Brazil's Lost Decade: We Must Free Our Economy
It was a lost decade for Latin America. Years of populist governments combined with a commodity boom turned out to be our oil curse, our Dutch Disease. This disastrous mix made bad public policies look like temporary successes, pushing developing countries to an unsustainable path. The collectivist ideology monopolized the debate for more than 10 years, and now that the natural resource party is over, the harm of these policies have become clearer: deep economic crisis generated by a utopia whose greatest achievement was turning toilet paper into a rare-earth product.
Populist and authoritarian South American regimes have set up government bureaucracies aimed at pleasing special interest groups that provide political support while tirelessly harming the population as a whole. These groups are divided into several small groups with special rights and privileges: judges, civil servants, members of parliament, friendly businessmen. These factions are getting their more-than-fair share while the unprivileged citizen foots the bill.
Latin American politicians played it very well during these favorable times. Cronyism and populism greatly benefited some chosen groups, while the harms were diffused enough throughout the whole country and difficult to measure during favorable economic winds. Brazil is just the biggest and clearest example of that.
How We Got Here
For many years Brazil’s road to serfdom was being paved by the left through a combination of the world's worst ideas: a Venezuelan-like project to subordinate decisions of the Supreme Court to the ratification of Congress; an Ecuadorian will to regulate and control the free press; a Russian compassion for cronies handpicked by the executive; Greek style benefits for public servants; Southern European pension costs (for a much younger population); Argentinean barriers for international trade and an American/EU taste for subsidies.
The former — and now failed — cherry-picked billionaire darling of the regime Eike Batista was showered with tax funds while ordinary entrepreneurs lacked governmental support; friendly national industries were heavily protected, while people were taxed up to 50 percent on food and health supplies. Oi Telecom, a multibillion dollar mobile company, is just the most recent example of Lula’s national-champion policy (the company has just filed for bankruptcy, with 17 percent of its debt held by state owned banks).
That was the result of 10 years of left-populist government in Brazil, all of them enjoying the applause of the international press. For years The New York Times constantly published articles with a pro-Dilma/Lula tone. Right after Dilma's reelection — which is now known to have been funded by money syphoned from state owned companies — The NYT published a piece half-mocking 48 percent of voters that were concerned about Dilma's economic and political approaches.
The good thing about bad journalism is that reality eventually catches up with it. Since that 2014 article, Dilma has since lost her job and is about to be impeached for illegal budgetary schemes and deep corruption. Her top aides are all in jail or about to be thrown there, accused of stealing dozens of billions of dollars, including former Ministers and three former treasurers of her Labor Party (which some people now deem to be the most dangerous job in the world). Brazil is in its worst economic crisis since the 1930s, which has been worsening since 2014 (while Dilma was coming up with her now-famous accounting tricks to fool the Brazilian voters). Lula had even become a frequent contributor of The Times after his presidency, but now faces criminal charges and has seen the federal police knock on his door with a coercive trip to the criminal courts.
In its recent opinion page about the failed Rio Olympic Games preparation, The NYT’s favorite Brazilian correspondent Vanessa Barbara wrote that "political turmoil has paralyzed the country and frozen the economy." This rhetoric of blaming "political turmoil" for Latin American calamities does not help to set the record straight. The problems with the Olympic games stem directly from Dilma's and Lula's incompetence and corruption. But the problem also lies on media vehicles like The Times, always ready to turn a blind eye to mismanagement and corruption in the name of ideology.
So here we are. Brazil is a failing state after a decade of populist presidents, misguided policies and commodity boom, all under the auspices of the progressive press.
The Need for Laissez-Faire Liberalism
For a long time, Brazil has been a place where liberalism (i.e., the ideology of freedom and free markets) was mostly marginalized, despite its positive track-record. In the minds of most Brazilians, being liberal was conspiring for the wealthy, being socialist is taking care of the poor.
But if The Times does not want to recognize its mistakes, apparently the Brazilian population is more willing to deal with self-criticism. There is now a strong resurgence of liberalism throughout the country.
Partido Novo (“New Party”) is a new political party created with a clear liberal approach to the economy, and it is just one of the recent examples of how liberalism is growing in the country, waking up millions of Brazilians who were orphans of a liberal political leadership. Many creative and hardworking people that do not think that socialism (or heavy-handed South American social democracy) will make our countries more prosperous. There are substantial constituencies that want public policies driven by research, metrics and actual public interest.
Free Trade Is the Key
The European Union has no appetite and no urgency to negotiate any comprehensive trade agreement with Mercosur or other Latin American countries. The United States faces a choice between a populist protectionist and a trade-dubious democrat (to put it mildly).
It is essential for the world that someone — anyone — pushes forward the liberal pro-trade agenda. As we natives well know, it is never wise to bet on Brazil as a global force for good. But maybe — just maybe — because we are suffering first-hand the harms of a decade of interventionist, protectionist, and corrupted government, we can somehow understand that populism is an illusory lucky charm that actually curses a country for years to come; and maybe — just maybe — we can do something to redeem ourselves.
Now that international trade seems under constant attack from all places and political spectrums, and no big world economy wants to step up and bluntly defend the liberal track record — including the United States — maybe Brazil could become the champion of good policy at last, pushing for reforms throughout Latin America and holding the liberal torch high in these dark times.
As Roberto Campos advised decades ago, for us Brazilians there are only three ways out of the current mess: Rio’s airport, Sao Paulo’s airport, and Liberalism.