Posts Tagged ‘Dilma Rousseff’

If a crime, a very widespread one: Brazil’s tropical Atlanticism

March 23, 2016

A mere 25 years after Flaubert invented a new literary technique for puncturing the daydreams, bêtises and received opinion of the French Second Empire, technology transfer allowed Machado de Assis to release an upgraded version in Brazil.

Machado’s Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas (1881) arrived just as Brazil’s monarchy expired and coffee planters forfeited their human property. Rarely has a novel been so perfectly on the spot to expose ruling delusions at their moment of enunciation. Still relatively obscure behind its lusophone veil, today it remains the national classic.

Towards the novel’s end, its narrating antihero sizes up his brother-in-law, a grotesque ornament of Rio de Janeiro’s mercantile and slave-trading class:

Perhaps Cotrim’s scruples will seem excessive to one who didn’t know that he possessed an extremely honourable character. I myself was unjust with him…

Since he was cold in his manners, he had enemies who even accused him of being a barbarian. The only fact alleged in that particular was his frequent sending of slaves to the dungeon, from where they would emerge dripping with blood.

But, alongside the fact that he only sent recalcitrants and runaways, it so happens that, having been long involved in the smuggling of slaves, he’d become accustomed to a certain way of dealing that was a bit harsher than the business required, and one can’t honestly attribute to the original nature of man what is simply the effect of his social relations.

The proof that Cotrim had pious feelings could be found in his love for his children… He wasn’t perfect, needless to say…

In short, he may have been owing in a few courtesies, but he didn’t owe anyone a penny.

Machado’s late-nineteenth century irony may seem a little heavy: able, surely, to puncture only the crudest and most complacent of elite hypocrisies.

Yet in point of historical fact, self-apology in the Brazilian Empire, the last slave society in the Americas, regularly proceeded in just the manner lampooned.

By 1870 or so, the sense of provincial isolation and national backwardness in the country’s most urbanized, developed districts was stark. Coffee planters in Rio, Minas Gerais and São Paulo, their counter-Abolitionist repertoire now depleted, relied upon diffident and contorted intellectual defences of labour coercion.

With Britain’s Royal Navy having dealt a humiliating slap to Brazilian amour-propre in its own territorial waters, local ideology adopted, as its alibi, the lofty notes of Palmerston’s liberalism in its high era.

Royal Navy 1851 Brazil

How was this done?

In bland oratory before the Chamber of Deputies, lumbering editorial columns in the Jornal do Commercio, and the private diaries and letters of great merchants and landholding families, the awkward details of today’s personal misdeeds were dissolved in a general mist of timeless, universal national failings.

The US South’s ‘our peculiar institution’ had a sheepish Brazilian counterpart. There the contemptuous term for national defects — brasileirice — mitigated the local oligarchy’s gravest enormities, converting them into the merest quirk and bagatelle.

Institutional imperfections, acknowledged as the source of individual misconduct, tempered any undue criticism of either Brazilian notables or society itself.

Cleansed in this bath of tartuffery, mutual self-satisfaction was restored. After a few doleful shrugs, the virtue of planters, politicians and slave traders gleamed anew.

Thus, in his book on Machado, the literary critic Roberto Schwarz quotes a parliamentary address made by the Conservative Party’s then-leader.

In 1850, Eusébio de Queirós sought public exculpation for Brazil’s political corps, following abolition of the transatlantic slave trade:

Let us be frank. In Brazil, the [slave] traffic was linked to the interests, or, more correctly, to the presumed interests of our planters.

And in a country in which agriculture has so much power, it was natural that public opinion… would express itself in favour of the traffic.

Why does it then surprise us that our politicians bowed before that law of necessity? Why is it surprising that all of us — friends or enemies of the traffic — bowed to that necessity?

Gentlemen, if this was a crime, it was a very widespread crime in Brazil. But I maintain that when in a nation all the political parties hold power, when all of its politicians have been called to exercise that power, and all of them agree on one policy, that policy must have been based on very powerful considerations.

