Monthly Archives: January 2014

Brazil does not have apartheid, exactly

(Originally published in Vincent Bevins’ Folha de S.Paulo blog)

A few years ago a professor tried to get a sense of the social background of the students in my class. First question to his 45 pupils: “How many of you have been out of São Paulo?” Everyone raised their hands. “How many are working?” Fewer people raised their hands. That went on for ten minutes. In the end, two questions made one thing very clear: those seats weren’t for everyone. “How many of you went to one of our terrible public schools?” It was just me, and one other student. Everyone else in the room had studied at private schools.

“How many of you are black?” The other student was the only one to raise his hand. Things were different in all the other classes, back in 2002, at one of Brazil’s best journalism schools.

There surely is racism in Brazil, and it could not have been any different for the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery. Things have improved, but this is the blackest place outside Africa and yet there are few Afro-Brazilians in politics, high corporate jobs or in the judiciary.

The flashmobs at São Paulo malls, known as “rolezinhos,” made all that prejudice self-evident: these people, young, mostly poor and black, will be discriminated against, even when all they are is heavy consumers trying to have some stupid fun.

All these things are pretty shocking. But they don’t seem to be enough for some. Since they need more convincing, they call it “apartheid.” They probably think there is a Brazilian Nelson Mandela somewhere in waiting. By comparing Brazil to a brutal regime that has taken decades for South Africans to dismantle, they find no difference between a democracy that needs fixing and a racial dictatorship that enforced their views through a wicked legal system. That kind of plagiarism is a new fad in Brazilian politics. Please, forgive us. Most of us can’t relate to suffering that took place overseas.

It is true that Brazil is much closer to “apartheid” than it is the fallacious “there is no racism here” claim. But our Supreme Court is headed by a black man, we do have affirmative action in universities and the outspoken hatred I saw twice in the London tube has no place here. We have a reasonably active national secretariat for racial diversity. We should be prosecuting more people for racist crimes, but the fact that notable racists are looked down upon is a sign that Brazil doesn’t have much to do with the officially racist South Africa that arrested Mandela.

In Brazil, the political and legal systems are fighting racism. But there is surely an issue with opportunities in the private sector and in political parties. There has never been a Brazilian Barack Obama, a black man leading a major ticket. Black CEOs? Only if they start the businesses themselves.

There are two other words that have become bucket adjectives in Brazil. People are allowed to use them freely, without any regard to what they actually mean: “fascist” and “populist.” It is probably better to deal with those when the presidential elections are upon us, come November.

Although racism exists, it is unlikely anyone sees scenes like this in Brazil

Racism is big enough of an issue in Brazil for us to feel the need to use foreign words to make the concept more clear. Our challenges lie in reinforcing existing mechanisms to promote prosperous diversity. Or perhaps, in creating new ones so that the corporate and the political establishment can embrace Brazil as it is. Manipulating Mandela’s legacy won’t do us any good.


Flashmobs at malls beg the question: what is the role of the Brazilian elite?

Newly acclaimed “rolezinhos” are gatherings of hundreds of aspiring middle class teenagers at São Paulo malls. It is a very paulistano non-political phenomenon, not a national one. There have been similar events abroad, namely in the US, but not with the same level of shock seen here. These youngsters are basically keen on consumerism, running around, being loud and listening to bad music. They are not criminals. They are just pretty stupid.

But who wasn’t at the age of 17?

Rolezinhos are so shallow that they would lose steam overtime. A simple dialogue between their leaders and shop owners could bring an understanding as to how they could be hosted and profited from. Our elitists, though, preferred to make them international news. They insisted the police should crack down on those kids who use malls as the public areas they don’t have near their aspiring middle class homes. Kids who work as builders, bakers and the like. 

The excuse that store owners have given was that other clients wanted to spend their money in peace. Some businessmen went to court just to stop rolezinho-prone minors from getting in the malls. Others decided to shut down the whole building whenever one of those was scheduled via Facebook. Since plagiarism is a great Brazilian expertise, political groups kidnapped the rolezinho spirit to make their point on how this country is racist, elitist and so on.

That is a point the teens never intended to make.

If you haven’t heard about rolezinhos, this post adds it all very well. The point I am making is a different one. It has to do with the huge disconnect between our small elite and the vast majority of our population. That will surely outlast rolezinhos, which are getting smaller because of the reaction and the attempt to twist what they meant. By the way, they are no risk to the World Cup — except if the police is too harsh and teens decide to march over Brazil.

That disconnect is a big reason for the Brazilian upper class to be so cruel. They behave as if our social issues had nothing to do with them and would surely go away if they closed their car windows fast enough. That is a big reason for Brazil to be so difficult to grasp from abroad, since our tiny elite still has a monopoly on the discourse of what is country is about. It wasn’t until recently that working class people could express a different Brazilian perspective.


You don’t need to take my word for it. Just take a look at those Human Development Index (HDI) graphics. The elite had Brazil all for itself in the mostly red map. Until 1991 the best social policies we had were from the thirties: minimum wage, pensions and right to vacations. The colorful one shows what happened when the elite had to share the country with more people. It is a merit of three presidents. There is more on this here.

