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Monkey Wants Banana

January 22, 2005

On New Year’s Eve, end of 2002, two friends and I were sprawled out on Copacabana Beach. The following day, while the litter from parties in Rio was being raked off the beach, Luis Inacio “Lula” da Silva would take over the presidency in a day of almost Olympic-caliber ceremonies in Brasilia. His two-stage election to office—the first time in Brazil’s history that a proletarian, let alone a socialist, had been so elevated—had culminated a two-decade rise from union leader to opponent of the dictatorship to founder of the Worker’s Party.

During the two months after Lula’s inauguration I had decamped Rio for São Paulo to work at an NGO/think-tank that does research in public policy. Since I had stupidly taken a service flat in a hotel not near the job, I cabbed to work every day. This was, by local standards, pricey (about US$12.00 round-trip), but especially taxing because every cab driver called on me, sitting in the shotgun seat beside him (best way to avoid being held up at red lights and in traffic jams worthy of DeMille), to explain the clearly inexorable progress toward an invasion of Iraq. Initially I took this challenge boldly, thinking ‘piece-a-cake’. But paulistano cab drivers spend their whole day hanging out at “taxi points” reading the papers and talking to their colleagues, who have been reading other papers (one of the billion things I love about Brazil: there are lots of papers). They are the best-informed people in the world. All the US cable news outlets should tear up their pundits’ contracts and wire these guys live from the street corners.

Cornered was certainly the word. Justifying our soon-to-be-latest incursion into supposedly sovereign territory (wasn’t that what had made the Iraqi roll into Kuwait objectionable?) was a non-starter. Because oddly enough, unlike the cardiganed home audience of the BBC, the folks in São Paulo had already read this weapons-of-mass-destruction angle to be a lie. (Flagrantly ridiculous allegations being lobbed out of Washington on the eve of Lula’s inauguration, about Brazil’s own supposed stockpile of WMD, no doubt solidified this.) So I sent up a couple theories that appealed to them more: it’s like a re-enacters’ take on Vietnam in which we win! Bush Jr gets to show Bush Sr that he is not just a loser, coke-head and numbskull, but a loser-cokehead-numbskull who can WIN the war that Dad couldn’t choke down enough Viagra to pull off.

These interpretations made sense to Brazilians not because they conformed with the listeners’ cynical view of America, but because they conformed with their cynical view of reality. This is how things work here, so why wouldn’t they work this way there? But America? some wondered. America was supposed to be different.

These were signs of a sea-change. Not long before, rank-and-file Brazilians, like rank-and-filers around the world, regarded America with awe and envy, and with an ambivalent strain of admiration fueled by a constellation of inferiority complexes. Just about the time I landed in São Paulo, one of the same cabbies had asked me, “Why is Bush cultivating Lula, hoping to get Brazil’s support for his war?” (And for Brazilians it was always Bush’s own war.) “Why does anyone in America care what Brazil thinks?” It was hard to begin my answer truthfully—Bush is desperate—but the sequitur was ok: “Bush wants to get Brazil on his side because he’s lining up international support and Brazil is the only big country everybody likes.” While there is still a first world, and no longer a third world (it has been replaced by the “developing” world, much of which is developing … in reverse), the post-Cold War shift has left us in a situation in which there is really the First World and then there’s The World—of which Brazil is highly representative.

The cab drivers nodded their heads, bemused but intrigued, at this analysis. But just before the war was emblazoned across our screens, and CNN’s That New Guy (who apparently was super-ugly, because he was never on camera) was all but cumming as he voiceovered the Bradleys’ blitzkrieg through the deserts, another cab driver handed me my receipt and closed our discussion with real sadness: “All I know is, it’s a scary time when you believe you have to side with France.”

I first came to Brazil at the time of the US Presidential election in 2000. I came back enough times afterward to need new pages in my passport, and now I live here. My view of Brazilians’ attitudes toward the US is highly colored: by the fact that I spoke Portuguese a lot worse 4 years ago and 2 years ago, during the election cycles, than I did during two campaign seasons that coincided, Brazil’s and the USA’s, at the end of 2004; by the incomprehensibility at least to outsiders of Brazilian politics; and by the fact that nearly all my friends are very poor, though the minority who aren’t are almost all extremely, fabulously rich.