It cannot possibly be a crime, and it would be bold to call it a mistake.

The senator for Rio de Janeiro, Queirós was himself born in Angola to a family of slave merchants. He would later remark to parliament: ‘Gentlemen, the great interests, if they do not justify, almost always explain the behaviours which, at first glimpse, are not understood.’

Such, more recently, has been the self-justification proffered by successive Brazilian governments, as corruption scandals consumed the high command of the Workers’ Party (PT).

First came revelations of systematic vote-buying by Lula’s first administration in 2005. More recently a judicial investigation into Petrobras kickbacks, its details gleefully amplified by Globo and the other São Paulo media, has dogged Dilma Rousseff.

Alas, both presidents have declared sombrely, such lack of probity has long been the Brazilian way in public office and business. Contemporary enormities reappear in a flattering light, they explain, when compared to the failings of their predecessors.

When reckoning the moral ledger and comparing eras, must not adjustments be made for inflation?

Such imponderables yield the result that no person convicted of insider trading or other capital-markets crime has ever been imprisoned in Brazil.

After narrow acclamation at the polls in late 2014, the president imposed a ‘fiscal hawk’, nicknamed ‘Scissorhands’, as finance minister. On Dilma’s behalf, Joaquim Levy busied himself ‘cancelling subsidies and cutting handouts.’

The Wall Street Journal made approving note of Dilma’s agile reversal from her electoral platform, with ‘a move to more conservative policymaking’:

During the presidential campaigns, Ms. Rousseff ran campaign ads portraying bankers maniacally laughing as food disappeared from the plates of the poor. Just weeks later, the former Marxist rebel is appointing a banker to her cabinet.

Personal origins, of course, as Brazilian history proves, are no reliable guide to political conduct: Lula’s predecessor, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, was himself once a Marxist sociologist of worldwide fame.

Another scholar, Roberto Unger, renowed theorist of ’empowerment’ at Harvard Law School, briefly became Lula’s minister of Strategic Affairs. (Not the only celebrity appointment: Gilberto Gil was appointed culture minister.)

While in office, Unger oversaw development of a national defence strategy that would, as its main planks, boost industrial capacity in Brasilia’s armaments industry, and plunge Brazil’s armed forces in peacekeeping expeditions abroad.

A few months after the 2014 election, the Economist observed with satisfaction that Dilma’s fiscal and monetary programme was now ‘closer to that of her defeated opponent, Aécio Neves, than to the one she campaigned on.’

Disjunction between spectacle and policy substance remains.

Meanwhile Brazil’s historical pattern of electoral allegiance has been inverted, with the PT now winning voters in the former oligarchic redoubt of the northeast, and disapproval in the traditional urban-industrial centres of the south.

Brazil 2014 presidential election by region

Yet two years of deep recession and the Petrobras scandal now threaten to undo Dilma’s presidency. Brazil’s familiar framework of state-capital relations, erected with Washington’s tutelage in the early 1950s, preserved under the generals, and rejuvenated over the past two decades under PT governments, may yet capsize.

This institutional model was settled upon as a second-best solution when full privatization was not politically acceptable and local credit markets insufficiently deep. Market failures, and the longer time horizons needed for investments in energy and transportation, justified the Brazilian state’s holding a controlling stake in hundreds of firms at national and provincial level.

Today the state holds minority equity positions and provides subsidized credit to local firms via its development bank (BNDES), sovereign wealth fund and pension funds. Rents in oil, mining and utilities, sizeable during the long commodity boom, were shared between government and private owners.

Returns from these high-yield investments funded costly social programmes like the Bolsa Família. Meanwhile disbursement of loans and contracts, and appointment to boards, benefited obedient functionaries and politically connected capitalists (notoriously, Eike Batista and Marcelo Odebrecht).

