Archive | September, 2010

The Brazilian Validation of my Ph.D.

25 Sep

I’m still months away from being validated. But at least 95% of the paper work is in. It was easy, really:
-Sent Diploma and full academic transcript to Brazilian consulate in Houston (closest consulate to graduating institution). $10 verification.
-Had documents sent to Brazil. $93
-Had said documents verified by a notary: $11
-Documents translated by an “official” translator: $217
-Paid fee to the “validating” Federal University (UFRJ) in my case: $41
-Handed-in documents to UFRJ!
-Realized that they also want a verified copy of my Undergraduate degree (how do you get a Ph.D. without an undergrad degree?).
-My wonderful mother rips my McGill B.A. out of a beautiful frame and sends it Fedex to Brazil. $175
-Notary public certification of McGill degree: $4
-Explanation of all of my Ph.D. courses in English: time cost- 5 hours.

I hope this helps some people who will have to go through the same process. I still have to go hand in these two last items.

The most dreaded part of this process was visiting the cartorio (notary) repeatedly. Cartorio’s are an archaic, costly, and unfair Brazilian institution, which –unbelievably– are allotted on a concessionary basis to private citizens. Owners of Cartorios make fabulous profits off of sticking government stamps on your paperwork. The government undoubtedly makes off like a bandit as well. I am amazed how these feudal institutions –a universal tax on Brazilians– have survived, especially given what Brazilians think of them.

A tired older lady in the cartorio lineup the other day told me in no uncertain language how depressed these places made her feel. Lineups are perennial, and the listless enthusiasm of cartorio staff is undoutedly reminiscent of 1979 East Germany.

Cartorio certified: now a real letter to be taken seriously.

Cartorio certified: now a real letter to be taken seriously.

You have to obtain certification for just about everything. I sent a letter to the Federal Police because of a missing document they said they had sent me. As a precautionary measure, I certified the letter (above). I am seriously considering taking a picture of my wife and me into a cartorio and having it certified. The first step to true validation…right?

Moralistic Blockaders versus Subversive Altruists

23 Sep

Carol and I have been watching political candidates advertise their wares on TV. The Brazilian election is just around the corner and as I mentioned before, it’s not looking promising. Things are good economically, so there’s little incentive for reform.

I am reluctant to venture the opinion that someone “looks” corrupt – as the adage goes: looks often deceive – but it’s hard not to infer from the slick manner and silky words of some candidates that they’re in the game for more than just helping their country get ahead. Don’t get me wrong, the U.S. , Canada and other more advanced countries also have slippery characters in politics.

Latin American countries, however, understandably tend to attract a good deal more populist charlatans; for one, when your median citizen has five years of schooling it’s easier to sell them on building or giving away things than how you’re going to use the trade surplus to lower the national debt and thereby decrease income taxes (that much of the lower classes don’t pay).

The central dilemma is how to attract good, capable people into less than good, frequently corrupt politics. Most people in Brazil are as upstanding as anywhere else, but the challenge is getting these people to become politicians, which they view to be irredeemably corrupt. These are the moralistic blockaders, who choose to avoid entering a sector, industry, or profession because they do not share its value system.

The paradox is that the blockade mentality perpetuates the problematic nature of some occupations: politicians remain corrupt, real-estate developers often privilege profit over good construction, and natural resource extractors have earned a reputation for a quick- exit approach, spoiling the environment. These occupations would surely do better for the world and themselves if self-identified altruists got involved in them, and indeed sometimes they do. Subversive altruists better the bad, while blockaders berate the bad with criticism. Subversive altruists are the real heroes, are they not?

Subversive altruists often tend to be spoilers. I think of people who went into politics and, partly through high-minded leadership, brought down corrupt and inefficient systems. Two come to mind immediately: Gorbachev in the USSR, President Ernesto Zedillo in Mexico (1995-2001). We’ll save the biographies for another time…The most salient challenge is making sure that altruists themselves do not become subverted by these unsavory occupations, à la power corrupts…

“Number of people using internet more than doubles in last four years (118%)” “Income goes up by 20% over the last five years” “The country now has more houses with washing machines”

8 Sep

These were a few of today’s not-to-be-missed headlines in Brazil’s most respected newspaper, Folha de São Paulo. With the presidential election less than one month away, this news would appear to be a thinly veiled attempt to laud Lula’s time in office and, by association, his chosen candidate, Dilma Rousseff. Yet no… and yes… it so happens that the government-run Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics has just released its 2009 household survey, nicely timed to coincide with the pre-election race.

