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Economy & Trade

Opinion: Brazil at the Crossroads

In this column, Fernando Cardim de Carvalho, economist and professor at the Federal University of Río de Janeiro, looks at the political and economic context within which newly re-elected President Dilma Rousseff is operating and argues that Brazil is living through a very dangerous period, with neither the government nor the parliamentary opposition led by leaders that the population trusts.

RIO DE JANEIRO, Apr 1 2015 (IPS) - Even moderately well-informed analysts knew that the Brazilian economy was in dire straits as President Dilma Rousseff initiated her second term in office in January.

Unlike her predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003-2011), Rousseff had not the same luck with the situation of the international economy. But also, unlike Lula, Rousseff showed herself a poor saleswoman for Brazilian goods and an even poorer manager of domestic economic policy.

Fernando Cardim de Carvalho

Fernando Cardim de Carvalho

There was a strong suspicion that economic policy, especially in the last two years of her first term, had been conducted in ad hoc ways and that serious adjustments would be needed to steer the economy back to working condition anyway. Still, the situation seemed to be even worse than most analysts feared.

More surprising, however, is to find out that Brazilian politics is also in dire straits. Caught off guard by the Petrobras corruption scandal, federal authorities, beginning with Rousseff herself, seemed to become paralysed by the rapid fall in public support, completely losing the power of initiative and creating a dangerous political vacuum in the country.

It is a vacuum rather than a political threat because the opposition seems to be as lost as the president. The political right, never very fond of democratic institutions any way, seemed to be more interested in making the president “bleed” – as stated by Senator (and former vice-presidential candidate) Aloysio Nunes Ferreira, of the Brazilian Social Democracy Party – than with fighting for political hegemony.

Economic problems were certainly fostered by the quality of economic policy-making in the second half of Rousseff’s first term. The realisation that tailwinds created by the Chinese demand for raw materials were no longer blowing led the government to implement a series of measures to stimulate the economy that turned out to be largely useless.

It was not “heterodoxy” that characterised the policy, it was uninformed wishful thinking. A plethora of measures were taken in isolation, without any apparent unifying strategy behind them, distributed mostly as “gifts” from the federal government (which later contributed to the public perception that corruption became a system of government). 

“Brazil is living through a very dangerous period right now. Neither the government, nor the parliamentary opposition are led by leaders the population trusts”

Plagued by semi-structural exchange rate problems, whereby Brazilian producers lose competitiveness in the face of imported goods in domestic markets and of other sellers in international markets, the federal administration tried to deal with them piecemeal, mostly through instruments like tax reductions or changes in tax rates.

Obsessed with car production, the government burned resources trying to stimulate production (only to meet increasing resistance of other countries to import them, most notably Argentina), again without any strategy thinking about how these newly-produced automobiles would be used in polluted and traffic-jammed Brazilian cities.

The federal government was not deficient only in terms of strategic thinking but also in terms of home caretaking: all available evidence points to the high probability that tax reductions and other similar measures were decided without any calculation of costs, lost fiscal revenues, and so on.

Anti-cyclical macroeconomic policy in late 2008 relied to a large extent on the expansion of consumption expenditures fuelled by increasing household indebtedness. The increase in non-performing loans and income stagnation made this option more and more unsustainable. Investment, in contrast, public and private, repeatedly frustrated expectations.

Unable to finance badly needed infrastructure investments, the government showed itself to be extraordinarily slow in devising appropriate strategies to attract private investors to implement them. Apparently lost in their own inability to define a way out of the mess, the government “muddled through” situations where more forceful definitions were required, as was the case of electric power.

The list of failures or of situations where the government showed inability to lead is long and well known. What was surprising to some extent was to find out that all evidence suggests that the government itself was unaware of what was going on.

Winning re-election by a narrow margin, President Rousseff, characteristically after a long period of hesitation, decided to take a 180-degree turn, asking a known orthodox and fiscal conservative economist to head an empowered Ministry of Finance, surprising even her supporters who seemed to be perplexed by the need to defend policies that they hotly denounced when presented by opposition politicians.

This picture would be difficult enough to manage without the Petrobras scandal. But Petrobras is not only the largest company in the country, it is practically a symbol of the nationality. Besides, energy was supposed to be Rousseff’s area of expertise and she was in fact responsible for the company’s policies for a while, as Minister of Mines and Power.

An increasingly loud murmur of a possible impeachment of the president led her to equivocal political decisions, beginning with the definition of her cabinet, widely considered to be particularly low quality, and alienating not only her major party in government, the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, but even the majority of her own Workers’ Party.

The result of such initiatives was illustrated by the twin public demonstrations of Mar. 13 and 15.

On Mar. 13, nominal supporters of Rousseff marched through the streets of most of the largest cities in the country. Speaking to the press, most of the leaders of the march (Lula did not participate) declared conditional support for Rousseff – that is, conditional on the firing of the Minister of Finance and change of newly announced austerity policies.

On Mar. 15, an even larger crowd marched in the same cities declaring unconditional opposition to the president.

Brazil is living through a very dangerous period right now. Neither the government, nor the parliamentary opposition are led by leaders the population trusts. The president is slow and generally equivocal when making fateful decisions. The right-wing opposition seemed to be more interested in enjoying the possibility of enacting a “third” ballot to obtain at least a moral condemnation of the president.

This would be bad enough for a country that has just celebrated thirty years of civilian government. When the economy adds its own heavy problems to the political vacuum, it is impossible not to fear the future. (END/IPS COLUMNIST  SERVICE)

Edited by Phil Harris   

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, IPS – Inter Press Service. 

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