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Top 3 predictions for Brazil in 2016

These are shaky times in Brazil, but I believe it is fairly reasonable to believe that these predictions will stand the test of time. Of course everything can change if revelations emerge sometime this year.

1 – President Dilma Rousseff will not be impeached.

What I wrote in July still stands. Then I said there were more than 10 reasons why Rousseff’s impeachment was so unlikely. And there are some new motives too.

The first new reason is political: the opposition is far from the two thirds of 513 deputies needed to send the final impeachment decision to the Senate. Even if that number is reached, it is hard to believe that the president will lose at the Senate. Rousseff’s key victory came in an alliance with the president of the Senate, Renan Calheiros, who has worked as a counterweight to lower house speaker Eduardo Cunha and Vice-President Michel Temer, both of them impeachment plotters. That division in her junior partner PMDB made it even less likely that the centrist party would unite against her in Congress.

The split has made it difficult for Cunha to hold control of PMDB deputies. And it has also created new difficulties for Temer to remain as PMDB chairman in the next party elections in March. The initial agreement with Calheiros was later incremented with an alliance with PMDB key leadership in Rio, including mayor and presidential hopeful Eduardo Paes and governor Luiz Fernando Pezao. These two hold the most precious governments run by PMDB members and have had support from Rousseff to properly host the next Olympic Games. That alliance alone could be enough to stop her impeachment.

But there is more. Unpopular Rousseff made a cabinet reshuffle last year that gave PMDB the biggest budget of her administration. When one of their deputies was awarded the helm of the Health Ministry, the chance of impeachment already dropped sharply — that is the word of most serious political consultants I heard last year. Despite recent frictions between the ruling Worker’s Party and PMDB, most PMDB members aren’t radical and are keen on having government jobs to keep quiet. That reshuffle has made such an impact that the PMDB convention that was supposed to mark the break-up with Rousseff now seems lean towards a more conciliatory ending.

PMDB can now conciliate more because street protests against Rousseff are smaller and support for her impeachment is not as impressive as opposition members expected. Many of those who took part in mass demonstrations to criticize her administration have not gone out to demand her impeachment — that is too much for many Brazilians who have just as little faith in those that would replace her.

Finally, Brazil’s Supreme Court has so far played a clear anti-impeachment role, imposing a lot of difficulties in a process that was only kicked off after speaker Cunha openly made a movement to remove himself from the risk of being ejected from his position. It is hard to believe that Brazil’s top justices will allow the opposition to play by its own rules with Cunha — which seemed to be the case in the first semester of last year.

Of course there will be analysts saying that impeachment is looming large, but they are the same people that said Rousseff would be removed in August. Then September. Then October. Now they say March. They are wrong again.

2 – No major reforms, economy still lagging

Not being impeached is likely to be Rousseff’s biggest win in the year. With three more years in office, she is already a lame duck that has shown little sign of reinvention to make the best out of the rest of her second term. If she is lucky, Brazil’s economy will grow 0% in 2016. The political uncertainty is the main hurdle for the economy: the impeachment debate could last until April and the supreme electoral court will decide within a few months whether her ticket with Temer should be invalidated or not. The Worker’s Party is accused of sponsoring Rousseff’s and Temer’s campaign with funds embezzled from state-run oil giant Petrobras.

After her permanence on the job is assured, there will be no time for a legislative agenda that helps Brazil deal with its economy crisis. From July to October, there will be a recess in Brasilia until the end of the mayoral elections. In that vote Rousseff’s party is likely to be hammered, which will give her even less of a mandate to propose reforms in November and December. 2017 isn’t lost yet, but that may be only because the economy hit the floor.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court is going to decide whether it should remove a number of deputies and senators, including speaker Cunha, for their involvement in the Petrobras scandal. That alone will halt Congress for the first semester. But its impact can be broadened, since other key political figures might be entangled by the mushrooming corruption accusations in the state-oil probe. Even former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who plans to run for president again in 2018, is likely to face investigations that will also dominate the political debate after the impeachment talk is over — many analysts believe that the target is more him than Rousseff.

That complex internal political situation, plus the sharp drop in commodity prices and the hard landing of the Chinese economy make Brazil’s 2016 less than exciting on the economy side. That means Rousseff will have to show the vision that she has lacked so far to stem job losses and increase productivity. She will have to trust her own executive orders to make that push. But it is hard to believe that consumer and investor confidence will suddenly pick up again in the middle of a year of so much political emotion.

