David and Lili's World Tour

BRAZIL

September 2007 - Rio de Janeiro, Petrópolis, Araras, Brasília, Alto Paraiso, Recife, Pirapora

On this visit to Brazil, we had access to a car, so we made a road trip to Alto Paraiso. We flew to Recife, too. But mostly we hung out with Lili's family in Minas Gerais, relaxing. Next we embark on a whirlwind tour of Europe and Morocco...

I have received many requests to comment on Brazilian politics. So here goes...

The number one issue is corruption. There is some debate as to whether President Lula is corrupt, but that is not the issue. Even people from other political parties agree that he is a decent man and that his presidency has been good for Brazil. Most say he is doing the best he can under the circumstances. That is, in a government where corruption is endemic, there is only so much that one man can do.

I think Lula has proven himself as a leader in international matters, but this is undervalued here in Brazil where people want to see results. The problem is that despite Lula's targeted efforts to combat extreme poverty, such as his Zero Hunger initiative, much of the money gets stolen before it reaches the intended recipients. Also, Lula has to rely on congress to get things done. His efforts are frustrated by political opponents and corruption in his own party. Brazil has recently seen one corruption scandal after another. At least they're catching some of the criminals in power.

One major issue is ethanol as a car fuel. Almost all new cars are "flex" meaning they run on ethanol or gasoline. This is good in that Brazil is energy independent. Brazil grows sugar cane for ethanol and that is on the rise. The widespread worry is that as gasoline prices inevitably soar, sugar cane will replace food crops, and this will make food too expensive (poor Brazilians rely on cheap food staples). For this reason, there is widespread opposition to exporting ethanol to world markets, especially to the USA. Furthermore, increasing ethanol production will accelerate the destruction of the Amazon rain forest. Note that Brazil's ethanol from sugar cane is far more efficient than America's ethanol from corn, which is a bad idea, a false promise.

Brazilian roads are dangerous. The federal government provides funds to improve this, but much of the work doesn't get done; politicians steal money and pay off the people who have the power to do something about it. Nevertheless, the roads have been improving over the years. Good!

Crime. Unemployment is high and the minimum wage is low. Many people are more afraid of corrupt cops than they are of drug dealers. Our friends all live in secure apratment buildings or houses with tall fences tipped with broken glass and/or electrified wire. Nevertheless, we feel safe. One must simply exercise prudence and common sense (taking taxis at night, keeping valuables hidden, avoiding certain neighborhoods, and so forth).

In cooperation with the Landless Movement, the Lula government has been buying large parcels of unused but farmable land from large owners, and then giving title to poor farmers.

Brazilians are always surprised to learn that the USA does not have universal health care. When I tell them how absurdly expensive it is (a friend of mine received a bill for $100,000.00), they are shocked. I was shocked the first time I went into a Brazilian hospital, got treated, and it was FREE. These free hospitals are underfunded, however. The rich pay for quality private health care (still much cheaper than in the USA).

Many Brazilians have an unrealistic view of the USA. They see television and movies that show the good life, and they think the whole country is a land of plenty, where everyone lives in big houses, and money grows on trees. It is interesting that when Lili and I were in Mozambique, we watched Brazilian tele-novelas with locals who thought Brazilians were all rich. The power of the mass media to deceive should not be underestimated. I was just reminded by an educated Brazilian about Hurricane Katrina as the exception that proves the rule: the media generally hides America's poverty. By the way, thanks to the Bush Administration, most Americans now know that they too have a serious corruption problem.

Brazil has industrial prowess, energy independence, an abundance of natural resources, agriculture, tourism, and of course, the world's best soccer team. Compared to Americans, Brazilians tend not to be racist, they are more hospitable, and they have a stronger sense of family and community. From what I can tell, Brazilians are the cleanest people on Earth, from their houses to their teeth (they go through a lot of dental floss). Don't be fooled by run-down building façades. The economy has been stable since the real plan ended an era of hyperinflation. (This was crazy! People spent their entire monthly paychecks immediately.) If Brazil can manage to curb the corruption with increased transparency, it could become an economic super power.

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