Thus was a political coalition stitched together.

brazil development bank equity holdings

Into this consensual scene spilled the June 2013 demonstrations, made up largely of the highly educated but tenuously employed. Wrongfooted by negative headlines during the FIFA Confederations Cup, the government responded with a mixture of repression and cosmetic concessions on public services.

To popular discontent was soon added a split in elite ranks.

The following year brought unwinding of the global carry trade, with collapse of the oil price and the emerging-markets asset bubble. Brazil’s currency, government revenue and growth rate fell violently.

In such circumstances, when striking at the nexus between Petrobras, the PT, construction firms, electoral finance and parliamentary clientelism, it suddenly was possible for media and judiciary to challenge longstanding conventions of domestic rule.

Local commentators and international observers now insist that a private-ownership market economy is an all-or-nothing affair. Brazilian firms have become financially constrained since dollar liquidity dried up in 2014. There is no room for coddled favourites or sweetheart deals. State interference in credit allocation must end; government liabilities must be reduced; the double-bottom line of social goals for private enterprises must be replaced by the single objective of profitability.

Since 2011 Dilma has promised much but failed to reform pensions or attack inflation.

The budget deficit and the currency crisis now demand focus on short-term imperatives: restoring creditworthiness of the state and private borrowers, and cutting costs.

The electoral base of the PT — and the constitutionally mandated existence of multiple veto points in the presidency, cabinet, legislature and Party bureaucracy — present obstacles to this project. Painful reforms are too easily thwarted. What is demanded is rule by technocrats insulated from popular accountability.

How to impose such a government, only a year into Dilma’s presidential term, without threatening the entire post-1989 legal framework of civilian rule?

Following his release from detention this week, Lula observed of the PT’s Paulista enemies: ‘with the press leading the investigative process they are going to re-found the republic.’

recent article from the Financial Times summarized the contending perspectives among the local elite leading to Brazil’s ongoing political crisis:

One São Paulo businessman points out that the impeachment of Mr Collor not only relieved the intense pressure within the political system, it also provided the backdrop for important economic reforms — notably the Real Plan that ended hyperinflation…

Most importantly, there is little consensus among the economic, media and political elite about how to resolve the current crisis and considerable anxiety about the consequences of a new impeachment.

Lula’s recent detention may signal the end of the prolonged irresolution. It had, noted the FT, ‘raised hopes among investors that the barriers to political change may be overcome sooner than expected.’

What can be concluded from this scene?

On one hand, since restoration of civilian government in 1985, Brazil has witnessed abrupt reversals in regional growth patterns alongside birth of new political parties. This has produced dramatic swings in electoral affiliation from one ballot to the next (and policy continuity after the new government is sworn in). The 1988 constitution has already been amended more than 70 times.

On the other hand, amid the novelty of social-democratic rule, there seem to persist the perennial national traditions: complaisant acceptance of staggering levels of corruption, deference to authority and respect for social hierarchy.

people 50 most beautiful people 1990

In this huge territory, whose glinting surface announces stillness at one moment and churning disorder the next, what deeper processes are at work?

An exceptionally helpful guide to Brazil’s long-term development from Vargas to Lula can be found in Adalmir Marquetti’s study of Brazil’s macroeconomic performance between 1953 and 2003.

Following the trente glorieuses of postwar industrial development (Kubitschek famously promised 50 years of progress in five years), Brazilian capital accumulation was much slowed after 1980.

Debt repayments to creditors abroad absorbed much of the domestic surplus product. The local propertied classes frittered away most of the rest on luxury displays.

Investment per worker - Brazil

batista car living room

Infrastructure (roads, ports and electricity) consequently languishes in a deplorable state. Only 14 percent of roads in the country are paved. Power rationing regularly looms during summer months.

Paucity of fixed investment, and Brazil’s sectoral shift from manufacturing to less equipment-intensive activities, has also meant a slowdown in mechanization.

Capital-labour ratio Brazil

Lance Taylor has outlined the consequence of policies adopted, by Cardoso and Lula alike, at the behest of the IMF:

Brazil enjoyed GDP growth of about 7.5% per year for more than three decades prior to the international debt crisis triggered by the Mexican default in 1982.

