Sunday, March 21, 2010

BRAZIL: Where the Flag is Always Greener

Notes from Rio
By Sandy Prisant

If America has already seen it's best days, then it's likely the next wave will include the BRIC nations.  The "B" of course, is for Brazil . We recently visited Rio and here are eight things we learned in six days about a new player on the block.

  • Economy. Petrobras is the state oil company. It is growing like crazy and finding reserves like crazy. It is not run by sinister, incompetent government lackeys, but sharp oil guys. It is not like 200 Nigerians syphoning off that country's greatest resources. Petrobras is the most important oil company based in the Southern Hemisphere. It already competes with the likes of BP and Shell.  And it is the stalking horse for a country pushing out into the world.
  • Image. Last year, this new Brazilian self-confidence was given a flashy, but pricey reward--Rio was voted the host of the expensive 2016 Summer Olympic Games. The first ever in South America.
  • Maturity. But this immediately raises questions about whether the new boy on the bock is ready for Primetime.  The language of Brazil is Portuguese. That is not the language of South America and it is not the language of more than 90% of the foreign visitors coming to see The Olympics. "Well,'' you might say, "the 2nd language of Brazilians must be Spanish or possibly English?" But for the most part, the 2nd language is either football (soccer) or dancing. Or both. Any strictly English speaker who knows world- class football can hold an almost coherent conversation  with a Brazilian Portuguese speaker. He only wants to talk about football anyway--not whether Brazil will get a UN Security Council Seat.  But there is still the Olympics problem--Brazilians have historically beeen reticent to adopt other languages--even the Spanish of all their neighbors.  It is obliged to import hundreds of thousands of skilled workers who can speak more international languages.  So how will several million locals be able to meet the tedious, practical and continuous needs of many Olympic guests, expecting to be well-cared for after such an expensive trip? And if that kind of job can't be done well, what does it say about the nation as a near-term international player?
  • The stereotype that even some Brazilians dislike, is absolutely valid. Brazil is about football and dancing.  We arrived at our hotel before noon,  and saw no less than 7 games being played on our TV'---from England, Spain, Germany, Italy--and 3 in Brazil.   If you sit in an outdoor restaurant at night, you will eventually see 2 or 3 girls break into impromptu dance to the rhythms of a far-off radio, purely for the girl's honest pleasure.
  • Politics.  One Sunday morning we heard a great roar down in the street, below our window.  It was a popular protest against the imminent visit of Iran's President Ahmadinejad.  In what seemed unnecessary, but quite purposeful, Brazil's respected President  Lula Da Silva rushed to tell the world,"It is a very great honor for the people of Brazil  to be visited by the President of Iran."  No Brazilian we spoke with felt honord. Maybe this was some big deal in the works with Petrobras?  There was no obvious explanation for the "Lion of the South" getting into bed with "The Axis of Evil".
  • The streets of Rio.  This city does not have great sites to visit, per se. Instead, it draws the visitor to half a dozen fine venues from which one can view the lone majestic site--the panoramic sweep of Rio itself.
  • The people. As a capital in development, Rio sorely lacks a middle class.  The "Very, very Haves" jostle in the streets with the "Very, very Have Nots'.  The latter, mostly naked from the waist up, are only wearing shorts and cheap flip flops, doing little.  The "Haves" are wearing very expensive flip-flops and are variously adorned from the waist up in jewelry that exceeds the annual income of any "have not". As in developing countries elsewhere, one can eat very well--but at New York prices.
  • The Beaches.  We have visited beaches on 6 continents. The famed Ipanema is possibly the most overrated.  The sand is coarse and full of garbage.  The sea delivers a fierce undertow at the shoreline that quickly flips newcomers.  On the 1st day we arrived, we wondered why the hotel had a roof pool, only two blocks from the beach. By the 2nd day, we understood.
So, has Brazil arrived? There is one clear litmus test--the departure fee at the airport. This is the one sweeping generalization that never fails:  If a government forces you to pay them in hard currency as a charge for simply leaving--after taking $300 from you to get a visa back at the start--then that country cannot yet be taken seriously.

Bottom Line:  when a million learn fluent Spanish, a tenth of that English and when Brazil's economy can make it without airport blackmail, go take a look. The country will get there in the end.