Opinion by Jeb Blount
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – I’ve got a lot riding on Brazil.
I moved here in 1991 for a brief four-year stay and ended up staying. I’ve built a family and a career here. Despite Brazil’s recent troubles, deep “saudades” for family and friends in the United States and Canada, and the damage recession is doing to my personal finances, I doubt I’ll leave. Rio de Janeiro is now home.
There is not only greatness in Brazil, but real, and nearly boundless, potential. Its people are generous, resourceful and by international standards, remarkably content.
Brazil is ugly too, cursed with self-inflicted poverty, carelessness and waste. Its civil order is sullied by violence and graft and political discourse stilted and insular.
But when Brazilians express shock that I don’t flee to the order and wealth of North America, I respond with the words of the late, great Brazilian Bossa Nova composer Tom Jobim, who divided his time between New York and Rio.
When asked which was better he said:
“To live in the U.S. is great but it sucks. To live in Brazil sucks but it’s great.”
My feelings exactly, and I’m content with the latter. Besides, Trump has sucked a lot of what I find great out of the United States.
But I don’t buy the idea that Brazil is “the country of the future”, an under-performer just waiting to shake off adolescent mistakes, and with a few smart reforms, faith and capital from local and international investors, seize its undeniable potential.
Brazil’s economic crisis will end, probably later rather than sooner. But even if it learns from the crisis, I doubt Brazil will join the ranks of developed and powerful nations in my lifetime.
In its 128 years as a Republic, Brazil has blown too many chances for that. The current economic crisis, the deepest in at least a century, is the result of the latest wasted opportunity.
When Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva became president in 2003, Brazil was already enjoying a once-in-a-century commodities boom. China’s economic miracle created massive demand for Brazil’s iron ore, soybeans, bauxite, oil, sugar, orange juice poultry, beef and even regional aircraft.
At the same time, Brazil was more economically and politically stable than ever before. As the economy grew and poverty fell, the future seemed at hand.
But instead of building on more than a decade of economic liberalization, Lula and his successor Dilma Rousseff, sought greater government control, driving up costs and slowing, or even stymieing, investment. Their populist and nationalist arguments for the blunder have since been exposed as little more than cover for the world’s largest-ever political graft scheme.
Lula, Rousseff and their allies, embattled, President Michel Temer included, acted as if the boom would never end, but they all do. Now mines, farms and factories in other countries supply China with goods Brazil could have provided. Tens of billions of dollars invested in Brazilian mines, ports, shipyards, ethanol plants, oil refineries and oil fields were lost, along with tens of thousands of jobs, written off along with Brazil’s reputation.
The degree to which Brazil’s situation “sucks” right now, hasn’t killed my love of all that is great. I hope to revel in feijoada, fútbol, samba, bossa nova, the energy of São Paulo, Carnival in Rio and the majesty of the Amazon for some time. But Brazil aspires to something greater, and as much as I’ve got riding on its future, I’m afraid it’s muffed its best chance for a long time.
* Jeb Blount is a journalist in Rio de Janeiro who has covered Brazil for 26 years for such publications and agencies as Reuters, Bloomberg, the Washington Post, Miami Herald and Los Angeles Times.