Touchy Issues

Brazil (Photo credit: NASA Goddard Photo and Video)

Ok, I have to admit that I have refrained from writing for a while because I understand that Brazilian readers might find me too critical, but some things just have to be said.

These last few months, I have been reading lots of posts from foreigners ( and similar websites) and Brazilians alike. Mostly on finding work, doing business, surviving, the “boom” we are supposedly experiencing but not feeling, and so forth. It was refreshing to know that I am not alone in my frustrations. It seems that when foreigners say something good about Brazil, mostly in articles in official media, Brazilians attack saying it´s not that good. When they say something bad, they also attack saying it´s not that bad, why are they here, why don´t they leave, etc.

My point being? Well, this seems to be Latin American characteristic as Argentinians are the same, but Brazilians are incredibly touchy when it comes to anything…Brazilian.

This incapacity to take constructive criticism or accept any form of comment or opinion on the way they do things is one of the most damaging characteristics they have. It all boils down to insecurity. The Brazilians are the most insecure of all the South American people I have met, no exceptions. They only appreciate something when it is the reflection of something else (they seldom open a restaurant with an innovative theme, for example, unless they saw it on a trip abroad), and they only feel secure about something if it is being done somewhere else, mostly in films. Women cut their hair and dress to look like women in the novelas, men buy SUVs that are considered eco un-friendly and costly in the rest of the world but that still appear in US films. The Brazilians are great imitators, although that innovative restaurant might not get the crowd it expected because people here are sometimes afraid or skeptical to try anything new.

The problem is that they fail to see that the rest of the world is praising us, emerging countries, because they need people to spend. No one is buying anything in their countries, so they say we are booming, emerging, “the ones”. It´s nothing personal, it´s just business. No one really cares. It´s the Brazilians who should care, about Brazil.

If they could only value what they have, what they are, and only imitate the good things from other countries, like investments on education, science, technology, sports. If they would only allow good, stable companies to enter Brazil to improve the incredibly bad quality of raw material used in some Brazilian industries (glue on shoes, thread in clothing, dyes, etc.), some finished products, such as furniture (Brazilians women have been crying for Ikea for years), and services, and compete with Brazilian companies to make them more aware of the importance of customer assistance, quality… the red sea. So far, they have only swum in the sea of carefree, tax heavy, bliss, which is incredibly expensive and short on quality.The tax load is the main culprit, but it´s not the only one.

You can only grow if you are eager to listen, to really take in the good things that you see in other countries, other companies, other people.

In Brazil, people have only just started to complain. When I got here 20 years ago, there was nothing in the way of customer rights. Now, there are websites where people complain about services and damage company images. But there is still a lot to do. They have to REALLY complain to improve things around here. The only noteworthy public manifestations on the news are for the legalization of marijuana, gay rights and the like. No one hits the streets to complain about the billions they pay in tax and then have to take their kids out of private school because they can no longer afford it, about the billions politicians steal under their noses every day, in every way, about the buildings that collapse, the planes that crash and kill hundreds of people and no one gets compensation, no one goes to jail, about the increasing violence they see every day on TV, with absolutely no consequences, about the criminals that are given amnesty on Christmas and never go back to jail, only to commit more crimes, kill, rape. Those manifestations are never popular. No one can be bothered to organize those. Brazilians are collectivist, but only with the people they know. Only with their closed social groups, family, colleagues. There is not strong sense of society, of “we can do it!”

There is, of course, that annoying Brazilian law that say you can´t speak ill of anyone.

The terrible weight of reality will hit us all hard on the head if we do not start to accept that there is a lot of work to do, and do it, if we do not stop shrugging off constructive criticism from the people who have chosen to live here or were born here and love this country (no, not me, important people!), from the people who come here to work and find it almost impossible to enter the market, to get a job, or even clear their goods through customs! To protect a country is one thing, to ensure work for its people is also one thing, but to prevent other successful companies from entering Brazil to improve the life of Brazilians and make their products and services better through healthy competition is entirely another. To keep that cloak over our heads, to avoid discussing issues that matter, those really gritty, touchy issues is just prolonging the inevitable. Maybe the world cup and the Olympic games will rip that cloak off with a vengeance. I hope not. I hope it comes from us.


