- - Thursday, May 19, 2016

SAO PAULO — When Dilma Rousseff took office in 2011, Brazil’s president adopted an aspirational message as her administration’s official slogan: “A rich country is a country without poverty,” every government-funded construction site and public service announcement proclaimed.

At the time, high-flying hopes — such as eliminating poverty in a country long famous for its favelas — seemed well-founded: Ms. Rousseff’s mentor and predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, was leaving her an economic boom marked by a 7.5 percent annual growth rate, a middle class he expanded by an estimated 29 million people and a widening sense that the country was finally ready to take its rightful place among the world’s emerging economic and political heavyweights.

Forbes magazine predicted that Brazil was on pace to produce 19 millionaires per day over the next three years.

The cherry on the top for the sports-mad nation: Brazil was chosen to host the world’s two largest athletic events — the 2014 soccer World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games, a sign that the country had arrived.

But five years later, the Brazilian miracle — like Ms. Rousseff’s once-promising career — has come crashing to a halt. The glowing future has given way to a seemingly daily dose of depressing news that the locals have simply dubbed “The Crisis” — a toxic mix of the worst recession in a century, sharp falls in global oil and commodity prices and a corruption scandal that has tainted virtually the entire political class.

With mounting problems such as the outbreak of the Zika virus and protests sparked by nationwide bus fare hikes, many now even dismiss the upcoming Olympic Games as a grim reminder of Brazil’s unfulfilled promise — and of the heady days back in 2009 when not even a personal appeal from President Obama could sway the International Olympic Committee from picking Rio de Janeiro over Mr. Obama’s hometown of Chicago as the host.

With Brasilia still tirelessly promoting the August event as a source of national pride, local media have focused instead on the collapse of a newly built bike bridge that has killed at least two in Rio, while eagerly re-reporting foreign coverage of contaminated water, rising crime rates and security challenges.

“The general feeling is that there is no climate for this type of event,” said University of Sao Paulo economist Laura Carvalho. “People somewhat forgot about the Olympics.”

Impeachment drama

Over the past six months, Brazilians instead had their eyes glued to the lengthy TV drama over Ms. Rousseff’s impeachment, which culminated last week with lawmakers turning the two-term leader into the highest-profile victim of the crisis by suspending her in favor of Vice President Michel Temer.

The little-known Mr. Temer immediately announced a new government slogan, “Order and Progress,” the 130-year-old motto on Brazil’s flag that seems to aptly reflect the lowered expectations of a worn-down citizenry.

As analysts struggle to explain what exactly went wrong since 2011, Brazilians have lost faith that “nothing, absolutely nothing, stops [our] relentless march toward victory,” as Mr. Silva said in his 2010 farewell address before leaving office with an approval rating above 80 percent.

“The people who believed [in Mr. Silva] — I believed they are ashamed today,” entrepreneur Ana Rovai, 33, said at an anti-government rally this year.

Most Brazilians, meanwhile, are perplexed and apathetic in the face of the ever-deepening crisis, said Igor Fuser, a political scientist at the ABC Federal University outside Sao Paulo and former editor of the Folha de S.Paulo daily.

But Ms. Carvalho said there were good reasons for the almost two-thirds disapproval rating of Ms. Rousseff, whose government failed badly to prepare for the end of the commodities boom and then, following her tight 2014 re-election race, exacerbated the dire trend with tough austerity measures that sent growth rates plummeting.

“There was a sequence of mistakes in how to react to the [global] slowdown,” Ms. Carvalho said, and “they went a little bit desperate in different attempts to stimulate the economy again.”

Today, with one in 10 Brazilians out of work and public outrage over the “Car Wash” corruption scandal — wide-ranging even by local standards — Mr. Temer is left with no room for error, former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso has told the Globo news channel.

“The people want concrete things. He can’t forget about corruption, which fermented the unemployment crisis,” said Mr. Cardoso, Mr. Silva’s predecessor. “Employment cannot be solved from one moment to another. But to take a firm stance against corruption is important.”

The defense minister and Mr. Temer’s newly appointed minister of sport have clashed over whether Brasilia will be ready for the Aug. 5 opening of the Summer Games in Rio. On Monday, two of the nation’s largest unions — closely allied to Ms. Rousseff’s Workers’ Party — boycotted a meeting that the interim president held on economic reforms and an overhaul of the country’s troubled pension system.

The Central Workers Union, the nation’s largest labor organization, said in a statement that it would not “recognize putschists as governors” and demanded Ms. Rousseff’s reinstatement.

Forbes magazine has sharply tempered the rosy forecast from five years ago but holds some hope that Brazil can eventually regain its momentum.

The Car Wash scandal, the magazine noted this week, remains “a sword of Damocles hanging over the heads of more than half the members of Congress.”

“On the other hand, the Cabinet announced by acting President Michel Temer is balanced between the parties which made up the opposition, some leftist, some old political chieftains and some emerging forces, which suggests that the relationship between the executive and legislative branches will be smooth and cooperative.”

But Ms. Carvalho said she fears the leadership team under Mr. Temer may not have learned from government blunders and that the Brazilian nightmare may be far from over. That, in turn, stirs worries that the boom years did not ignite a new Brazil but were merely a short reprieve from underachievement.

“The crisis is bad. It’s gotten much worse due to [Ms. Rousseff‘s] austerity program. [And Mr. Temer] has promised something even more dramatic,” Ms. Carvalho said. “I have a feeling that we have buckets of problems, and very old problems, escalating.”


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