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Travel Notes: Brazil


Brazil occupies almost half of the continent, the world’s largest predominantly Catholic nation. One third of the land is jungle. Brazil is one of the fastest growing economies in the developing world,[i] with a population of 200 million and abundant natural resources, including huge oil reserves and a growing technology sector. It’s the world’s fifth largest population. Over half of the total population of South America is Brazilian and speaks Portuguese. This culture is known for its acceptance of various races and lack of discrimination. However, even in Brazil whites tend to have more education and earn more than black and mixed race people. Many poor people still don’t live in houses with drinkable water or sewage system and 7.5 million earn less than $1 a day. The World Bank reported that 21% of Brazilians lived below the poverty line in 2009 and almost one-third of secondary school-age youths are not in school.[ii]

Low-income workers with children under the age of 14 receive a small benefit of up to $115 a month depending on number of children and income, if the child is in school and receives health check ups. Around 12 million families receive the Bolsa Familia benefit, one of the largest programs in the world.[iii] However, this is often less than what they pay in sales taxes.[iv] Still, 1.4 million children between ages of 5 to 13 work without pay, mainly in farming. Brazilian films show us the lives of the poor, such as City of God (2002), Bus 174 (2003), The Middle of the World (2003) about a poor family with five children who ride their bikes 2,000 miles from the northeast to Rio in search of a job, and City of Men (2007) about two 18-year-old boys who grew up in the slums.

Brazil is also an emerging economic power, one of the BRIC nations. I asked why, and Christine Rizzo told me it’s because they’re hard workers, the middle class is growing, and because of mass media the poor are more aware and active in fighting for their rights in a country with abundant resources. She also told me it’s a macho country that has no problem with women leaders like the current president. Said to be the richest Brazilian, Eike Bapista, stated, “We believe that in five years Brazil will be the fifth-largest economy in the world. Obviously, the oil discoveries will [bring about enormous changes]. We’re talking about 100 billion barrels of recoverable oil.” [v]He added that China is becoming their biggest market and the US is lagging in technological development.

Travel Notes, 2007: Buzios is a cobble-stoned resort town three hours drive from Rio. Beach vendors sell coconuts with holes for a straw, grilled shrimp, etc. From the beach, you look domed islands, part of the remains of when Africa and South America were one continent. Middle-class people have a maid most days of the week to cook, clean, and do child care because they only earn $150-$300 a month. Wages have gone up because now the homeowner I visited pays $190 a month for housecleaning one day a week—all day. People smoke in the house and in public places; I realized I live in a small California bubble that’s conscious of the harmful effects of second-hand smoke.

I visited schools (see photos) and interviewed kids. I was told teachers are not well paid (around $350 to $750 a month, compared to $1000 for a university professor) and there aren’t enough spaces for the students, so some schools are in double or tipple sessions, as in common in Latin America.[vi] Instructors with bachelor’s degrees who work for state secondary schools in a middle-ranking system only earn about $7,000 per shift per year, so many work at least a double shift. The average wage for a secondary school teacher was $299 month in 2004 (compared to $4,055 in the US) and a professor averaged $790 (compared to $4,638).[vii]

Public schools aren’t considered good quality education with teacher shortages and absenteeism and lack of preparation, so parents who can afford it send their kids to private schools (around $500 a month). To send a child to the private school in Buzios costs around $1,500 if paid in advance and includes access to a room full of computers, English class, and lunch. About 14% of Brazilians are in private schools, according to 2009 figures from the Ministry of Education. Brazil’s schools have risen from the bottom of the rating list in the International Student Assessment in 2000, to 53rd out of 65 countries in 2010.[viii] (Chile scored highest of Latin American countries but all of them were in the bottom third globally.) If students do well on the college entrance exam, they can go to public universities, sought after because they are free. A class system is perpetuated, as poor families can’t afford to send their kids to private schools to get the preparation they need to do well on the entrance exam. In Rio de Janeiro, 19-year-old Joao told me in all of Rio there are only two or three good public high schools and those require doing well on preliminary exams to be admitted. Some politicians are arguing for quotas to set aside university slots for low-income and students of color.

