A Rasteira do Presidente

Lyrics from “A Rasteira do Presidente” by Bicalho/Silvio Modesto, released by Bezerra da Silva (1986)

Alô, alô Dona de Casa // Hello, hello, Housewife
Fiscais do Presidente, se liga // President’s Inspectors, at attention
Tabela de preços na mão // Table of Prices in hand
E vamos lutar contra a inflação // And let’s fight inflation!
E não é mole não  // And it’s not easy, no
Vivendo dessa maneira // Living this way
Eles inventaram essa tal de inflação // They invented that thing called inflation
E o Presidente deu aquela rasteira // And the president pulled that fast one (“made that tackle”)
Não é mole não (tuburão) // It’s not easy, no, shark (predatory businessmen who profited from inflation)(refrain)O meu salário é o mínimo // My salary is the minimum
porém é o máximo que eu consigo vencer // And yet it’s the maximum I’m able to pull in
Desconto pro INPS// Withholdings for Social Security
e o maldito Leão// And that daggone Lion (income tax)
ainda quer me morder // Is still trying to bite me
ORTN e INPC // ORTN (national treasury bonds) and INPC (inflation index)
Eu escuto dizer, mas eu não sei o que é // I keep hearing talk – but I don’t know what it is
Eu só sei que recebi meu pagamento // I just know I received my payment
Que não deu pra comprar meu alimento // And it wasn’t enough to buy my aliment
Remarcaram os preços eu fiquei a pé // They marked up the prices and I was left behind!


O que não consigo entender // And what I just can’t understand
o meu nome é sujo no SPC // My name’s “dirty” in the SPC (credit protection service)
Meu crédito é cortado na praça // My credit’s cut off on the streets
não me vendem fiado nem o que comer //  They won’t even sell me food on the cuff
O banco não me empresta dinheiro // The bank won’t lend me money
porque não tenho bens para me garantir // Because I don’t have any assets as guarantees
Veja bem, não pedi nada emprestado // But look here, I didn’t ask for anything on loan
Dizem que devo dolar adoidado // Yet they say I owe mad dollars
Ao famigerado, FMI // To that infamous IMF

(refrain)E agora é que eu quero ver // And now I want to see
Os ladrões de gravata o que vão fazer // What the crooks in ties are gonna do
O bicho vai pegar adoidado // The beast is gonna go crazy (things are gonna get ugly)
Em cima daquele que não obedecer // On anyone who doesn’t obey
O trabalhador já pode com a sua família // The worker can go ahead with his family
Fazer sua ceia // and make his supper
se os federais chegarem em um supermercado // if the feds get to a supermarket
Encontrem os preços remarcados // And find the prices marked up
Dão bolacha no gato e mete na cadeia // They’ll box the cat’s ears and throw him in jail
Bezerra da Silva said he didn’t sing about love because he could only sing about things he knew: “People talk about making love – where is love made, some factory in Bangu?”
Cover of Bezerra’s 1988 album “Violência Gera Violência“, with headlines including: “Military police shoot into crowd and kill woman in Realengo”;  “Fraud of billions in INAMPS” (National Institute of Medical Aid and Social Security)

Bezerra became famous in the 1970s and ’80s for his hard-core but humorous sambas about the hustling malandro lifestyle and life on the morro (favela). He was revered for his deft denouncement of government corruption, most notably the crooked and brutal police force.

Bezerra’s acquaintances from the morro composed many of his best-love songs. They were bricklayers, carpenters, repairmen, and “22s” (crazies) who had chosen to steer clear of crime, but respected and wrote about malandro precepts like the  “Lei de Murici” (Lei de Murici: Cada um cuida de si — Murici’s law: every man for himself; mind your own business) and especially excelled at writing witty smack about snitches and sogras (mothers-in-law) in thick slang.

“A rasteira do presidente” was composed and released in early 1986, following the launch of a new economic plan, the Plano Cruzado.

At the time, Brazil was in the midst of a bumpy transition from military dictatorship to democracy, and was meanwhile suffering the consequences of the military government’s brash fiscal and monetary policies (which were not much improved upon in the first years of the democracy). Hyperinflation topped 235% in 1985 and was on track to hit 500% in 1986. José Sarney had taken office as transitional president on March 15, 1985, and after a dismal first nine months, promised in January 1986 that he would not allow inflation to continue shooting up. In an ill-fated attempt to keep this promise, on February 28, 1986, Sarney declared a bank holiday and announced his Plano Cruzado –  “shock treatment” for the Brazilian economy, which was also meant to serve as a symbolic rupture from the legacy of the military dictatorship.

This “heterodox plan”replaced Brazil’s currency the Cruzeiro with the Cruzado (worth 1,000 cruzeiros), fixed at 13.84 to the dollar. Salaries were adjusted up by 8% (public servants) and 15% (minimum wage), and an “inflation insurance” mechanism was put in place to increase salaries automatically if inflation hit 20%.

A “fiscal do presidente” checks her price table.

The plan also froze prices for food, gasoline, hygiene and cleaning products, and services. These fixed prices were published on a table (mentioned in the song) as a means of holding business-owners to account. In announcing the plan, Sarney called upon every Brazilian citizen to be “um fiscal do president” – a president’s inspector – making sure that shops were sticking strictly to the price table. And indeed, as the song makes reference to, the government shut down businesses that were caught cheating.

Not surprisingly, the plan led to basic supply-and-demand mismatches, empty shelves, dissatisfied producers and consumers… which as usual nurtured a flourishing black market. In November 1986, Sarney’s government was forced to abandon the plan and launch Plano Cruzado II. Cruzado II unfroze prices and signaled the return of staggering inflation, which would plague Brazil and Bezerra’s friends on the morro until 1994, when the Plano Real finally pulled the country out of this financial quagmire.

