Friday, June 21, 2013

A Brazilian Awakening

If you read my last post, you likely became a little more intrigued about the current situation here in Brazil from my last point made about the protests.

I wanted to wait a few days since the first protest to let some news accumulate before writing this post because I wanted some great content to link to this page but also because I wanted to become educated myself about what's happening so that I'm giving an accurate account.

Two weeks ago, this country was business as usual.  Shortly thereafter, news broke that there would be a slight increase in public transportation fares that spread nationwide due to "rising costs".  A concentrated group of protesters began to speak out against the raised fares.  To no surprise though, the group's longstanding purpose has been to lobby for free transportation throughout the city and country, thus such protests made sense.

However, there seemed to be a little more steam behind such manifestations and I understood why.  Brazil, a country plentiful in beauty and natural resources, carnival and soccer, beautiful beaches and energetic people is also plagued with some of the most deficient public services in the world, frightening levels of poverty, horrendous health and education systems, and a tax burden that is one of the worst in the world.  Effective transportation, regardless of which societal class you are in, is fundamental to every citizen's life.  So while wages haven't been increasing and scares of high levels of inflation simmer, the concept of raising transportation fees is generally viewed as regressive in nature as these fees are unavoidable as people need to get around the city to work and live, but also as unfair because they simply take more money out of the pockets who have less to give.

Now as you can imagine, that previous paragraph makes a lot of sense and for most places around the world, would tick a few people off.  But for the grand total of 20 centavos (about 9 cents USD), I doubt there would be as much of an uprising as there has been here.  However, this uprising is more than justified, as we must gain a better understanding of the macroeconomics to paint the larger picture.

Soccer and Brazil are synonymous.  The soccer gods of Pele, Ronaldo, Neymar around the world are household names.  Soccer is a cultural identity here, glorified in a way that is cult-like and vicious.  And there's simply no doubt that Brazil will long reign king in this sport, so it only makes sense that the World Cup finals would be played at an awe-inspiring place such as Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro.  Brazil has welcomed the glamour of being put in the global spotlight, securing successful bids to host the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games.  And however "cool" this may seem, the economics behind it just don't seem justified.  Allow this video to help paint the picture why.

Ahhh, yes.  Now, we are starting to get a better idea about why tensions are getting so high.  Even worse is the basic math equation that Brazilian citizens are doing.  Government says no public funds would be used for World Cup/Olympic preparation.  That lasted about a whole minute.  Line item budgets from both health and education have been used to build stadiums, plow down neighborhoods, pacify favelas (slums), etc.  The slum pacification project deserves a post on its most believe this is a simple band-aid for a much bigger problem and that post-games, the slums will go back just to the way they were beforehand.  Even worse, they're building stadiums in places that will never be used again.  Most stadiums built in cities like Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, Belo Horizonte, etc at least will be used again in the future.  But they're building a stadium in the Amazon Jungle, for millions of dollars, that will literally be used for a few games for the simple fact that it sounds cool to have a World Cup game in the Amazon.  After the game, it will likely be abandoned forever.  There goes millions of dollars, not to mention destruction of the world's most robust landmass of biodiversity.

So, Brazilians are connecting the dots...and starting to question this corrupt activity.  How can it be that Brazil is so rich and wealthy, abundant with natural resources, with such a high tax can it be that we're spending billions and billions on stadiums when there's a parallel decrease in the amount of investment being made in public health, transportation, education, pension support, infrastructure, etc?!  This is what has set the scene for these protests.

Corruption runs rampant, taxes are astronomical, and quality of life is appalling.  Only 17% of Brazilians have a degree of higher education.  Some twenty years ago that number sat at just 5%.  And that's a pure nominal number...we haven't even begun to discuss the qualitative aspects of that education.  With a tax burden that's some 36% of GDP, it is estimated that nearly 70% of your income goes to the government here in Brazil.  Brazil's tax system is so regressive that it is ranked one of the worst in the world.  It's the only system in the world that has a consumption tax with collection based at origin, which de-incentivizes economic growth outside major metropolitan areas, drives population congestion, and makes the cost of living for the impoverished unbearable.  The poorer you are, the more of the burden you pay relative to your income.  And corruption underscores it all.  Many economists agree that Brazil generates enough wealth to solve its issues surrounding health, education, transportation, etc.  But until a shift in principle and practice occur, the gap continues to widen.

