The Congress that ended its four-year mandate in December is widely reviled as “the worst in history”. Within the past year Brazil's two biggest cities, São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, have been terrorised by gangs operating from inside the prison system. Education, perhaps Brazil's biggest failing, seems to be getting worse rather than better. Air travel has been crippled following the mid-air collision last year between a passenger plane and an executive jet. Brazil is “falling to pieces”, lamented Lya Luft, a columnist for Veja, the biggest news magazine, last year.
Since independence was proclaimed by the son of the Portuguese king, Brazil has been adding layer upon layer of change rather than sweeping away the old and starting afresh. The 1988 constitution, which restored democracy after 20 years of military dictatorship, did not abolish the culture of cordialidade, which in politics means the primacy of personal bonds over rules. Liberties and electoral rights are entrenched, says the former president, Mr Cardoso, “but there's a lack of citizenship, of respect for the law. Democracy means that, too.”
Brazil is thus in the midst of a slow metamorphosis in its economy, society and polity. “Contemporary Brazil is a hybrid between two moralities: one unequal and hierarchical, the other universal and egalitarian,” argues Jacqueline Muniz, an anthropologist in Rio de Janeiro. Rigid legalism sits alongside rampant illegality, and a vibrant private sector coexists with a sclerotic state. President Lula, who presented himself as the scourge of old-style oligarchs, now governs with their help. Few modernisers are untainted by the past.