Brazil: Where you can hail a helicopter

What do a professional medical clown and the President of the Brazilian Supreme Court have in common? Wellington Nogueira and Carmen Lucia are both optimistic about their beloved country. They offer a rare ray of hope during a period that many of my Brazilian colleagues consider the worst of their lifetimes. At breakfast my first day, an economist didn’t hold back, “Brazil is a serial killer of opportunity.” Brazilian currency is weak and corruption still pulses through political veins. Past President Lula is in jail where he continues to wield enormous national power as the PT party remains the most organized national platform. Elections are around the corner. There’s a mandate to “renovate” the government, yet there’s an expectation that the result will be business as usual. The country is likely to remain a closed economy with bureaucratic regulations that make it difficult for domestic, entrepreneurial energy to translate into true market and social gains. Although quality candidates are on the slate, the extreme voices are expected to get the majority of votes resulting in a runoff election between two radically different (ineffectual) perspectives. It’s mandatory to go to the polls in Brazil. Family and friends find themselves “forced” to say whom they are endorsing, resulting in relationship tension that trumps (sorry, I couldn’t resist) what I have experienced in the U.S. It’s anticipated that there will be violent protests this October.

I was in Sao Paulo attending an international advisory board meeting where several senior executives said they would prefer military rule. Others have confessed that “the country may not be ready for democracy.” Previously liberal-leaning professionals are fearful of a government elected by uninformed citizens. The educational system is overtaxed, under-resourced and in desperate need of an overhaul. Compulsory education ends at 14 years of age. Kids attend school in one of three daily shifts, each only five hours long, which leaves little time for learning and instead provides lots of time during the day to be exposed to less than stellar influences.

So why is Carmen Luis springing out of bed in the morning? She opened our meeting with a story from her youth: Carmen’s mother put a glass of water in front of her and poured in a teaspoon of oil. The oil ultimately rose to the top. “Truth,” she said, “behaves like oil; it separates itself and rises to the top.” Carmen believes we are witnessing a cultural correction—it will take time.

My old friend Wellington founded Doctors of Joy a quarter-century ago. He trained clowns to relieve the pain of hospitalized children, challenged the hierarchies of medical practice and participated in local and international think tanks on the future of work and health care. An esteemed social entrepreneur, Wellington is now running for federal deputy (akin to being a U.S. Congressman) so that he can cure Brazil. Wellington has been prepared by RenovaBR, a training initiative for future political leaders. He explained that his life work is about finding that crack in the door, the crevice into which he could sneak his big clown foot and open a dialogue. “I’ve gotten the most recalcitrant kids to smile, I got doctors and nurses to have real conversations, I bet I can get politicians to talk to each other.” Let’s hope his vote- count, like truth, rises to the top!