For Brazil, the Future Has Arrived

In1941, so the story goes, Austrian author Stephan Zweig migrated to Brazil and, being so enamored with his new homeland and its potential, praised it in a book as the “country of the future” and then committed suicide. 

Not that these frustrations were to blame, but it supposedly gave rise to one of the most hackneyed references to this South American colossal – “the country of the future and always will be.” 

It’s about that Portuguese-speaking country in Latin America known for its gargantuan appetite for living and, until recently, for its unrealized and unattended expectations – except when it comes to soccer, carnival, and swaying to the bossa nova beat on the bikini-populated beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema.

It refers to that chica-chicaboom samba lady, Carmen Miranda, sashaying in her “Tutti-Frutti” hats in 1950s-era American movies; bossa nova icon Antonio Carlos Jobim; and Pelé, Ronaldinho, Kaká and the pursuit of World Cup soccer titles.

Not wanting to cramp their joie de vivre, but it looks as though the future has finally arrived for Brazil. The question is, is it for real and will it hold?

Brazil is currently seeing an economic boom that other nations only dream about. This has come about primarily in the last 10 years, during a period when the Latin American leaders were lamenting all their socioeconomic problems as the “lost decade.”

Their nations were choking in foreign debt, inane economic policies, excessive  and mismanaged social services, rampant corruption and inept political leaders always on the search for foreign financial institutions to bail them out.

Some nations are still mired in those problems, but not Brazil, which was rescued from its economic woes with a $30.4 billion loan by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in 2002. Brazil has paid it back and now lends the IMF money.

Inflation once running at 2,000 to 3,000 percent, Brazil’s economy, the eighth-largest in the world, now has an annual domestic product growth of 5 percent and an unemployment rate of 5.7 percent. It is exploiting a wealth of natural resources, including oil, and has a muscular manufacturing base.

Most of all, it had Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva as its president for the past eight years. Lula, with only a fourth-grade education, learned and shaped his leadership skills in Brazil’s labor movement.

In a nation of 190 million, Lula’s economic and social policies are credited with lifting 24 million Brazilians out of poverty and propelling another 31 million into the middle class and beyond.

It’s an impressive achievement. His approval rating among Brazilians was an amazing 81 percent, which probably not even God could pull in a poll. To many of his countrymen, Lula is God.

“That’s my man right there, the most popular politician on earth,” U.S. President Barack Obama said, greeting Lula at the G20 summit two years ago.

The challenge now is whether Lula can transfer that leadership capability to his handpicked successor, Dilma Rousseff, his former chief of staff, who was sworn in in January after winning a runoff election against an establishment political leader.

Ms. Rousseff had never run for public office until now and, prior to joining his presidential staff, served Lula in ranking ministry positions.

She was once a committed antigovernment rebel, but Lula rehabilitated her politically and ordained her candidacy. After what he did for his country, who could ignore Lula’s choice to succeed him?

It looks somewhat like the Vladimir Putin-Dmitry Medvedev arrangement in Russia, when Putin had to constitutionally relinquish his post as president and handpicked Medvedev to succeed him.

Putin took over as prime minister, from where he essentially continues to run the country and is the last word on politics and policies.

Medvedev was once Putin’s chief of staff and previously a technocrat and political appointee who had never held political office. Even the most naïve can see the arrangement that allows Medvedev to do Putin’s bidding.

The political ascent and arrangement of Medvedev and Ms. Rousseff may just be an interesting coincidence.

Nevertheless, for the sake of their political health, it may be hard to ignore the commissions of the mentors who made them and who still wield considerable clout.

An indication that President Rousseff will continue to lead the country in Lula’s image and maintain her close attachment to his policies is evident by the fact that almost half of the 37 cabinet ministers are Lula’s old hands who are sticking around to help keep the country on track.

Up to now, President Rousseff has not revealed any divergent plans or intentions that would sharply deviate from the policies and mandates of her former boss.

Nevertheless, Ms. Rousseff’s past indicates she has a mind of her own and can be a political and social rebel when the political establishment tugs at her the wrong way.

Ms. Rousseff was raised in a middle- class environment – her father was a political exile from Bulgaria – and consorted with extremist youth movements rebelling against the military regime in Brazil.

In Patty Hearst-Black Panthers style, she and the young rebels clashed with the authorities, robbing banks and creating mayhem against the social and political order.

President Rousseff, dubbed the “Joan of Arc” by her comrades, was arrested and spent three years in prison, in the interim marrying and giving birth to a daughter and eventually rehabilitating herself into the legitimate world.

She studied economics and became a government technocrat, which eventually led to Lula’s inner circle of reformists that created her path to the presidency.

Ironic is the divergence of time and circumstances. Ms. Rousseff was once driven through the streets in a police paddy wagon on her way to prison.

This time, she rode in a Rolls Royce convertible as the president of Brazil, to the cheers of an adoring crowd.