I digress from my usual topics on language learning to discuss my recent trip to Brazil that left me stunned at how the country is going downhill.
Brazil has been a country that I’ve adored ever since I went to Brazil the first time about 15 years ago, when I lived in Argentina. On my second visit to Brazil, I went to Rio de Janeiro and the city took my breath away in a way that only one other place had done in the past. I literally forgot about my life when I was there. I was so mesmerized by the beach, mountains, islands, fresh fruit juices and experimenting different creative sandwiches, like tuna with raisins, that I forgot about my life in Argentina. I forgot about my work, my responsibilities. It was an absolutely incredible experience. It was like the gods had made this beautiful place in Brazil to make people forget about life.
When I went to Brazil for the third time, I was enjoying myself, walking around the colonial city of Ouro Preto and I fell and sprained my ankle. A nice Samaritan on the street saw me having fallen, picked me up in his car and drove me to the nearest clinic. The clinic treated me for free. I came back home with this plaster cast, paid for by the Brazilian taxpayer. A Brazilian in the US, unless lucky enough to be near a free clinic, would have left the US with a medical bill and a cast. I have experienced so many wonderful things in Brazil but the people in Brazil don’t get so many wonderful things from their government.
Of all the countries I’ve gone to, I think in Brazil I found the people to be the friendliest, the most helpful and very generous with helping a foreigner, whether it was by helping me with my suitcase to get through the turnstile on the bus or giving me directions. I’ve always found wonderful people to talk to in Brazil, and have very deep conversations. The language, this mellifluous tongue of Portuguese is gorgeous. I love to hear and speak it.
In total, I have been to Brazil five times in fifteen years and this last trip saddened me. I was sad for these people who have treated me so well on every trip I’ve had in Brazil in different cities. I was sad because of the reality that they live in.
On this last trip in January 2015, I gave myself the purpose of seeing if I could live in Brazil because I’d been harboring a dream of setting up a business in Brazil. It became super apparent very quickly that moving to the largest country in South America was not going to happen. Before even getting to Brazil, I had some trouble getting a visa at the Brazilian consulate in San Francisco. There’s almost a five-week wait to get into the consulate. Unless, of course, you want to pay the Brazilian visa mafia about an extra $500 to expedite your visa and send it to some consulate or to the embassy on the East Coast, you have to wait those five weeks. I didn’t want to pay the mafia. Luckily, at the last minute, an appointment opened up. I got my 10 year visa and wondered if I really wanted to live in a country that was like this where you have to wait so long just to get into the consulate for a visa or you have to pay a mafia to get you an appointment. Does the consulate think it is Helen of Troy?
This is what I discovered on my trip about why Brazil is turning into a failed state:
When I got to Brazil, I saw a very good friend of mine and he told me about the water crisis in the country and that many places across the country are in a drought. I asked about the floods in Brazil a few years prior. He told me that during the floods the government hadn’t set up any aqueducts to move the water from the flooded areas to the reservoirs. Currently, the city of São Paulo, which is the biggest city in Brazil, the largest in the Americas and the 12th largest city worldwide, with a population of around 20 million people (including the areas around the city), doesn’t have enough water to make it through the year. Newspaper headlines when I was there said that water might be rationed to two days out of seven. National Public Radio reported in the article, A Historic Drought Grips Brazil’s Economic Capital that water is already cut off during the day.
It’s hot and it’s humid. People need to take showers. So much for the 3-4 showers a day Brazilians like to take in the heat. How can one of the largest economies in the world survive when the government hasn’t invested in infrastructure and in getting water from the aquifer on which Brazil is located? How they’re going to live on two days of water in a week I don’t know.
The Olympics are coming up in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. I really don’t understand how Rio de Janeiro, if it’s still going to have a drought in a year and a half, is going to provide water to athletes. Athletes need a lot of water. Maybe they’re going to have to truck in bottled water from the Andes, from Chile or Argentina. But that goes completely against the International Olympic Committee’s sustainability initiative of the Olympics.
