Brazil at a Crossroads
By B. Michael Rubin
Brazil is at a crossroads: forward or backward. Should Brazil abandon its traditions and enter the 21st century, or maintain its old ways? The BRICS countries seem eager to abandon their ancient habits and rise above their status of developing countries to become developed countries. Will Brazil? And if so, what will be the consequences?
Let’s look at a country Brazil admires for its progress, the US. Americans are anxious. According to the latest research, 18 percent of Americans suffer from some kind of anxiety disorder. There is no statistical data on this subject for Brazil, but I believe this percentage is much lower than in the US.
The obvious question is, Why? Is anxiety an inherent trait, built into the DNA of North American culture? Following September 11, there was a large increase in the number of Americans, particularly New Yorkers, seeking therapy. Americans are anxious about terrorism. While 9/11 was the first attack on US territory by foreigners, several Americans have made attacks on their own people. There have been a number of shootings and bombings in the US committed by so-called “domestic terrorists” such as the Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people twenty years ago. Recently, racism has become a factor in domestic attacks, such as the killing of nine people in a Black church in South Carolina by a teenager.
However, if Americans are worried about terrorism, and Brazilians aren’t, it can’t be said that there’s nothing to worry about in Brazil. The country’s history of corruption, nepotism, impunity, kleptocracy, and endemic tax fraud is a worrisome situation. Brazilians are aware of these problems, which are a contributing factor in the current economic recession, and huge scandals like Mensalão and Lava Jato have pressed the problems of corporate and political corruption into the forefront of daily headlines and conversation.
Although Brazilians are exhausted with corruption and worried about how their history of impunity and endemic nepotism is viewed by others, especially with the world coming to visit next year for the Rio Olympics, I would be remiss if I reported that Brazilians are in a state of panic. Of greater concern to everyday Brazilians is economic stagnation, which started in 2014 and will continue for the rest of 2015 and possibly 2016 as well. Negative monetary growth combined with rising inflation and unemployment are a deadly combination for a country’s health.
Nevertheless, Brazilians, as a culture, are more relaxed than Americans or Japanese or northern Europeans. In fact, recent psychology studies suggest that the higher standard of living a country has, the more anxiety it contains. In other words, wealthier countries exhibit more citizens living with and adjusting to everyday stresses. There are more prescriptions for anti-anxiety and anti-depressant medications in richer countries. There is less mental illness and fewer acts of suicide in developing countries like Brazil.
No one knows why greater wealth brings greater unhappiness. Barry Schwartz, an American psychologist, has spent his life studying happiness in the US. He lays out his theory in his book The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less. He states: “Autonomy and freedom of choice are critical to our well-being, and choice is critical to freedom and autonomy. Nonetheless, though modern Americans have more choice than any group of people ever has before, and thus, presumably, more freedom and autonomy, Americans don’t seem to be benefiting from it psychologically.” Schwartz’s theory is based on the principle that greater wealth provides a greater number of choices for people. More choices means more decisions to be made, and the more decisions, the more stress that occurs because people never know if they’re making the right decisions.
Perhaps some of the stress discrepancy between Brazil and the US can be attributed to vacations. In the Brazilian Constitution, which was entirely rewritten in 1988, all workers are guaranteed 30 days of paid vacation per annum. The standard work day for government employees, the country’s largest employer, is six hours. Brazilians who work for multi-nationals like Volvo and Electrolux work eight hours. However, their daily schedule stretches to nine hours because every employee leaves his/her desk for a full hour for lunch.
Additionally, the Brazilian concept of timeliness is different from the US. An appointment or meeting that starts within 10-15 minutes of its scheduled time is considered on time in Brazil. A tighter conformity to a strict time schedule, as seen in Japan or Germany, is a source of stress.
Another factor in the difference between US and Brazilian cultures is the role of organized religion. Far more Brazilians consider themselves affiliated with a church than Americans. This reality is true in other developing countries like India as well. Developed countries rely less on organized religion. Brazil maintains strong ties to the Church, and it helps that Latin America now has its first Pope. Organized religion provides a spiritual and emotional safety net for people’s stress, particularly those who feel lost or confused.
Like most people living in developing countries, Brazilians envy the wealth of richer nations. In fact, the original name of the country was the Republic of the United States of Brazil. Brazilians envy the better systems of education, highways, and ports and marvel at the lack of bureaucracy and safer cities in the US when they visit. They conclude that if their country had more money to spend on education or infrastructure, it would be a more comfortable and safe place to live.
In an effort to raise its status to a developed country, Brazilians are working harder and longer hours these days. They hosted the World Cup last year and will host the summer Olympics next year. With the spread of the Internet and smartphones, Brazilians take their work everywhere, as in developed countries. Working more is helping to raise the standard of living in Brazil and bringing more Brazilians into the middle class. However, the question remains, will having more material wealth make Brazilians happier?
For the first time in Brazil’s history, the majority of women are working outside the home. This is causing greater stress on marriages and childrearing. Brazilian women are joining new yoga studios opening in Curitiba with billboards in front that ask: Ansiedade? (anxiety)
Young married men meanwhile are facing expectations from their wives to perform domestic duties and childcare that their fathers could never have imagined. While the standard of living is increasing in Brazil, thanks to two-parent incomes, there is less time for relaxation and raising children. Daycare for pre-school children is common now for the first time.
The issue that Brazil faces in the 21st century is this: Which way is the country going? Will Brazilians pursue more material wealth like the US and Japan and end up with greater stress and the unhappiness that will follow? Will Brazil abandon its strong family ties and connections to the Church as it becomes more like other developed countries?
Rather, will Brazilians find a way to maintain links to their traditions so as not to sacrifice the heart of their proud culture? Can they stay connected to their foundational principles like the value of the family while simultaneously abandoning nepotism?
Can Brazil move ahead and conquer the complacency that ignores corruption and impunity? Will Brazilians understand the folly of an underground economy that swallows 20 percent of the country’s GDP and allows self-employed professionals like doctors and lawyers to criticize politicians for corruption while they justify their own rampant tax fraud?
Perhaps Brazil can find the right direction, if the next generation of Brazilian mothers teach their children to abandon emotional arrogance and feelings of entitlement and prevent their sons from growing up to become successful men who demand, “Do you know who I am?” Can Brazil sustain a vibrant culture and growing economy without losing its heart and soul? Only time will tell which route the country has chosen.
B. Michael Rubin is an American living in Curitiba.