I interviewed a former physical education teacher. Claudia told me the public schools often divided into a morning and an afternoon session, and some have triple sessions. Kids get breakfast and lunch at school, an incentive for parents to send them to school. But the kids get the worst quality rice and beans because of government corruption. The school, books, and uniforms are free. Students only pay for copybooks and pencils. She taught PE in a high school in Rio in a good residential area, but her equipment consisted of one ball and no money to buy more. The other PE teacher at her school told her not to bother coming to school when it rains; you can still collect your salary. But Claudia did go to class, and the unattended students came to her classroom to do exercises, causing resentment from other teachers. Teacher absenteeism is a problem in Brazil, as in other developing nations.

Poor education stands in the way of Brazil’s progress, according to a World Bank report in 2008: “Unfortunately, in an era of global competition, the current state of education in Brazil means it is likely to fall behind other developing economies in the search for new investment and economic growth opportunities.”[ix] Students score low on international exams for basic skills and 10% are illiterate, despite the Bolsa Familia subsidy program requirement of school attendance. Under President da Silva, the government created a scholarship program for low-income students to attend private colleges and opened vocational schools, but he often boasted that he got as far as he did without going beyond the fourth grade and critics say he didn’t do enough to expand educational opportunities.

Lula was followed by his Minister of Energy, Dilma Rousseff announced, “I will not rest while there are Brazilians without food on their table, homeless in the streets, and poor children abandoned to their luck.” called education “the most important issue facing Brazil,” according to The New York Times. One of her campaign slogans called for a computer for every child. A member of President Dilma Rousseff’s transition team, Roberto Mangabeira Unger, observed, “despite all of these tangible and intangible advances the central problem of the country has not yet been solved. The central problem is this disparity between our vitality and the consequences of our inequality.”[x] He adds, “Successive Brazilian presidents have affirmed the priority of political reform and then failed in power actually to bring it about. The point of departure, the first step towards this future is to sever the link between politics and money, to create a state that is not in the pocket of a plutocracy,” as is needed in the US as well. He advocates more spending on education and changing from rote learning to analysis.

Minimum wage was raised to $328 a month in 2011. People were disillusioned with their leader Lula (Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva) and socialism because of scandal and corruption among about half of his top politicians, although he has created some good education programs. Two Brazilian students I talked with, Dalca and Vini, felt his Bolsa Familia welfare program for the poor is a ploy to get votes, encourages having more children to get more money, and discourages work, although it does require that children attend school to receive the family allowance. Health care is free, but crowded public hospitals are not considered high quality and may require long waits. People who can afford it buy health insurance or pay for private care, averaging $85 a visit,[xi] just as those can afford it send their children to private schools.

Claudia’s sister lives in Rio and doesn’t feel safe, as more than 1,000 favelas (slums) have spread down the mountains around Rio, housing 2 to 3 million people, about one-third of the city’s population. They’re second generation now. Her sister carries a fake purse with a small amount of money and an old cell phone to give to robbers and is considering putting expensive bulletproof windows in her car. Many street kids are homeless and grab jewelry from pedestrians.

Rio has 10 million people, an informal beach culture, with people on the beach playing soccer, volleyball, and surfing. I also saw families and kids living on the streets (see my photos and Bus 174, a documentary film about a former street kid who hijacks a city bus in Rio). The highlight for me was visiting a favela called Rocinha, the largest of around 600 in Rio, with 250,000 people, located between two rich neighborhoods.[xii] The film City of God (2002) shows crime life in a favela/slum in Rio. Brazilian students told me in 2010 Rocinha is one of four the government cleaned up to be free of gangs, bringing in soldiers to do the job to clean up for the 2016 Olympics.

Currently, about 1 in 5 Rio residents lives in a favela, a frequently lawless community that often lacks basic sanitation, water, lighting, and policing. They are governed by drug gangs and militias who charge residents a security tax. The outcome is violence, over 6,000 murders in Rio de Janeiro in one year. Some view Rio’s situation like a low-level war with murders so common they no longer make headlines; check out http://www.riobodycount.com. The government was motivated by planning for the 2016 Olympics to get a handle on the violence, as by having police officers on patrol, asking about the needs of the people.