It seems pretty ridiculous for a country to host a major sporting event with many, many tourists during a drought. Will the athletes have to clean themselves with baby wipes or other moist paper towels instead of with running water and lather their hair with the waterless shampoo used in hospitals? I can imagine cartoonists salivating at the prospect of drawing caricatures of the 2016 Summer Olympians running with their medals to a large box of Pampers Diaper Wipes. Maybe I am giving the Pampers company a new reason to be a co-sponsor of the Olympics.
2) Electricity outages
In addition to the drought, there’s an electricity problem because much of Brazil’s energy comes from hydro-electric dams. There have been electricity outages around the country and now the price for electricity is about to go up. Blackouts can have severe consequences for businesses. Some machinery might break unless all companies have good surge protectors to protect their equipment.
There was an interview in one of the major magazines, Veja, in the middle of January 2015 with the Brazilian Minister of Energy about the problem with the electricity outages and the increase in electricity prices. The electricity went out during the interview and there was a picture of the Minister in a darkened room! Even the Minister of Energy can’t arrange it so that during his interview, the lights don’t go out! Brazil is the seventh largest economy in the world and they’re going to have more electricity outages. The economy can’t grow with electricity outages. It’s going to have to go backwards and the country’s already in recession.
Are Olympians going to have carry torches for real, not just for the Opening Ceremony as traditions calls for, but because there is no electricity?
Let’s say Brazil is so lucky that the Water Gods descend many storms upon Brazil so that Brazil isn’t in a drought. Those storms could also knock out the electricity. When I was in a supermarket in Paraty, the electricity went in and out, because of the rain. I was just standing there at the cash register for a while until the cashier could finish the transaction because she, of course, needed electricity to have her cash register work. Then the Internet didn’t work because of the rains and the rains weren’t torrential rains.
Not only will electricity outages affect the economy, but they’re also going to affect violence. Violence in Brazil is something that if you don’t feel it, somebody else you know has felt it.
The electricity outages are going to affect violence because with electricity outages, criminals can go at night and rob stores, homes and buildings with just a flashlight and run away and people aren’t going to be able to identify the criminals because it’s dark. The police won’t be able to run after them because they won’t know who to catch. Violence is only going to get worse with the electricity outages.
I talked to a friend of mine whose father had been killed a few months prior, just in his house. Somebody came to rob him. He was a bus driver and didn’t have a lot of money. The violence can affect people who have money or don’t have money.
Some statistics say that more people in Brazil die from violence in the country than those killed in Iraq. It’s pretty sad to think that I have a better chance of staying alive in Baghdad than in Brazil. However, that doesn’t mean that I’m going to plan a trip to Mesopotamia and look at the Babylonian ruins anytime soon!
There are bullet-proof vested Military Police even on the beach in Rio! It’s 40 degrees Celsius (104 Farenheit) and humid and these police look like they’re guarding a military fort, not a tourist destination. The MPs are in many places, even the São Paulo metro. They are there for our safety but I didn’t like seeing bullet-proof vested MPs. It made me feel like I was in a war zone.
I was shocked when I went into the grocery store and I found that the prices were actually the same or more expensive than in the United States, even though the cost of labor is lower in Brazil. I couldn’t understand why the food was the same or more expensive in Brazil. (I was shopping for fruit, vegetables, peanuts and bottled water.) The only thing that I could find cheaper than in the U.S. were the bananas.
Of course, when people can’t afford things, that’s going to lead to more robberies. Stores are going to have to hire even more security guards than they already have. To pay for the security guards, the prices are going to go up again. This is going to become a vicious cycle.
The cost of making mobile phone calls in Brazil is plain robbery. There’s no free roaming from one state to another. So if you have a phone number from Belo Horizonte and you either make or receive a call in another city like Rio de Janeiro, you pay almost $1.50 or more a minute! The Vivo phone company told me if I didn’t like their service that they didn’t give a damn and that I could go to any other Brazilian cell phone company and get just as ripped off. Oh yeah, customer service in Brazil is terrible.
