They’re Not Occupying Brasília: Why Things Feel Tudo Bem (Alright) In South America

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Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff in a file photo from September 18, 2010, before she was President. (Mauricio Lima / AFP / Getty Images)

In America, the Great Recession has moved protesters to occupy Wall Street. In Europe the debt crisis has incited them to tear up any street. So where in the Western world can you find a modicum of national confidence these days? South American way, amigo, to once obscure capitals like Brasília, where President Dilma Rousseff, the country’s first female head of state, enjoys a 71% approval rating – and where last month Finance Minister Guido Mantega even suggested that Brazil and its fellow emerging-power BRICs (Russia, India, China) could orchestrate a rescue package for the euro zone. The idea went nowhere, but it gave Brazil another chance to flash its unprecedented economic and political self-assuredness.

When I visited Brasília this week, its modernist ministry buildings were oozing that sim podemos (yes we can) attitude. Brazil’s economy, which grew 7.5% last year, has passed Italy’s as the world’s seventh largest; unemployment is holding at 6% versus 9% in the U.S., and more than half the population now calls itself middle class. A top government official reminded me that in Brazil’s once backward northeast, where the coastal city of Recife has reinvented itself as a “digital port” of IT and software production, “we’re seeing growth at Chinese levels.” Add to that Brazil’s prime-time calendar for the decade – the 2014 soccer World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro – and you have a country whose confidence reserves match its currency reserves (now the world’s sixth largest).

(See “Olympic Dreams Realized, Brazil Takes the Spotlight”)

But Brazil still has Amazon-size problems to fix, from deficient infrastructure — even Brazilian soccer legend Pelé said this week the country needs better World Cup organization — to some of the highest taxes in the developing world. And a big question is whether its confidence will morph into cockiness and become an obstacle to the nation’s outstanding reforms. One of the Brazilian government’s chief priorities, for example, is a larger role on the world stage; but critics say it isn’t helping its image abroad this week by snubbing the Organization of American States’ human rights commission, which has ruled that Belo Monte, a massive hydroelectric dam project in the Amazon region, is ignoring the rights and environmental concerns of indigenous communities. A Brazilian federal court last week made a similar ruling. The government, which denies the OAS assertions, is appealing; but indigenous protesters this week invaded the Belo Monte site.

Even so, while controversies like Belo Monte might have been regular Brazilian news fodder a decade ago, most brasileiros consider them exceptions today. And that goes a long way toward explaining why the country seems so malaise-free despite the prospect of an economic slowdown – as well as concerns about Brazil’s historical nemesis, inflation – looming on the horizon. “Brazil at the start of the 21st century is where America was at the start of the 20th,” political consultant Jose Luciano Dias told me at his office in Brasília, a capital that was only constructed five decades ago. “We’ve reached a point where progress now seems normal” – and where folks hope the boom-and-bust cycles that once defined and confined Brazil have ended.

(See “The One Country That Might Avoid Recession Is…”)

A big reason for that conviction, Dias adds, is Rousseff, 63, whom Brazilians simply call Dilma. They largely credit her predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, with bringing Brazil to the threshold of the developed world via his post-ideological mix of capitalist and socialist policies. But while Lula, a gregarious former labor union leader, symbolized the country’s exuberant surge, Rousseff, a more low-key economist who was Lula’s chief of staff, represents a steadier groove that is popular not only with the emerging middle class, but also with the more conservative affluent class that was often skeptical of Lula and his Workers Party. Both groups admire her toughness, forged in part during her days as an urban guerrilla who was tortured under Brazil’s former right-wing military dictatorship.

They also have a sense that Rousseff, who took office on Jan. 1, is heading politically risky reforms that Lula too often avoided. Among the most important is an anti-corruption campaign that has seen her former chief of staff and four cabinet ministers from her multi-party coalition resign under charges of misappropriation (which all have so far denied). Make that five, after she forced the resignation of Sports Minister Orlando Silva when the Supreme Court announced this week that it was investigating him for skimming money from, of all things, a program promoting sports for poor children. (Silva denies it.) “Dilma wants to make Brazilians understand that in their country corruption isn’t just someone’s personal flaw,” says Dias, “but a systemic problem that robs resources from their health and education.”

To make the corruption-busting meaningful, Rousseff will have to push through campaign finance and ministerial reforms. (Brazil’s coalition system gives parties too much entrenched control of ministries, which fosters abuse.) Another positive sign is Brazil’s co-chairmanship, with the U.S., of a new Open Government Partnership to make the world’s bureaucracies more transparent. At the same time, however, her government is trying to convince powers like the U.S. that Brazil, currently a non-permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, deserves a permanent seat. But the country’s abstention this month on a U.S.-led vote to condemn Syria for military violence against its demonstrating citizens (the resolution did not pass) left Washington irked as ever at what it calls Brasília’s soft stance on human rights violators, despite Rousseff’s signals earlier this year that she’d be tougher on them than Lula had been.

(See “Obama Goes to Rio: A Nod to Brazil’s Growing Power”)

Still, that defiance of the U.S. in the face of at least short-term rejection of its Security Council bid (India, which wants its own permanent seat, also abstained on the Syria vote) is itself a measure of Brazil’s robust self-confidence. “We adhere to a principle of non-intervention” in other countries’ domestic disputes, Brazilian Foreign Ministry spokesman Tovar Nunes told me, arguing that countries like his have for “too many years been subject to an international agenda we did not set” and have now earned the right to help set it.

So why aren’t Brazilians, if they do believe it’s time to root out cancers like corruption, taking to the streets as Americans and Europeans are? One possible answer is that Brazil, because it had a monarchy in the 19th century, shares little of the history of civic confrontation common among its South American neighbors. Another may be expectations: Americans and Europeans presume a caliber of public- and private-sector operation that Brazilians, like their neighbors, feel their country is still working toward. Or complacency: as Transparency International has warned, the region’s recent economic boom may have made Latin Americans less concerned about government and business misconduct.

Either way, Brazil isn’t the only South American country where folks feel, like brasileiros, that things are tudo bem –alright. Peru, where domestic growth and foreign investment have been soaring, and Colombia, which has neutralized its narco-guerrillas and finally inked a free-trade agreement with the U.S. this month, are just two examples. Lima, Bogotá and Brasília may not be New York, London or Rome. But at the moment no angry throngs are occupying – or tearing up – their streets.