What is middle class in Brazil?

One of the great things about my work is that I get to meet some of the most interesting and successful people in Brazil.

The other day I was teaching a very nice woman from an international chemical company and we somehow ended up discussing the Brazilian middle class.

In the special edition of the Economist, “The World in 2009”, page 52, article Building on the B in BRIC, president Lula said the Brazilian middle class is [quote] now in a majority, 52% of the population [unquote].

I personally thought the statement outrageous and started some research on what the Brazilian government considers “middle class”.  During my research, I also found out the this very statement caused quite an uproar in Brazilian society.

The FGV (Fundação Getulio Vargas) classifies the middle class as any family with an income above R$1.062. I then stumbled on a debate generated from this controversial statement (see from which I will extract and translate the following:

“At the time this survey was published, Folha de S. Paulo interviewed residents of Vila Kennedy, in the suburbs of Rio. Pensioner João Galdino de Melo, considers that minimum family income for a middle class family should be R$ 4.000 a month. He and his offspring have a joint income of R$ 2.400 and the family considers itself poor.  His children study in private colleges and do not earn enough to pay for their own expenses so he has to use part of his pension of R$ 1.200 to help make ends meet. At home, Galdino has a TV, fridge, cooker, sound system, DVD player and computer. Cable TV and broadband internet are provided by an “illicit” operator. An 18-year-old Fiat Prêmio sits in the garage.”

Even ex-employee of Petrobras José Camilo Neves, with a pension of R$ 3.400 month scoffs at the idea of being “middle class”, with 5 people at home depending on his income. He also complains that there is never enough left for leisure and that he lives on a road without proper paving that, until recently, still had open-air sewage.”

So what is middle class in Brazil?
10%, offered my student, not more than that.
Are you middle class? I asked her.
Yes, she said. I live in a secured condo and have a stable job.
So rich would be someone that owns a company, right?
Right, we agreed.

My student then made a very healthy and illustrative comparison with the French middle class. In France, the middle class depends on public services such as health care and education, and they all have their own homes and at least one car. Tax load is 45% of their income, which is the same as in Brazil, but they can actually depend on these services.

In Brazil, on the other hand, a family with a middle class income also has to cover schooling for all the kids and healthcare plans for the entire family, as most wouldn´t be caught dead using public education and health services (and rightly so).

On the other hand, my student said she has a better quality of life than her French counterparts, who could never afford a maid, for example.

Thinking about all this information, I have come to the conclusion that she was right. The real middle class in Brazil is not more than 10%, which would be within the income margins of my student (probably more than 8000 a month). This is the only income that could cover all the deficiencies of public services, including security.

The government version of the Brazilian middle class is, in fact, a massive portion of the poor trying hard to pay for instalments of cars, homes and electrical appliances. The top layer of this struggling class manages to also pay for a family health plan and a reasonable education for their 1-2 offspring.

The real middle class (considered by most as the upper class), on the other hand, has a solid education, at least 6 years of higher education, their own homes, some instalments to pay (LCD TV and a car, maybe), a decent job and the terrible load of having to account single-handedly for the future of their children, security of their homes and health and insurance for their entire family. The real middle class cannot depend on public services and does not listen to Lula.

So, as always, the Brazilian government has chosen to blow up statistics in the hope of improving their position in international rankings without actually having to tackle the real problem, as they did with school attendance rates. O jeitinho Brasileiro at its best.

So, how much should a family/breadwinner minimally earn to live a middle class lifestyle in Brazil?

I once started a discussion in the forum with the question, “how much do you need to live well in Brazil?” After weeks of discussion and venting of personal experiences, all participants agreed that, in order to be middle class, you need at least reales a month for one couple with 1-2 kids.

This standard of living allows an economy car for the couple, private schools with transport for the kids, healthcare plan for all four member of the family,  credit cards, basic facilities (gym, etc) and fairly adventurous holiday destinations (in Brazil). Housing is either a two-bedroom flat in modest neighbourhood of a large Brazilian city or a decent house in some up-state or coastal city (excluding Rio, of course).

Don´t you agree? Comments would be really welcome.