Extracts from a Brazilian (not a Brazilian’s) diary: VI

When an incumbent US President comes to your country, you can take it that your significance is well and truly recognised (at least to America). It might further suggest that the US, currently in dire economic straits, is, having been usurped as your number one trading partner, trying to woo you back. Brazil has arrived.

Barack Obama paid a controversial visit here last month, as part of a brief Latin American tour. In a gushing speech in Rio de Janeiro, he opened in that classic politician´s ingratiating style. Compliments and humour were followed by appeal to commonalities between the histories of the US and Brazil: both lands of “ancient, indigenous peoples” (not mentioning how America pushed its to the margins); both home to immigrant populations; and a shared pride in having banished slavery. And, being in a pious country, Obama invoked a bit of God: “Our lands are rich with God´s creation.” (Like God drew the political borders.) I wonder, now that he has declared his intention to run again, in what will be a difficult fight against a resurgent religious right, that Obama will talk more God than before. After all, you can´t get (re)elected to high office in the USA without it.

Obama is certainly popular here – his election improved the US´s opinion rating in Latin America. But his visit has been heavily criticised, with his judgement under question for going ahead just as he authorised the military campaign in Libya (without Brazil´s support at the UN Security Council). However, Obama feels a pressing need to promote American exports and trade with Brazil – now the seventh largest economy in the world and an increasingly influential economic and diplomatic player. Thus, courting Brazil is very important right now. And opportune, in that its new president, Dilma Rousseff, is distancing Brazil from the US-displeasing alliances of her predecessor, Lula da Silva: namely, Iran and Venezuela, the latter a valuable trading partner. This hitherto US-defiant stance has hindered Brazil´s desired permanence on the UN Security Council, which Obama did not endorse.

Without explicitly naming them, Obama cocked a snook or three at Brazil´s recent association with /support for these other countries by repeatedly emphasising democracy and freedom – working hard to convince Brazil that, having quenched its dictatorship past, it has more in common with the US. In fact, he said “democratic/democracy” twelve times, and “free/freedom” nine. Encouraging Brazil to work together with America, he re-called his campaign slogan – “I´m confident we can do it.”

In case you´re unaware, here´s a flavour of why Brazil is so important. Only a few decades ago, it was a net importer – a big problem for a vast country with a burgeoning population (now around 200 million). But after a staggering (scientifically-informed) agricultural transformation, Brazil is now a net exporter: the world´s largest of beef, poultry, sugar cane, ethanol, orange juice, and (of course) coffee. It also has the world´s second largest reserves of iron ore, and is not far behind the US dominance of the soybean export market, having bred tropical-tolerant varieties. Brazil is also the world´s second largest user of GM technology, after the USA. And it doesn´t stop there. Brazil has more available farmable land (as much as Russia and America combined), coincident with more available water (as much as the whole of Asia, but with one-twentieth the population) than anywhere else. Notably, this will not entail further destruction of the Amazon, where deforestation has declined. This agricultural revolution has been mainly achieved through rendering farmable the vast Cerrado savannah, which covers about one-fifth of Brazil. Such resources – and the scientific base which has informed their exploitation – will likely see Brazil become an even more significant global agricultural force, as world population continues to soar.

Brazil has also been energy self-sufficient for years, with exports exceeding imports. Its copious water is utilised for the hydro-electric power that supplies 9/10ths of Brazil´s population. Brazil is also a leader of renewable fuel technology. 40% of Brazil´s fuel is ethanol, produced from abundant sugar cane. Nine out of ten new cars in Brazil are ´flex-fuel´capable: ie, they can run on 100% ethanol, or petroleum-ethanol blends. The less efficiently converted ethanol source, corn, yields only 10% of the US fuel supply. And now, Brazil has deep sea oil reserves, estimated at 15 billion barrels, 140 miles off the Rio coast. Despite America´s commitment to cleaner fuel, it is still sniffing after oil that Brazil, in effect, doesn´t need.

However, this is not limitless: the biodiversity-rich Cerrado, home to 5% of the world´s species, and an important carbon sink, is now 50% devastated. And Brazil is coming under UN pressure to preserve what is left (what was that about a permanent seat on the Security Council…?). However, as cities grow (because it is in the cities where most meat is consumed), Brazil´s protein-rich, Cerrado-grown soy is in demand as feed for factory-farmed animals. One-third of Brazil´s soy goes to the EU. But China wants it too – along with the iron ore.

Much to the US´s chagrin, China is now Brazil´s biggest trading partner and foreign investor. In order, presumably, to freight this stuff across country to the ports, China is to invest billions in developing Brazil´s inadequate transport infrastructure. Which will come in very handy, with Brazil set to host both the next World Cup in 2014, and the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio.

Maybe Obama was also, besides having a subtle dig at his hosts for not backing the Libya action, taking a swipe elsewhere. “We´ve seen the people of Libya take a courageous stand against a regime determined to brutalise its own citizens.” Hmmm, what is that reminiscent of? The message: “You don´t want to do business with them; you´d be much better off with us.”

Brazil´s growing middle-class (swelled by over 30 million in the last decade), having tasted the good life, is going to want it maintained. Last week, President Rousseff was in China, closing a lucrative aircraft deal.


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2 responses to “Extracts from a Brazilian (not a Brazilian’s) diary: VI

  1. Great article! Here are just a couple of comments:
    1_ It’s Cerrado, with and ‘o’, even though it’s pronounced ‘u’.
    2_ Brazilian population is still a little short of 200 million, it’s 195 yet. If I’m not mistaken, it was even a bit of a surprise when this result came from the last census.
    3_ And regarding our exports, imports and the middle class… I have been growing more and more concern about what the near future has reserved to us. Our economy looks great in terms of how much money we are making, but the truth is we still look pretty much like a sugar-and-gold exporting colony. What don’t need just to increase GDP and revenue, we need more qualified jobs and labor. We need much more investments in education along with transportation, etc… This meat-eating population in the cities must start finding better jobs there!
    I have recently written in my own blog about how the number of people graduating from college has decelerated in the last years. The college enrolled population in the 18-24 age segment is still just around 15%… How does that fits into this concept of a growng middle-class? I dont know.

  2. Thanks, Nicolau.
    I have corrected the spelling (and slapped my head, as I´d used the correct form in a previous post). Also, altered to read ´around 200 million´ (to cover the variation between sources – although you can perhaps wonder at how many didn´t return the census??).


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