Foreign finance dried up immediately, and to meet debt service obligations Brazil had to transform a trade deficit of 2.2% of GDP in 1980 to a surplus of 5.9% by 1984.

This massive macroeconomic shift required currency devaluation (itself inflationary in an “indexed” economy where most current prices were tied to lagged overall price indexes), demand contraction, and (arguably) steadily rising prices as a means for cutting back on real spending via “forced saving.”

Liberalization-cum-appreciation were associated with de-industrialization. In metropolitan São Paulo, the industrial heart of the country, in 1990 48.7% of private sector workers were employed in industry, with the figure falling to 32% in 1999.

The employment share of services correspondingly increased. Relative service sector as well as skilled wages also rose. In six major metropolitan regions, total unemployment (“open” and “hidden”) went from 10.3% in 1990 to 17.7% in 2000.

As in other countries, demand growth was insufficient to offset faster productivity growth so there was negative net job creation. Informality in the labor market also increased.

Thus growth in domestic labour productivity stalled for two decades, resuming only with Lula’s accession.

Labour productivity Brazil

After falling throughout the 1970s and the ‘lost decade’ of the 1980s, Brazil’s output-capital ratio (or ‘capital productivity’, by analogy) recovered in the late 1980s and has since fluctuated with the business cycle.

Labour productivity and capital productivity - Brazil

This result was due less to technical progress, than to the increasing price of output relative to the price of capital goods (equipment, machinery, non-residential buildings). The relative price of capital rose until 1989 then became less costly.

Output-capital ratio Brazil

What, meanwhile, of distributional conflict in notoriously unequal Brazil?

The share of profits in national income, after rising sharply under the dictatorship, fell again from the late 1970s until the mid-1990s. Since the Cardoso administration, the profit share has recovered, with productivity growth mostly outstripping the rise in wages and salaries.

Wage share Brazil - Cardoso and Lula

forbes brazil

Such is the result of drastically unequal bargaining power in the labour market: around 42 percent of non-agricultural employees are informal. Brazil has the greatest number of informal employees of any country besides India.

When combined with stabilization of the output-capital ratio, this favourable distributional climate under Cardoso and Lula has raised the average rate of profit.

Profit rate Brazil - Cardoso and Lula

What by 2007 the world’s journalists hailed as a Brazilian Wirtschaftswunder is nonetheless beset by financial fragility of a familiar sort.

Like other economies that have experienced short-term capital inflow in pursuit of speculative gains, Brazil follows a periodic cycle, at gradually greater amplitudes, of asset-price inflation and exchange-rate appreciation, allowing a consumption boom fuelled by imports and easy liquidity, followed by deindustrialization and a real-estate bubble, and culminating in withdrawal of external funds, currency depreciation and inflation.

Brazil current account to GDP

Brazil exchange rate 2012-2015

Brazil indeed shows evidence of ‘early deindustrialization’: a switching of capital into natural resources and raw materials. Brazilian firms now operate closest to the technological frontier (i.e. approximate the level of the world’s most productive and mechanized firms) in mining, energy and food production.

Brazil labour productivity by manufacturing subgroup

Once more, as though four decades of import substitution had never occurred, the country depends on external suppliers for machinery and consumer goods.

In 1990 Collor, busily dismantling protectionist props for the local steel and automotive industry, joked that ‘Brazil does not produce cars; it builds horse carts.’

Today the rustic image seems apt. Soybeans, sugarcane and iron ore buoy the current account.

Brazil manufacturing industries - trade balance by subgroup

Even as unproductive sectors such as finance and residential construction become more important drivers of growth, since the mid-1990s Brazilian economic output has become increasingly tied to rising carbon dioxide emissions. This is an index of the weight of agricultural and mining activities.

CO2 to GDP ratio Brazil

Brasilia’s external posture follows from this domestic pattern of production. Since the 1990s governments have preoccupied themselves with regional and WTO trade negotiations in which agricultural subsidies might be reduced and the field cleared for Brazil’s ‘national champions’.

