When’s the last time any of our elected officials discussed public policy in a meaningful way?
Rio’s governor, Luiz Fernando “Pezão” de Souza, is in the hospital with an undiagnosed infection (and rumors of his death), while the state’s wage payments and services fall seriously behind, teachers strike, and the crime rate climbs back up. The city’s mayor, Eduardo Paes, reportedly revealed arrogance and insensitivity, in dealing with a doctor at a public hospital this past Sunday.
A day earlier, Paes’ rainwater cistern project failed to protect the Praça da Bandeira from flooding. Until now, he enjoyed telling listeners about how he’d fooled Dilma into paying for the cistern, saying it would be necessary during the Olympics even though it rarely rains in August here.
Prices and unemployment are high. Could things get worse?
Brazilians tend to rely on personal networks to solve their problems. This blogger once received a distressed phone call from a neighbor, as a brush fire threatened her home. “Do you know anyone at the fire department?” asked the neighbor. Dialing the Rio version of 911 was no use.
Nevertheless, for most Brazilians it was a shock to learn, from the wiretapped conversations of former president Lula, that he too calls on friends to help solve his problems.
And that friendly politicos’ conversations, such as the wiretapped one that mayor Eduardo Paes had with ex-president Lula, include banter revealing that Brazil’s social divide, which Lula helped to reduce, lies at the heart of so much that goes on here. “You have the soul of a poor man,” the mayor (who grew up in middle-class Jardim Botânico and spent weekends in chic Angra dos Reis) told Lula. “Your country house is tacky”. The comment, made to the Brazilian who has experienced the most social mobility of any, can be interpreted as a supreme, if jocular, put-down.
Yesterday’s revelations, only part of the distressing information Brazilians have learned about their politicians since the Lava-Jato investigations began in 2014, with more yet to come, pose many challenges to the country’s public institutions.
The tension between personal networks and public institutions is growing; just how it will play out is at the core of this crisis. Will Lula continue on as Dilma’s chief of staff? Was his appointment meant to protect him from Lava-Jato or will he help fortify her government and broken economic policy? What will the Supreme Court do? Will Congress move forward in an effort to impeach Dilma? What will happen to the dozens of politicians accused of wrongdoing, particularly Rio congressman Eduardo Cunha– who has his own network? If we have new elections, who will run?
Meanwhile, Brazilians active on social media express different opinions regarding right and wrong. We would like to think that these are patent, clear values. But, as voters discover, repeatedly, in many countries around the world, life is not lived in black and white. In fact, citizens need to constantly reflect on right and wrong, to constantly monitor those they elect and what they do in office. In Brazil, with social and alternative media starting to eat away at a longtime journalism quasi-monopoly, this task demands ever more thought and engagement.
Here, one big question, with answers sharply dividing the political spectrum, seems to be how much wrong a citizen can identify among or forgive from politicians. Brazil’s long history of inequality, with different rules for different members of society, has brought us to this.