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Opinion

Opinion

Hubris could stymie progress in Brazil

September 22, 2010

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There is a consensus among foreign policy pundits that Brazil is the upcoming world emerging power. Maybe so, but only if it can overcome a potentially fatal domestic obstacle — hubris.

That was one of the main conclusions I drew from a panel titled “Brazil: A rising power,” during the recent Miami Herald/World Bank Conference of the Americas, where several experts debated whether Brazil will inevitably continue its meteoric rise to world prominence.

There is no question that Brazil is on a roll, at least for now. Things are going so well that even President Luis Inazio Lula da Silva recently proclaimed — only half-jokingly — that “God is Brazilian.”

The economy is expected to grow by a healthy 5 percent this year, the country has recently found some of the world’s largest offshore oil reserves, and Brazil has won the bids to become the host to the 2014 Soccer World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, which will give Brazilians a unique chance to promote their country abroad.

Time magazine — in an excess of journalistic hype — recently named Lula as “the most influential person in the world.” The British weekly, The Economist, had earlier carried a cover story titled “Brazil takes off,” noting that sometime over the next 14 years, Brazil is likely to rise from its current status as the world’s eighth largest economy to the fifth largest, surpassing Britain and France.

Two new books published in the United States this month — “Brazil on the Rise,” by New York Times reporter Larry Rohter and “The New Brazil,” by Johns Hopkins University Professor Riordan Roett — generally agree with such optimistic projections.

At the Conference of the Americas’ panel, all participants stressed that Brazil has finally become a predictable country, where governments from various parties have maintained economic policies over the past 16 years, generating confidence and drawing growing domestic and foreign investments.

That will not change after next month’s presidential elections, which will likely be won by Lula’s Worker’s Party candidate Dilma Rousseff, they said.

Several panelists pointed at potential dangers, including an outdated infrastructure and poor education levels. Some cautioned that the ruling Worker’s Party may become so overconfident if it wins by a landslide that it may revert to nationalist-statist policies of the past, and that Rousseff — if elected — may not have Lula’s charisma to rein in ultra-leftists within the party.

“One thing that worries me a little bit is that I see in the Worker’s Party a little bit of triumphalism,” said Rohter, who was one of the panelists. “There is almost a hubris, a sense that they invented the wheel, an unwillingness to acknowledge the role that the commodities boom has played in the success of the last 16 years.”

That is leading some sectors of the ruling party to think that Brazil can keep growing without foreign investments in key areas, such as oil and agriculture, he said.

Will hubris derail Brazil’s recent progress? I asked him. Rohter said he doubts it because despite the triumphalism in some government sectors, Brazil’s population remains coolheaded, if not skeptical.

“One of the healthy things that has happened is that Brazilians are no longer talking about Brazil as “the (world’s) country of the future,” but of “the fifth power,” he said. “That’s a much more realistic goal.”

My opinion: I hope Rohter is right, because one of the things I noticed in my recent trips to China and India is that the two emerging world powers have one thing in common — a widespread belief that they are behind other world powers in almost everything.

In almost every interview with Chinese and Indian officials, I was struck by their concerns that their respective countries are not expanding their education, science and technology sectors as fast as other countries, and that they are falling behind. I haven’t seen the same humbleness in interviews with Brazilian officials.

The Chinese and the Indians have a healthy dose of constructive paranoia, which drives them to constantly improve themselves. Unless Brazil adopts that same attitude and avoids the complacency that may result from so many outside prophecies about its inevitable rise, it will never become a true emerging world power.

— Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald. aoppenheimer@miamiherald.com

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