What more generally?

Despite the vast size of its population, territory and internal market, and regular overblown promises of its ascent to the ranks of a major power, Brazil has never been a diplomatic or military entity of much significance.

The New York Times complained recently:

While the other three large emerging economies, China, Russia and India, are pursuing muscular foreign policies, under Ms. Rousseff’s watch, Brazil’s voice in the international arena barely registers above a whisper…

American officials saw significant promise in Ms. Rousseff during her early years in office, viewing her as a more pragmatic leader than her predecessor and mentor.

In the United States, misgivings have been voiced that Chinese FDI and Brazilian exports to China make Brasilia a less reliable ally for Washington in the General Assembly.

The odour lingers of Lula’s defiance over Palestine and Ahmadinejad. Brazilian qualms about Obama’s mega-trade agreements irk, without actually endangering a prized US objective.

Yet the facts show Dilma’s government going out of its way to accommodate the State Department. Upon taking office, she immediately embraced the ‘international consensus’ on Tehran, and replaced Lula’s foreign minister with a more amenable nonentity.

The Financial Times noted a ‘growing sense of bonhomie between the two countries’:

For the US, Brazil is looking more than ever like a friendly face in an increasingly multipolar world,  one that is tilting slowly towards east Asia… Brazilian foreign policy has changed subtly under Dilma Rousseff – and become less aggravating to the US…

For ten years Brazil has been nominal head of the US-led military intervention in Haiti. In 2010 Washington and Brasilia signed a military-cooperation agreement governing technology exchange, joint exercises, logistics and intelligence sharing.

Last year Dilma, beaming on a visit to the US capital, assured all that she harboured no hard feelings towards Obama for the NSA’s monitoring of her telephone and email conversations, because ‘should he ever need nonpublic information about Brazil, he would just pick up the phone and call me.’

The ‘love affair’ between Lula and Sarkozy sealed deals for Brazil to acquire submarines and Dassault aircraft, tightening relations with one of NATO’s most belligerent members. Buying French weaponry and sensors, with a technology-transfer agreement attached, is a traditional method by which aspiring military powers enhance their strategic reach while remaining safely within the US security umbrella.

Vast dollar reserves, and the march of Brazil’s agricultural frontier to Pará and the remote Amazonian west, have increased commercial and logistic ties with the rest of Latin America.

Brasilia, notes the New York Times, plays ‘a constructive role in the economic and political evolution’ of Cuba as it is reincorporated into the capitalist world-system. BNDES recently funded and the engineering firm Odebrecht built Port Mariel, a Cuban container terminal tricked out with a Special Economic Zone nearby.

Meanwhile, in support of ‘multi-polarity’, Lula embarked on diplomatic and commercial forays across the Atlantic.

The lusophone band stretching intermittently from Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau, to São Tomé and Príncipe and Angola, offered Brazil a potential strategic beachhead in the Gulf of Guinea. It has begun to project its navy into the oil-rich maritime seaboard between Senegal to Angola, taking part in US-led anti-piracy exercises off West Africa, and providing equipment and training to local armed forces.

Since 2008, it has conducted joint naval exercises off southern Africa with its Indian and South African counterparts. Lula installed a ‘military advisory team’ in Walvis Bay, and concluded military agreements with South Africa in 2003, Guinea-Bissau (2006), Mozambique (2009), Nigeria (2010), Senegal (2010), Angola (2010), and Equatorial Guinea (2010 and 2013).

Brazilian corps Africa

The bonds of shared culture and ‘South-South’ solidarity aside, geology has supplied Brazilian statecraft with its legitimizing theme.

When Petrobras discovered abundant offshore hydrocarbon deposits in the South Atlantic, Lula hailed it as the second coming of national independence.