Bashing the Brazilian elite is not an exclusive sport, I should say. It isn’t only for leftists and foreigners fed up with people they meet at fancy neighborhoods like Jardins or Leblon. San-Tiago Dantas was Brazil’s Foreign Minister in the early sixties. He is a big reference for our diplomacy, one of the the main fields for our elitists to use their prejudices in a more euphemistic fashion. This was his take: “India has a great elite and a shitty people. Brazil has a great people and a shitty elite.” Not very diplomatic, one might say. But in Brazil’s case it seems true.

Rolezinhos have become one of the clearest signs of how clueless our elite is about the country they have run for the last centuries. When dealing with potential consumers, they decide to shy them away. When they are before a chance of building a new community, they choose to stick with a tiny part of it. Whenever they can embrace change, they just carry on as before. The elitist reactions to the flashmobs in the local malls is just what they do overall.

Take São Paulo as an example. It was built in a very exclusive fashion: all jobs, infrastructure and services are downtown and the suburbs have nothing. The biggest impoverished area is the east zone, where a population as big as Portugal’s lives (if you count the small cities around it). It is also the place our elite never goes to. “I’ve been there once,” a CEO once told me and other journalists. How about setting up a business there? “Too difficult,” he said.

He didn’t even feel he should justify.

Of course there are Brazilians netting profits with these new consumers, but they are not enough to put any of our retailers among the 250 biggest in the world. If you leave airspace out, most of the Brazilian industries are getting obsolete and there is still little investment in training people like those flashmobbing at malls. Our elite cries their heart out about bad governance and high taxes, but cannot suggest an inclusive model to Brazil. Just cutting spending won’t do the trick. 

Rolezinhos started in the east zone of São Paulo as meet-ups between kids who were popular on Facebook and their fans. They have done it for ages. Their region has the most crowded subway on Earth: in 2011, the average of passengers on week days was of 1.1 million a day — that means eight people by square meter. That many people going downtown everyday is a traffic problem for everyone who doesn’t own a helicopter. Despite tax breaks given by City Hall, very few companies move there. So why not flashmob local?

Our elite has government incentives, enough roads and loads of room in the east zone so it can help develop it. Brazil’s biggest airport is not very far. Still, they’d rather build a completely new structure somewhere else so that they can come by air or in their luxury cars. That is Barueri. That is Paragominas, a city giant miner Vale fostered in the poor state of Pará. The result is that politicians are pressured to not invest too much where our elite won’t see, specially mayors. 

A large chunk of that elite that hates rolezinhos also hates affirmative action, social policies that help people who were forgotten for decades and, bizarrelly, they hate a bigger and brighter consumer market. This is well represented by a 70-year-old engineer in a letter to Folha de S.Paulo. He believes everything he achieved could be achieved by those kids taking the busiest subway on Earth, having bad education at state schools and who aim no more than buying fancy sneakers.

An elitist view of São Paulo. It never reaches the east end.

“I studied to be in the elite, I had no time for rolezinhos,” he said. “When I got to college, that elite would stand out for their knowledge, and never by the color of their skin or social origin. It was a meritocracy, and that is a bad word under the current administration.” By the way, that man says he has always lived in Itaim Bibi, one of the fanciest regions of São Paulo. That is the typical rap for Brazilian elitists: it was better when less people had a chance.

Now everyone at least has a share.

Brazil started improving economically 20 years ago, when the Real Plan made a big impact in controlling inflation — the biggest tax there is on the poor. Later on social policies gave the country a buoyant internal market not only in places like São Paulo. People in the poor Northeast had their break into the limelight. São Paulo’s east zone is full of Northeastern migrants who, despite their rise, are still looked down on by our elitists. Perhaps it is because many of them are blacks. Perhaps it is because they are poorly educated.

Another evident sign of how elitists are out of touch with Brazil show in the recently set program to bring more doctors to isolated communities. There is surely a debate on how efficient medics can be by going somewhere without all equipment they would need to perform well. But the discussion prompted by our elite was much shallower: we shouldn’t pay foreigners for that. When the program was open to nationals, our doctors tried to sabotage the system so it didn’t work. Some bullied Cuban doctors because they don’t speak Portuguese.

These very doctors go to the best state universities, sponsored by taxpayer’s money, and rarely care to pay back: they basically choose to open their own offices, work for the same elite they come from and leave the jobs at bad state hospitals for beginners. A very elitist lady I met year ago joined Doctors Without Borders in Africa without ever setting a foot in São Paulo’s outskirts. Again, she and many other elitists behave as if our social issues had nothing to do with them. Our elite chooses not to be a part of Brazil.

I don’t understand why our elite chose to be so mean spirited. Perhaps that is because I was never a part of it.  But that disregard they have for poor Brazilians is so blatantly obvious even those who don’t stay in the country for very long can notice it. It doesn’t make any sense economically or socially for the country to achieve more. Since Brazil won’t go back to the days of the red HDI map, it is fair to wonder about the future as a whole in a place where the elite hasn’t updated their perceptions.

The most vocal elitists won’t allow the aspiring class into their malls, they won’t open invest heavily in stigmatized areas and they won’t treat them in hospitals. They won’t support affirmative policies to heal part of the wounds slavery has still left, they won’t find any merit in those coming from bad state schools (like me). They won’t embrace anyone different even if they get richer by selling Abercrombie, flat screen TVs or new music players for teens to listen to their crappy music. So what is the role of the Brazilian elite?

Maybe it is time Brazil starts importing someone else’s.