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Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)
Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)

Jeffrey Simpson

The country of the future may finally be arriving Add to ...

Brazilians sometimes wryly remark that they live in a country of the future but that the future never comes.

Imposing in territory (world's fifth largest country) and population (fifth most populous, at 190 million), Brazil has never come close to fulfilling its potential, having been mired for decades in authoritarian governments, hyperinflation, staggering inequalities and a curious ambivalence about the rest of South America and, indeed, the rest of the world.

Now, maybe for the first time, the future that Brazilians always believed would be theirs - as a country of moderate prosperity, international influence and global respect - might slowly be unfolding.

The confluence of playing host to the World Cup of soccer in 2014 and the Summer Olympics in 2016 will turn international attention to Brazil as never before. Just as the 2008 Beijing Olympics and this year's World's Fair in Shanghai symbolized China's emergence as a major world player, so the international spectacles in Brazil will underscore the emerging importance of a country that wants badly to be recognized as a major world player.

For a country with a tumultuous economic history, the past eight years have been remarkably good: low inflation by Brazilian standards (4 per cent to 5 per cent), steady growth (4 per cent to 5 per cent), shrinking national debt, an economy lifted by high commodities prices and success in selected industrial sectors. Who would have thought a decade ago that Brazil would actually be lending money to the International Monetary Fund? Best of all, studies show a slow but steady diminution in income inequality. Poverty rates have fallen from 35 per cent to 25 per cent in a decade.

Now there's the prospect of Brazil's becoming a major international oil player, courtesy of huge reserves discovered offshore. But oil, as other countries have discovered, can be a trap, worsening income inequalities and/or leading to currency inflation that makes other exports uncompetitive.

Still, oil revenues properly used can be a boon to a country's finances and social policies - which, in Brazil's case, means more social equality, better public services, improved personal security and infrastructure improvements. All are badly needed, since the United Nations Human Development Index ranks Brazil 75th of 182 countries, well below Argentina, Costa Rica and Mexico in Latin America.

President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who must leave office at the end of the year after two terms, is credited with designing the policies that have led to these social and economic successes. He is overwhelmingly popular in Brazil and, courtesy of incessant travel, has become a leading world figure.

But the changes that have set Brazil on this favourable course began more than seven years ago, when Mr. da Silva first assumed office, and his good sense was to tinker rather than alter the economic framework he inherited. The result has been economic stability, a freely floating currency and steady growth - not what observers might have expected (and feared) from a former fiery trade union leader who had unsuccessfully sought the presidency three times before winning in 2002.

Brazilian elections are full of fire and rhetoric that obscure the basic reality that, regardless of who wins the presidency in the fall, a policy consensus has fallen over the country. Indeed, the greatest compliment Brazil can pay to itself is the narrowing of the range of serious political options. These options are large enough to debate but not so wide as to tear the country apart.

Brazilian democracy, re-established in 1985 after 21 years of military dictatorship, causes a fair measure of despair, for it's untidy, complicated and often corrupt - but no authoritarian hangover remains. Public opinion polls show an overwhelming preference for democracy.

Elections are fair, with high turnout rates. (Voting is mandatory.) And results are quickly tabulated. When Brazil voted in 2002, all ballots in this huge country were counted within 24 hours, in contrast to the hanging chads and Supreme Court ruling that shaped the U.S. election result of 2000.

With so much heading in the right direction, it's little wonder that, in 2006, the Gallup survey of world happiness found that Brazilians believed they would be happier than any country in the world in 2011. Maybe the result reflected Brazilians' innate optimism. Or maybe a sense that, finally, the country of the future really is arriving.

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