Brazil is a constitutional and representative democracy.  It's President, Dilma Rouseff, was a rebel during Brazil's dictatorship in the 80's, tortured by the military in a fight for human rights.  Most question why things are the way they are under her leadership.  National slogans proclaim: Brazil - Um pais rico e sem pobreza (A rich country without poverty).

And as these protests continue...most are simply saying the following: What kind of democracy is this?!

These protests started small, and against a raise in bus fares.  Now, they're becoming a social movement...the largest since the dictatorship.  Brazilians are fed-up with corruption, high taxes, poor education, insufficient health care.  They want change and they're going to the streets to demand it.  Efforts to disperse these large crowds have only amplified tensions as non-violent protests have been met with violent police forces, impeding the democratic right to peacefully protest, with stun grenades, tear gas, and rubber bullets.  Innocent people, like this reporter who was shot in the eye, are convincing other citizens that if they don't speak out, they're passively allowing this country to regress to an unprecedented stage of crime, poverty, and pain.  You need not speak Portuguese to understand this video and only need to watch the first 2 minutes to get the idea.

These actions have called the attention of millions.  Just how much?  1 million took to the streets of Rio de Janeiro yesterday.  Some 100 protests around the country lasted through the night, including one in the capital (Brasilia) where protesters rushed the National Congress building successfully making their way to its roof (shown below).  And this all happened after most city governments revoked the increase in transportation fares, Sao Paulo included.  The images are impressive.  The people are impressive.  It's an awakening of a country like I've never seen.  A demand for change...and nearly all agree that it needs to happen.

I have never been involved in a protest personally.  I've never marched in the streets against a policy shift made by a government.  I've never seen the anger and passion by a people so inspired to change the status-quo, that millions take to the streets to make their plea, exhibit their pride, and reaffirm their commitment to their country, brothers, and communities.

It, indeed, is impressive and despite the fact that it makes going out and enjoying this country a little more difficult during my last week here...I couldn't think of a better way to be leaving it.  To all my Brazilian friends who read this post...sou orgulho ser o seu amigo.  O mundo está torcendo pelas mudanças que todos vocês estejam demandando.  Espero que vocês vençam e estejam certos que, não obstante qualquer demora entre as demandas e os resultados, que a civilidade, o respeito mutual, e a luta pelos direitos humanos sempre valerão a pena.

If you're interested in reading more about these protests, I've copied a few more article and video links below.

Friday, June 14, 2013

The Final Weeks

Well fellow bloggers, my time is nearing its end here and I'm under two weeks.

Things have been so crazy this semester and still are, that I haven't really begun the full reflection process about all the things I've learned and the new Kyle that I'm taking back to the United States.  But there will certainly be a post about that.

This semester has been so dramatically different from the last.  My first six months was all about acclimation.  It was all about traveling.  It was all about being a foreigner, a tourist, a spender.  And I took advantage of it!  Having said that though, coming back for the next six months was entirely different.  I already knew a lot of the language, already had Brazilian friends, already knew my Brazilian family, I knew where school was, how the system works, what bus to catch, the good spots to grab a quiet coffee and a good meal.  This semester has been way more about life.  I spent so much time reflecting on how I've changed, focusing on what are my next steps, understanding how everything fits together in my greater plan, and ultimately living like a Brazilian.

I really should highlight some of the main points of this semester.  I'm planning on writing separate posts about some of them to get more in depth.  I have a little more time now that things are winding down and I only have a few exams left!

1. The Amazon trip was certainly once in a lifetime and if you haven't done so already, read my post about it!

2. I also had my first visitors in Brazil!  Two of my best friends from college came to visit me.  I can't tell you all how much I cherished every moment with them.  You have to understand that roughly one year ago I arrived at the Sao Paulo airport and exited customs knowing no one, speaking none of the language, not knowing who I was going to be living with, who my friends would be, how I could call someone, or who the heck I was supposed to be looking for at the airport to pick me up to even start life.  And despite all the confusion, I knew I was going to call this place "home" for a year.

Speaking of years, we always say they go by fast.  Well, I disagree. haha.  Yes, in retrospect they do all aggregate together and you say, "where did the time go?!"  But when you're living that year day-by-day in a place where you only have you yourself to look to for anything, to depend on, to communicate, to understand, to figure out, to talk, etc...well those 365 days become a lot lot longer.  You talk to yourself, you question your existence (not morbidly lol), you start to learn what it is you love and why it is that you love it.  I don't care how many of my photos you've seen and how much fun it appears I'm having (it was a lot of fun), there is still a sense of loneliness that makes just even the slightest bit of you feel somewhat incomplete.

