Brazil’s hosting of the 2014 FIFA World Cup was a fairly symbolic event, in that it highlighted the very best and worst about a country that has long fascinated, but all-too-often disappointed.
In football terms, Brazil is seemingly everyone’s second-favourite team. For decades they have played a brand of football that has thrilled supporters but, importantly, has also won trophies.
But it all went so horribly wrong when they were thumped 7-1 and dumped out of this year’s tournament.
Michael Reid, in his fantastic Brazil: The Troubled Rise of a Global Power, has outlined how much of a theme this has been throughout the country’s history.
Reid is a man who knows Brazil very well indeed, having set up The Economist’s office there in the mid-1990s. As a result, he has offered up the most insightful history and analysis of a country that, on the face of it, should be nothing short of booming.
While India, China and Russia dominate emerging markets headlines, Brazil is potentially the richest of them all in terms of natural resources. A heady mix of European, African, Indian and even Japanese cultures has given the country a unique character.
Yet, as Reid indicates with his title, the nation’s growth has always met with stumbling blocks and probably most troubling is the massively inequitable distribution of wealth. Brazil boasts some of the richest people in the world but is also famed for its colourful yet downtrodden ‘favelas’, or slums.
As Reid explains, this has led to Brazil becoming one of the most dangerous places on Earth. Urban violence has plagued the cities of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paolo for years – in 1982, the murder rate in Rio stood at 23 per 100,000 inhabitants. In 1989 that number had tripled.
The key driver of this boom in violence was the roaring cocaine trade that Brazil had become a cornerstone of by the mid-1980s.
According to Reid, the masses of cocaine produced in Colombia would be brought through Brazil before being transported onto Europe and this resulted in widespread drug usage within the country. The urban war that has since broken out in the favelas has taken tens of thousands of lives with the police acting merely as a contributing party.
The question Reid asks so pertinently is whether or not Brazil can overcome these social ills. It is in desperate need of improvements to its health, education and transport infrastructure and the author asserts that in the late 1990s and early 2000s Brazil was making good progress under mindful leadership. Since then, bureaucracy and monopolistic capitalism have halted this.
Reid explains that Brazil’s federal system and segregated interests make any progress from this stage almost impossible. As we saw in the protests before and during this year’s World Cup in Brazil, as much as the country loves its football the people would like to see more schools and hospitals first.
Whether or not they will is the million-dollar question, but there is no better place to start looking for an answer than this fantastic read.