Magic Realism for Real?

12 February 2002
Boris Kagarlitsky

Magic Realism for Real?
Boris Kagarlitsky
The Moscow Times, 12 February 2002

On this trip to Latin America, I finally grasped the meaning of magic realism.

The World Social Forum consisted of a huge number of events taking place simultaneously all over the city of Porto Alegre in Brazil. The program of seminars and conferences was laid out in a 150-page bilingual directory. But the morning sessions began at different times, depending on what language you spoke. Things got under way at 8 a.m. in Portuguese and at 8.30 a.m. in English. "You know the Brazilians", a local participant explained. "If you print the right time, they'll show up an hour later". All the same, everything shut down at noon, when the translators left their booths and went home for their siesta.

An acquaintance of mine from Moscow promised to call my hotel room one morning before picking me up to visit the Forum's camp for young people. When he didn't call, I went down to the front desk, where I learned that my compatriot was not to blame. He had been diligently calling all morning, and the receptionist had just as diligently been connecting him with the wrong room, then conscientiously leaving me messages when I failed to pick up the phone. By the time I sorted things out, I was late. I had no choice but to hop in a taxi and get to the camp on my own. I had to find my compatriot in any case, because we had a meeting with Scandinavian colleagues that evening. The taxi driver, however, mistakenly proceeded to take me to the university campus.

When it became clear that I wouldn't make it to the youth camp, I began wandering through the bookstalls of the radical publishing houses. And wouldn't you know it, I ran into the very compatriot I was supposed to meet. He had also wound up in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or was it the right place after all?

My acquaintance couldn't catch a break that day. In the evening, his cabby was in a foul mood and drove him to the wrong hotel. The first people he saw there were the Norwegians we were to meet and who had also been delivered to the hotel by mistake. Or was it by design? This is evidently the secret of Latin America's vitality: Nothing goes as planned, but everything turns out all right in the end.

We will have an opportunity to test this observation in the fall, when Brazil holds presidential elections. This is why my strongest impression from the Forum was produced by Luis Ignacio Lula da Silva, the Workers' Party candidate. When I saw Lula, as he is better known among Brazilians, he was making his way through a throng at the main market, surrounded by supporters, gawkers and tourists. His supporters chanted slogans like soccer fans in the terraces. People were constantly trying to get their picture taken with him, or failing that to touch the national hero on the cheek or tug on his beard. The candidate smiled a perplexed smile as he tried to reach a cheap restaurant where the mayor and the governor were waiting.

The Workers' Party owes its current popularity to general disillusionment with neo-liberalism. The liberal government's victory over inflation proved ephemeral, but the price paid by the Brazilian people has been all too real. When the ruble collapsed in 1998, it was obvious that the real and the Argentine peso would follow. The Brazilian government deserves credit for not waiting until the last minute to devalue the real, flouting the advice of the International Monetary Fund. Unfortunately, when the real fell, it dragged down with it the reputations of President Fernando Cardoso and his Social Democratic Party. Lula likes to remind people that his party always opposed the introduction of the new currency, but the upcoming election presents him with a difficult problem. After devaluation of the real, Brazilians were quick to remember what it had cost to stabilize their currency in the first place. They will look to the victor in this year's election to solve a host of social problems and to root out corruption. At the same time, however, inflation cannot be allowed to run wild.

While Lula was mingling with supporters, Russia's leaders prudently chose heavily guarded New York hotels over meetings with Latin American activists. And yet Russia, with its oligarchical economy, looks more like Latin America every day. Theft is just as rampant here, but for some reason we have snow on the ground all winter and no carnivals. We also have no protesters and no opposition. No one tugs our politicians by the beard or heaves cream pies in their faces. There's no joking around with them. That's simply not in our character.

Copyright 2002 The Moscow Times