Even more frightening is the feeling of returning to your home country feeling misunderstood.  Living abroad has been such a transformational experience for me and having the opportunity to finally share bits and pieces of my life here, however small or big, was such an incredibly rewarding experience.  My friends have been such a great support network for me here and the fact that a few of them came to really find out what my life was like was so special.  I know that upon my return I can talk with them about it and I know they'll have some "skin" in the game.  For when I'm talking about my host parents or school or bus ride or beach, etc, they'll know exactly who and what I'm referring to.  It's not just some distant far off experience that I lived in the past.  My friends will be great resources to continually reflect with because they helped me live this year abroad too.

We had lots of catching up to do and more exciting was seeing their reactions of what Brazil was really like and all the ways I have changed.  Perhaps I'll have them write their reactions and post them all for you!

3. School!  FGV round two has been even more challenging.  I decided to take all my classes in Portuguese so that I would maximize my language learning opportunities.  Once again, I suffered!  Yet, it was so so so rewarding and I learned so so so much!  Now that I'm down to my last exam I can successfully call myself absolutely crazy.  I laugh almost thinking about me being all excited and gung-hoe (is that how you spell it?!) about signing up for college level courses in a language I knew none of.  I registered thinking, "it won't be that bad!"  And then I showed up to class and well, there's no forgiveness.  That group project, have to find a group and work in another language and complete it.  That paper, can't write that puppy in English.  That professor, nope...he will not translate everything for you.  That grade, get one and there's no bonus points for being a foreigner and giving effort!  My back was against the wall and the pressure I put on myself to be successful was the thing that kept me going.  Even better, it was one of the best challenges I've ever self-initiated in my life.  I knew it would be difficult, but I outperformed even my own expectations and couldn't be more pleased with my decision to take all my courses in Portuguese and even seeing my grades in these classes after the fact is something I'm proud of!

4. Relationship building.  I really didn't find the desire to do all the traveling that I did last semester.  1) Because I hit a lot of my spots that I wanted to see already, 2) Those that I didn't...well you have to save some trips for later on in life!, 3) I spent most all of my budget the last 6 months haha, and 4) I had established a life here in Sao Paulo, with friends and my host family.  I wanted to take advantage of my time with them and build deeper relationships.  Plus, Sao Paulo is such a buzzing, bustling, incredible place to live that there's so much to see and do that I was never bored if I didn't travel!

5. Love.  Yes, it's true.  I fell in love.  I didn't come here with the goal of doing so, but they do say that love finds you when you least expect it.  I guess I fell victim to this common saying!  For sake of privacy, no need to give details.  However, I will say this.  Anybody who falls in love learns a lot about life.  They learn a lot about themselves and a lot about people.  They learn about what they love and why they love it.  They get that giddy type of happiness that keeps you up at night and they find more sunny moments during the day than not.  This has certainly been the case for me, but I have learned more than I could have ever expected and I think it has to do with it being a cross-cultural relationship.  Imagine the type of cultural exchange you get simply interacting with another culture.  Then imagine the type of things you would learn if someone from that culture became your life partner.  You start to become some of that culture, connect more with society, understand better how it is to live there, eat there, go to school there, work there, etc.  Just as much as I have received, I have given and learning to love (aside from cultural differences) has been one of the most rewarding things I've experienced in my life.

6. Protests.  This is a recent development but it has given way to a much larger discussion about life here in Brazil.  About a week ago, there was an increase in public transit fees which started a small protest.  However, the way in which these protests have grown and in some cases, into dangerous riots has begun to shed light on more serious issues about social justice and human rights here in Brazil.  These protests are not going away anytime soon.  They are turning into large-scale demonstrations and manifestations.  They are turning violent, uncovering corruption and governmental crime.  They are eliciting serious answers to serious questions about the direction of the country.  Some consider the gravity of the situation to approach a similar level to the dictatorship back in the 80's.  Stay tuned to international news.  These protests are no longer about the bus fares increasing some 10 cents...these protests are about Brazilian citizens being fed up with deficient public resources, corruption, and ineffective government.  You can rest assured that I will be writing a full post about these recent events.

I hope this post gave you a quick glimpse as to the things I've been thinking about as my final 10 ten days come to a close.  I look forward to sharing more over my last week!

On the Road: BRAZIL

For those interested in more information on Brazil.  CNN has a special section going on right now on their website called ON THE ROAD: BRAZIL!

Lot's of really good articles, stats, information, videos, etc.  Some might be of interest to you!