3 – Rio Olympics will succeed, but with shortfalls

It will be my fourth coverage of the Olympic Games, this time for the Associated Press. I can barely wait, that is why I moved to Rio. My first Olympic work was during Athens-2004. Although I didn’t go there, I read, wrote and translated dozens of stories for Reuters on chaos, financial collapse and white elephants. It was clear that the Greek had mismanaged their time to build, but they delivered a nice edition of the Games — what they did to their sports equipment later is a different issue. Four years later I went to Beijing and it was all about human rights violations, censorship, air pollution and the risk of terrorism. The Chinese certainly looked tense and upset with foreigners. When it all ended, those of us that stayed longer in China saw a massive relief on the streets. At London-2012, I could cut the British tension in the air with a knife thanks to a massive security blunder: the government brought back soldiers from Afghanistan to operate X-ray machines in Olympic venues. Even the excessive rain made people jumpy. The locals relaxed in the second week and to this day many want to do it again.

Rio is now tense with the Olympics, but I expect the same to happen: a lot of fun once it kicks in, no big incidents, but some shortfalls that will make cariocas wonder how much better they could have done in their preparations. For the 2016 Games, the biggest issue is clearly the dirty waters in which competitors will be in. And that won’t change. Organizers may say what they want, but those waters are shameful and they are not what government officials promised when Rio won the bid. There will be a number of reports about expected difficulties, but, just like I said before the World Cup, none of those will bring a major problem to the Games. Which doesn’t mean that the criticism is not fair, as in any edition of the biggest sporting event there is.

The constructions seem to be on time, the budget cuts don’t seem to have a bigger impact on the full operation and Rio seems to be getting a new face in some very degraded parts of the city. But it is still less than the promise of cleaning the waters of Guanabara Bay, not running over residents in poor areas to build Olympic venues and leaving a subway infrastructure legacy that cariocas could be proud of. Brazilians don’t have much of an Olympic sports culture and are known for leaving things for the last minute, but it is fair to say that ticket sales have been disappointing and most Brazilians outside Rio don’t even think of the Olympics now. To make it worse, pregnant women all over the world don’t even consider coming because of the outbreak of Zika virus in Brazil — that disease can transmit microcephaly to their babies.

But I am still sure that once the sport begins it will be a great party, like in most Olympic Games. If there is a people that knows how to throw parties that is Brazilians — no matter how much our economy lags, how many white elephants are left behind or how many politicians end up in jail.

Brazil has exhausted across the board

An economy crisis, a political turmoil, a footballing nightmare and cultural emptiness. That is Brazil these days. One of the few things President Dilma Rousseff got right this year is that the country is experiencing a moment of crossing. From third world nation to… nobody knows exactly what. The time for quick and easy answers to Brazilian woes is definitely over.

In politics, it is hard to make predictions that live through one week. The model of presidential coalitions has definitely died with the current crisis. Since 1992, presidents made their best to secure support from most political parties so they could stop investigations and pass their reforms. After only one tight presidential election, Brazil’s first in that scenario, the current presidential coalition is destroyed. And there is no sign anyone can make that kind of arrangement work again. Corruption investigations will free Brazil from many of those who profit in those coalitions, but that doesn’t mean there will be leadership to put party politics in another level.

In the economy there is no clear path after the super consumption pathway seems finished. With a cyclical crisis, consumer confidence has dropped to record lows. So how can Brazil take a better and more sustainable road? The problem is clearly related to politics too, but the timing for politicians and economists will always be very different. Some will say Brazil needs to get rid of the absurd interest rates that stall the economy and others will insist in cutting government expenses. Whichever is the option for the next few years, it is hard to say anyone without strategic planning will be able to hit the bull’s eye. There are no bull’s eye left in Brazil.

Since democracy was reestablished in 1985, Brazil had major challenges to tackle. Challenges that seemed urgent. First we had to consolidate our democracy. Then it was all about fighting inflation. In this century there was a quest against extreme poverty. At the end of the day, Brazilians won all those disputes. But now what? Education, public security, healthcare and infrastructure are clearly important areas in which Brazil has to improve, but that urgency hasn’t quite sunk in. Most programs in those fields are quite basic and fail to confront important interest groups that have halted improvements. Will that happen now that Brazilians feel that malaise? Hard to know.

Even in football Brazil seems exhausted. Coach Dunga is the archetype of a pragmatism that Brazilians reject. Fans are fewer and fewer not only because the team was destroyed by Germany in the 2014 World Cup, but also because there is no fun. The Brazilian creativity that used to compensate for all the flaws and hardships seems to be gone now that Brazil isn’t as troubled — despite the current crisis — as it once was.

In other arts it is no different. Take the last edition of festival Rock in Rio as an example. Most of the Brazilian bands playing there exist since the 80ies. Not much has happened in the last two decades, except for record label-sponsored rockers that have little food for thought to offer. The cinema industry could be a good exception to the rule, but even that one, despite recent successes, is dominated by pasteurization. Just like Brazil’s economy for a while, it is a success for consumers, not so much for serious critics. And all that confusion will still be seen when Rio de Janeiro hosts the next edition of the Olympic Games.

Since politics tends to guide all the other fields, the future of President Rousseff will probably have a big impact on Brazil’s final stop after this gruesome crossing. A crossing that is nowhere near the end.