Going beyond the soccer, samba and sex

American journalist Larry Rohter provides an engaging and optimistic overview of Brazil’s place in the world today, despite his predictable Western preoccupations with sustainability and racial identity.

Alex Hochuli

Topics Books

In a rich and expansive Brazil-for-beginners, New York Times journalist and Brazil expert Larry Rohter offers an optimistic tour of a rising power’s future potential, while indulging some fashionable First World preoccupations that Brazil would do well to avoid.

On Sunday 31 October, Brazilians voted by a margin of 56 per cent to 44 per cent for the Workers Party’s (PT) candidate Dilma Rousseff, over her Social Democrat (PSDB) challenger Jose Serra in the second round of the presidential election. Rousseff, the anointed successor to the immensely popular President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (Lula to his friends, and to everyone else), is now tasked with building upon the remarkable success of the past decade. Should the more optimistic prognoses prove correct, the next decade will provide a riposte to the long-standing narrative of a bright Brazilian future forever postponed.

As with other big emerging economies, suddenly all eyes are on Brazil; its recent ‘rise’ is the subject of an increasing number of articles and books. The question today being asked in Brazil is whether it is finally becoming the ‘serious country’ it aspires to be.

This is the title of the book’s penultimate chapter, an examination of Brazil’s growing diplomatic stature on the world stage. This is exemplified as much by the awarding of the 2016 Olympics to Rio de Janeiro as by attempts to negotiate a nuclear power deal with Iran, in defiance of American concerns. Brazil’s rise occurs in tandem with, and is in part premised upon, a wider shift in global power away from Europe and the US. China’s growth has in part pulled Brazil along through the former’s importing of vast quantities of its raw materials.

Steady economic growth averaging five per cent over the past decade means that Brazil, currently the world’s eighth largest economy, is by some estimates set to become its fifth biggest by 2020 – leapfrogging such Old World powers as the UK, France and Italy. In chapters on energy, agriculture and industry, Rohter explains how Brazil’s recent discovery of the massive ‘pre-salt’ oil reservoirs off its coast, its dominance in ethanol production, and still-underexploited hydropower potential means the country will soon be an energy superpower, in addition to its title of ‘agricultural superpower’. Brazil’s traditional debtor role with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has been reversed: the country offered to purchase $10 billion in bonds from the IMF in 2009, only a decade after being the recipient of the largest (at the time) financial rescue package in history. Brazil’s historic self-conception as a country of unfulfilled potential was evidenced in Lula’s reaction to the above fact in April last year: ‘Don’t you think it’s chic for Brazil to lend to the IMF?’, he asked. Having protested against the IMF as a labour leader in the 1980s, Lula felt entitled to gloat, relishing the opportunity to ‘go down in history as the president who lent a few reais to the Fund’.

With Lula’s move to the political centre, the PT in government has continued the business-friendly macroeconomic management initiated by Lula’s predecessor, Fernando Henrique Cardoso – to the disappointment of the party’s left-wing support. But with the strong rate of economic growth and the success of the PT’s social programmes in lifting millions out of poverty, Brazil’s recent presidential election was only likely to go one way. Serra, a tucano like Cardoso (so-called because of the PSDB’s party colours), was unable to campaign against Lula’s legacy. In a country in which the president retains an 80 per cent approval rating after eight years in office – unthinkable in the politically moribund countries of Europe and North America – Lula’s legacy was enough to gain Rousseff the presidency.

What has also become clear in this recent election is the emergence of class polarisation in electoral politics. Brazil’s politics has been remarkably un-ideological since the fall of the military regime in 1985; a large number of parties are merely ‘physiological’ – that is, they are mere vehicles for power for opportunist politicians and regional barons. There isn’t much of an ideological right in Brazilian politics: most of the main players on the scene today were all part of the democratic opposition to the dictatorship, while the pro-military politicians have died out or become marginalised. Yet today what is emerging is a significant alignment of the poor and working-class with the PT, and the middle classes with the PSDB. As to the political content of this division, the PT retains a more alternative foreign policy, promoting South-South cooperation, and sees the state as an important vehicle for development, in particular in the promotion of national capital. Some analysts have even begun to call this model Lulismo, after the outgoing president.

