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Letter from Recife

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Resurfacing in Brazil

By Francis McDonagh, LAB, 9th January 2011

rua_bom_jesus‘Some things never change,’ is a banal reflection that comes to mind easily on a walk round Recife. The centre of town is as dilapidated as ever, and even the ‘revitalisation’ of the old port area, launched when I lived here in the mid-1990s, seems to have gone backwards. As compared with the success story of the Pelourinho, the historic centre of Salvador, ‘Recife Antigo’ only ever had one street, Rua Bom Jesus (formerly ‘Jews Street’!).

The old name comes from the presence of a synagogue, which claims to be the first synagogue built in the Americas, during the brief period of Dutch rule in Pernambuco. It has been carefully restored, and on the day I wandered round it was almost the only venue open. None of the boutiques, not even the bars, had opened up. Mind you, it was midday, and most locals who were on holiday were probably on the beach. The only bit of Recife Antigo that seems to attract visitors is a tiny nucleus consisting of an elegant Livraria Cultura and a tiny upmarket shopping mall. Not far away on the dockside, luxury flats are being built; it remains to be seen how they sell.

Things may liven up in a month’s time at Carnival. For the moment the town has a sleepy air. People are on the beaches, or at their beach houses, in the case of senior politicians, and plotting with a view to the municipal elections next October. The story in Recife is about divisions in the PT over who should be the candidate for mayor, and whether Lula will be asked to intervene – interrupting his radiotherapy, perhaps? – as par excellence the local boy made good. No doubt these issues are discussed in great detail in the politicians’ beach houses, and titbits filter out into the media. Apparently similar discussions are going on in São Paulo. This is also a regular story at this time of year.

The other story that is a constant at this time of the year is rains and floods in the south. Currently Minas Gerais is being ‘castigated’, as they say here, and we see endless pictures of swollen rivers and mudslides. Rio de Janeiro state looks like being next in line. The story is given added piquancy this year by accusations, led by the Estado de São Paulo newspaper, that the relevant minister, Fernando Bezerra, has for the second year running allocated 90% of relief funds to his home state of Pernambuco. He, like Pernambuco’s governor, Eduardo Campos, belongs to the PSB, a junior partner in the governing coalition led by the PT. The story from here is that it was all authorised by President Dilma. Dilma for her part seems to be sending messages that these decisions must be seen to be based on technical criteria. Minister Bezerra was made to break off his holidays to face the flak, and he may not survive the expected government reshuffle.

recife_antigo2‘Recife Antigo’ as it wasThe weather picture is complicated by a severe drought in the southern states of Paraná and Rio Grande do Sul, devastating soya, maize and melons, and reducing milk yields by 90%. There are also reports that Amazonia is unusually cool. No-one seems to be linking this to climate change, and it is also a salutary reminder of how large this country is, with several different weather regimes.

In fact, the weather may be easier to understand than the society. Just before I arrived, it was announced that Brazil had overtaken the UK to become the world’s sixth largest economy, a statistic that demands respect. It means that Brazil is a very different country from when I first came here in the 1980s, and there were three different currencies in the next two years. I decided to award myself a three months’ post-retirement visit to Brazil, a country I was heavily involved with before my job focused my mind on its Andean neighbours. And Brazil seen from Bolivia or Peru is a very different country, almost an imperial power, pushing megaprojects (roads and dams) to the Pacific coast to facilitate its soya exports to Asia.

rua_bom_jesus_todayRua Bom Jesus todayAnd the PT is a very different organisation from the coalition of trade unions and Church base communities that were campaigning to put Luiza Erundina in São Paulo City Hall over 20 years ago. Funding scandals and other accessories of power have robbed it of its innocence. President Dilma seems to want ‘Zero Corruption’ as well as ‘Zero Destitution’, but both aims are much harder to proclaim than to achieve (as our experience at home with New Labour has taught us). What has been the impact of Lula’s famous Bolsa Família Programme? Poor families that send their children to school receive grants, and this seems to have taken many out of poverty, but how far has it reduced inequality? And how far has it improved the education of poor children? This seems to be a country of apartheid in education and health care, with those who can using private services.

These are some of the questions I have for myself during the next three months. There are others too, of perhaps narrower interest, but important to me: what happened to liberation theology and the ‘option for the poor’ in the Catholic Church? What is the role of the ‘neo-Pentecostal’ churches that proliferate here? Are they really as reactionary as they seem?

When LAB’s editor asked, ‘What about a blog?’, I said I’d give it a go. ‘Re-engaging with Brazil’ seemed pretentious. ‘Resurfacing’ captures my situation better, coming up for air from a myriad of data and impressions and trying to make sense of it. ‘Re-surfacing’ may apply to Brazil too. How far does the economic transformation reach? How far below the surface does the change go?