Brazil’s Moving Up in the World

Poster with the slogan "Brazil, country of the future"

Photo © Michael Sommers.

When I first moved to Brazil over a decade ago, the expressions “First World” and “Third World” were frequently bandied about: not only in the media, but among people in their day-to-day conversations.

Journalists were constantly decrying Brazil’s shameful signs of “Third World”-ism: poverty, corruption, inflation, etc., while celebrating the nation’s “First World” achievements: economic growth, stable currency, the presence of Latin America’s wealthy mega city (São Paulo), home to the planet’s largest fleet of helicopters and its second-most profitable Armani store.

Among both friends and strangers, “First World” and “Third World” references were also frequent. Upon discovering I was from Canada, puzzled cab drivers would inevitably pepper me with questions about the “First World” – i.e. was it true that nobody lives in the streets (well, not quite)? Meanwhile, whenever a political corruption scandal erupted (weekly), or a sudden rainstorm caused precariously-built hilltop houses to collapse, killing entire families (seasonally), or someone told a horror story about someone else’s relative waiting 12 hours in the blazing sun for emergency treatment at a public hospital only to subsequently die (not infrequently), momentarily sad and outraged friends would claim – with a mixture of affection and genuine bafflement – that I was “ malouco” (nuts) for choosing to live in such a “Third World” place.

In recent years, Brazil has made progress on a vast variety of fronts: economic, social, political, environmental.

In recent years, Brazil has made progress on a vast variety of fronts: economic, social, political, environmental. Growth hovers in the air like the constant humidity, and the economy is in constant boom mode. The 2008 economic crisis that rocked the globe registered as a mere shudder from which the country has already emerged, more or less unscathed. More Brazilians are going to school – and for longer – than ever before. They have access to inexpensive generic medicine and to legal recourse if they feel they’ve been ripped off, abused, or discriminated against (due to the advent of consumer protection agencies, special women police units equipped to deal with domestic violence, and strict laws against racial discrimination). Minimum wages have risen and job opportunities have grown.

A record number of poor Brazilians are seeping into the middle class (slowly closing the gaping chasm between Brazil’s rich and poor – historically one of the world’s widest). As a result of government pressure on banks to extend credit (and credit cards) to the masses, Brazilians buying up record numbers of homes and cars not to mention cell phones and wide screen plasma TVs– all of which can be purchased in incremental payments over long periods (anywhere from a year for a cell phone to 30 years for a new apartment).

(Aside: When I first came to Brazil, people bought or “rented” phone cards and then lined up to make calls on public phones (depending where you lived, a private line – which you “owned” – could cost around US$3,000). Back then, you’d also see a lot more people clustered in front of electronics store windows, watching wide screen TVs instead of buying them).

Ignoring my friends’ advice, I’ve stuck around and accompanied Brazil through these recent changes. And, at a certain point, I gazed around, and was struck by a glaring and very interesting absence: all those constant references to “Third World” and “First World” had up and vanished. Since Brazilians have (thankfully) never been prone to linguistic pussyfooting around, I would venture that the references didn’t fade away for mere motives of political correctness. And although, overall, things have definitely taken a turn for the better, it’s not as if poverty, corruption, injustice, illiteracy, and crime have all dried and evaporated in the tropical sun.

Instead, it seems that in Brazil – where the aspirational motto “o país do futuro” (“the country of the future”) always had the aftertaste of a cruel joke since the future never came – the present and the future are finally merging. Brazilians themselves are no longer plagued by doubts that theirs is a “Third World” nation – as such, the compulsive need to prove that at least some pockets and aspects are “First World” has been dispelled. Despite all the pot holes, Brazilians sense that they’re on the right track – moreover (much to their collective pleasure), the rest of the world increasingly senses it too.

Last November, the cover story of Britain’s The Economist was devoted to Brazil’s amazing political and economic performance with a main feature entitled “Latin America’s Big Success Story”. In February of this year, Jeffrey Simpson, a leading columnist for Canada’s national paper, The Globe and Mail, also published a series of in-depth columns, one of whose titles was “The Country of the Future May Finally Be Arriving”. Then just this week, The Wall Street Journal jumped on the Brazilian bandwagon with a special section whose even more enthusiastic heading read: “For the Country of the Future, It’s Finally Tomorrow.”

Taken together, all of these timely and intelligently written pieces offer a great round-up of the state of Brazil today. Despite some lavish praise, the journalists who penned these pieces are not shy about exposing still glaring problems (crime, poverty, corruption) and warning about possible pitfalls (the overvalued Brazilian real, the inability of infrastructure to keep up with urban growth, the unchecked expansion of large-scale agribusiness into areas such as the Amazon forest). Overall, however, the tone is celebratory – and deservedly so.

While the coverage in The Economist and The Globe and Mail sticks mostly to economic, political and social realms, The Wall Street Journal boasts some other interesting features. Art aficionados will enjoy the profile of Otávio and Gustavo Pandolfa aka Os Gêmeos (The Twins), identical twin brothers from São Paulo whose singular and slightly surreal murals on city walls are taking the international street-art world by storm. Foodies should check out the annotated and very up-to-date list of compiled by Paulo Barroso de Barros, a rising Brazilian chef, of São Paulo’s best (and not necessarily most expensive) restaurants (four of which are helmed by women). Finally, anybody tempted to move to Brazil and take advantage of its boom, will find encouragement in the thoughtful “Expat Diary,” written by American entrepreneur, Konrad Huber, which analyzes the (many) pros and (few) cons he has experienced in creating a business – and a life – in Brazil.


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