Monthly Archives: April 2013

On Transparency and Inequality

The Contradiction of Brazilian Democratization

In November of last year, the Universidade de Pernambuco (UPE) held an election to select the next Director of the Petrolina campus. The position had been held for the last 16 years by the outgoing Director Maria Socorro Ribeiro Nunes and her sister, who had been trading the post back and forth to meet the term limit requirements.

University director candidate Moisés and his running mate, Marta Guimarães (photo:

University director candidate Moisés and his running mate, Marta Guimarães (photo:

This election was different for two reasons. Primarily, it would be the first election after a 2011 decision that changed a critical part of university electoral law. In both the previous and new policies,  school administrators control a third (33%) of the vote, faculty control another third, and the student body controls the final third. Under the old law, the final percentages for each candidate were calculated out of the total number of eligible voters. By virtue of the university’s structure, there is always a low voter turnout in the student body because eligible voters include literally all enrolled students, not only those who take classes or frequent the campus. In other words, even if all the students who appeared to vote all voted for one candidate, that candidate’s percentage of the student vote would still be significantly diminished because of the inevitable greater number of students who missed the election.

Secondly, outgoing Director Socorro had chosen a successor other than her sister: Carlos Eduardo Pinho Romeiro, then the Coordinator of Undergraduate Studies. His opponent was Moisés Diniz de Almeida, a History professor at the campus who was extremely popular with the student body.

For almost two months, Moisés’ supporters manned a tent set up outside the main campus building, passing out literature and stickers daily, hosting open-mic performances, and maintaining a constant presence of fliers, posters, and banners around the university. Around every corner was a Moisés campaign logo. Still, his team was anxious: even with the new electoral law, each administrator and faculty vote received more “weight” than each student vote because the student population, so much larger than either of the two former groups, was nevertheless given an equal percentage value. In other words, one administrator’s vote could overpower dozens of student votes for a different candidate. Moreover, about half the administrator positions are appointed by the Director in power, so those individuals would be highly likely to vote for the incumbent as a job retention strategy.

This election characterizes so well the pattern that democratization has taken in Brazil. In some ways, the country is exceptionally transparent and formulaic, favoring public campaigning, painstaking inclusion of all parties, and neat math combined with the most sophisticated voting technology in the world. In others, it contradictorily manages to maintain inequality in the face of such transparency, creating pockets of extremely concentrated power. Ultimately, given these contradictions, the government fails to completely eradicate the major faults in its own system, and the voters—still faced with vast disparities in education and income inequality—struggle to utilize effectively the rights and powers that their government has provided.

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Happy April Fool’s Day!

I’ve never been much good at April Fool’s Day jokes, but today I think I pulled off a pretty nice one.

Jónsi, the Icelandic musician, was asked a few years ago to write a theme song for the animated movie “How to Train Your Dragon.” The song, “Sticks and Stones,” is catchy and good for driving fast. The first few verses plus the chorus are in English, then he switches to Icelandic for the third and fourth verses–but the key (for my purposes, as you’ll see) is that both the English and Icelandic parts could believably be English. The English verses are fast and hard to understand in the first place, and even as a native English speaker, if you told me the Icelandic was English, I might believe you.

With this in mind, I copied a sheet of lyrics for the students and we listened to the song. The English parts had a few words missing here and there (“Orange and white, dark red, green and _________”). For the Icelandic verse, I left only four blank lines on their sheet.

Of course, they wouldn’t be able to understand enough to fill in the blank lines just from listening, so I used a technique from the wonderful English Fellow Laura Mihuza: leave a large-print master copy of the lyrics on the floor on one end of the room, and conduct a “lyrics relay race.” One student from each team is a “writer,” and two are “runners.” The writers sits on the opposite side of the room as the lyrics, and the runners must run to the lyrics sheet, memorize a word or two, then run back to communicate them to the writer, who fills in the students’ lyric sheet (the one with blanks) appropriately. If someone doesn’t understand, they must express that in English: “Can you say that slower?” “How do you spell that?”

Of course, in this case, the last verse is in Icelandic. (Inn um ermar, upp hryggjarsúluna is just an example.)

It was so funny to watch them running frantically, successfully carrying English words and phrases back to their writers–until slowly they all begin to look at the Icelandic, make outraged noises, and panic. “Is this English?” “I’m so confused!” My answer, of course: “Well obviously it’s English! Have you been paying any attention in class? These are words we use every day!” (In one class I even pulled in one of the school’s directors to corroborate–“You guys obviously have to study more, because this is definitely English!”)

After an appropriate period of outrage on my part, I said “Ok fine–I’ll tell you what chapter all this vocabulary is in,” and wrote on the board, “Happy April Fool’s!” After we all cleared up what that meant (in Portuguese it’s “Dia da Mentira,” Day of Lies), I was rewarded with some very satisfying sighs of relief and exclamations of offense/delight. Especially when a class curriculum is based out of a book, it’s always important to throw in some silly moments.

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