One afternoon in October 2013, I arrived for an appointment at a public building in a small town in Brazil. Sitting opposite in the waiting room, there was a woman smoking quietly. After a long wait, I was becoming annoyed by the smoke, so I asked the receptionist if smoking was allowed inside public buildings and he replied, to my surprise, “No problem.” The smoker must have heard my inquiry, but continued smoking, staring straight at me. I felt threatened and looked at my phone to avoid eye contact. I looked up smoking laws to find out smoking was forbidden where we were. A few minutes later the receptionist went outside to smoke. I asked him “If you allowed that woman to smoke in there, why did you come outside?” “Of course it is illegal to smoke inside,” he replied, “unless you are the prosecutor.”
In the example above, the receptionist followed the law, while the smoking prosecutor broke it shamelessly, with the body language of someone completely unmoved by the outrage caused. Moreover, she broke the law while being a professional in charge of enforcing it. For the receptionist, the choice to retreat rather than get into trouble was obvious – she was his boss. My reaction was obvious too. My work in that small town relied to a great extent on social relationships, in a place where everybody knows everyone else. Anyway, since she was a prosecutor, to whom could I complain?
That happened in 2013 – a time of street protests in Brazil. As vast sums were being lavished on World Cup and Olympic Games prestige projects, millions of Brazilians took to the streets in protest against corruption and poor public services. It is always easier, when so many were taking action, to ignore those who remain silent. All over Brazil, however, there were also people who neither demonstrated nor complained about abuses of power.
Once again, during the 2018 Presidential elections, millions of Brazilians are using their social networks to voice in favour of or, more commonly, against certain candidates. #eleNao, #PTnao are hashtags easy to find in Facebook timelines and on Twitter. But with the clamour of all these public expressions in front of us, how can we remember the millions of Brazilians who are not voicing their views, or are doing so with great fear of repercussions?
Brazil has 5,570 municipalities, of which 4,903 have less than 50.000 inhabitants (IBGE 2018). For those who live in these small cities, a system of friendship shapes the informal economy. People rely on friends for shopping, house construction, and job seeking. In the supermarket, for example, residents may have a tab for their shopping, a bill to be paid ‘when things get better’, ‘because someone who has a “name”, someone who has friends has everything’, as my informants used to say. To make local enemies may compromise future employment and economic favours. There is also a domino effect in small cities, where the actions of family members, friends, and neighbours reflect badly on those around them.
‘Ir pra geladeira’
Even those who have a career in the public sector and are part of a formal economy know what it means to ‘go into the freezer’. Ir pra geladeira means to be removed from core activities, to be precluded from meaningful decisions, to be excluded from management. Ir pra geladeira means to have upset those in power.
In 2013, when I was studying policy councils in a small Brazilian municipality, although it was a time of mass protests, I studied above of all the moments of silence. I often saw policy meetings full of people but only heard the voices of the same few community leaders, and I asked why only they, and not others, were speaking up. Controversial meetings, with strong disagreements, always ended with consensual votes to avoid singling out opinions.
Now, after the economic reforms implemented during President Temer’s government (Reforma Trabalhista), work relations are becoming steadily more precarious, with guaranteed working rights being replaced by ‘flexible’ terms to be negotiated between employer and employee. Unemployment and informality are also on the rise. In that context, a political campaign on social media is frightening for those who do not have the privilege of a voice as a citizen without the risk of being identified as a sister, parent, employee, or partner. White, male, and upper class Brazilians, not by chance, but by virtue of their position, launched themselves headstrong in media campaigns. Jair Bolsonaro, attracting most of these voters, had a phenomenally successful social media debut.
In a campaign sustained by the people rather than well-paid media strategists, it is necessary to understand silence, even if the foreground is dominated by cacophony. Depending on the results we will see on the 28 October, we may indeed need to get used to studying silences in Brazil. Not only is economic dependency a great form of oppression, but the Brazilian army and police are scarcely known for their listening skills – and their representation in the corridors of power is in the ascendant.
Andreza de Souza Santos is Director of the Brazilian Studies Centre and a lecturer at the Latin American Centre, University of Oxford. A political scientist and social anthropologist, she is interested in participatory politics and grass-roots activism in cities. Her book The Politics of Urban Cultural Heritage: Contestations and Participation in Brazil will be published in 2019