Well, it’s not looking good for Rousseff’s opposition, and with little wonder. It seems that the media just can’t find ways to be critical of Rousseff or Lula these days beyond airing PSDB accusations. It also appears that the Rouseff and the PT-PMDB electoral coalition have the clear money advantage. Folha reports today that PT candidates for legislative deputy have raised more than 80 percent what they did in 2006. By comparison, Jose Serra’s PSDB candidates have raised only 20 percent more than in 2006. This could mean of number things. First, the election is more contested than it was in 2006. Second, and somewhat contradictorily, the PT is the clear favorite and thus big financiers are putting their money on the winning horse. I don’t even want to speculate on other possibilities.

Temer- Still an Unknown Potential President

Temer- To be feared as a possible president?

Let’s just hope for a closer race and a little more balanced coverage. We haven’t heard anything about Dilma Rousseff’s health, even despite her recent bout with lukemia; and what’s even scarier is that her vice presidential running mate, Michel Temer, is receiving little if any publicity. What if Brazil ends up with Temer as a president, as it had the misfortune to do when Tancredo Neves death resulted in the pork-barrelling José Sarney as president? Do Brazilians know who Michel Temer is anyways?

Why Political Geography Matters

4 Sep

Last post I spoke about a few economic reasons why the citizen-government connection in Brazil needs strengthening. In this post I want to talk about geography. Cities that combine economic, cultural, and political centers, like Washington, London, Paris, among many others, tend to make for a charged political environment. Where this environment has remained mostly orderly, a virtuous political ecology often takes root. Cities attract active citizens who interact with their political environment in myriad ways. Politically vested citizens from across the country are drawn to these cities not only because of their political importance, but because of their historical, cultural, and economic vitality. Brasilia, on the other hand, is distant from any major population center, its history is brief (constructed in the 1950s), and it flunks as a cultural and economic center. Even Ottawa looks great in comparison. Most people who live in Brasilia work for government. One is left to ask, “who protests or marches in front of the legislature when outrageous corruption occurs?” “Where are the citizens who will witness such protests?” Although Brasilia’s architectural and urban design are interesting, the city lacks the political verve of other centers because it was designed to be the seat of government, rather than a cultural and economic hub. The political geography of Brazil’s capital conceals and in turn disconnects the political process and political citizenship from common Brazilians.

Economic Progress, Political Complacence, and the Tenuous Citizen-Government Connection

1 Sep

Most gringos don’t realize that Brazil and Latin America’s experience with democracy is relatively recent. Brazil has come a long way since it returned from dictatorship to democracy in the late 1980s. It only drafted its current constitution in 1988, just over twenty years ago. Today, politics is less polarized, the military has less influence, consumers have greater choice thanks to fewer barriers to imports, and most crucially, inflation is no longer the unslayable dragon it was in the late 1980s and early 1990s. “It’s the economy, stupid.” The economy is infinitely improved, which has made Brazilians disconcertingly satisfied with things. Economic and political gains are relative.

Current successes have buoyed Brazil, but they have also created complacency. Despite what many middle to upper class Brazilians trick themselves into thinking, Brazil remains a corrupt third world country with one of the world’s highest levels of inequality, regional disparities in wealth, and violence.

Complacence threatens to slow if not reverse progress that has been made. The country will have ample opportunities to set itself back. World-class sporting events are economic disasters for countries, if you haven’t figured that one out yet (see my buddy Chris Gaffney’s superb blog on the subject). Thus the World Cup and Olympics of 2014, 2016, need monitoring by concerned citizens. The “curse of oil”–the discovery of the giant Tupi oil fields–also provides a classic opportunity for corruption that Brazilians should be currently preempting. But the sense of ownership that Brazilians have over their government is still so tenuous that the result is often indifference and apathy. As I said, democracy is a recent phenomenon and participation, beyond the obligation to vote, is not well understood.

Everyone happy?

One particular example I like to use are taxes. If Brazilians were to pay all their taxes, they would have one of the highest tax burdens in the world. Brazil raises more taxes as a percentage of GDP than Canada! The question of where this money comes from and goes is one issue, another is whether Brazilians realize they’re paying these taxes. If they did, how would their expectations of government performance change?

When you buy a chocolate bar in Canada, the U.S., or other places, you can expect to pay anywhere from 5 to 16 percent on top of the listed price. When the attendant rings up my taxes on that chocolate bar, in that instant the knowledge of government’s hand in my purchase registers. I expect commensurate good government in return. When a Brazilian buys something, the taxes are already included in the price, so there is no conscious appreciation of what government is taking and what it owes the consumer-citizen. The same goes with import taxes, of which there are many in Brazil. The majority of Brazilians only have a vague notion that they pay very large premiums to the government on all electronic equipment.

There are many other examples of these sorts of tax-by-stealth tactics, which result in failed opportunities for citizens to make the government-owes-me-I-own-government connection. A pity, but only one of the many causes of citizen complacence, a theme I hope to explore in upcoming posts.