Brazil's Unhappy? Tell That to Soccer Fans
A new Pew Research Center poll on Brazil has Latin America's biggest nation in a lather. With the World Cup just days away, 72 percent of the country reported "dissatisfaction" over the direction of the country. Two-thirds said the economy stinks, and 6 in 10 believed that the World Cup will be bad for Brazil. And that was just the beginning.
Knowing Americas pundits say Brazilians couldn't care a fig about the futebol. But my daughter, who is 9 and no pushover, is unimpressed. She put on her official green and yellow team jersey the other day and won't take it off. She's got company. The official colors are cropping up on verandas, fluttering from lampposts and getting lacquered onto fingernails. The national team's 4-0 romp over Panama in a pre-Cup friendly this week sopped up much ink and air time. Police had to separate fans in Sao Paulo as they brawled over the last tickets for Brazil's World Cup opener on June 12.
Brazil isn't so much depressed as it is bipolar. Yes, strikes and flash protests continue to flare. And with a third of the $11.5 billion-plus earmarked for spending on the Cup coming from public coffers, there's plenty to be angry about. The day Pew released its poll, a noted Brazilian photographer was stricken with chest pains on a city bus; he died in front of a government cardiac hospital that had no emergency service. But don't expect Brazilians to start pulling for Argentina. By kickoff, most of the host country will be on the couch, not the street, with a beer in one hand and their heart in the other.
It feels like just the other day that Latin America's emerging market of record was not just in better shape, as Brasilia claimed with good reason, but that Brazilians actually believed they were in better shape. Citing "microdata" from Gallup's global polls, official handlers noted that Brazilians were unflappably happy, rating their lives consistently better than did 80 percent of other nations since the mid-2000s. Young people were even cheerier, with 15- to 29-year-olds trumping their peers everywhere on what they expected from life in five years. The poll inspired an academic talking paper that quickly became a favorite in Brasilia.
The natives weren't the only ones seized with Brazil fever. From Davos to corporate boardrooms to the Washington Beltway, the goodwill toward the Brazilians was almost palpable. It topped out around 2010, when gross domestic product growth hit 7.5 percent, attracting encomiums from the wonks and cash from heat-seeking investors.
Never mind the payola scandal that broke in 2005, which would strafe the highest reaches of Brasilia and eventually see two dozen of the president's "hard-core" handlers convicted of vote buying and other crimes. No matter that the Brazilian bull run soon flagged. Nor that President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, on his arc from lathe turner to president to global player, cozied up to thugs and caudillos, including Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Libya's Muammar Qaddafi, while lecturing the blue-eyed Western bankers about fiscal responsibility.
Brazil was on a roll, and Lula was enjoying every sunbeam. A think tank even coined a phrase -- "the Brasilia consensus" -- to hail the combination of state capitalism and muscular social policies of the Lula years that became a benchmark for Latin nations wary of Washington "neoliberals" but spooked by Chavez's "21st-century socialism."
The fourth estate also caught the Brazil bug. In 2010, Time magazine called Lula one of the world's most influential political leaders, while Der Spiegel announced "Brazil's Lula Vaults into Big League of World Diplomacy."
Because the sun also sets, the media eventually soured on Brazil. I'm told Lula framed the 2009 issue of the Economist that hailed Brazil's rise with an image of Christ the Redeemer blasting off from Corcovado mountain -- but not the same magazine's send-up five years later, which pictured the Redeemer flaming out. Nor, certainly, was Dilma Rousseff, Lula's successor, enamored of "Brazil's Crumbling Dream," the Der Spiegel edition of a couple weeks ago that featured a flaming soccer ball falling on Rio de Janeiro under the cover line "Death and Games."
Brazilians know the syndrome well. It's called cyclothymia, a fancy word for a mood disorder. Stefan Zweig knew about it. The Austrian writer fled Nazi-occupied Europe to Brazil, to which he soon fell in thrall. He declared Brazil "the country of the future," then killed himself with a dose of Veronal. It was in the middle of Carnival. Sixteen years later, Brazil won its first of five World Cups.
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