Brazil Without Bug Spray

Sitting in my friend’s garden, I ask the assembled Paulistas, “Are any of you wearing bug spray?” They seemed confused as: I am not pregnant; it’s winter in Brazil, and I should know better than to believe all the hype. “Do you think you are in Miami?” they tease me.

It’s September and I am visiting São Paulo and then attending board meetings in Belo Horizonte. Knowing my predilection for going au natural when it comes to any topical treatment, my pre-departure inbox overflowed with encouragement to pack Deet and douse myself regularly. The natives in Brazil chided, “Did any Olympian come down with the Zika virus?” They just aren’t buying the international anxiety about a bug, of all things. They have other worries, like potential social instability, ineffective government and visitors making false accusations.

Speaking of Ryan Lochte, the American swimmer received big props for allowing the Brazilian police force to demonstrate that they do know how to conduct an investigation and no, “Danger isn’t lurking in every corner of the country.” Unless of course you are in politics, in which case you might be busy baking cakes with nail files to carve an escape from your prison cell. Mention Dilma’s impeachment and pride mixes with shame. For a young democracy, this is the second presidential indictment in 27 years. Many view the nonviolent change in leadership as an exemplary indication that the institutions are working. No blood was shed. The protestors asking for a return of military rule numbered at about six on a sunny day in Ibirapuera Park.

It’s complicated when conversing about Temer. Some say he should have been ousted with Ms. Rousseff as he was Vice-President and privy to the very activities that led to her conviction. Others say Temer is a career politician who knows how to survive.

I can attest to the fun-loving nature of Brazilians so perhaps it’s no surprise that they like to make parties. The country has the most splintered political system in the world with 25 parties in the House of Representatives and 17 in the Senate. The coalition governmental structure required Dilma to make a deal with the Temer devil, but they never consummated their arranged marriage.

My sample is far from random or representative, but my friends and colleagues were pleased to see Dilma gone and are awaiting the capture of Lula who they all agree is the charismatic architect of evil. If this is true, it’s a disappointing use of charm as I was mesmerized by Lula years ago when I heard him speak and I don’t even understand Portuguese.

“These are interesting times. Liquid times,” says Wellington, the professional clown. “We must learn to surf the waves and survive the riptides of social unrest,” he advises. Our liquid of choice is two Manhattans ironically consumed in a São Paulo neighborhood called Brooklin (albeit spelled differently). Earlier in the evening I had hosted a cocktail party that began with discussions of Brazilian corruption only to be sidelined when our British colleagues had to explain Brexit, and you know what came next. It ain’t easy being a North American abroad. I couldn’t possibly defend Trump, but I did inquire as to possible long stays on various Latin American couches should the election go the wrong way.

Given the situation in Brazil, the Dean of the Fundaçao Dom Cabral chose to focus our board meeting on domestic issues and we were lucky enough to be joined by Carlos Braga from the World Bank, Senator Antonio Anastasia who lead the impeachment process and Marina Silva who ran for president against Dilma and who some say may become the next president. Braga confirmed that the Brazilian brand is in decline and noted that the country ranked 178th in the world for ease of doing business. The senator shared, “We have no trust and live in total bureaucracy. Brazilians like forms and stamps and seals.” The advisors suggested a reduction of processes as a way of reducing corruption. Yup, pare down the hyper-governance that no one can enforce and alleviate the constant need to find help “expediting” the system.

“Brazil,” said Braga, “is not for beginners.” He tied Brazil’s recovery to China. Additional presentations informed us that when it comes to productivity, three Brazilians are needed for every one Korean. We were told that education doesn’t equate with productivity in the land of cashews and cachaça, and that its population is aging way faster than domestic programs are prepared for.

The assembled asserted that there was no economic crisis, no natural disaster, but rather a crisis of leadership. And here’s an astounding notion—Lula could be convicted of corruption and still be eligible to run again for president—and he’s considering it. It follows then that there’s little trust in government and a limited interest for new players to pursue a career in civil service. People are afraid as their signature today could be a lawsuit tomorrow.

One woman who isn’t giving up is Marina Silva, who passionately spoke about the need for a new election and a debate with society. Marina was, of course, referring to her country but as if by magic, the U.S. delivered. On Monday night, I watched the first Clinton/Trump debate along with a former Republican deputy press secretary, a past Canadian Ambassador, a Colombian CEO, an Australian banker, a business school dean and a whole bunch of informed Brazilians. While a number of us cringed, tweeted and cheered in expected places, the final twist of this trip was that the Brazilians concluded that Hillary was indeed very prepared, too much so— “She’s not human, you can’t trust someone with so much polish.” And given the discussion from the start of my stay, you also can’t trust someone who arrives wearing bug spray. Brazil—it’s not for beginners, so I keep on going back!