S. America's 'Sleeping Giant' Opens One Eye to the World
Brazil moved past dictators, debt, inflation. Now it seeks a role due its size.
SO PAULO, BRAZIL — In the streets of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, walls, shop windows, and billboards are blanketed with ads urging Brazilians to learn a second language, especially Spanish, besides their native Portuguese.
"This is completely new," says Sao Paulo political analyst Bolivar Lamounier. "Just three years ago this didn't exist."
The advertisements are also indicative of something else "new" here: the opening of Brazil - long a self-focused giant satisfied with ignoring those around it - to the rest of South America and the world.
"We still are very inward-looking," says Luiz Augusto de Castro Neves, director general of the Americas department of the Ministry of Foreign Relations in Braslia, the capital. "It's somewhat similar to the outlook of the average US citizen in, say, Kansas. But whereas for a very long time we were busy turning our backs to the rest of South America," he adds, "now we are discovering our neighbors."
When President Clinton visits Brazil during a swing through Latin America this fall, he'll find a different country from the one he likely learned about in college.
Just two decades ago, Brazil, with its vast territory - it's larger than mainland United States - untapped resources, and burgeoning population, was pegged as a sleeping giant. The giant was stirring, observers said: It was toying with a secret nuclear-arms development program and fomenting a potentially destabilizing rivalry with southern neighbor Argentina.
Brazilians now generally chuckle at those outmoded concerns. "That image of the giant to come was partly the military's creation in reaction to Argentina. But it was also something nurtured from abroad, by people in the US or Europe especially, who were suddenly taken with the idea of Brazil, Indonesia, and a few other countries as 'emerging powers,' " says Mr. Lamounier.
Today's reality is a country with more than 160 million people and the world's ninth-largest economy, one that is opening to economic globalization. The 1964-85 military dictatorship has given way to a strengthening multiparty democracy. Issues such as the nuclear-arms program and human rights abuses - which once led to prickly international relations, especially with the US - have either disappeared or improved.
The US State Department no longer places Brazil among the hemisphere's most serious human rights offenders, although its annual human rights report still listed killings and torture by law-enforcement agencies as serious problems in 1996. In February, for example, five street children in Rio were murdered. Juvenile protection officials believe such killings are carried out by "social cleansing" death squads.
As a country looking increasingly outward, Brazil is determined to play a growing leadership role, especially in South America.
"Brazil is moving toward a mature, middle-power status, and wants to be treated as such," says David Fleischer, a University of Braslia political scientist. President Fernando Henrique Cardoso's substantial foreign travels are evidence of the country's determination to play a growing international role, analysts say. The Brazilian government says that Brazil and other large developing countries must exert more influence in setting an international agenda.
"This is not a power deal," says Lamounier. "It is simply the conviction that a new world is emerging, one that will not be stable if the world focus remains so fixed on the US, China, and Russia." Social inequalities, drug trafficking, and the environment are among the global problems that Lamounier says will go unattended without the kind of shift in international focus Brazil advocates. Part of Brazil's task, he adds, will be to correct the prejudice, "strong enough in the US, but even more so in Europe, that this is a place that only destroys the rain forest and kills its Indians and street kids."
Those "prejudices" will only be more difficult to vanquish after news last year that deforestation in the Amazon has actually accelerated in recent years.
Also last month, widely released video footage showed police at a road block in So Paulo extorting money from and beating up motorists. The beatings were so severe that one man allegedly died as a result. A similar tape was recently released in Rio. These abuses by law-enforcement agencies, So Paulo Gov. Mario Covas acknowledges, are a continuing "cultural problem" - a legacy from the military dictatorship.
With such news continuing to flow out of Brazil, changing the world's perception will take more than just presidential visits and speeches. It will require a serious and sustained effort to reduce the chasm between Brazil's few super-rich and its many poor. Mr. Cardoso's inflation-fighting reforms have cut the "inflation tax" of the 1980s, in effect putting more money in workers' pockets.
But the gains haven't been enough to impede Brazil's designation by the World Bank as the country with the world's worst income distribution.
As part of any drive for what some analysts call "economic democracy," Brazil must also cut its heavy bureaucracy, which limits the poor's access to the market, and the creation of small businesses that would foster a better balanced economy. "If you have a good business idea here but are poor, there are still enormous roadblocks and red tape, and that hurts both the poor and Brazil," says Alexandre Barros, a political consultant in Braslia.
Trade bloc - or block?
As its entryway to a larger leadership role, Brazil has set its sights on Mercosur, the trade group it began building in 1990 with Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay. Mercosur has spurred overall trade beyond even its members' expectations. Its success has led to rapidly expanded relations with neighboring countries, including Chile.
But along with its rise, Mercosur has won growing criticism. Detractors range from economists, who cite it as an example of how regional accords can inhibit broader international trade, to US officials, who see Mercosur as an impediment to a hemispheric free-trade accord.
