The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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The Cordial Brazilian

Brazilians too readily accept recycled images of themselves.

Published on July 1, 2011

As a long-time foreign correspondent for some of Brazil’s biggest media groups (Estado, Veja and since 1996 Rede Globo), I have reported news from many points around the world, especially the Middle East and Europe. I am readily recognizable to most adult Brazilians. Indeed, for many I am a translator of the world’s various meanings into Brazilian Portuguese. But I like to think that I’m more than just Brazil’s window on the world. My experience has also given me the chance to see what the world thinks of and about Brazil. The opportunity to view Brazil from the perspective of several different cultures has made me realize how misleading media images can be, not just to foreigners but to Brazilians as well.

Working as a foreign correspondent in the Middle East can be risky business on several levels, but being a Brazilian has never been a liability. Even hostile-looking pasdaran—those early guardians of the Islamic Revolution in Iran—nearly cracked smiles when told they were dealing with a Brazilian reporter. There was a sort of reciprocal exoticism at work: They thought I was exotic, whereas I knew for a fact that viewers back home would certainly think that they were the exotic ones. Even my distinctive Latin American accent helped me. It made me non-threatening in Iran. Life was much harder for my colleagues from Britain, France, Germany and, of course, the United States. These countries were always understood to be part of the big picture. They were the great powers, the colonialists and the imperialists. My colleagues were far more likely to be accused by Iranian zealots of being spies or of promoting dissent. Yet they suffered no disadvantage in access. Even Middle Eastern zealots are willing to fall over each other to talk to what is clearly the most important media for them: the American media.

While covering the civil war in Lebanon, I had an even deeper advantage as a Brazilian. It isn’t difficult to find someone in Lebanon with a relative in Brazil, so that for the Lebanese I was not merely exotic; I was, at least figuratively speaking, once removed from a cousin or two—practically family. Among the various factions involved in that bloody conflict there was a common appreciation for the things that made Brazil so famous: soccer, Carnaval and buttocks, although not necessarily in that order.

Being a Brazilian reporter has helped even when I’ve reported on intractable conflicts like that of the Arab-Israeli variety. Most people in the region regard us Brazilians as an easygoing, smiling, dancing, singing and in the main inoffensive people. Many of them know our soccer players well—and I was even told by some religious Muslims that they like the green in our national flag.

My advantages were not limited to the Middle East. While covering the wars that destroyed Yugoslavia in the 1990s, I found that both Serbs and Croats thought Brazilians their rivals in terms of sport and savoir vivre (yes, the Serbs consider themselves a fun-loving people). Many Serbs were even prepared to overlook the fact that Brazil is officially a Catholic country. It just did not seem possible to them that Brazilians could have anything in common with Croats.

I also covered the implosion of the Soviet Union. Russians, too, love Brazilians. The typical Soviet citizen tended to characterize Brazilians as pursuing happiness and prosperity without ever even considering doing an honest day’s labor. The model for this new ideal—in contrast to the severely noble new Soviet man that communism was supposed to bring—was Ostap Bender. Bender was a character created by Eugene Ilf and Vladimir Petrov in their satirical novel The Twelve Chairs, set in Russia in 1927 during the period of the New Economic Policy. Bender had an economic policy of his own: He aspired to get rich without working for the main purpose of strolling along Copacabana beach impeccably dressed in white trousers and a tasteful straw hat.

Many Russians still see Brazil through the prism of Ostap Bender’s ambition. I once asked Mikhail Gorbachev during an interview after his fall from power whether he ever had this particular dream. He smiled, perhaps knowingly, I imagined, but did not answer. Vladimir Putin, however, did go to the beach while on a visit to Brazil. Most astonishing, one of those infamous Russian oligarchs has actually paid for a statue dedicated to Ostap Bender to be erected in Rio de Janeiro. If it is ever built, its meaning will surely be a mystery to Brazilians.

As it happened, I also covered the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was one of the most exciting opportunities of my career to be present at this epochal moment, but something of a challenge to explain to my fellow Brazilians what was going on. I studied in Germany and lived there twice for a total of 15 years, and so I had come to understand something of how Germans and other Europeans thought. When the Wall came down, I felt the electricity in the air, but it was not easy to convey the powerful thrill of the moment back to Brazil. To be profoundly happy and liberated, one has to have experienced being profoundly unhappy and oppressed. Few Brazilians know of either.

I remember reading a report written by an American officer who helped train Brazilians during World War II. (I wrote a book about that subject: About 25,000 Brazilian soldiers fought in Italy at the final stages of the war, something almost forgotten in Brazil today, despite a large number of impressive monuments in our cities that pay homage to that effort.) That American officer wrote back to the U.S. Army in Washington that a Brazilian would seldom refuse a request or command, even if he had no intention of doing what he was asked. The suggestion was that Brazilians were always cordial and agreeable but rarely dependable. The cultural differences are real and emerge often, particularly in our use of language. Even after living in Germany and Great Britain for many years, I always found it difficult to explain how to tell when a Brazilian really meant business. If a Brazilian invited someone spontaneously to dinner at his home, he would not actually expect that person to take him seriously and show up. But if a German extended a similar invitation to a visiting Brazilian, expecting a similar result, the Brazilian would start thinking almost immediately about what to wear.

