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Brazil is the 21st-century power to watch

Real estate market in BrazilWhen I appeared on a panel of journalists from international publications recently, the moderator asked us to nominate our big story for the next year. One of the panellists suggested the UK parliamentary elections. A second mentioned the continued ramifications of the financial crisis. I said Brazil, which I was about to visit for the first time. Consider, I said: Brazil had come through the financial crisis in reasonable shape. It was sitting on a vast deep-sea oil find. It had just seen the world’s biggest stock market listing this year – the $8bn flotation of part of the Brazilian arm of Santander. It would also be host to the world’s two biggest sporting events: the 2014 football World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games – which Rio de Janeiro had won this month over Tokyo, Madrid and Chicago.
Yet as I sat on my flight to Rio, I could not suppress some trepidation at the country’s well-known drawback. “Violence and crime can occur anywhere and often involve firearms or other weapons,” the British Foreign Office travel advice on Brazil says. “Cases of carjacking occur, sometimes with the occupants being taken and forced to withdraw money from their accounts at cash machines.”
As for public transport: “There have been instances where gangs have set buses alight leaving passengers inside after robbing them,” the Foreign Office said.
Official advice is often frightening. Should the worst happen, governments do not want you saying they should have warned you.
But old Brazil hand Peter Robb was no more reassuring. Brazil was “a country of immense natural wealth, at peace with its neighbours and facing no unusual turbulence or social unrest within its borders. Yet the killing rate in Brazil, tens of thousands of violent deaths a year, falls within the parameters of the United Nations’ definition of a low-intensity civil war,” he wrote in his hypnotically compelling book A Death in Brazil.
I saw none of this. But within two days of my departure, gun battles between rival Rio drug gangs claimed at least 14 lives, including three police officers killed when their helicopter was shot down.
People who live in high-crime countries often say three things. First, that nothing has ever happened to them in their supposedly dangerous hometown, but that they have been mugged in, say, London. Second, that all you need to do is take the same sensible precautions you would at home. Third, that violence is confined to certain areas and consists mostly of criminals killing each other.
The first defence is silly. Of course people are mugged in London. It is just a lot less common. The second misses the point: at home, you know which neighbourhoods are rough and who the troublemakers might be. In a new place you do not, and miscreants sense your hesitation.
The third is true in some places, but not in Brazil, where violence frequently spreads outside the favelas and where the better-off fret about their safety.
It is to Brazil’s great credit that during several days of talks and interviews in Rio and São Paulo, not one person denied that the country’s violent crime was real and could have a serious impact on its development, not to mention on its two showcase sporting events.
It is not just crime. Brazil’s rail, road and airport facilities require daunting investment. The vast gap between rich and poor is immediately evident.

Yet Brazil is a country with outstanding potential, a welcoming and richly diverse people, excellent food and several world-class companies. Unlike China, Brazil has no sharp ethnic conflicts and is a multi-party democracy. Brazilians complain about their politicians’ corruption, but point out that, unlike in the US, results in presidential elections – the next is due in October 2010 – are announced swiftly.
Extracting the newly-found oil, buried beneath thousands of metres of water, rock and salt, will be challenging. But the reserves present the intriguing prospect of Brazil becoming a major oil exporter while deriving most of its own electricity from hydro energy and powering many of its cars with sugar cane ethanol.
Brazilians know oil can be a curse as well as a blessing. How it uses its new wealth will determine whether it becomes a 21st-century force.
Brazil is a thrilling place to visit. In his book, Robb wrote: “Rio is huge and lovely and terrifying. São Paulo is huger and more terrifying and not lovely at all.” He is right about Rio’s loveliness – the Olympic marathon is going to make for stunning television. São Paulo, while not lovely, has more shaded jacaranda-lined avenues than you might expect.
Brazil will be a big story – not just over the next year but for many more to come.

The Financial Times
posted by World Property
on Monday, November 02, 2009 @ 07:34:25 MST

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