And yet, the focus of Brazil on the Rise is unfortunately not on these socio-political dynamics. Instead, Rohter firstly sets out to depict Brazilian history, culture and lifestyle, citing bossanova musician Antonio Carlos Jobim’s warning that ‘Brazil is not for beginners’. The second half of the book is spent examining more concrete aspects of the country’s economy and politics, in chapters on industry and agriculture, the energy sector, the environment, foreign policy and diplomacy, and recent political history. The result is a story of Brazil made up of people and things, but not of social forces.

Rohter is more enlivening in the early chapters where he describes Brazilian culture. He is remarkably adept at this sort of endeavour, one so often prone to superficiality and stereotyping. Sun, sand, samba, sex and soccer may be important cultural emblems in Brazil (fully explored in a chapter on ‘The tropical lifestyle’), but these conjure up an image inimical to the ‘serious country’ Brazil aspires to be. Brazilian joie de vivre coexists with sensitivity about being seen as a second-class nation. Rohter dexterously negotiates this by exploring the tensions and contradictions in Brazilian culture. Drawing on that combination of intimacy and critical distance available to foreigners who have spent many years working and living in a foreign country, Rohter generally avoids crude depictions of those people ‘over there’.

A chapter entitled ‘Sin and salvation south of the equator’ is exemplary in this regard, where Rohter covers everything from the jeito (a term used figuratively to describe the skill of manoeuvring around inconvenient restrictions, such as bureaucracy) to the grammar of social hierarchy. This is all richly illustrated through anecdote and reportage. We learn how hedonistic permissiveness coexists with Catholic traditionalism, via a discussion of the Brazilian ‘penchant for anal sex’; and how the widespread practice of abortion is dealt with in a country with some of most restrictive laws in the world. A famously cordial and relaxed public culture tussles with the snobbery, privilege and submission to hierarchy of a deeply unequal society. So, domestic servants are sometimes referred to as Joao Niguem or ‘John Nobody’, yet at the beaches public space is democratic and shared. Similarly, the Brazilian nation is sometimes conceived of as ‘the big Brazilian family’ – informal, friendly but, of course, patriarchal.

Perhaps to a fault, the book covers so much ground that it lacks a cohering argument. Indeed, the author claims not to have all the answers, though it is a bit disappointing he attempts so few. Rohter can hardly be reproached for his descriptive prowess, but the book is weak on analysis. If there is one structuring narrative, it is one well-known to Brazilians: that dialectic of spontaneous creativity, optimism and promise on the one hand and frustration, disappointment and the passivity it breeds on the other. So just as President Kubitscheck promised ‘50 years in five’ in the early Sixties, as Brazil inaugurated its new Oscar Neimeyer-designed capital in Brasilia, this was followed by debt crisis, hyperinflation and military coup. Protests and upheaval leading to the resumption of civilian rule at the end of the 1980s were followed by corruption scandals and impeachment of President Collor in 1992. Yet Rohter doesn’t venture an explanation for the failure to achieve ‘ordem e progresso’, as the national flag’s positivist slogan has it.

Instead, the second half of the books is devoted to a survey of the conditions making for a new dawn. Thus we learn of the coming to fruition of some long-term plans in a country known for its short-termism. Embraer, a state-owned enterprise (SOE) founded by the military government in 1969, is today the world’s third-largest civilian airplane manufacturer. Petrobras is leading the way in deep-sea oil drilling and just undertook the largest share issue in the world, worth over $70billion – 60 per cent of which was bought up by the state. Its advanced techniques in deep-sea drilling will be put to use while the US adopts a more precautionary approach following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Meanwhile plans are afoot to build the third-largest dam in the world at Belo Monte. The state agronomy agency Embrapa has made the cerrado, the savannah in Brazil’s interior, some of the most productive agricultural land in the world.

The sense of potential, of things finally coming together, is well-conveyed, but one’s appreciation for this becomes dulled when encountering an author in hock to some fashionable but retrograde ideas. Chapters on race and the Amazon are sapped of historical perspective through a focus on multiculturalism and environmentalism. Consequently, the broader narrative Rohter lays out of a Brazil on the rise, overcoming historic obstacles, becomes wrapped up in the contemporary fixation with sustainability, while the deep class divisions of Brazilian society are obscured through the fuzzy lens of identity politics.

