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Brazil Moves To Impeach Its First Female President: Is It A Step Back To The Bad Old Days?

Photo: Courtesy of Nicole Huber.
Nicole Huber, with her daughter, in New York. After decades living in the U.S., she is moving back to Brazil.
Nicole Huber is a freelance television news producer. The views expressed here are her own.

I grew up in Rio and was a teenager in the 1970s, when Brazil had military rule. My friends and I were predictably rebellious, as teens typically can be. But we were always afraid of the military police. Crime was not an easy word to define. Anything could be considered a crime — my mother was a journalist and worried about what she wrote. As a literary family, we worried about what we were seen reading. Lots of the music we loved was forbidden, and our favourite musicians were in exile. Anything outside of the mainstream was frowned upon.

But we had privilege, and all the military policemen (yes, only men) seemed to want the same thing: dinheiro. Stopped at a traffic blitz? Slip some cash under your driver’s license and, magically, all problems were solved. Caught with a joint in your purse? Increase the amount of bills, but same procedure. We were stopped all the time simply because we were seen as potential cash cows. But we were also aware that we were fortunate, and that many others who were being stopped did not ever come home.

Crime was not an easy word to define. Anything could be considered a crime…Lots of the music we loved was forbidden, and our favorite musicians were in exile.

The PMs (policia militar, military police) rode around in cars we called the camburão. I am sure that everyone I know had witnessed people getting violently shoved into them at one time or another. It was such a common sight, and yet it was hard to know what crime, if any, these people had committed. Once taken into custody, how many would languish indefinitely in an overcrowded jail waiting for some sort of arraignment that might never happen? Many, including the now-suspended president, Dilma Rousseff, were beaten and tortured. Some did not survive.
In those days, the president was voted for by electoral committee, and we all dreamed of a fantasy called democracy, where the people could select and vote for their leader. Then came the Diretas Já movement. It was the first time in my life that I had seen my fellow Brazilians out on the streets, speaking their minds and fighting for the right to vote. There were daily demonstrations all over the country full of joy, music, and hope. The future was looking bright. The population had found its voice and was using it loud and clear.

I left Brazil in 1981 for London. It was the most extraordinary culture shock. I could do anything! Except, I discovered, ride my bike against traffic, which I got fined for doing on the Battersea Bridge. But the cop was polite, respectful, and matter-of-fact. There was no long, meandering conversation. I had broken the law; I had to pay a fine. No bribe was expected or offered. It was over with just a, "Thank you, and please don't do it again."
I have lived in the U.S. since 1989. I've raised two kids in New York and have watched my homeland evolve from afar. Over the years, "Brazil is not a serious country," and "Brazil is the country of the future — and always will be" are just a few of the famous quotes I've often heard. But Brazil did become a democracy. The country did get serious, did see the future, and, ultimately, it did grow into a place I want to live in again. Brazil will always be Meu Brasil Brasileiro, still distinctly Brazilian with all the wonders and flaws that go along with that, but the country has come a long way.

Injustice and poverty have been drastically reduced. There is opportunity for all. Labor laws are fairer. Children whose parents did not have a chance to finish middle school are now going to university. A growing middle class is building the economy. Corruption is still there, sure, but now anyone can speak up and fight it. Above all, there finally seemed to be a "voice for the voiceless" in power.

Now cut to May 12, 2016. I'm packing up my apartment for a move back to Rio later his month when I hear the news that the Senate has voted to impeach the president. And I can't help but wonder: Am I returning to the land I left in 1981?