Brazilian analysts say such criticisms fail to recognize the significant role Mercosur has played in completely squashing a regional military rivalry that a decade ago still threatened the South American continent. "The US, and for that matter a number of international organizations, don't appreciate enough the job Mercosur has played in transforming to a cooperative relationship a rivalry that, if it had escalated, could have caused big problems in America's backyard," says Lamounier.
But at the same time, Brazilian officials tacitly recognize that their vision of South America's development does not line up perfectly with US goals for the region. "All of us used to talk about Latin America, as if the Rio Grande were the 'Great Divide,' but now it is more realistic to speak in terms of North America and South America," says Mr. Castro Neves.
With Brazilian leadership, South America is likely to move more slowly than the US would like toward a full hemispheric free-trade accord. And it will likely do so from the stronger bargaining position of a South American trade bloc, rather than as individual countries. "Brazil is opposed to achieving [the hemispheric accord] simply by expanding NAFTA," says Castro Neves.
Dreaming of Mickey
Brazilians do, however, identify with the US. They see their country playing in South America the same dominant role the US plays in North America. And they also identify with the US as a "melting pot," since Brazil also is home to large immigrant populations. The Japanese restaurants around So Paulo are one hint that Brazil has the largest Japanese population outside Japan.
Globalization and emigration have also brought Brazil closer to the US. With the economic devastation of the 1980s, Brazil for the first time became a country of migrants. There are now large colonies of Brazilians in Miami, New Jersey, New York, and Boston. Reflecting the importance of that diaspora and greater tendency of even the Brazilian middle class to travel, some Brazilian magazines publish regular columns on news from the US.
"All Brazilian kids dream of visiting Disney World, and all Brazilian women dream of a shopping spree in Bloomingdale's," says Castro Neves. He tells the popular joke about a Brazilian who requests that some day his ashes be spread in Bloomingdale's: "That way," the man says, "I can be sure my wife will come to visit me."
Castro Neves insists that, despite signs of friction, there is "a growing perception in both Brazil and the US that our strategic interests are the same. This is new and important." Mr. Clinton's trip here is just one manifestation of that perception, he says.
Sense of national purpose
Yet even if a closer partnership with Argentina and a periodic whirl with Mickey Mouse are part of Brazil's future, that's not the stuff that keeps a developing country moving forward. To rebuild a sense of national purpose, some Brazilians argue that they need to adopt a national project.
"We still need to find ourselves" after the military dictatorship and the economically "lost decade" of the 1980s, says Claudio Contador, a political scientist in Rio. "We Brazilians need a defining undertaking."
Mr. Contador equates the Brazil of 1997 to the US of about a century ago. Brazil is still developing a frontier, and its industrial oligarchy is similar to that of the US 100 years ago. Ending income disparity, while vital, will take decades, he says. He contends that Brazil needs a more immediate challenge to instill a sense of national purpose. It is up to Brazil's political leaders and increasingly activist citizens to define that goal, he says. Past experience, he adds, demonstrates that Brazil is capable of meeting the challenge. "Building Braslia [which was carved out of the interior in 1960] was that kind of a goal," he says, "and so was the predicament the country faced in 1973 at the first oil crisis."
Brazil then imported more than 90 percent of its oil. But after an aggressive sugar-alcohol development program and other energy developments, imported oil now makes up less than 30 percent of Brazil's energy needs. Says Contador, "Brazilians need to see that they are still up to that kind of challenge."
What Makes Brazil a Giant?
* Brazil is the world's fifth-largest country - with 3.3 million square miles. It's larger than the US excluding Alaska.
* Brazil is the sixth most-populous country, with 76 percent of its 162.6 million people living in cities. Half of all Brazilians are under 21.
* Surveys regularly show that Brazilians fear the police more than criminals. In So Paulo State, police killed 2,544 civilians in 1991-92. In 1991, 898 people were killed in the city of So Paulo, compared with 27 killings by police the same year in New York.
* Brazil is home to the world's largest river system and the most extensive virgin tropical forest in the world. The Amazon region has 1.3 million square miles of forest.
* For many Brazilians, Carnival is everything. Rio de Janeiro's people train for a lifetime to join Carnival parade groups, called samba schools. A costume can cost $10,000 and up - more than most wearers earn in a year.
* More than 400 species of birds live in Brazil's Atlantic rain forest - equal to all the bird species in Europe. One two-acre section was recently found to contain more than 400 tree species. A similar plot of North American forest typically holds two to 20 tree species.
* About 70 percent of Brazilians are Roman Catholic, making it the largest Catholic country in the world.
* Some 39 percent of Brazilians reach secondary school, while 19 percent of those over age 15 can't read.
* In 1996, average gross domestic product per capita was $5,580.