His Secretary of the Navy invented the term ‘Blue Amazon’, affirming that ‘the untold riches of the marine space under national jurisdiction also require a Naval Power able to protect them.’ The government’s 2012 military White Paper rebranded Brazil’s offshore Exclusive Economic Zone as an integral part of the national territory.

This strategic novelty was accompanied by textbooks and an educational campaign for the Brazilian public, so patriotic schoolchildren could take appropriate pride in deepwater oil deposits.


blue amazon

But offshore ambitions extended far beyond Brazil’s coastal waters.

The 2012 White Paper declared a national interest in controlling South Atlantic trade routes:

The Atlantic Ocean holds some relevant strategic areas, such as the “Atlantic Throat”, the area between the Brazilian Northeast Coast and Western Africa which is vital for world trade. The southern passages, which link the Atlantic to the Pacific, constitute an alternative route to the Panama Canal, mainly for large ships. The Cape of Good Hope’s route, connecting the South Atlantic to the Indian Ocean, is an alternative to the Suez Canal and also offers better maritime access to Antarctica.

Between the Caribbean and Antarctic, a new gyre of seaborne freight had formed.

Nigerian oil, no longer directed across the Atlantic to North America, was increasingly shipped to East Asia. Tankers skirted the South American coast on their way west through the Drake Passage, Cape Horn and Magellan Straits.

Mindful of events in the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea, where regional governments operate as Washington’s proxies in its contest against Beijing, Brasilia’s planners warned ‘militarily significant states of other regions’ against interference:

The military presence of these states in the Atlantic Ocean should be reduced and, in future, eliminated. States located in other regions should not project on the South Atlantic any conflicts and rivalries that are alien to it.

Thatcher’s ‘spirit of the South Atlantic’ was to be reclaimed by the locals.

Was this a hopeless velleity? Cool-headed rejection of the internecine logic churning the maritime straits of Southeast Asia – or just another instance of it?

The Brazilian government would equip its navy to undertake patrols and inspections, conduct surveillance and establish reconnaissance facilities, engage in interception and forced boarding, detain crews and seize vessels throughout ‘the region delimited by the 16th parallel north, the west coast of Africa, Antarctica, the East coast of South America and the East coasts of the Lesser Antilles.’

South Atlantic maritime transit
South Atlantic islands

In earlier decades, a few Brazilian strategists had fantasized about dominating the sealanes of the South Atlantic. But for over a century the local elite had not sought a naval domain consonant with the nation’s population, coastline or dependence on seaborne freight.

What now accounted for the change?

Unger, under whom Obama had studied at Harvard, reversed traditional diplomatic verbiage in offering an explanation. Brasilia was not defensively responding to existential threat, but seeking the place in the sun due to any self-respecting rising power:

We are not concerned by the strength of our neighbors, but we are concerned by our own weakness. The national defense strategy is not a circumstantial response to circumstantial problems. It is a far-reaching inflection, a change of course and a change of direction.

His president took the opposite line, pleading Brazil’s territorial vulnerability to imperial plunder.

When the US Navy re-established its Fourth Fleet in 2008, Lula publicly fumed:

The [Brazilian] Navy plays an important role in protecting our sub-salt reserves, because the men of Fourth Fleet are almost there on top of the sub-salt areas…

Our Navy has to be the guardian of our offshore oil platforms to protect our patrimony, because before you know it some wise guy will come along and say: ‘This is mine, it’s at the bottom of the ocean anyway, so it’s mine.’

His defence minister, later revealed to be a sub rosa source of intelligence for the US State Department, went further in playing to national feeling:

Brazil will not allow the Fourth Fleet to enter and operate within the limits of the  territorial sea. This is not a boast, but a warning. If it enters territorial waters, Brazil will have every right to protest and the U.S. will not want a diplomatic incident. Anyway, the reactivation shows an urgent need to re-equip and modernize the Brazilian Navy…

Thus did the public rhetoric of ‘multi-polarity’ prosper last decade. Among sympathetic journalists, it was presented as a counterweight to the unilateralism and bullying of the G.W. Bush administration.

