It is undeniable that 2016 was a complicated year that left many Brazilians with a feeling of pessimism or apathy towards the future of the country. However, if we take a deep breath and a step back and calmly reexamine this very busy year, we can see that despite (or perhaps even because of) all the crises, it brought the country some very positive changes. One of these changes was the breaking of certain taboos.
One of the main taboos to be broken was ideological: liberalism stopped being a swear word and took back its original meaning of valuing individual freedom in both social and economic senses. Being a liberal is now cool and many young people are proudly coming out of the ideological closet with no fear of being labeled a fascist or other nasty things. It is true that this new “sexy right” is still a bit immature, often excessively dogmatic or ideologically naïve, but the mere inclusion of liberalism as an option on the ideological menu is already quite a healthy addition, especially when we consider all the variations of the same dish that were available before.
Other taboos were of a more practical nature: the reality brought on by the political and economic crises forced the country to start challenging some of its sacred cows, such as the painful but necessary pension and labor reforms (which are, unfortunately, still widely misunderstood). The crises also made many people realize that public funds are finite and that hard choices must be made on how they should be spent. Brazilians finally started to think about which services are really essential and should be provided by the State. This is a major breakthrough, as up until now everyone simply accepted without a second thought that the State should do almost everything, owning from printing services to oil companies and often maintaining unnecessary, inefficient, and redundant agencies for the sole purpose of preserving jobs.
Another major taboo the crises forced Brazilians to confront was the vainglorious “the oil is ours” myth that has been a part of the country’s national consciousness since President Getúlio Vargas’s second term in office, in the 1950s. As natural resources are worthless if they can’t be used, Congress had no choice but to strike down a bill that forced virtually bankrupt state-owned energy company Petrobrás to be the sole operator of the pre-salt oil reserves. After all, Brazil has more to gain by allowing royalties-paying foreign companies to exploit the pre-salt than from keeping to itself oil that is “ours” but that would remain under the sea without generating any wealth. This was a major paradigm shift for Brazil and a large crack on the protectionist wall that isolates it from the rest of the world, driving drives away investments, competitivity, and growth.
Another taboo that hasn’t yet been broken, but that has begun to crack was Brazilian society’s caste system. For better or worse, 2016 ends with less people above the law. More previously all-powerful politicians and businessmen are now in prison. Not only that, but the spotlight on politicians and the judiciary has forced them to acknowledge some important matters that they have so far tried to avoid. Issues such as the privileged legal protections given to high-ranking officials and the unbelievably inflated salaries of some members of the judiciary are now being openly discussed in Congress—something that was completely unthinkable up to a few months ago. On a more local level, legislators’ attempts to ban or cripple popular services such as Uber have also raised public awareness of how much influence certain lobbies hold over those who should instead represent the interests of the people who elected them.
Finally, even though it might be true that the argumentative quality of these discussions could be better and that many people are still lacking a minimum of tolerance and respect for dissenting views, the fact that these topics are now part of the national dialogue is already a sign of Brazilian society’s growing political awareness. By itself, this shows that Brazil is becoming more democratically mature, which is a very positive part of the legacy of 2016.
This post was originally published in Portuguese. It was also published as an editorial in the 07/01/2017-13/01/2017 edition of Brazilian newspaper A Voz de São João.
Image source: Rovena Rosa/Agência Brasil