Brazil: All Talk and No Game?

3 years ago ccwa 0

brazil-rio-de-janeiro-statue-aerial-view[1]An unprecedented amount of international attention is on Brazil, marking the country as a rising regional and global hegemon. Brazil is a “country to watch,” – its speculative rise on the international stage has developed a following like that of a young, up-and-coming athlete. The prospect of an emerging power in Latin America is an increasingly attractive one, and it’s led to numerous scholarly articles, new acronyms, Global Gateways programs, and the opportunity for Brazil to host both the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics. With the country in the international spotlight the government is accelerating economic and infrastructure development to prove that their ascendancy into global leadership is well-deserved. Brazilians themselves were optimistic initially; president Dilma Rousseff stated in her inaugural address “We can, in fact, be one of the most developed and least unequal nations in the world.” People agreed: 62 percent believed economic conditions were “good” in 2010, the second-highest rating of any country that year.

There’s no denying Brazil’s progress over the past two decades, it’s seen record high economic growth rates and over 30 million Brazilians move up to the middle class. But despite it’s rise, Brazil’s future is a precarious one – it still struggles with rampant disparities, crime and corruption, and infrastructure issues that could hinder its realization as a true global player.

Brazil’s Rise

Hyperinflation and extreme socioeconomic disparities plagued the Brazilian economy in the 1990s and early 2000s, shortly after the country’s first post-military regime was appointed. The election of Luís Inácio Lula da Silva in 2002 (and reelection in 2006) paved the way for long-desired political stability, and with it, economic stability. It was through da Silva’s leadership that Brazil initiated its own development model, combining income redistribution with high economic growth that yielded the macroeconomic stability the country so desperately needed. This economic management decreased massive inflation rates, stabilized the currency, and attracted foreign investment, leaving the country in a stable position to endure the global economic downturn. Brazil currently ranks 7th in the world with a $2.5 trillion GDP, a testament to the economic leaps made in just one short decade.

Brazil’s agricultural and industrial exports are an enormous factor in this economic revival. According to Juan de Onis, “No other country has such a large untapped reserve of land, water, and farmers with the technology and expertise to add value to natural resources”.

The oil and biofuel industries in particular have seen strong incentives for private investment, and have cemented Brazil’s position as a regional power within the LAC countries. It’s worth noting that Brazil achieved full oil self-sufficiency in 2006 – quite a feat for a country of over 201 million people – and is the largest producer of liquid fuels in all of South America.

B as in BRICS: Status and Power

It’s clear that Brazil’s jump to the forefront of the rising global power dynamic has not occurred merely by chance.  Inclusion in the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, China, India and South Africa) seemed to indicate Brazil’s new global leadership role. Its tenth temporary appointment to the UN Security Council and intentions for a permanent seat through UNSC reform also signify global leadership ambitions. Brazil is also vying for a decision-making role in the IMF, citing that the fund should reflect the interests and significance of emerging economies. What’s more, Brazil took the reins in creating several South American and trans-continental diplomatic and economic blocs under President Lula alone: the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), the South American Defense Council, the South American Summits, the IBSA Dialogue Forum, and the Summit of South American-Arab Countries.

Moving a bit closer to home, The Ohio State University and other large American universities are eager to pursue international partnerships with BRICS nations, with the intention of fostering dialogue on solutions to global and local problems, and to provide increased global opportunities for Ohio State students. These universities aim to build a strong physical presence in countries that seem to “matter” most on the international stage. The selection of Sao Paulo as the third Global Gateway program at OSU, behind Shanghai and Mumbai, is no accident, further exhibiting Brazil’s perceived status as a “key part of the world.” The power of the BRICS acronym is undeniable.

The above examples are clear indications of Brazil’s intentions to flaunt its status as a rising global power. Yet like many BRICS nations, most notably India and China, rapid economic ascension is not predicted to be a sustainable model of power acquisition. In recounting Brazil’s recent and rapid successes, the same model of advancement simply can’t be used to predict the country’s ranks in the decade to come. It’s difficult to deny Brazil’s regional power given their economic command of South America; but, regional influence shouldn’t be confused with global influence. Viewing Brazil through a constant comparison with other Latin American countries, as well as measuring its success by its rapid ascent, is viewing the country through an extremely skewed lens. When Brazil’s current domestic issues are examined, extreme doubts arise regarding their future as a rising global power. If Brazil can’t provide for its own people, how can it exercise any real power with nations more powerful and prosperous than itself?

Domestic Disparities

Brazil’s current social disparities are staggering.  Despite increased movement into the middle class following the country’s economic spike, Brazilians still struggle with dismal poverty and entrenched inequalities that appear to be issues of structural violence. An estimated 36 million Brazilians live in massive urban slums or shanty towns on the outskirts of major metropolises; another significant portion of the population lives in isolated rural villages plagued by a lack of clean water and almost no access to essential services like healthcare and education. Brazilian sociologist Jesse de Souza approximates that one-third of Brazilians live in precarious conditions, excluded entirely from mainstream society. These poor, uneducated Brazilians are barred from enjoying the full social and economic benefits of citizenship and instead made victims of unsafe work, social violence, and political exclusion.

