Improving economy, elections give Brazil a glimmer of hope
BELO HORIZONTE, BRAZIL | The headlines here still scream of scandal and malaise, drift and decline, but for the first time in years, at least some Brazilians are feeling a tiny sliver of optimism as they look ahead to next year’s presidential elections.
Once touted as one of the developing world’s emerging powers, South America’s most populous nation has long been in a political and economic free fall, a crisis of national confidence that culminated in last year’s impeachment and removal of President Dilma Rousseff. And amid ever-widening corruption probes and the bitter economic hangover from last year’s Olympic Games, her successor, Michel Temer, may get ousted himself on corruption charges.
But talk to residents of this heartland state capital strolling around Belo Horizonte’s traditional Central Market on Friday, and you get the sense that the slight economic uptick gives them hope that the worst might be over.
“In 2014, at the height of the country’s political and economic crisis, many stores had to close,” said 29-year-old Rafael Igino, who owns a codfish stand in the market. “Between 2014 and now, there has been a reaction, albeit a small one. Things are better; the clientele has a little more confidence.”
If they hope to consolidate that trend, then citizens at the ballot box must remember the lessons of Brazil’s spectacular corruption inquiries, said Francisley Martins, one of Mr. Igino’s employees.
“Brazilians have a short memory. There are many people who did bad things and can run — and be elected — once again,” said Mr. Martins, 45. “We have to be very responsible when we vote for a candidate, look at his background [to find out] if he did something bad.”
He made the comments as judges were considering the fate of Belo Horizonte native Aecio Neves, a former Minas Gerais governor and runner-up in the last presidential election, now caught up in the latest of countless cases that have tainted much of Brasilia’s political class.
Painful as that constant dribble of scandal may be, it speaks to the strength of Brazilian institutions taking on the country’s most powerful figures, said political scientist Marcus Melo, co-author of the Princeton University Press book “Brazil in Transition.” As painful as it has been to the national psyche, Brazil is proving able to deal with its own failings.
“In the short term, we are experiencing turbulence, but with a silver lining: Authorities in Brazil have shown themselves to be effective in the fight against corruption,” Mr. Melo said.
Efforts such as the anti-corruption Operation Car Wash, which has yielded some 1,400 years of combined prison terms and more than $3 billion in seized funds, have few, if any, equals in history, he said. The reach of the scandal has shaken governments across Central and South America.
“It’s a level of punishment of the political elite you don’t find in any other country,” Mr. Melo said, “other than Italy’s Mani pulite,” a 1990s probe that led to 1,300 plea bargains and convictions. “In the case of Brazil, we can say the glass is half-full,” he said.
While not good, the economic picture is no longer one of unrelieved gloom.
Inflation has fallen below government targets, and a grinding two-year recession came to an end when the Brazilian economy eked out a small gain in the first quarter of 2017. Despite his political troubles, Mr. Temer this month said he is committed to pushing through labor and pension reform bills designed to give greater flexibility to business owners.
While the national jobless rate hit a record 13.6 percent this spring and economists are not ruling out a double-dip recession if world food and commodity prices turn south again, the government last week reported an addition of 34,253 payroll jobs in May, the second straight month of positive employment momentum and well above economists’ expectations. Brazil’s economy is projected to register a 0.4 percent growth rate for all of 2017 — after contracting 3 percent in 2015 and 2016.