Brazil, in contrast to other post-slavery societies such as the US, is often held up as a ‘racial paradise’ – a myth Rohter seeks to debunk. Yet racial consciousness is marginal and racism was never institutionalised in the country. Rohter recalls an interview of his with the novelist Jorge Amado in which the latter claimed that ‘the United States has millions of people who are not racists, but it is a racist country’ whereas ‘Brazil has millions of people who are racists, but it is not a racist country’. A majority of Brazilians are ‘Afro-descendents’ and it is true that the elite are mostly white, but ‘race’ exists very much on a continuum. The strict white/black division of the US is incomparable to Brazil, where Rohter claims over 60 different designations of skin tone are used.

Despite acknowledging the importance of class inequality, the author insists that the focus on it is ‘often used as a smokescreen to divert attention and criticism from the deeper underlying problems of race and racism’. This leads to a support for affirmative action policies, a major topic of debate since Lula initiated quotas for black students in universities. Though Rohter recognises the absurdity of using such a blanket category in the Brazilian context, he is supportive of measures such as increasing the number of ‘black’ news anchors. Introducing the divisive logic of multiculturalism into a society in which, as Rohter himself explains, the ‘national ideal is one of miscegenation’, would be to invite the sort of PC culture and identity politics which Brazil has thus far done well to avoid.

Equally disappointing is Rohter’s treatment of the Amazon – the Brazilian ‘Wild West’ – which is afforded its own chapter. Here we learn that sections of Brazilian society, in particular the military and its supporters, have encouraged a form of nationalist paranoia. This is manifest in conspiracy theories about the US having imperialist plans to set up a protectorate in the region. People are consequently wary of environmentalist arguments, seeing in them little more than pretexts for extending foreign domination over the Amazon.

Rohter rightly notes the failure of the Brazilian state to entrench its authority in the area, which allows not just for deforestation but for the persistence of quasi-slavery relations in remote areas. However, as has become all-too-predictable today, he expresses dismay at Brazil seeking to ameliorate the situation ‘by allowing untrammelled economic development’. For him, development and environment must be balanced and thus lines must be drawn (at the edge of the forest, one presumes). Similarly, Rohter argues that it is just ‘playing the nationalism card’ for Brazil to defend its sovereignty. This concern, claims Rohter, has prevented Brazil from playing a more engaged role in international environmental negotiations. Consequently, and in contrast to the generous attitude in evidence throughout the rest of the book, we find Rohter disparaging the majority of Brazilians living in the developed south of the country, which regards environmental appeals as secondary to the imperative of development.

There is a question mark over whether these attitudes are changing, at least amongst middle-class Brazilians. The Green Party’s presidential candidate Marina Silva achieved an unexpectedly high 20 per cent of votes in the first round of the election (yet this may have been due to disillusionment with the PT and corruption rather than an endorsement of an environmental agenda). Silva had previously left her role as Lula’s environment minister, complaining that the government’s priorities were ‘development first, the environment second’. This appears to apply especially to Dilma Rousseff. In any case, a deviation from Brazil’s developmentalist agenda in favour of ‘sustainability’ would only be a hindrance to the realisation of the country’s potential.

These preoccupations aside, Brazil on the Rise remains a surprisingly rich, broad and optimistic introduction to an important emerging power. The book should also be taken in the context of publishers’ recent focus on the dynamism of the brave new world of the so-called BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China) and beyond. It is telling that, while this sub-genre sometimes veers into fear and loathing (particularly in relation to China), Brazil doesn’t yet suffer the same fate. Brazil is more often held in warm (if sometimes exoticising) regard. Rohter impresses on the reader that Brazil is a country people like to like, and the book is an invitation to share in this admiration. Yet the lack of a more critical political edge means one is left uncertain as to what are the social forces that pull Brazil one way or the other and are likely to shape its course in the coming decades. As Brazil continues its coming-out on to the world stage, these questions of power and ideas – that is, politics – in both a domestic and international context, will begin to emerge. The effect of this emergence – the upsetting of the old balance of power in global affairs – may then expose today’s false friends.

Alex Hochuli is a doctoral student in sociology at the University of Kent at Canterbury and produced the session Post-Lula Brazil: country of the future at the recent Battle of Ideas festival.

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