F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”
An ability to tolerate contradictions can be very useful. When seeking to understand Brazil, this skill is essential.
Brazil has long been a land of contrasts. For an outsider, it is difficult to understand how one nation could contain so many extremes. Immense wealth coexists with abject poverty. Despite high levels of crime, violence and corruption, Brazilians remain remarkably optimistic — even happy — about both their lives and the future of Brazil.
The reasons for these apparent contradictions are complicated.
Even in the best of circumstances, Brazil can be difficult to comprehend. During the 2016 Olympic Games, with the world watching on television and the internet, it seemed well-nigh impossible.
With some exceptions, the media’s portrayal of Rio de Janeiro this month was superficial, sensationalist and unduly critical. The image of Brazil that emerged from the Games was of a society and political culture consumed by vice.
While Brazil has its problems, it also has a number of fundamental, long-term strengths that deserve greater appreciation. Here are a few:
First, a bit of perspective. Brazil is the first nonrich, nonauthoritarian country ever to host the Olympics. Rio was never going to match the ability of London or Beijing to pull off such a massive event. Moreover, there are good reasons for cities to avoid spending big sums on the Olympics. Evidence suggests that these expenses rarely produce positive returns on investment, especially in the long run. Too many benefits go to the powerful and well-connected developers and contractors instead of the general population.
Brazil, of course, has its own corruption to contend with. But here, too, the reality is more hopeful than the headlines. Both the current and former presidents, Dilma Rousseff and Lula da Silva, are facing impeachment for alleged corruption related to budget mismanagement.
Investigators also have uncovered a massive graft scheme at Petrobras, the state-owned oil company. As serious as these cases are, neither Lula nor Rousseff is alleged to have been personally corrupt. And the politicians leading the impeachment proceedings are suspected of committing far worse offenses.
It is easy to be cynical about these shady politics. But recall that Brazil, like the U.S., has a federal political system that is designed to create competition and divided power. Paradoxically, the fact that Brazil’s institutions can withstand such turmoil and that corruption laws are being strictly enforced are signs that the system is working as intended.
Brazil’s politics may look chaotic on the outside. Lying deeper, however, is a subtle but profound cultural trait known as corporatism. Inherited from the Portuguese colonial era, corporatism is a vision of society in which each person and institution fulfills a proper role. One of Brazil’s most famous songs pays tribute to this culture with its chorus, “Tudo está no seu lugar,” or “Everything in its place.”
Rio, one must admit, had plenty of problems on display this Olympics: inequality, violence, corruption and ineffective law enforcement. Sadly, these problems are common throughout Latin America, and not unique to Brazil. And as a representative of Brazil, Rio is actually a fairly poor indicator.
Brazil, like much of Latin America, emerged from a dictatorship in the 1980s and then underwent decades of liberalizing economic and political reforms. These years produced dramatic improvements in standards of living and human rights. But throughout the hemisphere, democratic leaders have struggled to deliver improved security and opportunity for their citizens, especially the poor.
And Brazil was also particularly hard hit by recent global economic events. An overreliance on commodities made Brazil especially vulnerable to declining demand in global commodities, causing steep economic contractions.
Rio’s economy was not well-suited to withstand these events. When Brazil’s leaders moved the capital from Rio to Brasilia in 1960s, the city lost its most important economic base. Today the only significant industry remaining in Rio is tourism. But Rio is only one small piece of a gigantic, dynamic, nation. A more representative sample of Brazilian urban life could be found in one of its other large cities, such as São Paulo, Belo Horizonte, Salvador or Recife.
Brazil’s sheer size and diversity — both in geography and population — would be enough to make it one of the world’s leading nations in the next century. The country has over 200 million people spread out over an area half the size of the South American continent. Apart from Nigeria, Brazil has more people of African descent than any other country in the world. And while race in Brazil is a complex issue, the country has a justly deserved positive reputation for racial tolerance.
Brazil is also blessed with abundant natural resources. As the world seeks to feed an additional 2 billion people by the year 2050, Brazil — often referred to as the “breadbasket of the world” — will continue to benefit from expanded global trade in agriculture.
In short, Brazil is a huge, complicated place that defies simple explanation. So the next time you encounter a story about Brazil, remember F. Scott Fitzgerald’s adage, and imagine the opposite of what you’re hearing. It just may be the truth.
Evan Berquist is an attorney at Fredrikson & Byron, where he advises clients on Latin America. He can be reached at email@example.com.