The Beautiful Gamers – Review of Larry Rohter’s Brazil on the Rise: The Story of a Country Transformed

By | 18 June, 2012

Brazil on the Rise: The Story of a Country Transformed is written by Larry Rohter, former Rio de Janeiro bureau chief for the New York Times and Newsweek. It charts Brazil’s rise – from colonialism, steamy obscurity and the lore of Hollywood – to its present position as the world’s sixth largest economy.

This book – much like its subject – is a slow starter. Brazil is summarised as the serial underachiever – yet, little by little, as Rohter notes – it has overturned this spectacularly in just a generation.

Waxing a full Brazilian
The book begins in mid-1960s parlance, stuck in the pages of a Newsweek-Time Life-National Geographic-induced nightmare. You half expect the local US representative of Kraft to offer up a caipirinha out of the pages, whilst you make small talk about women and golf handicaps with a coterie of expats and local notables down at the country club. Thankfully, it doesn’t last too long.

A case more obvious
Brazilians like to cut corners we are told. They like the jeito. The main thing is to wiggle your hips – Clodoaldo style – get all the Italians going the wrong way – and make off with the best looking woman, the deal, the game, the money – whatever. The trouble is – this is what everybody does. It’s a human weakness – when oversight is missing and opportunity arises – and not something peculiarly Brazilian. Similarly, being told that sluts are called piranhas is bit like being told they are called man-eaters in English – a detail largely superfluous.

The race obstacle
Then there are the references to the American melting pot versus the Brazilian one. Brazilians, it seems, can be as racist or prejudiced as everyone else. You don’t say. But whereas Americans might not emulsify in certain social circumstances (housing, neighbourhoods, religious worship etc.), or they readily separate into their constituent parts (based on ethnic origin) – in Brazil you can’t help but think that the biggest impediment to progress is not colour so much as cash. In any case, Brazil is what it is. Just like everywhere else, those who are at a disadvantage take the line of least resistance and get on board the meritocratic superhighway usually to sporting or musical success. Other barriers, however, require money and education to cross, and access to them has all the speed of an ox cart. Whether there is any substantive difference between US racism and Brazilian racism – is a moot point – what’s clear, though, in both examples, is that poverty and inequality are major dampeners on social mobility whatever your hue.

Swallowing up the Amazon
When it comes to the environment and notably the Amazon rainforest and the embarrassment of riches, Brazilians, we are told, take a manifest destiny approach. It’s ours and we’ll do what we like with it. Rohter notes a certain prickliness to criticism in the national psyche and usually the response is to point out rather obtusely – given our present understanding of the climate – that they don’t need to take any advice from those who’ve destroyed their own forests. This is a particularly lame argument which they (and we) will probably come to regret.

Culture and Commerce
Rohter knows his stuff, though, and this starts to emerge in the section on culture – of which he is very well versed. He makes the point – which has been made previously by Marquez among others – that writers and artists outside the Anglo-centric world tend to get overlooked. We are always just a good translation away from finding some precious talent – yet are often too self-obsessed or indifferent to notice.

When the book moves on to the economic and political transformation since the military left office in 1985, it’s excellent. Finishing up in more recent political times, immediately pre- and post-Lula da Silva, it provides a very good analysis of the successes, flaws, foibles and fraud, which have characterised Brazilian political and economic life. You don’t necessarily have to follow Rohter’s prescriptions, but they are well balanced and sensible.

Ever since the introduction of the Real Plan, instigated by Fernando Henriquez Cardoso in 1994, Brazil has not been doctrinaire. It’s privatised where it saw the need and kept strategic state control over key levers and sectors in the economy. It’s a pragmatic approach necessary in an increasingly fluid and globalised market. The system, whilst not perfect, had by the time of Dilma Rousseff’s election as president on 1st January 2011 – produced a growth rate of 7.5%.

Ordem e Progresso v Pluribus Unum
What Rohter does do on occasions is draw rather heavy comparisons with the US. If you believe the US is a paragon then I suppose this is okay. However, when pluribus unum involves two political parties – the minimum required for plurality – plus an entrenched cabal of vested interests and lobbyists – you’d hardly hold up the US as the epitome of democracy. Is democracy binary? Does it only function every four years? Well, not if you are a Brazilian.

US Congress has Democrats and Republicans. The Brazilian National Congress has 23 political parties, the largest of these, the Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, PT), Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (Partido do Movimento Democrático Brasileiro, PMDB) and Brazilian Social Democratic Party (Partido da Social Democracia Brasileiro, PSDB) represent 41.8% and 55.3% (2011) of the popular vote in the Chamber of Deputies and Senate respectively.

Rohter notes with some justification, that the whole process in Brazil is underpinned – or should that read ‘undermined’ – by a culture of nepotism, corruption, fraud, horse-changing, pop-up political parties and chicanery. Nevertheless, this an argument for tidying up the various issues concerned as they pertain to the law, legislation and the functioning of parliament. It’s not an argument for reducing the political pool to the extent that the only outcome would be a widespread lack of engagement and disaffection. People can live with corruption, the changing of political colours, funding issues and the rest – but a deficit of democracy or its confinement to a small elite is a little more difficult to rectify.

Despite the somewhat sluggish start, it improves and by the end is an enjoyable and informative read.

Larry Rohter’s Brazil on the Rise: The Story of a Country Transformed is published by Palgrave Macmillan and available from Amazon and other good bookstores


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