The social divide goes even further: an analysis by the Library of Congress states that the skewed distribution of income, “one of the most unequal in the world,” is responsible in part for the endemic presence of nonpolitical crime that gives Brazil a murder rate four times higher than that of the United States. Urban areas are a breeding ground for drug traffickers smuggling products into Colombia and Venezuela, and they’re victim to alarmingly high armed robbery rates. These social ills are tied to racial disparities as well: the Afro-Brazilian and “Pardo” (the Portuguese term for multiracial) population, especially in Rio de Janeiro and other northern cities, tend to experience greater social and income disparities than white Brazilians with European Portuguese ancestry.

Brazil’s racial and social inequalities are personified most vividly in their health care system: the maternal mortality rate for black women is a staggering 80 percent higher than white women despite a unified health system offering comprehensive coverage to all. Brazil’s indigenous population in particular experiences extreme disparities in health outcomes, with the mortality of indigenous infants more than triple that of the general population. Such health outcomes are indicative of a struggling developing country, not a rising, developed country on track towards becoming a major power player.

Infrastructure Issues

Brazil’s long history of economic fragmentation and limited trade are reflected in the current status of Brazilian infrastructure. Latin America as a whole has a significantly less impressive infrastructure grid than the United States and Europe did in the mid-19th century, let alone today. Preparations for the World Cup and the Summer Olympics have proven to be true tests of Brazil’s capacity for infrastructure improvements. The country struggled to prepare for the Cup, and hosting the Olympics may prove to be too ambitious for the country to tackle. Despite President Rousseff’s optimism in her inaugural address, these events may in fact serve as a harsh reminder of the country’s limitations instead of a triumphant opening act on the world stage.

A Reuters investigation into the massive $1 trillion construction projects in the lead-up to the Cup offers a dose of realism:

“[Preparation for the World Cup and the Summer Olympics] now seem likely to fall short of President Dilma Rousseff’s ambitions. Numerous high-profile projects are falling victim to a long list of problems including endemic corruption, red tape, insufficient funds and – above all – a glaring lack of leadership and know-how”.

It shouldn’t be all that surprising that Brazil is struggling to lay the groundwork for two major world events. The country spends a mere 1.5% of GDP on infrastructure, compared with a global average of 3.8%. Even one of Brazil’s top independent infrastructure experts, Vance Stewart, holds serious doubts about the country’s ability to prepare for the world spotlight, encouraging global investors to “Stop treating Brazil like an inevitable success story”.

The poor infrastructure also puts a serious burden on businesses that struggle to transport their products between cities and to ports to export. Rousseff has scared investors away from tackling infrastructure projects by hounding the Central Bank to drastically cut interest rates: gross public debt has increased to 60-70 percent of GDP as a result. With Brazil struggling to maintain effective domestic leadership, how can it realistically be called a rising global leader?

A Changing Course

If Brazil seeks to move forward, it must tackle difficult political choices on spending, taxation, and service delivery to lessen its crippling disparities.  Although income transfers have helped raise millions out of poverty, far too many Brazilians still suffer from crime and a lack of public service access.  Although the country’s recognition as a major global power presents it with an international platform, it also gives rise to dilemmas for its regional and global role that will be even more at the mercy of the international spotlight come Summer 2014 and 2016.

Given its domestic turmoil and stagnant economic growth as of late – the 2012 economy grew by only 0.9 percent – Brazil certainly isn’t ready to be a true global power.  Brazil’s recent popularity is especially perplexing in light of its present difficulties; upon removing the rose-tinted glasses and looking beyond the borders of South America, Brazil appears significantly less impressive and prepared for a role on the international stage. The aforementioned domestic problems, if not solved within the next decade, will further dilute Brazil’s economic growth. Crime, transnational drug trafficking, and corruption can divert resources into illegal activities and disturb the efficiency and purity of already struggling government institutions, affecting a multitude of other aspects of Brazilian society. As the population continues to grow, it can be assumed that socioeconomic disparities will grow as well.

 Jurandir Fernandes, the Brazilian Transportation Secretary, puts his country’s growth and development into a perspective commonly shared by supporters of Brazil’s role as a rising global power in an increasingly multipolar world: “Brazil is a democracy…. we may not move as fast as China. Yet we’re growing in ways that we never have before. In the end, isn’t that what matters?”

Ultimately, no; growth is not all that matters. A successful and stable Brazil depends on the strength and vision of its political leadership and the ability for that leadership to forge a consensus among different parts of society, all within a rapidly changing domestic framework. External factors matter as well: Brazil’s path to global leadership will be contingent on its perceived power by other global leaders, which differs greatly from their perceived status. For Brazil to be regarded as a true global powerhouse, a change of course is needed domestically to propel the country back to a trajectory that aligns with the global attention it has received all along.


by Sarah Montell

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