This demographic is, by virtue of the most breathtaking income and wealth disparities in the Western Hemisphere (10% of the population holds 50% of the assets and takes home, or to offshore accounts, 50% of the income) not unrepresentative of the population. So what is striking is that every Brazilian I have ever talked to—not a scientific sample, but hundreds of people—ALL, rich, poor and middle class, HATE George W. Bush. Let me be clear about this: I am not talking about the vast majority, but about 100% of subjects polled, and they do not have to be polled—Brazilians, a people noted for their mannerliness and lack of strong opinions that may offend, are eager to volunteer the information. They spit on the ground, at least figuratively, every time his name gets mentioned. They hold him in a contempt that is absolute in its absoluteness. I asked my boyfriend, Gecimar, a designer in theater who grew up very poor, is now middle class, and works mostly among the affluent, for verification of this. “Yes. Hating Bush is the only thing uniting the social classes.”

So, this bracing dislike of W would seem to be a fact. But why? Or why just him? In great part because Brazilians don’t want to break down and dislike America. They want to go on believing in America: just turn on the TV, it’s wonderful there! Their dreams exist inside the tube, and their dreamiest dreams are imported. The America of awesome ski and snowboard footage, of Sex & The City, and Friends, of a perceived level of personal security—social, physical, financial—unimaginable for the majority here, but clearly taken for granted up there. Watching TV with Brazilians—or for that matter anyone from outside the US—is telling. A year or so ago I was trying to ignore the Schwarzenegger movie a Brazilian friend was avidly taking in. Footage of Arnold driving an SUV through a nicely groomed suburb. “Is it really like that in America?” he asked. “Like what?” I figured he meant the affluence. “The houses don’t have walls?” I momentarily imagined roofs hanging in the air over foundations and floors, but then saw what he meant: in Brazil’s suburbs, any free-standing house is surrounded by an eight-foot barrier of concrete, topped with broken glass if the owner is poorish or average, with three strands of electrified wire if he’s better off.

Increasingly, such an idea of security means more than upward mobility. Crime rates have leveled, and are even dropping. But flaunting of the blandishments of consumerism enjoyed by others (as TV would have one believe, enjoyed by everyone everywhere—except here) has accelerated. The average Brazilian has no car and takes home a couple hundred bucks a month, or a little less depending on the dollar-real rate. Once she gets home, she gets to spend four hours or more watching her kids hypnotized by lighter-skinned people who have the best cars, the best dates, the best stuff. The best hair, the best time. She is dismayed but unsurprised that her kids go to work for drug traffickers before they are old enough to leave the house. This is understood so well by everyone that it’s not discussed, let alone thought about.

At the other pole, the level of insecurity taken in stride here makes the American obsession with “terror” look and sound about as convincing as our obsession with communism through most of the past century (and Brazilians suffered significantly for that, too). Terrorists have killed a number of Americans about equal to the number the American tobacco companies kill (domestically) every three weeks. A number about equal to the number of Brazilians whose murders go unsolved in São Paulo in two years. (An award-winning journalist I spoke to, known nationally for his work on homicide, attributes a quarter to a third of this to extra-judicial or just plain grudge killings by cops. When your neighbor’s kid is killed by those sent by the state to provide security, how is your sense of security affected?)

Brazil is nonetheless a functioning democracy. Not thriving, perhaps, but more so than the United States. (A much higher percentage of voters bother to vote—encouraged in part by a small fine if they don’t; candidates actually represent widely differing positions on the political spectrum, the lower house of Congress is not nearly so blatantly gerrymandered in order to insure victories by incumbents and a lock by two parties; in the case of a close election, we have a run-off instead of having the Supreme Court appoint the president; finally, our Senate is not controlled by a minority of the population who live in rural and reactionary states, thereby exerting as well a wildly disproportionate weight in an archaic electoral college.) Hence, in the minds of the Brazilians I know, from all walks of life and levels of education, the image of the great bastion of democracy, becoming ever-more authoritarian at home and dictatorial abroad, flailing destructively on a quest for security, makes a morbid sense. Their own military, once its rule seemed vaguely threatened a half-decade following its takeover in the early ‘60s, made itself even less popular by becoming considerably more repressive. Average Brazilians, being especially Brazilian—with traits that include a forbearance that baffles and eventually enrages us foreign residents—waited it out. As they intend to wait out the current tantrum of the United States. Nonetheless, the image of America as well-intentioned, as an adolescent but good-hearted force for fairness and right, has been eroded almost completely. When a friend who’s never been to America asserted that it is a racist country, I vehemently insisted this was not so. “Oh? Try looking like an Arab.” Not all the criticism is fair, but the image projected for so long—that old City/Hill equation—was asking for it.

In 1943, Brazil’s first dictator, the increasingly nostalgized Getúlio Vargas resolved—though somewhat a fascist sympathizer—to enter the Second World War on the Allied side. The thinking behind this decision was complex, but at bottom simple: siding with America was not only sound, it was good politics: it was perceived to be right. The current mood is essentially the opposite. If America, as it is called here, wants to involve you in its grudge against someone, head the other way. Once America’s aims were taken almost at face value; now they’re taken, almost automatically, to be suspect.

