When Larry Rohter, then an aspiring China scholar, first dropped into Brazil in 1972, he saw a country on a path that few envied. It was in the middle of a 21-year military dictatorship and “wanted” posters of young, long-haired “terrorists” hung on the walls of the airport he entered. The press was censored. Brazilian debt to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other international lenders was spiraling. Inflation was the untamable “dragon,” as it was called in Portuguese slang, and totaled an approximate quadrillion percent cumulatively in the 20th century.
Now? The fertile and massive nation, whose Amazon region alone is bigger than all of Europe, is each day more seriously fulfilling its potential – though not without serious drawbacks. Rohter, a 14-year Newsweek and New York Times correspondent, traces the course of Brazil’s ascendancy in the alternately lively and hard-hitting Brazil on the Rise: The Story of a Country Transformed.
“In purely historical terms, 40 years is barely the blink of an eye,” Rohter writes. “Yet over the last four decades, Brazil has arguably experienced deeper and more profound changes than it did during some of the centuries when it was a Portuguese colony.”
Two popular presidents have together carried out four terms since the return to stable, civilian rule. Among today’s developing countries, only China receives more foreign direct investment than Brazil. The country is immensely proud to be hosting the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics. It is now a creditor to the IMF with a new, strong currency. And to boot, its trade surplus, largely held in US Treasury notes, now makes it the fourth-largest creditor of the United States.
Rohter’s very contemporary narrative of the past four decades of Brazilian history is peppered with supporting tales and interviews from his reporting, which give texture to his monograph. The book is accessible to a first-time tourist but also balanced and analytical enough for any Brazilian (or Brazilianist).
In Rohter’s most uniquely thoughtful chapter – on the Amazon and Brazil’s forceful tugs to preserve it, use it, or guard it from a perceived threat of foreign takeover (“The Amazon is ours!” is the refrain drilled into Brazilians) – he recounts what he calls “development gone awry, Amazon-style.” He traveled with a young census taker along the Solimões River. She had taken the job because she couldn’t find teaching work. As they visited a small island with 100 children, none of whom attended school because one had never been built, she told him: “I’d give anything to be able to be the teacher here.... But the money never gets where it’s supposed to go. It always ends up in the pockets of the politicians and their friends.”
In addition to probing its deep culture of corruption and clientelism, Rohter also criticizes Brazil’s cheery self-promotion as a “racial democracy.” About half of Brazil’s 200 million claim African blood, making it the largest country of Afro-descendents after Nigeria. Still, Rohter says that “[r]ather than being a source of pride, race has, in reality, become Brazil’s secret, hidden shame.”
Embedded in the language and culture of Brazil are a wider spectrum of colors than just the “black” and “white” that many Americans recognize. Rohter recalls multiple interviews with Brazilians who asked why Barack Obama was called America’s first black president. “’But he’s not black,’ they would object. ‘He is a mulatto.’”
One unique explanation Rohter puts forth for Brazil’s long history and promotion of miscegenation runs counter to the rosier view that many Brazilians embrace. In the US, blacks were always a minority. But Brazil imported so many more slaves that in many areas of colonial Brazil, blacks outnumbered whites. Racial mixing was therefore encouraged as a way to “whiten” the largely black population.
The biggest topic Rohter skips is a serious discussion of the drug-war-fueled violence and the lack of security in Brazilian slums. It is an issue that still dominates foreigners’ perceptions of the country and merits analysis. “City of God,” the dizzying 2003 portrait of violence in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas is arguably the most iconic film about Brazil, but in discussing the movie Rohter focuses on its artistic innovation. Violence is still prominent in daily life: Just last month, in late August, gunmen with grenades and automatic weapons took 35 hostages in one of Rio de Janeiro’s most upscale hotels. And it goes the other way: Police in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo have killed 11,000 since 2003, according to a December 2009 Human Rights Watch report, often in extrajudicial killings that were later covered up.
An interviewer with Brazil’s Portuguese-language magazine Época also prodded Rohter on an incident that is treated succinctly in the book although it made Rohter a famous name to many Brazilians. In 2004 Rohter wrote a story for The New York Times reporting suspicions that President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was drinking too much. The story – titled “Brazilian Leader’s Tippling Becomes National Concern” – caused Lula to order Rohter’s expulsion from the country, though a Supreme Court justice quickly opposed the move. The incident is “only worth one paragraph,” he told Época. In the book, he calls Lula’s reaction an “authoritarian outburst.”
While critical and probing, “Brazil on the Rise” will largely leave the reader with an affectionate portrait of Brazilians, not to mention an arsenal of their slang. “Their society is one of the most richly humanized I have ever experienced,” Rohter writes, “both in terms of its many flaws and equally plenty virtues.”