The prices have increased dramatically but the services have stayed the same as they were 15 years ago.
The transportation was exorbitantly expensive for the same bad quality that I remember from 15 years ago. In São Paulo when I was on buses, I mostly had to stand, holding onto the strap while beads of sweat poured down my chest. One time, at the non-rush hour time of 10pm, the bus was so packed I couldn’t even get out through the turnstile at my stop. Since the city is so big and the metro doesn’t go everywhere, you sometimes have to take two buses and a metro to get from place to another. For each of those, you have to pay 3.5 Reais, which is a little over $1.50. Unless you have a discount card, you pay $1.50 per ride. If you have a discount card, the price goes down. But within a 24 hour period, I paid 30 Reais, which is $13.00 to stand most of the time on the buses and the subway using the discount card. It was appalling that I would have to pay that much for such bad quality of service. I’ve been in other countries where I’ve had to stand most of the time on the bus, but I haven’t been robbed to the point of paying $13.00 in 24 hours.
When I was in Tokyo, I paid $15.00 a day for the mass transit. When I went on the off-peak hours, I mostly was able to sit on the bus and on the metro and the buses came very quickly. If you work in Tokyo, you can afford $15/day for transportation. In New York City, a seven-day Metro Card is $30. You could spend $30 on public transportation in São Paulo in two and a half days.
Thirteen dollars in a 24 hour period to somebody in Brazil is a lot of money. The minimum wage is about $300 a month. So if you do the math, $13.00 for a 24 hour period, is an extremely high amount of money. Some people get transportation cards paid for by their employers so that means they don’t have to pay for transportation. But if you’re working as a freelancer or have several part-time jobs, you might not have one of those cards and you’re going to have to pay for all the buses and the metro yourself.
I don’t know how people withstand going on two or three crowded buses to get to work and still work a full day and then have to take all that transportation back home. The difficulty with transportation must also have an effect on efficiency and productivity in the workplace.
That’s why there have been these protests in Brazil since June of 2013 about the price hikes. During the protests in the summer of 2013, they were massive protests and the government decided not to raise the bus fare. Now the buses are even more expensive than before. When I spoke to some people about the protests, they wanted to participate but they said that the police were so violent that they were afraid to join the demonstrations and get hurt. I really wonder what’s going to happen because if people are afraid to protest but they’re feeling robbed at every turn in their life, whether it’s going to the grocery store or being on the bus, they’re going to have to let out their anger in some way. I don’t know what that’s going to turn into. It could be even more violent than some of these protests.
Don’t get stuck in the metro with there are protests going on! One night, I was on the blue line in the São Paulo metro while demonstrators made their way into the Faria Lima station and the police fired tear gas on them. My train was stuck several times, sometimes with part of the power turned off, probably because of the tear gas issue.
Brazil, of all the countries I’ve been to, is the only place where I’ve ever seen the passengers actually have to push the buses. This has happened to me twice in Brazil. Given the fact that the prices for transportation are so high, one, as a passenger, wouldn’t think that they should also have to push the bus.
Now, of course, if you have lots of money, you could just use a helicopter and forget the buses in general. São Paulo has more helicopters than anywhere else in the world. That’s great if you have a lot of money. But mostly people have to use public transportation.
6. Bad infrastructure for tourism
It happened to me several times that when I looked for the price and schedule of a long-distance bus online. When I got to the bus station, the price was higher and the schedule was different. The bus companies weren’t actually being honest to their consumers by having a different price online or they weren’t updating their websites.
As a foreigner, it’s extremely difficult to buy long-distance bus tickets in Brazil unless you go to the bus station. This is another thing that hasn’t improved in 15 years. If you want to buy a long-distance bus ticket and you’re Brazilian, you can go online, put in your CPF number (a national identification number) and you can buy with a credit card. If you’re a foreigner and you don’t have a local address and CPF number, you can’t buy a ticket. You can’t use your passport number. So that means that if you’re in a rush and you don’t have time to take two buses to the main bus station to buy your ticket for a bus which is going to be full, you may be stuck without a bus. Or you could illegally use a Brazilian’s CPF number and pay with your own credit card number. In Brazil, sometimes if you want to get something done, you have to take shortcuts and sometimes do things illegally, thus fueling even more corruption in the country.
