The following commentary was written by Seyom Brown, John Goodwin Tower Distinguished Chair in International Politics and National Security in the Political Science Department at SMU and Director of Studies in the Tower Center, following his recent visit to Brazil with his wife, Brookings Institute and Tower Center Fellow, Vanda Felbab-Brown
Brazilians, like Texans, love superlatives. And the country deserves them. The standard boasts: The Amazon moves the largest volume of water of any river in the world into the ocean and it is second in length only to the Nile. Brazil’s 3.3million square miles make it the 5th largest country. It has the most vibrant economy in Latin America; has paid off its debt to the IMF; is proud to be among the four BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and China), that Goldman Sachs identified as coming great economic powers; was one of the first countries to emerge from the global recession; and, according to the Economist, is on its way toward being the world’s fifth largest economy. A good part of this optimism comes from the country’s increasing role in the energy sector — driven by rising demand for its sugar-cane-based ethanol and major new oil discoveries off its Atlantic coast.
President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, himself a national icon with his rags-to-ruler story, is bragged about (he sustains an 80% approval rating) even by many who confess to have voted against him for fear that he was a Chavez-type hard-left populist. The former union organizer’s pragmatic fusion of the social service state with healthy market incentives for private entrepreneurship has earned him the respect of capitalists and socialists alike and made him the world’s most popular developing country leader.
Brazilians in the Amazon backwater areas as well as the cities pridefully point to the selection of Rio de Janeiro as the site of the 2016 Olympics as only a just reward for their country’s attributes and accomplishments, particularly under Lula. Similarly football (soccer) aficionados (are there any Brazilians who are not?) regard Brazil’s being selected for the 2014 football world cup competition as a natural, if belated, recognition of Brazil being the only team to win five world cups.
But there are blemishes tarnishing the country’s new-found luster that require more than a pre-Olympics polishing-up to prevent them from continuing to be major embarrassments. One is Brazil’s having risen to the top ranks of emitters of carbon into the atmosphere — right behind China (number 1) the United States (number 2), and India (number 3). Quite an accomplishment for a still industrializing country with very low population density and the world’s largest rain forest; indeed it has been the massive cutting and burning of the latter, depriving the world of the primary forests’ function of absorbing CO2, which has been Brazil’s most serious global misdemeanor. While I was slogging through the mud in some of these deforested areas, Brazilian diplomats were in Copenhagen fending off criticism and patting themselves on the back for their “progressive” forest conservation laws. Yes, there are laws regulating logging on the books, but their enforcement is problematical, due to understaffing and corruption; moreover, the laws as written still allow major deforestation to be undertaken by cattle ranchers in the name of economic development.
The most embarrassing blemish is the favelas–the neglected, violence-ridden, impoverished slum areas in the major cities, inhabited primarily by descendents of slaves the Portuguese imported from Africa, now largely under the control of drug lords. The worst of these ghettos — in terms of poverty, homicides, and drug dealing — are in Rio itself, where as many as 2 million of the city’s 8 million people are crowded into shanty-towns on the hillsides overlooking one of the world’s most beautiful cities. Paradoxically, many of the most “peaceful” favelas are those thoroughly controlled by the drug gangs, who have in some of them created quasi states of their own, providing social services and even dispute resolution processes. Visiting some of these to conduct interviews, my wife, Dr. Vanda Felbab-Brown, and I (under escort of locals trusted by the kingpins) never felt personally threatened by the fact that about every tenth man on the street was carrying his own machine gun. Nor did the men in the town squares openly selling cocaine seem at all bothered by the presence a couple of gringos. The scene we became a part of was a microcosm of the macro socioeconomic situation of Rio in which the larger, relatively more affluent, community tolerates what is going on in the favelas (even the periodic gang wars), as long as the violence and open drug dealing don’t spill over into the glamorous streets and glistening beaches; and the drug lords acquiesce in the quasi “apartheid” of the city, as long as the officials of the city and state don’t try to seriously police the kingpins’ domains. This situation, conceptualized by my wife as a “perverse equilibrium,” is sustained by Brazil’s pervasive pattern of corruption operating at various levels of governance and politics, which is too complex to delineate in this brief sketch.
In short, Lula has much to be proud of about his country, as it prepares to show off “big time” during the Olympics and World Cup. And his country has much to admire about its leader, as he cuts a large, if somewhat disturbing, figure on the world stage, hosting and signing commercial deals with Shimon Peres one week and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the next, offering himself as a mediator in the Israel-Palestinian conflict, putting himself forward as the new leader of the nonaligned countries, championing special concessions for the late-industrializing countries in global efforts to control climate change, and lobbying for a permanent seat for Brazil at the UN Security Council.
But constitutionally prohibited from running for re-election, Lula has designated a successor, Dilma Rouseff. She lacks her mentor’s charisma (still “what Lula wants Lula gets”), and may not be as successful as he has been in deflecting the domestic and international spotlights away from the blemishes. Yet given Brazil’s increasing sensitivity to its reputation, wanting to be admired as an enlightened modernizing power, this exposure of what is not so good may be all to the good in the long run.