21 March 1986: a supermarket in Salvador, Bahia, that was closed for “practicing prices above those that are authorized.”

Another element of this quagmire that comes up in the song: In the 1980s, Brazil was drowning in billions of dollars of external debt, a legacy of the military government’s over-borrowing to finance ill-advised national development projects. Over the course of the ’80s, Brazil signed eleven bail-out agreements with the “infamous IMF.”

Bezerrra, who was born in 1927 in Recife, Pernambuco, and arrived in Rio as a stowaway in the 1940s, died in January 2005 at the age of 77.

Busy supermarket El Dorado in São Paulo in March 1986. The Cruzado plan led to a rush on supermarkets.

Ministério da Economia

Lyrics from “Ministério da Economia” by Geraldo Pereira and Arnaldo Passos (1951)

Mister President, your Excellency has shown that it’s for real
Now everything’s gonna be a steal
Now the poor man can go ahead and eat

Mister President, well that’s just what the people wanted
The Ministry of the Economy seems like it will solve things

Mister President, thank God I’m not gonna eat any more cat
Beef on butchers’ hooks is in abundance
Now I can go ahead and live with my love
I’m going to go get my nega to come live with me
Because I’ve seen there’s no more danger, she’s not going to die of hunger

Life was so tough that I sent my nega so fetchin’
Off to Copacabana, to stick her breasts in the madame’s kitchen
Now I’m going to get my nega, cause I like her so dog-gone much
The cats are the ones that’ll crack up laughing
From joy, up there on the hillside

— Interpretation —

Rocinha favela c. 1950. Image via Favelatemmemoria.com.br.
Rocinha favela c. 1950. Image via Favelatemmemoria.com.br.

First a few notes on the translation: Nega is a term of endearment in Portuguese, featured in this post; it refers to the singer’s wife.  “…To stick her breasts in the madame’s kitchen” literally means to work in the kitchen, and just to clarify, the cats are cracking up laughing from joy because they’re no longer going to get eaten, thanks to the Ministry of the Economy.

In 1950, Getulio Vargas, populist president-dictator of Brazil from 1930 – 1945,  ran for and won back the presidency.   Shortly after taking office in 1951, he announced the creation of a new government agency for economic advisement and planning.  But in spite of Vargas’s populist rhetoric about the boons of this economic planning office, Geraldo Pereira, an Afro-Brazilian sambista who grew on Morro da Mangueira, was highly skeptical of how this new agency would help him, so he wrote this sarcastic song about it.

In the late 1940s Ary Barroso remarked, “I am not a sambista, Geraldo Pereira is a sambista.” Above, Geraldo Pereira.

Expressing his frustrations through sharply critical popular sambas, Pereira was one of the most notable composers who reclaimed samba from the state that had largely co-opted it during Getulio Vargas’s dictatorship.

While in power from 1930 – 1945, Vargas supported and exploited the expanding broadcast industry in Brazil to build his popularity.  One of the ways he did this was by heavy-handedly promoting samba-exaltação,  patriotic sambas like Ary Barroso‘s seminal “Aquarela do Brasil” that exalted Brazil’s natural beauty, cultural richness and purported racial harmony. These sambas portrayed the idealized image what it meant to be Brazilian that Vargas wanted people to believe in; and for a decade or so, with Vargas’s help, such patriotic sambas dominated the genre.

But Vargas was deposed in 1945, and under Eurico Dutra’s presidency from 1945-1950, the government withdrew from popular culture. By the time Vargas returned to power in 1951, his reign was too tenuous to exercise the same kind of control over music, and the stark contrast between samba-exaltação’s celebration of Brazil’s beauty and harmony and the dire situation of Rio’s hillside favelas made these celebratory sambas more and more laughable.

Throughout the 1940s, as favelas expanded on Rio’s hillsides, the government repeatedly promised and failed to deliver basic services. Residents became increasingly cut off, economically and socially, from the rest of the city below. This situation, combined with reduced state control over popular culture, made space for Afro-Brazilian sambistas from the favelas, like Geraldo Pereira and Wilson Batista, to create hits with popular songs scoffing at the government’s rhetoric and laying bare the tragic realities of life in the hillside slums.

Other such sambas are “Acertei no milhar” (Wilson Batista and Geraldo Pereira, 1940), “Chico Brito”  (Wilson Batista, 1950) and “Escurinho” (Geraldo Pereira, 1955). For more on this theme, the best source is Hello, Hello Brazil: Popular Music in the Making of Modern Brazil by Bryan McCann.

Lyrics in Portuguese

Seu Presidente,
Sua Excelência mostrou que é de fato
Agora tudo vai ficar barato
Agora o pobre já pode comer
Seu Presidente,
Pois era isso que o povo queria
O Ministério da Economia
Parece que vai resolver
Seu Presidente
Graças a Deus não vou comer mais gato
Carne de vaca no açougue é mato
Com meu amor eu já posso viver
Eu vou buscar
A minha nega pra morar comigo
Porque já vi que não há mais perigo
Ela de fome já não vai morrer
A vida estava tão difícil
Que eu mandei a minha nega bacana
Meter os peitos na cozinha da madame
Em Copacabana
Agora vou buscar a nega
Porque gosto dela pra cachorro
Os gatos é que vão dar gargalhada
De alegria lá no morro

Main sources for this post:  Hello, Hello Brazil: Popular Music in the Making of Model Brazil by Bryan McCann; A Canção no Tempo: 85 anos de músicas brasileiras by Jairo Severiano and Zuza Homem de Mello; and Desenvolvimento Econônomico e Reformas Institucionais no Brasilby Salvador Werneck Vianna.