Witness: What my lonely curtains say about Brazil's economy

SAO PAULO Mon Feb 4, 2013 8:55pm IST

A vendor sells pineapples on the street to customers in the Mooca neighbourhood of Sao Paulo January 26, 2013. Brazil's official inflation rose to above the centre of its target estimate due to food pressures, local media reported. Reuters/Nacho Doce

A vendor sells pineapples on the street to customers in the Mooca neighbourhood of Sao Paulo January 26, 2013. Brazil's official inflation rose to above the centre of its target estimate due to food pressures, local media reported. Reuters/Nacho Doce

SAO PAULO (Reuters) - In three years as a correspondent in Brazil, I've charmed my way past drunk border guards, survived a four-hour traffic jam, and even outran a (shockingly slow) mugger who chased me up a flight of stairs downtown.

Yet there is one challenge that has left me utterly defeated, and brought members of my family to near tears: Getting a pair of curtains hung in our living room.

OK, it's not exactly life-or-death. But our utter inability to find a carpenter or handyman does say a lot about the historic changes rippling through Brazil's economy - and it may also shed light on other topics, from President Dilma Rousseff's popularity to a recent crime wave in Sao Paulo.

As many people know, Brazil, the No. 1 Latin American economy, enjoyed an economic boom during the past decade. Thanks to prudent policies that brought long-elusive stability to the financial system, and strong demand for its commodities in places like China, Brazil finally shed its reputation as a perennial underperformer.

The boom was particularly notable because it benefited poorer Brazilians the most, allowing some 30 million people - or about 15 percent of the population - to join the middle class.

Many of them were maids, carpenters and others who were used to scratching out a living doing odd jobs. But with Brazil's newfound upward mobility, and unemployment at an all-time low of 4.6 percent, many of those people now have other options - and it turns out virtually anything is better than helping some dumb gringo hang his curtains.

We've tried everything: Asking friends for recommendations, calling well-known contractors, even approaching people on the street. Yet time and again, people tell us they're too busy - or just as frequently, they fail to show up.

Six months have passed. The curtains still sit in a box on our closet floor, mocking us.

The problem, we think, is that the task is too small - and thus not lucrative enough to be worth anybody's time in a city where even top-dollar projects have to practically beg for help.

Antonio Ramalho, the head of Sao Paulo's main builders' union, says there's currently an average delay of six months for construction projects in the city because there aren't enough qualified workers to go around.

"Yeah, it's impossible to get somebody to fix a toilet these days," he said, laughing, when I told him about my problem. "Sorry, I don't see a solution for you soon."

DANGER ON THE STREETS

What's surprising - and kind of disturbing, after a while - is how, everywhere you go in Brazil, you hear the same story.

I interviewed Sao Paulo's then-chief of security in 2011, and he spoke at length about organized crime, thin budgets and the city's terrifying crack epidemic. But when I asked him what his biggest challenge was, he glumly replied: "Human resources."

His best police were getting hired into other, presumably safer professions, he said. Finding competent replacements with sought-after skills such as basic literacy was getting more difficult.

The number of murders in Sao Paulo spiked 40 percent last year, snapping several years of sharp declines. Some experts said a deterioration in police performance was partly to blame, and the chief lost his own job in November.

What seems to be happening is a kind of labor-market food chain in which janitors are becoming office messengers, who are becoming taxi drivers, who are becoming car salesmen, and so on.

That kind of change is great for Brazil, which remains one of the world's most unequal countries, in part because of the legacy from three centuries of slavery. It's also a genuine joy to be a part of, especially for somebody who is from the United States, where poverty and economic inequality have been moving in a decidedly different direction.

But, since moving here, I'm also struck increasingly often by the gut feeling that people are new to their job - and often have no idea what the hell they're doing.

Experts say there's something to that. For example, deaths among Brazilian truckers have soared in recent years - an astonishing 4,000 of them died in accidents in 2011, putting the mortality rate 10 times higher than in the United States. Paulo Resende, an infrastructure expert, says many deaths occur because experienced drivers have taken other jobs, leaving untrained novices to wreak havoc on the roads.

Ramalho's union has started a program in which they're retraining people who haven't worked in construction in decades. In the meantime, complaints of shoddy work have soared.

"Thank God, nobody's been hurt yet," he said.

In truth, too much of this sort of thing can be bad for an economy. The jobless rate has continued to sink, and wages are rising, even as GDP barely expanded the past two years. That has led many economists to worry about falling productivity - which could damage the economy further in years to come.

Many observers, including me, have blamed Brazil's slowdown on President Rousseff's activist economic management, or the euro zone crisis. But I've also wondered if, after such a transformational decade, Brazil simply lacks the right people - the "human resources" - to grow much faster.

Rousseff seems to get that. She announced in December that 100 percent of royalties on future oil contracts would go to education. In the shorter term, she is taking steps to allow more foreigners - even those who are totally inept at basic carpentry - to enter Brazil and help fill the skills gap.

GOODBYE TO THE OLD BRAZIL

All told, most Brazilians still seem pretty happy with an era that has been compared to the post-World War Two period in the United States because of its broad-based prosperity.

When I talk to working-class people about the economy, almost nobody mentions the slowdown. They talk instead about how their lives have improved in the past 10 years. That focus on the big picture helps explain why Rousseff's approval rating remains around 66 percent, despite the recent problems.

My own family has seen firsthand proof of why so few people lament the passing of the old Brazil.

Meire, a woman who cleans our house, often speaks of how she began her career. Decades ago, her mother took her to a strange family's apartment, and told her she would now be living there as their maid. Her mother then closed the door and walked away.

Meire was 12 at the time.

Thankfully, stories like that are increasingly rare in Brazil. So are maids, in fact - rising wages mean they're now out of reach for many in the middle class.

As for our curtains, I see two possible solutions.

One would be to take a sledgehammer to our interior walls, thus making the trip worth a carpenter's time.

The other would be to just hang the damn things myself. As somebody who doesn't even know how to properly use a drill, this terrifies me.

But I guess it's time to get into the local spirit and learn new skills. This is Brazil, after all.

(Reporting by Brian Winter; Editing by Kieran Murray and Sandra Maler)

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