Brazil and the U.S.: Joined at the Hip for Better or Worse
As some of you know from reading my bio, I try to spend some time every year in Brazil. I’m currently in my adopted country enjoying the people, the culture, food and music – and caught up in the collective angst of many Brasileiros about what’n the hell their new President Bolsonaro is going to do next.
I’ve always believed that Brazil and the U.S. shared many things in common: a history of being colonized by Europeans, a history of said colonizers nearly eradicating the native population, a history of African slavery cruelly used to enrich said colonizers and form the base of the nation’s economic leg up on non-slaveholding countries; a diverse culture peopled by those from every part of the globe, a rich tradition in music and food and dance and ritual.
For many years, the U.S. was viewed with a bit of hostility and suspicion by the average Brasileiro, but in more recent years, Brazilian culture seems to glom onto anything American with the zeal of the newly converted. That probably had something to do with the capitalist democracy in power since 1985 and the influence of American multinational mega-corporations spreading around money and the glory of all things American.
Unfortunately, as I like to say about my former home state of California as it relates to the rest of the U.S., California leads the way … whether for good or for bad. The same can be said of the U.S. as it relates to Brazil. Brazil has largely embraced all things American – both the good and the bad. The rampant consumerism, along with the crushing credit card debt; the social programs made famous by the New Deal, and backlash politics aimed at the poorest among us. The promise of hope ushered in with Obama’s election, and now, lamentably, they have elected a man who proudly claims to be “Brazil’s Trump.”
Ironically, I remember visiting Brazil in December 2016 just after the U.S. Electoral College enthroned that Trump Chump. At that time, innumerable people here asked me “Why, oh why would America elect such an obvious fool?”
I tried to explain in my limited Portuguese that the majority of Americans did not vote for Trump and, in fact, around 3 million more people voted for Clinton than for Trump. But the bottom line was, a whole lot of folks did vote for Trump and he became the most powerful politician in the most powerful country in the world. As they say in Brazil, “uau!”
So imagine my initial surprise at the success of the Bolsonaro campaign – until I once again considered the many similarities between our two countries.
Take for example the recent trend in Brazil of advocating a “guns for all” approach to combating violent crime. Better think twice about that one, considering how swell it’s worked out for the U.S. and its mass shootings du jour. Think the murder rate in Brazil is high now? (Although, what most news stories won’t tell you is that many if not most of the murders are of young Black men by police --- and that guns in the favelas are supplied by those same corrupt police). But if they do the kind of gun free for all they are considering, just wait until every Tomás, Davi and Henrique has a gun and is just itching to use it.
Or consider one of Bolsonaro’s first forays into imposing law and order: he ordered a change in the prisoner location system so that gang members are distributed to any prison with room as opposed to keeping them together in the same prisons.
The immediate result? A few hundred civilians killed in the rioting and retaliation by the disaffected gangs in the first few days of the new policy.
You see, the U.S. already tried that gambit as part of the Crime Control Act of 1984 that, among many other things, resulted in Crips being shipped into federal prisons across the country rather than in their home states.
The result? Crips went from a Southern California-only gang to a nationwide franchise with chapters in every major and minor city from Spokane to Stamford. Why? Because they were better able to proselytize and recruit new members from new markets opened up courtesy of Uncle Sam.
And along with that same “tough on crime” bill came the War on Drugs aka the War on Poor Black People (and now that it’s also locking up middle class whites we have an Opioid Epidemic and Prison Reform). It created one of the highest prison populations on the planet and a dysfunctional criminal justice system that has as its sole purpose to control the oppressed populations and keep the prison guards (and lawyers and judges and probation officers and prison corporation and judges and court officers and uniform makers and food suppliers, etc.) employed.
It is this type of “us against them” mentality that’s landed the U.S. in the quagmire of divisiveness between races and social classes, the educated and the not, the rural and the urban, the liberal and the conservative; the gay and the straight, the legal and the illegal, the Christians and the Muslims and the Jews and any other way we can slice and dice each other into oblivion.
Brazil, like much of the world, is being rendered apart by some of the same forces tearing at the fabric of the U.S. I’ve called it by the shorthand term “Angry White Man Syndrome,” but a more accurate phrase might be “The Old Guard Rich and Powerful Elite Fighting to Retain their Wealth and Power to Keep the Rest of Us Suckers in Our Places Which is Squarely Beneath their Feet.”
As Bob Marley put it, “Babylon Fall.” Empires fall, and we are experiencing a worldwide wave of fascism that has as its purpose to prop up a dying and unsustainable way of life, and to take rights from the majority and concretize the positions of power of the miniscule minority -- most of whom are Angry White Men.
So Bolsonaro, you may not be a U.S. history buff, but peep game: if you want to end up with some of the same seemingly intractable problems plaguing the U.S., please, follow Trump’s lead.
And you will end up in the same place as the rest of the world fighting to restore fascism to the throne – on the wrong side of history.