I was shown around a fevela by an Italian woman named Barbara who came to Rio for a holiday and fell in love with it. (See photos) She lives in the favela with her husband, a handsome favela man. It’s an informal society separate from the surrounded wealthy areas. The inhabitants don’t pay any taxes and don’t get any services. They do get electricity, as you can see in the photos from the wires strung all over, and are billed for it. The sewage flows down open conduits, very smelly of course, especially for the people who have houses near the sewage. When it rains, the sewage floods the narrow pathways between the homes. Barbara has staph infections on her legs from walking in the dirty water. Houses are built on top of houses, with brick and mortar, wider than the original structures, creating narrow sunless alleys and a high rate of tuberculosis because of the humid sunless air.

The favela is run by a drug gang, which Barbara said is connected to international traffickers. Some gang members are dealers and some are soldiers. Drugs come from Columbia to Rio and then move on to the US and Italy. As we walked, she said hello to a middle-aged man who she said started killing men when he was 14. He protected her when she first came to the favela. Everyone knows her and the gangs offer her safety. We saw young men on motorcycles near the entrance to the community, guarding it. She asked me to put away my camera when we saw them. They administer Wild West justice. For example, we talked with a 14-year-old mother, who was raped by a neighbor. The gang soldiers gave him a choice, death or pay for a home for her. The rapist picked the latter. Barbara asked the girl if she was in school and of course she isn’t. The gang members often don’t live past age 25 because of shootouts, and they all carry guns. We could see bullets in house walls where the police and gangs had gunfights.

When I talked with a psychologist who works with the young people in the favela, she outlined the common problems she hears. Fathers are usually missing, or may have other families. Even those fathers who live with their kids often  don’t pay attention to them. Mothers struggle to provide for their kids and some are addicted to drugs or alcohol, and are victims of domestic violence. Their sons in turn may be violent with their girlfriends. A grandmother told Barbara that her daughter, the mother of three children, was useless to them, a prostitute. The grandmother admits she herself is an alcoholic, but knows the children shouldn’t have to suffer. Barbara enrolled them in her preschool. Sixty children are cared for in her day care center for ages four months to age six. There are 110 kids in the pre-school. In the after-school program they can get help with homework; if you would like to donate money to her projects, you can do so on www.roupasuja.org.

Mayra Avellar Neves was 15-years-old when she organized a protest in her Rio favela. She organized a peace march with 300 young people to get police out of the favela during school hours, so teachers could come to the school without gunfights. Now Mayra is 17 and continues to fight for children’s rights. She got the Children’s Peace Prize from Desmond Tutu in 2008. She said, “Everybody has a part to play in improving human rights, in particular the rights of children as the future generation. We can and must stand up for these children, whose rights are being violated and whose lives are at risk.”[xiii]

[i]Sharon Lobel, “Work-Life in Brazil,” Boston College Center for Work & Family executive briefing series, October, 2009. The next two paragraphs draw from this report.

[iii] Gary Duffy, “Family Friendly,” BBC News, May 25, 2010. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/10122754

[iv] “When Toucans Can’t,” The Economist, April 7, 2011.


[v] Charlie Rose, “Eike Batista: Rich Man. Richest Man?,” Bloomberg Businessweek, February 11, 2010.


[vi] Seth Kugel, “Brazil’s Unequal Education System Amounts to Big Problems,” GlobalPost, September 22, 2010.


[viii] “No Longer Bottom of the Class: Weak and Wasteful Schools Hold Brazil Back.” The Economist, December 9, 2010.


[ix] Alexei Barrionuevo, “Educational Gaps Limit Brazil’s Reach,” New York Times, September 5, 2010.


[x] Rodrigo Camarena, “The Rousseff Presidency and Beyond: Interview with Roberto Mangabeira Unger,” Brazil: the World Affairs Blog Network,

January 18, 2011


[xi] Virigina Rsende, “Designing a Low-Cost, High Performance Primary Health Care Chain in Brazil,”  http://accessh.org/index.php/list-of-existing-blogs/223


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