Where is Brazil Headed?

Daniel Basil / CC BY 3.0 BR

Brazil is a complex country. It underwent dramatic socio-political transformations since its inception as a Portuguese colony, and is the home of one of the most diverse societies in the world. Moreover, the past decade has been marked by economic growth that, although impressive, has slowed down to an average of 2% per year. Social discontent erupted into massive protests last summer, in which people demanded better public services and infrastructure. Inequality remains high, and over 30 million people still live in poverty. But despite the issues that still remain, the country has transformed into a regional power that has the potential of becoming a global power.

Michael Reid provides an insightful analysis of the country through an exploration of its social and economic history in his new book, Brazil: The Troubled Rise of a Global Power (Yale University Press, 2014). Mr. Reid, who is the Latin America columnist for The Economist, discussed his book at the Dialogue on June 9, accompanied by Mr. Ricardo Zúñiga, Director for Western Hemisphere Affairs at the National Security Council, Cláudia Trevisan, correspondent of O Estado de São Paulo, and Peter Hakim, the Dialogue’s president emeritus.

Brazilians are skeptical of their country’s political and economic trajectory. Trevisan alluded to the government’s nepotism and political corruption as one of the main reasons for people’s frustrations. Hakim also referred to the country’s political and economic situation, arguing that Brazil’s growth is dependent on both factors that neither has performed well over the couple of years. Zúñiga pointed to the fact that people are not convinced that the successes of the two previous administrations have been truly consolidated. Reid argued that Brazil is a radically different country from the rest in the region and thus should be analyzed through a unique historical lense.

The four experts agreed on one thing: while the country’s advances have included better services to the poor, most public benefits are still destined for the political and economic elite. Brazilian society, as a result, remains polarized with an increasingly growing sector of people who demand change. As both Hakim and Reid pointed out, race is a particularly pressing issue: half of the population that can be categorized as non-white, lives in substantially poorer circumstances than their white counterparts. Reid’s book devotes substantial coverage to Brazil’s history of slavery, which, as he author argues, is the main source of the current racial tensions experienced in the country. Racism might not be unique to Brazil, but, the forms of racism that take place are different from its manifestations in the United States. Therefore, the author cautioned the audience against drawing broad comparisons, particularly with other countries that have a prolonged history of racism such as the United States.

However, Brazil does resemble the U.S. in certain things. Zúñiga, a former member of the American diplomatic mission in Brasília, said he could identify with Brazil because, like the U.S., it is “a world into itself.” In order to understand it, one has to consider both its general economic and political trends and the local dynamics that dictate the daily lives and aspirations of its citizens. Reid’s book does this expertly, questioning Brazil’s past and pointing to changes that the country needs to undertake in order to achieve its full potential as a global power.

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