4 Surprising Things I've Learned About Brazil - plus55

4 Surprising Things I’ve Learned About Brazil

Our American English editor reflects on the last year of Brazilian news
Brazil Opinion

If you’re an American millennial such as myself, there’s a decent chance that your first memorable encounter with Brazil was through The Simpsons. In that now-infamous episode, the family sets off for Rio only to find themselves in a city overrun by dangerous monkeys, muggings, nefarious taxi drivers, and strippers. Yikes.

Of course, these misconceptions are far from reality. And that has been one of the driving factors behind the creation of plus55. Last February, Gustavo Ribiero and a team of independent journalists launched plus55 to share Brazilian perspectives with an international readership. As the English Editor, I usually play a silent, behind-the-scenes role that includes reviewing our content. Of course, this also means that I’ve learned a lot about the country. Think of it as a year-long crash course in all things Brazilian. As a cultural outsider, my learning curve has been steep. And I can’t be the only one, since most of our readers are not Brazilian and nearly half are located outside of the country.

So to commemorate our one-year anniversary, I’ve compiled a list of surprising things I’ve learned so far through plus55 – things that go beyond an obsession with showering or  “stinky feet” flavored junk food, that is.

1. Brazil and the States have more in common than you might think

Spanning roughly 8.5 million square kilometers, Brazil’s territory is just slightly smaller than that of the United States’ 9.8. The two countries have sparsely populated interiors and are dotted by large coastal cities called home by a majority of the population. Both are built on histories of immigration, gold rushes, sugarcane, slavery (abolished in America by 1865, and about twenty years after that in Brazil), abundant natural resources, notorious frontier outlaws (is the cangaço Brazil’s equivalent of the American Wild West gunslinger?), and, of course, dominant Christian cultures. Nearly half of Americans identify as Protestant, and two-thirds of Brazilians as Catholic. Both countries fashion themselves as “melting pots” of various cultures and ethnicities, although this metaphor often belies far more complex realities.

2. Brazilian politics are not so radically different from America’s

We ran a few articles last year about how Michel Temer surprised us all by assembling an all-white, all-male cabinet after assuming the presidency. It was the first time in Brazil since the 1970s that a presidential cabinet had no women. Yet Trump’s cabinet is shaping up similarly to Temer’s, featuring the highest number of white, male nominees since Reagan’s 1980s administration. And one of Brazil’s current presidential hopefuls for 2018 is Jair Bolsonaro, an anti-establishment radical conservative who, much like his provocative northern counterpart, doesn’t hesitate to offend the opposition. Plus, Trump aside, American politicians can rival Brazil’s for outrageous quotes. A few years ago, Bolsonaro infamously stated that his female colleague wasn’t “worth” raping. But just three days ago, an American anti-abortion lawmaker called pregnant women “hosts” for unborn children.

3. A “low voter turnout” means that nearly 80% of the population still shows up

In our contentious Clinton-Trump election last November, voter turnout was at a 20-year low. Only about 55% of our voting-age population turned up at the polls to cast a vote. Brazil, too, saw record-low voter turnout during their 2016 elections. Yet in Brazil, “low voter turnout” means that a soaring 78% of Brazilians still showed up at the polls. In Brazil, casting your vote is a legal obligation. Citizens who fail to cast a ballot must justify their absence within 30 days and pay a small fine, or else they face numerous penalties. 2016 saw the highest rate of abstention in Brazil’s recent memory, but it was only 22%. Given the abysmal American turnout, we could certainly learn a thing or two from Brazil on this one.

4. The dictatorship is still in Brazil’s cultural memory

We Americans often forget that Brazil was under authoritarian rule for over 20 years, and that our own government was partially responsible. In 1964, the United States backed a coup d’état that overthrew then-President João Goulart, leading to the installation of an anti-communist military regime. That government sought to censor freedom of speech, remove political opposition, and engaged in torture. Plus, two of Brazil’s most celebrated musicians, now popularly celebrated in America, were arrested and eventually exiled for three years. While the regime ended in 1985, its legacy is still palpable in both Brazil’s political and military structures. Even superficial vestiges of this era remain – for example, the names of dictators still feature in prominent public spaces.

If the last twelve months have been any indication, Brazil is currently undergoing complex social and political transformation. To that end, we here at plus55 have covered enormous ground since last February. Between Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment, the Zika epidemic, Rio’s Olympics, and Operation Car Wash, there hasn’t been a dull moment. And we’re excited to keep bringing you relevant, trustworthy journalism about your favorite country that dispels those tiresome Simpsons clichés.

A big thanks to our readers – we wouldn’t be here without you. Here’s to another year!