SAO PAULO, Brazil — Over the last three years, Brazil’s usually lighthearted Carnival culture has been darkened by a political and economic crisis that has turned into the longest recession in the country’s history.
In an attempt to root out the rot plaguing Brazil’s core, Operation Car Wash has exposed corruption at the highest political levels. Led by Attorney Sérgio Moro, a modern-day Eliot Ness, it is one of the deepest-running investigations of its kind.
Besides taking to the streets and social media in protest, the public’s only outlet is watching their politicians get butchered in the media — but still, average citizens continue to endure most of the fallout from the crisis.
Brazilian Jews share the same fate as everyone else in Latin America’s largest, most populous and economically developed country. Most of them fall into the middle class, an economic tier becoming more impoverished by the day since the onset of the record-setting two-year recession.
Last year’s impeachment of president Dilma Rousseff and the recent sentencing to nine-and-a-half years in prison for her predecessor Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva — known simply as Lula — have cast a pall over Brazil.
Lula was charged for corruption and money laundering, and Rousseff was either involved or failed to put an end to it. Now, serious accusations against the current president, Michel Temer, are adding fuel to the fire.
Rounding out the bleak scenario are the widespread arrests of politicians and businessmen, along with the dismantling of large companies involved in corruption scandals, such as Petrobras and Odebrecht.
The situation has been very trying for the country’s Jewish community of 110,000.
“Us Jews have experienced a fair share of suffering throughout history. Maybe we can help Brazil through these tough times,” says Bruno Laskowsky, president of the Jewish Federation of São Paulo.
São Paulo hold’s Brazil’s highest concentration of Jews. “We have been very welcome in Brazil and owe our loyalty to this nation, which, I am sure, will overcome this challenge sooner or later,” Laskowsky says.
Light at the end of the tunnel?
But while the community tries to focus on the light at the end of the tunnel, it needs to maintain a degree of resilience — and Brazil’s middle class is watching its standard of living disappear before their eyes.
“I had a comfortable house and a car, a regular job. And now, I’m back living with my parents. My family helps me out, fortunately,” says Rochelle Rosensweig, an economist with an MBA in finance.
Rosensweig now relies on a scholarship to keep her 12-year-old son enrolled in a Jewish school in São Paulo. Living off occasional freelance consulting gigs, she’s considering a second job as an Uber driver to guarantee a steadier income.
Despite her qualifications as a medical professional, psychologist Denise Lew also struggles to make ends meet as a civil servant.
“I can’t even afford to pay my son’s tuition. At the office, I have seen demand fall sharply in recent years because of the crisis. Nobody has any money,” she says.
Lew is broke, like many others. Interest rates in Brazil are sky high, causing debt to snowball. Both Rosensweig and Lew rely on assistance from Unibes, a Jewish charitable organization.
Many companies have shuttered or gone bankrupt in recent years. Pedestrians walking in São Paulo’s commercial centers are seeing a growing number of empty businesses. The real estate market is stalled, and vehicles are sold at large markdowns.
The economic downturn has also seen membership at Jewish community centers and clubs such as Hebraica gradually dwindle.
But Jewish families in Brazil have more serious concerns, such as ensuring a quality education for their children. Recently, the number of payment defaults in both Jewish and non-Jewish private schools has increased.
“Most Jewish schools receive philanthropic subsidies to keep them going,” says Laskowsky.
Demand in charities such as Ten Yad and Unibes in São Paulo has also increased. Both serve poor people of all backgrounds and are officially recognized as public services. Growing demand from members of the Jewish community is striking.
“The request for our meals and services is increasing by about 20% a year, and we have also realized a drop in the average age of our beneficiaries, meaning younger people are seeking us out,” says Ten Yad director Rabbi David Weitman.
Located in Bom Retiro, the old Jewish district of São Paulo, Ten Yad also offers a program that delivers food for people with no means of transportation.
“We are at the limit of our capacity,” Weitman tells The Times of Israel.
A century old, Unibes runs flea markets with used clothes and slightly damaged products in order to raise funds. When asked about the current situation in Brazil, the Unibes board preferred not to comment.
The situation in Rio
The situation in Rio de Janeiro is more dramatic. The Sugarloaf city is experiencing a crisis within a crisis. In addition to the swelling favelas, or slums, overflowing since the country’s capital moved to the city of Brasilia in the 1960s, Rio has been overrun with drug trafficking.
The city is commonly referred to as the “Gaza Strip” by Cariocas (Rio natives). Stray bullets hit the civilian population indiscriminately almost every day.
In the reviled corruption rankings, former Rio governor Sérgio Cabral was among those leading the pack. He is now in jail. The “free for all” for public money tainted even the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games investments, and now, most of the region’s sports facilities are abandoned.
The flow of tourists has slowed to a trickle. Sixty-nine stores go out of business every day. Even next year’s cherished Carnival parade is threatened by a lack of funds. With no money to pay police officers and teachers, it’s a tough sell to finance rollicking.
Violence has led Carioca Jews to opt for emigration to Israel, says the Israeli consul in São Paulo, Dori Goren.
“Rio does not have a consulate,” says Goren, “so many Carioca Jews interested in aliyah come here [to São Paulo]. They report the fear of violence as one of the main reasons for emigrating.”
Voting with their feet
The Israeli consulate in São Paulo is making an extra effort to meet the overall increase in demand for emigration to Israel.
“It requires the translation of many documents and going through bureaucratic procedures. It’s not an easy job,” says Goren, who saw a similar situation in Argentina 15 years ago.
According to the Jewish Agency, the number of Brazilian emigrants is increasing. The end of 2015 saw a 77% increase in the number of olim (496) compared to 2014, which itself represented an increase of 39% (280) over the year prior (207).
2016 saw the arrival of 684 olim to Israel, 40% more than in 2015. And by May of this year, 346 new olim (29% more than in the same period in 2016) have already made Israel their new home.
“Israel will always open its arms to the Jews — even more now, when the unemployment rate is very low and the economy is thriving. Contrary to popular belief, Israel has a low violence rate, with only two annual deaths per 100,000 inhabitants,” says Goren.
The country of the future
The Brazilian crisis is part of the troubling mosaic created by neo-populism in Latin America.
Hugo Chavez and his successor Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela, Lula and Rousseff in Brazil, and Nestor Kirchner along with his wife Cristina in Argentina are among just a few examples of the troubling leadership there.
In Brazil, the economic teams working under Lula and Rousseff were betting on untapped oil resources to hide their corruption and poor governance. Unfortunately, they lost the bet, causing the country’s virtual collapse.
A large number of idealistic young Jews in Brazil were charmed by the prospect of a country led by a former labor union man like Lula. They imagined that he could reduce social inequality without falling into the traps that stymied the traditional left in the past. But reality played out much differently than they’d imagined.
After a brief warm-up period which saw the bolstering of millions of people who previously had no purchasing power, the system crashed.
Lack of sustainability, no investment in infrastructure, inability to reform an archaic system and poor management are some of the main issues at blame. And then, of course, there was the unheard level of corruption. The politicians fell back on demagoguery to save face.
“The twilight of an idol,” commented analyst Hélio Schwartsman recently in an article published in one of the most traditional newspapers, Folha de S.Paulo. He was describing the feeling of those who once believed in the labor union leader.
Now, a divided Brazil is unsure who will govern the country tomorrow. An optimistic few still cling to an expression coined by Jewish writer Stefan Zweig, who took refuge from Nazism here: “Brazil, the country of the future.” Ironically, both the writer and his wife took their own lives before this future had a chance to arrive.