By Joseph A. Page
Addison-Wesley 540pp $27.50
In 1988, I ventured into one of Rio de Janeiro's hillside shantytowns, where I went from shack to shack trying to find out how poor Brazilians were managing to survive triple-digit inflation. Most of the people earned just $60 a month--barely enough to buy rice and beans. Some women had to lock their preschool-age children alone in their clapboard shacks all day so they could go out to work as maids. I asked the slum's American priest why the poor didn't revolt against such misery. "Brazilians," he replied, "have an amazing tolerance for suffering. But if things don't get better for the poor, these people will soon be rioting in the streets."
Seven years later, conditions are not much better. Although the poor have benefited from a dramatic drop in inflation, their economic misery persists, while other urban problems are on the rise: Police murder homeless street urchins, teenage gangs periodically loot Rio's posh beachfront areas, and drug traffickers are increasingly out of control. In May, they turned the picturesque middle-class neighborhood of Santa Teresa into a free-fire zone for three days.
Still, Brazilians have not revolted. It's not easy to explain uhy. But that's one of the questions author Joseph A. Page, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center, attempts to answer in his new book, The Brazilians. It's one of the most complete portrayals I've read of the complex Brazilian personality and culture.
Page makes it clear that this is not a scholarly work but rather a compilation of observations based on 30 years of visits to Brazil. Thus, the book occasionally seems a tad unfocused. But Page, the author of a best-selling 1983 biography of Argentine leader Juan Domingo Pern, is an accomplished researcher, and his book provides a well-rounded vision of this little-understood nation of 156 million people. Particularly thought-provoking are the author's portraits of Brazilians, from pocket-stuffing pols to glue-sniffing street kids.
Among these is Joozinho Trinta, the flamboyant designer who set new standards for lavish carnival costumes--even though they cost the slum-dwelling samba-club members who wear them several months' pay. "The poor like luxuriousness," Page quotes Trinta as saying. "It is the intellectuals who like misery." And there's Pentecostal Bishop Edir Macedo, who has parlayed a miracles-for-cash business into an empire that includes a publishing house, a construction company, and Brazil's fifth-largest television station.
Carnival and religion, of course, are important vents for frustrations that might otherwise lead to rebellion. Additionally, as Page shows, Brazilians today are feeling more upbeat than they have for years. The long-awaited return to democracy in 1985 once seemed only a prelude to the disappointment of 1992, when President Fernando Collor de Mello was impeached on corruption charges. But President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, a left-leaning sociologist who has proven to be a capable manager of the economy, has again revived hopes. Back in the 1970s, the so-called Brazilian miracle--which saw the country grow at an average annual rate of 8.6%--gave way to the foreign-debt crisis and hyperinflation of the 1980s. Now, Cardoso's year-old anti-inflation program, based on a new currency called the real, has slashed inflation from 45% a month to just 2.5% a month. Cardoso is also pushing to deregulate the economy and privatize state industries. And Brazil, which once epitomized Latin America's closed borders, is starting to open up to the world, having entered into a free-trade agreement with Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay.
Surprisingly, Page says little about this opening. And many of the executives he profiles are from the old school: men who made fortunes decades ago, thanks to import restrictions and ties to the government. One wishes he had included a few of the young new entrepreneurs who are thriving without help from government godfathers. By failing to discuss this new breed of business owner, Page perpetuates stereotypes he dislikes.
Still, one stereotype holds true: The country's elite remains largely unconcerned about the poor. Page ties this callousness to Brazil's long history of slavery, which only came to an end in 1888, years after its abolition in the rest of the Western world. Wealth has been so poorly distributed that back in the 1970s, economist Edmar Bacha dubbed the country "Belindia"--where a few lucky citizens enjoy a standard of living similar to Belgium's, while the vast majority live in poverty equal to that of India. The richest 10% of Brazilians still enjoy 53% of national income, while the share held by the poorest half of the population is only 10%. Indifference to this income gulf, Page points out, could cripple development.
Has Brazil's cycle of raised expectations followed by disappointment finally been broken? Its citizens, says Page, still joke bitterly that "Brazil is the country of the future... and always will be." If Brazil is really to have its day in the sun, Page points out, its leaders will have to foster economic and social justice as well as growth--all without spoiling the environment. That's a hefty agenda for any country. But if Brazil can harness the creativity of its people and add a big dose of market discipline, it could eventually succeed.