Would not Brazil — a former colony, newly democratic, its multi-ethnic population famously genial and only recently indigent — promote a diplomacy of treaties and consensus, rather than the belligerence and ultimatums favour by the western hemisphere’s long-time overlord, accustomed to getting its way?

Perhaps, duly enlarged with fresh members, the oligarchy of imperial powers might adopt new methods for resolving disputes and mediating claims. Remade to 21st-century specifications, the new security order would preclude the outbreak of destructive, fratricidal conflict, and end the post-1945 subordination of lesser (European and East Asian) capitals to Washington.

Might the gradual development of strategic parity — in which emerging economies like Brazil, playing catch-up, found their ambitions accommodated — create a more peaceful, less anachronistic inter-state system?

Such pieties did not survive Dilma’s first presidential term.

Brazilian aggrandizement does not presage arrival of a Concert of Powers, sharing the world equitably and pacifically. It is a symptom, not a correction, of chronic disproportion in the world’s productive capacity and relations between states.

As propensity to invest within the United States wanes, aspiring powers can leverage great, momentary flares of dollar liquidity. Asset prices are bid up, local firms enjoy huge rents, the Treasury is filled. New spending power allows firms to acquire foreign assets and the government to upgrade military programs and extend its reach abroad.

Once gained, these prizes must be preserved against encroachment from foreign rivals.

Last year came reports that Beijing was negotiating a base at Walvis Bay. Meanwhile Chinese investment in Nigeria, Mozambique, and throughout sub-Saharan Africa has brought in its tow influence in regional palaces and chancelleries.

This, as AFRICOM and its NATO allies discover new missions in stability promotion and counter-terrorism, is the context for Brasilia’s neighbourly approach to anti-piracy drills.

As speculative euphoria within Brazil collapses, Dilma’s fiscal retrenchment has mostly spared weapons programs. If the Planalto’s occupant is not yet judged an automatically loyal second for the White House, Brazil remains a ‘responsible stakeholder’ within the US system of power.

Otherwise, with its debt now rated as junk, Brasilia has little capacity for effective political initiative outside South America.

dilma obama g20

If the armed forces have played an outsized role in national life since the War of the Triple Alliance and founding of the Republic, traditionally the Brazilian elite has neglected to pursue external ambitions.

Brazil’s frontiers abut almost every country in South America. But these border regions are largely impassable jungles, mountains, and arid, sparsely populated badlands. This topography has secured against attack or invasion from abroad, while nurturing a somewhat parochial outlook among the local oligarchy and intellectuals.

More crucially, the unpropitious landscape — Amazon in the west, unforgiving Sertão in the northeast, Cerrado in the interior, and precipitous slums in the urban southeast — has challenged the state’s ability to maintain exclusive authority, knit together an integrated national market and extract an economic surplus from its vast territory.

Rebellions against government authority are met with ferocity: land clearances for dams on the agricultural frontier, special forces rampaging in the favelas.


The sea beyond this territorial cage has often served as a utopian fantasy for Brazilian artists, isolated by language and geography from the rest of Latin America.

‘There’s gold in the sea beyond,’ announces a stricken Geraldo Del Rey, tramping across Brazil’s arid northeast in Black God, White Devil.

‘The sertão will become the sea and the sea the sertão,’ comes the answer from followers of a messianic leader, modelled on the historical figure of Conselheiro. (Conselheiro’s separatist community was brutally razed by the Rio government in 1897. He was later traduced in Mario Vargas Llosa’s novel about the battle of CanudosWar at the End of the World).

In Barravento, Glauber Rocha spins an allegorical picture of Brazilian society out of a Bahia fishing village’s relationship with the sea, and their worship of a sea goddess.

The last decade of placid growth, helped by a benign wind from the east, was said to have lifted Brazil out of its accustomed position, catching it in permanent updraft: in Unger’s words, ‘inflection, a change of course and a change of direction.’

The latest volta do mar has brought one more familiar deluge.