The upshot of all this, I think, is that Brazilians themselves seem to be living in an illusion: the illusion of the “cordial Brazilian.” This is an illusion that we nevertheless manage to export, and when this illusion is shown back to us, we immediately recognize it as our own. The problem is, it does not really describe Brazilians well at all.

It took me many years to realize that the perceived friendliness and sympathy of Brazilians were liabilities as often as they were assets. For example, Brazilian society seems to be anesthetized to violent crime. Recently, when a psychopath invaded a school in Rio and murdered 12 children, the typical reaction was that this was very strange and rare. But of course such a dramatic mass murder is bound to be strange and rare anywhere. The Brazilian President perfectly summed up the public reaction when she said, “This type of crime isn’t characteristic of our society.” That was a clear allusion to the United States: That place, not Brazil, is where people carry guns, invade schools and shoot innocents.

Yes, in this regard there is a fundamental difference between Brazil and the United States. In the United States the murder rate is around six per 100,000; in Brazil, it is 26 per 100,000. Violence has become part of our daily routine in a fashion that is nearly unimaginable in most other societies. In Brazil we live with this reality, but it is still beyond our imagination. The illusion of the cordial Brazilian renders such a reality impossible, and so it thereby does not exist. And what does not exist one need do nothing about. As with violent crime, so with race relations, so with political corruption, so with our regressive tax system, and so on.

Former President Lula in some ways exemplifies the illusion of the cordial Brazilian and its consequences. His phenomenal success has derived mainly from his skill at translating complex issues into simple metaphors in which facts are of no relevance or use. It is an approach that works well inside Brazil, but the results it brings abroad can be disastrous.

Take, for instance, the affectionate hug Lula gave to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during the 2010 Security Council negotiations over sanctioning the Iranian government for its alleged nonproliferation regime violations. This was a deadly serious business, and Brazil, then occupying a rotating seat on the UN Security Council, was an important actor in the policy drama playing out. Brazil could not possibly want to support, or give the impression of supporting, a regime that was trying to undermine the very international security measures regarding nuclear proliferation that Brazil has long advocated. But this is exactly what Lula did, persuaded that he could handle any challenge merely by “looking into the eyes” and “talking straight” to other men. Lula was convinced of the infallibility of his own cordial sincerity. The facts did not matter, and their seriousness seems simply not to have registered in Lula’s consciousness.

It is possible, too, that Lula was more interested in spiting the United States than solving the larger problem. Doing so would make Brazil popular in many quarters, and popularity is important for its own sake for cordial Brazilians. Like many policymakers in Brazil, Lula sees the United States as being in an irreversible decline and thinks that the relationship between its decline and the rise of new powers is a zero-sum proposition. This strikes me as mistaken, but Lula and his associates apparently took the view that, since the Americans are not in a position to impose their views and interests worldwide anymore, there is no penalty for opposing them. That is why, I think, it was so painful for Lula and his associates to discover, at the height of that Iranian episode, that Russia and China—presumably allies because of a shared interest in an American diplomatic defeat—let Brazil down during the Security Council sanctions vote. He discovered that other countries have real, serious interests; that the world is a complicated and cold place; and that charm is no substitute for policy that is thought through and aligned with Brazil’s national interests.

Similar cavalier attitudes seem to attach themselves to Brazil’s economic circumstances. Brazil is experiencing a boom today. This boom has come about mainly through credit and consumption, and in that regard it is similar to the source of the apparent growth in the U.S. economy for the decade and a half before September 2008. But there is more to it than that. Part of Brazil’s success is related directly to the monetary stability achieved under President Cardoso’s watch. Part of it represents the harvest of a better-educated population—again, something that took a sharp climb upward during the Cardoso period. Part of it has to do with the fact that enough of Brazil’s industrial concerns have by now transformed themselves into genuine corporations, so that they can make use of additional mobile semi-skilled and skilled labor. So Brazil’s growth in recent decades has not merely been a matter of smoke and mirrors, nor has it been based only on the good fortune of rising commodity prices sourced in skyrocketing Chinese demand.

