 36 in the Chamber of Deputies, while the opposition gained 25 seats in the 2014 elections.

Vulnerable as her government is, the president and the Labor Party are unlikely to put up much resistance against the conservative agenda in the Congress. Embattled and facing challenges on multiple fronts, Dilma needs to negotiate a much larger agenda. And in that context, anything is possible, including relinquishing the dubious honour of being “the country of the future”.

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