‘Brazil: The Troubled Rise of a Global Power’, by Michael Reid

Topdown development is the villain in a historically informed study of modern Brazil’s strengths and weaknesses

Brazil: The Troubled Rise of a Global Power, by Michael Reid, Yale, RRP£20/$32.50, 352 pages

Gigantism defines Brazil, even its disappointments. Take the last time it hosted the World Cup, in 1950. The Brazilian team, on paper the best in the tournament, reached the final in the newly built Maracanã stadium, then the world’s biggest.

The arena was packed. One newspaper had predicted the day before: “Tomorrow we will beat Uruguay!” Brazil scored at the beginning of the second half. But then the unthink­able happened: Uruguay scored twice.

The loss devastated Brazil. It was, wrote anthropologist Roberto DaMatta, “perhaps the greatest tragedy in contemporary Brazilian history. Because it happened collectively . . . Because it happened at the beginning of a decade in which Brazil was looking to assert itself as a nation with a great future.” Fourteen years later, a coup ushered in a 21-year military dictatorship.

Today, Brazil is again hosting the World Cup. It is also asserting itself again on the world stage. Yet just as it is a mistake to underestimate Brazil, it is equally so to gloss over its difficulties, and early disappointments are bubbling up: from delays in readying the stadiums, to repeats of last year’s street protests. History seems to be repeating itself. Or is it?

Until now, there has been no concise English-language history of Brazil – vastness has perhaps overwhelmed previous attempts. Michael Reid’s Brazil: The Troubled Rise of a Global Power fills the gap with a valuable study likely to remain a well-thumbed reference for years.

The former Latin America editor of the Economist (which last year reprised its famous 2009 cover of the Christ the Redeemer statue taking off like a rocket with a version that showed it buzzing out of control), Reid is now the magazine’s regional correspondent. His clear, deeply researched account reaches back 500 years to identify three broad themes that continue to shape Brazil’s development.

First are the struggles that Portugal, a relatively weak colonial power, had in settling and maintaining its huge colony – a problem it resolved through co-option rather than conflict. This pragmatism endures in Brasilia’s preference for political consensus. Although a noble aim, this can also produce cumbersome coalitions and paralysis, as seen in the disappointing administration of Dilma Rousseff, the current president. In the words of Fernando Henrique Cardoso, a predecessor, “Dilma has opened up many issues but hasn’t closed the deal on any of them.”

Second, there are the legacies of slavery, which explain the country’s continuing inequalities – even though Brazil never suffered racial segregation as in the US, the nation it otherwise most resembles. Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century has tapped into a newfound neurosis about inequality in the developed world. But in Brazil, one of the planet’s most unequal countries, it is an old concern.

Last, there is Brazil’s unique experience of independence, which flowed from Lisbon’s transfer to Rio de Janeiro of Portugal’s imperial court as it fled Napoleon. This relatively peaceful process generated no heroes, unlike the epic revolutions of Spanish American independence, but also no comparable national myths.

Instead, Brazil has the great populist Getúlio Vargas, “father of the poor” and president, on and off, for 18 years between 1930 and 1954. It was Vargas, Reid writes, who “implanted the notion that citizenship, benefits and social inclusion flowed from the top down, granted by a beneficent state rather than being won through democracy and civic mobilisation”. This predilection for dirigisme also best captures the problems Brazil faces today.

Reid takes well-judged sideswipes not only at the political left – for example, rebutting arguments that the US played a significant role in the 1964 coup – but also at the right. Dirigisme has deep roots in Brazil, and not just because of an intellectual fondness for all things French. He points out that state-led development has produced some commercial successes, especially in agriculture, and that productivity grew steadily between 1950 and 1980.

Yet today it has reached a stifling limit. Many officials suffer from a belief that growth can be created through ever more complicated manipulations of the economy. Centralism has meanwhile fomented a lobbying mindset among many industrialists.

There is also the deadweight of the bureaucracy, embodied in the infamous “Brazil cost”, which now threatens to undermine the country’s biggest achievement of the past decade: lifting around 35m people out of poverty. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the former president, put it well: “What most surprises me about Brazil is the extent of the difficulties that we create for ourselves.”

This is a year not only of football but also of presidential elections. Reid rises above most criticisms of the ruling leftist Workers’ party, in power since 2002, to suggest the need to remake the whole Brazilian model in place since the return to democracy.

For most of its history, Brazil has been designed from the top down. Last year’s riots, when 1m people took to the streets to demonstrate for better public services and political accountability, showed there is a chance and a desire to remake Brazil from the bottom up. Whoever wins October’s vote, this is a democratic cause that everyone across the political spectrum can applaud.

John Paul Rathbone is the FT’s Latin America editor

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