The state is going to collapse. One of the main sources of currency for the government has been oil money but the price of oil per barrel has dropped significantly, leading to the economic decline in Russia and other countries. The same thing is going to happen in Brazil.
Brazil right now has major corruption scandals, one of which is with the oil company, Petrobras, which is currently in a legal dispute in the US because of a corruption scandal involving bribery to buy a refinery in Texas. There are thoughts that the President, Dilma Rousseff may be impeached because of her involvement in the corruption scandal. There is even an investors’ lawsuit in the US, where the Brazil president is cited in a lawsuit against Petrobras. How many G8 leaders can claim Rousseff’s fame of being cited in a lawsuit in the US? I think she is the only one with this honor.
8. Brain Drain
I was shocked at how many people told me that they’re trying to leave Brazil legally. They asked me suggestions of the best countries to go to and how to find a job abroad.
One journalist I talked to said that English schools who sell packages for families who want to learn English intensively to leave the country have been selling more packages to families ever since the last elections in Brazil in October 2014. It may be good for the countries that receive these people who have either the money or the brains to leave, but it’s not good for the country that is seeing these people go.
If Brazil is going to be losing its best and brightest or just the people who happen to have money, connections or the courage to jump ship, then you wonder what’s going to happen for the future of the country.
At the end of my trip, I was talking to my hosts in São Paolo, who were considering various countries where to move, and I said to them, “I don’t want to induce the brain drain from Brazil. But I have to tell you, life does not have to be this hard.”
Brazil deserves to have a bright future. The people in the country deserve to not be robbed when they have to take the bus, whether it’s by the government or by criminals. Why such a warm, welcoming people have to suffer every day, I don’t know. I left the country feeling for the first time ever that I was witnessing a failing state, that Brazil was like the Titanic waiting to happen. Unless something dramatically changes, Brazil is going to become a failed state.
Unfortunately, I’m no stranger to failed states having been born in one, the Soviet Union (before the fall), having worked and lived in the aftermath of another, the former Yugoslavia, and having observed elections in the countries of the former Yugoslavia and USSR.
I was in Brazil during the January vacation when many are out on the beach or otherwise vacationing. Maybe they don’t realize that the bus fares had gone up, that there’s going to be water and electricity rationing and that food prices will rise because of the drought. But after Carnaval (this week and weekend), when people return to work, they’re going to realize what’s going on and it’s going to be ugly. I can’t say the proverbial s&%t will hit the fan after Carnaval because there may not be enough electricity to power the fan!
You may read this and think that Brazil’s demise into a huge failed state is a far-fetched idea. Remember where Russia was exactly a year ago? It was strutting its stuff at the Winter Olympics at Sochi with Vladimir Putin regaling in the glory of showing the world how rich and powerful Russia was. (Interestingly, they also had a water problem there and foreign journalists showed brown water coming out of Sochi showers.)
Look at Russia now after oil prices tanked and US and EU sanctions have cut off some of its banking and commerce. Russia’s credit ranking has plummeted, as has its currency, the ruble, and it is involved in a war in Ukraine. Who saw that coming a year ago?
Oddly, Brazil just hosted the World Cup and is gearing towards the Olympics in 2016. Russia hosted the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics and will be home to the 2018 World Cup. I would not be surprised if one or both of the countries has to pull out of hosting.
A robbed people, devoid of water, electricity, decent and affordable transportation led by a government mired in corruption armed with military police, will eventually run out of money to buy the expensive food in the stores. This is a recipe for disaster.
Rio de Janeiro took my breath away at first sight because of its beauty. Now the entire country may be choking because of government mismanagement, corruption and the drought.