Yet Brazilians’ longing to emulate America is enacted and enshrined in one of the country’s fastest-growing institutions: the swanky suburban-type mall. In an environment where it never rains, the air is conditioned to 20 degrees Celsius, and with little fear of being killed by a stray bullet in a melee between bandidos, we can shop.

When the market research first projected Lula’s victory back in July, 2002, the real had lost half its value against the dollar in a week, and continued a slide that was a balm to us foreigner tourists. Once the election was a done deal, the financial markets, and the currency, had stabilized. To everyone’s surprise including its own, the upper class had not only resigned itself bravely to Lula’s inauguration, but cautiously embraced it. Given the fact that Brazil’s elite had just celebrated 500 years of unchallenged control of the world’s 5th-largest geopolitical entity, this was an imaginative, even courageous, stand. Enjoying as they did (and do) the ancien-régime distribution of wealth noted above, well-off and well-connected Brazilians could not have seen much to benefit them under the red banner of the Partido dos Trabalhadores. But at least for the present, they seemed to say, our commitment to democracy outweighs our attachment to privilege.

Oddly, conservative forces in Washington were less easy, or maybe less satisfied that they had exploited the situation to the full. In the weeks before the inauguration, they awoke to the rich possibilities of a Red Scare in the Tropics. Along with illegally-franked holiday cards to generous lobbyists, letters of alarm began to pour out from the Hill. They were addressed to Foggy Bottom and Langley and Pennsylvania Avenue, but were intended of course for leaking: a socialist labor leader with a beard and a lisp, however transformed by consultants into a media-genic suit-and-tie figure(head), Lula took his orders maybe not from Moscow but surely from Havana, and showed unwholesome goodwill toward Chavez’s Caracas. Brazil doubtless had a secret nuclear arsenal (though probably no match to Israel’s), and The Missiles of October was about to be remade into a musical, this time with a samba beat. Never mind that this made utterly no sense; the US Congress, truly representative of the electorate in at least one regard, thrives on stampeding itself.

How this pathetic backlash had become the topic of conversation on the beach that New Year’s Eve is anyone’s guess, since our usual routine was making fun of each other, and when that got dull, making fun of the people foolhardy enough to venture between us and the water. Filipe, lolling behind too-cool-for-school sunglasses on my right, darkening his already mahogany complexion, lamented the paranoia that US politicians seemed hellbent on whipping up. “Brazil hasn’t attacked anyone in a century, but people should be afraid of us? Who are we going to attack?” He was uncharacteristically (uncharacteristic of his countrymen as well as himself) indignant. His tattoo twitched. “But the US attacks everybody.”

“Well,” I languidly rose to a lazy semblance of defending my country, “not everybody.”

Filipe (he puts the stress on the first syllable, a droll affectation on top of the spelling that evokes “of Macedon”) offered a rejoinder that necessitates a little background. He grew up in a series of shitty slums and outright favelas (though not, as he says resentfully, the glamorous ones in foreign magazines), has an extensive police record, may have completed the equivalent of 7th grade, and has never had a steady job. Or for that matter an unsteady one. The gig would have run only a week or so, but there is a recurrent rumor that he once was Ricky Martin’s housepet; if that’s so, Ricky likes it rougher than I would have thought.

Given these credentials, it was startling how he replied to my “not everybody,” reeling off a list—Haiti, Serbia, Libya, Panama, Nicaragua, Grenada, Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, etc., etc.—of the numerous countries the US had indeed made war on or occupied in his short and precarious lifetime.

Facts could be asserted and weighed against others, but there was no serious challenge to Filipe’s general historical view: the United States attacks everyone. As seen from the foreign perspective, our foreign policy is carried out primarily by the Pentagon, not by State.

The conversation reverted to the usual heckling and singing snatches of songs that somehow adverted to the unfortunate rear-end of the bather strolling by or the hilarious gravity of the German tourists taking a stab at frolicking in the surf. But that exchange has stuck with me two years. Starting this letter, I laid out for my very cynical Brazilian boyfriend the basics: it’s about Brazilians’ regard for the US. Did he have ideas? Yes, he said: make the title macaco quer banana. This multi-purpose idiom — literally “monkey wants banana” — is as good an encapsulation as any other three words of the traditional relationship between the two most populous countries in the Western Hemisphere. Brazilians do at times see Brazil—though lately a respected spokes-state for the dogpound of nations—as the monkey, its paw held hopefully out. But is Uncle Sam the trainer, the zookeeper, or the organ grinder?

After 10 years as a literary agent in film and television, Jess Taylor went into voluntary exile in 2002. He lives in Rio de Janeiro.

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