That said, recent successes have abetted the illusion that the future will be one steady and happy escalation to general prosperity. Yet Brazil still has a bloated state sector. It lacks a serious infrastructure in most regards. It still has a long way to go in education, particularly in the kind of science and technology excellence that enables innovation and entrepreneurship to join forces. Brazilian society still lacks the habits of savings and investment that have brought sustained success to other advanced economies. Indeed, what we are seeing now is manic conspicuous consumption. Some fifty million people have ascended rapidly to a standard of living that the preceding generation could only dream of. They are called the “new middle class”, or the “emerging C class.” They expect more of the same and they expect more company in C class. The idea that current trends could stop or be reversed is for all practical purposes unimaginable. But one doesn’t have to be an economics guru to see that Brazil’s luck will run out and the current consumption boom will prove unsustainable if it does not address its structural deficiencies.

Here again I think the real source of our problem is illusion. Brazilians like to think of themselves as not very materialistic. They believe that they can be satisfied with little, and that they are not envious of those who have more. They believe that they wisely prefer leisure to working hard and saving to build for the future. This is why there is no sense of urgency with respect to any of our major challenges, whether health care, education, tax or political reform, low investment rates, public sector inefficiency and more.

So deep does this illusion run that Brazilians do not even recognize the sources of the country’s own success. Few Brazilians recognize, for example, that the country’s truly revolutionary agricultural sector is the achievement of many individuals and private enterprises that worked for many years to overcome formidable obstacles. Rather, our society still looks to the state, begging it for direction and solutions to all our problems. I fear that the discovery of large oil reserves under the sea will only deepen the illusion. All our worries will be wiped away by a revenue bonanza that we did not work for and that we did not earn. It’s our collective dream: great riches arising spontaneously from below, so that everyone can prosper without hard work. We will be a country full of Ostap Benders, all in white, all strolling along the beach without a care in the world. Whoever wrote in the Brazilian national anthem that “we lie eternally in a splendid cradle”—Deitado eternamente em berço esplêndido—really captured the national mentality to a tee.

I’m always surprised by Americans’ national pride. The exceptionalism that so many in the United States feel, the belief that they are involved in some mission they must fulfill, a mission with the emotional power of a religion, this is something hard for Brazilians to understand. Nationalism in its incandescent political manifestation is strange and slightly frightening to most of us, possibly because we have not been involved in a serious national security crisis, whether external or civil, for all the 189 years of our existence as an independent nation. This is why, as I suggested before, most Brazilians did not really “get” the meaning of the fall of the Berlin Wall. They saw a terrific party going on in the streets, people whooping it up and obviously overcome with joy, but generally our society doesn’t grasp the meaning of a radical change of eras.

I suppose that Brazilian “nationalism” is in a sense impoverished. We are proud of what is ephemeral, of what happens to us rather than what happens because of us. A Brazilian doesn’t behave like an American when confronted with “winners” or “losers.” If you try to offend a Brazilian by telling him that he is a “loser”, he simply won’t understand the insult. To be a “loser” carries no stigma in Brazil. We lack the same competitive drive, so much so that we are reluctant to identify rivals. Thus Brazilians struggle to understand that, in the global competition today, we are losing to China across the board. They are eating our lunch, but we think we’re the generous and gracious hosts who are throwing the party.

Our political leaders don’t worry about China, particularly now that we feel tall in the saddle next to the Americans. Like other Latinos, we tend to attach too much importance to solemn occasions to the detriment of hard talk and negotiations. That was the case recently, when Brazilians thrilled to see our new President—a woman with no charisma, no proven competence in any field, simply being the choice of the outgoing president—receiving first Barack Obama in Brasília and then, a few days later, having talks with the Chinese President in Beijing. There we are, we Brazilians, being courted by the powerful in pomp and circumstance. So enraptured were we with the setting that we could barely bring ourselves to listen to what others were saying to us.

Obama’s visit, to take a noteworthy example, is only the most recent in a series in which the United States has proposed a strategic partnership with Brazil to counter Chinese and other competition. Our leaders have turned them down politely each time. Some of our statesmen still think the Castro brothers or Chávez the clown are heroes because they are taking on the wicked imperialists. Besides, the outgoing (and present) Brazilian administration regards Beijing as a “natural” ally because this friendship vindicates the “South-South” axis we have exalted in recent years, an axis that never existed and does not exist. We are stuck in a political passion play more than forty years old, and do not see that in a few years we will have entered a neo-colonial relationship with China in which we provide the commodities they desperately need, and we buy avidly (with an overvalued Brazilian currency) their manufactured products as our own industry suffers and our U.S. market share diminishes. Our government celebrates all this as proof of our being less dependent on the United States.

Sometimes I regret the cosmopolitan outlook borne of my European education and career as a foreign correspondent. Sometimes I wish I could sing the Brazilian anthem without the slightest twinge when I think about how remarkably skilled we are at ignoring whatever we choose to ignore.

Most of my countrymen today expect Brazil to become the first “soft” superpower in history, able to have its way and make its peaceful waves in history just because Brazilians are so nice, so friendly, so cordial, so sincere. What are we going to do when we learn that it is not so?

William Waack is the anchorman of Jornal da Globo, on Brazil’s TV Globo.