In the not too distant past, jokesters perennially quipped: "Brazil is the land of the future — and always will be." No longer. "Brazil's future is now," wrote New York Times columnist Roger Cohen recently, citing its raw materials, energy, vast and varied ecology and trade with China.
Many would add another reason: Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the former metalworker and union leader who has been president since 2002. By electing Lula, voters gave Brazil's political elite its comeuppance. And while Lula's presidency has not been without problems — including charges of corruption in his government — his leadership has played a key role in putting to rest the myth that Brazil would remain unable to live up to its tremendous potential.
Lula's innovative social initiatives have begun making a dent in poverty, notably his Fome Zero (Zero Hunger) drive, which distributes money for food to the most needy. In addition, the Bolsa Familia (Family Fund) program — which provides aid to families earning less than $100 a month if they keep their children in school and their kids' vaccinations current — is considered highly successful.
Although during the campaign Lula threatened to withdraw Brazil from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) if elected, he ended up complying with previously set IMF fiscal targets and followed his predecessor's macroeconomic policies. Lula has achieved "impressive results in economic stability," writes Jorge G. Castañeda, a former Mexican foreign minister and now Global Distinguished Professor of Politics and Latin American Studies at New York University. Moreover, thanks to a fiscal surplus every year, Lula has paid off Brazil's $3 billion in foreign debt.
Much of Brazil's success is attributed to its aggressive export strategy. Brazil is the world's largest exporter of coffee, beef, sugar and orange juice. It also exports huge amounts of soy beans and $4.2 billion worth of chickens in 2007 — up from $2.9 billion in 2006. The discovery in 2007 of a huge, 5-8-billion-barrel deepwater oil field off Brazil's southeastern coast boosted the country's oil reserves by about 40 percent and narrowed its oil gap with Venezuela. China has invested heavily in Brazil and purchases many of its products, including iron ore.
"For the first time in a generation Brazilians are benefiting from stable economic growth, low inflation rates and improvements in social well-being," the World Bank stated in a recent report on Brazil.
Latin America's largest country also has become a world leader in producing and exporting plant-based fuels, particularly ethanol from sugar cane. In 2007 Brazil signed an ethanol deal with the world's other large producer, the United States, to promote the development of new bio-fuel technologies — a rare example of U.S.-Brazilian cooperation.
"Brazil's independent approach to foreign policy has led to periodic disputes with the United States on trade and political issues, including Brazil's vocal opposition to the war in Iraq," says a U.S. Congressional Research Service report.
"Brazilian foreign policy has recently aimed to strengthen ties with other South American countries, engage in multilateral diplomacy through the United Nations and the Organization of American States (OAS) and act at times as a countervailing force to U.S. political and economic influence in Latin America," the report continues."
Workers at a meat-processing plant in Brazil's Sao Paulo state prepare beef for export to Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Brazil has made significant economic strides in recent years, in part because of its heavy reliance on exports. (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills)
Lula also has earned the Bush administration's disapproval with his neighborly dealings with Venezuela's anti-U.S. leader Hugo Chávez and Cuba's recently retired communist dictator Fidel Castro. Now a leftist social democrat, the former union leader has what Castañeda calls "a lingering emotional devotion to Cuba," but "it has not led to subservience to Castro."
The Bush administration also has been less than supportive of Brazil's vigorous campaign to gain a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, joining the five original veto-wielding permanent members: China, Russia, the United Kingdom, France and the United States. And, although Brazil has reinforced its military and police presence on its long border with Colombia, Lula has refused Washington's entreaties to become more actively involved in Plan Colombia, the multimillion-dollar U.S. effort to curb Colombia's virulent drug trade.
The darker side of Brazil's emergence as a world player includes its gargantuan social problems and high levels of violent crime. More than 7,000 homicides occurred in Rio de Janeiro alone in 2007, according to Amnesty International, and some of the country's lawless favelas — teeming squatter settlements — are considered impenetrable to police.
As a Brazilian commentator put it recently, "The immediate problem that Brazil faces is less to solve these issues — that will take a generation — than to build a consensus on how to solve them. . . . For the country as a whole this is a moral as much as a political challenge."