Brazil: the first big ‘soft’ power

The only glimpse I ever caught of Oscar Niemeyer came a little over a year ago, when the great modernist architect celebrated his 104th birthday. After a 10-floor climb up the stairs to his Copacabana penthouse apartment (ironically for a winner of architecture’s prestigious Pritzker prize, the lift was out of order), I emerged into a crowded room with walls covered in his minimalist drawings.

The man himself, who more than anyone redefined Brazil’s image in the 20th century, was sitting in his wheelchair with a glass of red wine greeting visitors. Having outlived everyone, his peers, his first wife and even his own daughter, who died aged 82 in 2012, it seemed like this self-declared “communist from birth” wanted to cling on for just a bit longer to witness the great changes sweeping through the country he loved.

He lasted another 11 months, dying last December just before his 105th birthday. It was enough time for a man whose career charted the tortuous modern history of Brazil to see that Latin America’s largest nation, for decades glibly dismissed as the land of the future that always will be, was finally finding a foothold in the present.

The Brazil of Niemeyer’s last 10 years was one in which the lower middle class rose to account for more than half of the population – a fabulous turnround for what for five centuries has been one of the world’s most unequal societies. It is a Brazil that has had stable government for nearly two decades, from the sociologist-turned-centre-right-president Fernando Henrique Cardoso, to the former firebrand unionist, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who took office in 2003, and his successor in the ruling Workers Party (PT), Dilma Rousseff, a Marxist guerrilla-turned-technocrat.

It is a Brazil whose global standing has rarely been higher. Its agriculture feeds the planet. It has good relations with virtually every country in the world, from the US to North Korea. It has curbed, though not yet halted completely, the destruction of the Amazon. And it is preparing to host the World Cup next year and the Olympics two years later – a feat few countries have ever attempted.

If the games are successful – which they probably will be, despite Brazil’s reputation for having a very relaxed attitude to planning – they will help seal the country’s image globally as one of the world’s emerging powers. Not a military power, bristling with missiles and troubled by messy border disputes like China or India, but the first big “soft” power, a kind of Canada writ large but with Carnival thrown in.

It is a Brazil, however, whose project is only half-finished and one in which self-congratulation would be premature. As Niemeyer well knew, nothing is preordained, especially in Brazil. He came to prominence during an earlier period of prosperity in the 1950s and 1960s, when he created such ethereal masterpieces for the then new capital, Brasília, as the Supreme Court building, whose open chamber and tall windows evoked the spirit of transparency and progress of the times. A few years later, he was living in exile as Brazil entered 20 years of military dictatorship followed by nearly two decades of economic crises.

Almost no one believes Brazil will return to those dark years. The challenge today is more about how to continue growing fast enough to sustain the miracle of upward social mobility. The economic model based on consumption that made it so successful during the past decade now looks tired. Consumers are still shopping but Brazil’s high costs mean companies are not investing. Economic growth is slowing to a crawl but no one seems willing to take up the baton of serious reform.

The government has tinkered with the economy’s levers – manipulating the currency and interest rates, protecting local car producers, lowering electricity tariffs, tendering infrastructure projects. But reforms will have to go deeper than that. Brazil taxes like Sweden but delivers a fraction of the public services. It is clearing its vast interior for agriculture but has few railroads to ship goods to port.

Its children all attend school but not enough of them learn anything there. It is improving governance, yet a politician wanted by Interpol for squirrelling away public money offshore can still sit in Congress.

As it happened, Niemeyer died only a couple of months after another communist and lover of Brazil, Eric Hobsbawm, the great British historian, who died aged 95. Hobsbawm once wrote, “Nobody who discovers South America can resist the region, least of all if one’s first contact is with Brazil,” and said the rise of Lula’s PT “must warm the cockles of all old red hearts”.

However, both knew that Brazil was not a socialist utopia. It owes its success as much to the market-oriented policies introduced by Cardoso, who tamed Brazil’s old scourge of inflation, as to the social welfare programmes launched by Lula’s Workers’ Party. Both presidents introduced tough reforms forged in times of crisis, though success arguably made Lula lazy in his later years.

Now that difficult times are on the horizon again, Brazil hopefully will rise to meet the challenge. For a country so rich and energetic, a bit of common sense should be enough to keep the project on track. The harder thing will be to fill the void left by Niemeyer.

Joe Leahy is the FT’s Brazil bureau chief

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