Paradoxes of Development: Why Now?

From the Series: Protesting Democracy in Brazil

Photo by Semilla Luz, licensed under CC BY.

In 2009, the cover of The Economist magazine featured the headline, “Brazil takes off.” After the protests, four years later, the magazine asked: “Has Brazil blown it?” We quote them at length:

Four years ago this newspaper put on its cover a picture of the statue of Christ the Redeemer ascending like a rocket from Rio de Janeiro’s Corcovado mountain, under the rubric “Brazil takes off.” The economy, having stabilized under Fernando Henrique Cardoso in the mid-1990s, accelerated under Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in the early 2000s. It barely stumbled after the Lehman collapse in 2008 and in 2010 grew by 7.5%, its strongest performance in a quarter-century. To add to the magic, Brazil was awarded both next year’s football World Cup and the summer 2016 Olympics. On the strength of all that, Lula persuaded voters in the same year to choose as president his technocratic protégée, Dilma Rousseff. Since then the country has come back down to earth with a bump. In 2012 the economy grew by 0.9%. Hundreds of thousands took to the streets in June in the biggest protests for a generation, complaining of high living costs, poor public services and the greed and corruption of politicians. Many have now lost faith in the idea that their country was headed for orbit and diagnosed just another ‘chicken flight’. (Economist, September 28, 2013)

The Economist covers from November 12, 2009, and September 28, 2013.
The spirit of The Economist certainly seems to represent the international press’s disquiet after the June protests that were front-page news on the world’s main newspapers. How could all this be taking place when things were going so well for Brazil? Why now? Recent protests in Spain, Turkey, Egypt, and the Occupy movement, seemed to be taking place in locations that were already fraught. But Brazil appeared to be doing splendidly, in part because its growth was accompanied by the lack of any political crisis.
The end of the military dictatorship (1980s), the opening up of economy (1990s) and the stabilization of the Brazilian currency (1990s and 2000s) promoted great changes in society. Until the 2000s, access to certain consumer goods in the domestic market was restricted to the privileged. The new phase of economic growth attracted foreign investment to the country. Brazil joined the group of emerging economies, participating in summits such as the G20 and BRICS. In this context, the national government began to invest massively in social inclusion policies and in access to credit. From 1999 to 2009, thirty-one million people entered Brazil's middle class. From 2003 to 2009 alone, this middle class grew by twenty-four million people. The 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games were coming to crown this moment, in which the country had stopped being “the country of the future” and had become finally “an emerging economy.”
But much of this celebration had been penned by and for the international media. Away from such channels, internally, the scenario was not always experienced as promising. Yes, the size of the middle class had increased (as measured by income and numbers of car owners) but this “progress” had paradoxically made it harder to get around the cities. Yes, the middle class had increased in size, but this had only lead to more outrage at longstanding social inequalities and political inefficiencies. For these reasons and others, in the realm of Brazilian anthropology and social sciences as a whole, the increase of the middle class has been viewed with reservation. The vast majority of the so-called new middle class still has to struggle to survive. Corruption, bureaucracy, inequality, racism, poverty, violence, and government inefficiency continue to work against national development, producing multiple forms of structural violence against less-favored subjects—a situation similar to that of other emerging economies.
The social problems of emerging countries should be understood from the basic premise that economic development does not necessarily translate into social development. Brazilian anthropology has questioned the human costs of the development model adopted by the Brazilian state. Especially during the Rousseff administration, this developmentalist discourse is directly tied to technological growth. Brazil’s biggest science-investment policy, the Science without Borders project, has excluded human sciences from its funding scope, focusing mainly on engineering and its related fields.
Indeed, Brazilian anthropology has strongly critiqued this model of development, which builds gigantic hydroelectric dams, and “raffles off” Indigenous rights, to paraphrase prominent anthropologist and social critic Manuela Carneiro da Cunha. The policy of building hydroelectric dams and devastating Indigenous communities, as is the case with Belo Monte, is perhaps the most representative example of the developmentalist spirit of the Rousseff administration. If Brazilian anthropology has long been considered endogenous and self-centered, this is certainly due to its long tradition of struggle during intense involvement with nation building, social movements involving Indigenous and quilombola communities, and feminists, among others.
The explosion of unrest was both very surprising or not expected and well integrated with longstanding tensions. We close by rehashing a phrase that has been used throughout the twentieth century to describe Brazil: the nation is frequently figured as a “sleeping giant.” The phrase has always seemed absurd to some ethnic minorities and social movements who worked tirelessly to effect localized social change. But this has not seemed to impede the popularity of the metaphor at moments of shift, which continually get described by way of the notion that the giant has “finally woken up.” For anthropology and social movements, however, there is certainty that the giant never went to sleep. Indeed, given the popularity of this phrase at moments of social unrest, it is a wonder that the giant got any sleep at all. And so, it is with some caution that we reproduce a frequent protestor sign and slogan. This time, the story often went in the months of June and July, 2013, the giant has finally awoken for good. We shall see.