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book review

Brazil's lawmakers celebrate after they reached the votes needed impeach President Dilma on April 17. The political turmoil in Brazil has made Alex Cuadros’ Brazillionaires more relevant than ever.EVARISTO SA/AFP / Getty Images

On the night of April 17, I sat in the gallery of the lower chamber of Brazil's Congress, and watched members vote in favour of opening an impeachment trial of the President, Dilma Rousseff. The scene on the floor was wild – people cursed, spat and on four separate occasions set off confetti canons. But the spectacle just offstage, out of the view of the television cameras, was even more enthralling – and perhaps more instructive about what was happening in Brazil that night.

As the session went on, and votes piled up against Rousseff, who heads the Workers' Party, the families of opposition members thronged to the edge of the floor and giddily posed for pictures. The deputies were mostly men, nearly all of them white; their wives and daughters preened in stilettos and sequins, carrying giant designer handbags. Denouncing Rousseff in full force were the representatives of the conservative "three Bs" caucus – bullets, beef and Bibles – law-and-order hardliners, agro-business and evangelical Christians.

There was more than one father-son pair there to vote that night, and they represent the historic power brokers of this country, the people who have ruled Brazil through most of its history. The past 12 years of Workers' Party rule, when machinists and teachers and even a former domestic worker became lawmakers, were a sharp deviation, and there was a palpable sense in the room that power was shifting with each passing hour of the marathon vote. The traditional rulers felt their fortunes turning.

Tucked in my bag that night, although I never had time to read a page, was a review copy of Brazillionaires, by Alex Cuadros, a reporter from the United States who covered the billionaires beat for Bloomberg out of Sao Paulo. I don't know Cuadros personally, but we have friends in common in foreign correspondent circles, so I had known for some time of the book he was working on – and as Brazil's economy fell apart (a GDP contraction of more than 4 per cent is forecast for 2016) I thought that his years of work might be overtaken by events.

I was also skeptical of his premise – why, I wondered, write about billionaires, when the really significant story in Brazil, until the past few tumultuous months, was the country's success in moving 35 million people out of poverty. Brazil has racked up unprecedented progress improving social indicators in the past 12 years, using strategies that dozens of other countries have come here to try to understand better – surely that's more interesting than a handful of people living behind high walls and zipping off in their private aircraft to parties in Miami,

But Cuadros's book, far from being rendered obsolete by the political and economic crisis, has become more relevant than ever. It serves as both a playbook and a who's who for the seismic shift in power that just occurred here, a map of the tightly meshed relationships between politicians, media barons and the titans of the construction companies at the heart of the giant corruption scandal that contributed to Rousseff's fall. Brazillionaires is vital – and accessible – reading for anyone trying to decipher what just happened, and what may yet come, in Latin America's largest country.

Cuadros moved here from Colombia in 2010 and started out covering Brazil's markets. Before long, he was reassigned to the specific beat of the ultrarich – Bloomberg was already covering billionaires in other parts of the world but Cuadros would be breaking new ground in Brazil. Some of the people who were on his list for scrutiny were well-known: candidate No. 1 was Eike Batista, the eighth richest man in the world when Cuadros started his billionaires gig. Batista at the height of his success was like a caricature of a billionaire, married to a Playmate, with a one-of-a-kind luxury car parked in the living room of his mansion, constantly in the media trumpeting the soaring value of his oil company, his shipping company, his mining company. His story provides Cuadros with a sort of narrative arc, for Batista's fortunes imploded and by 2015 the cheerleader billionaire set a new record, as the world's most indebted person, more than a billion dollars in hock.

But the Batista story is less compelling than that of what Cuadros calls the "hidden billionaires," the ones he begins to ferret out as he follows the trails to the construction companies that built the highway outside his window or the concrete towers where he goes for interviews. They own private companies that do not publish financial information, and they eschew Batista's flashy cars and pink silk neckties. As Cuadros digs into their fortunes, he finds that many have dark origins: He compares a list of the wealthiest families with one of a list of key backers of the military dictatorship that seized power in 1964, with the express goal of preserving capitalism – and finds considerable overlap. Roberto Marinho, for example, founded the Globo media empire, worked hand in glove with the dictators, and benefited accordingly; his sons are three of the country's billionaires today (and still control a huge swath of the media).

Cuadros shows how politics and public works are historically the most reliable routes to wealth in Brazil, facilitated by the wholesale transfer of public funds. As a person who has spent nearly every day of the past year trying to explain Brazil's political crisis and its economic implosion to a foreign audience, I wondered how Cuadros would manage that, at book length, and make it readable. He's pulled it off: Brazillionaires, its silly title notwithstanding, is gripping from the first page. And Cuadros proves to have a gift for elegant and straightforward explanations of some of the most befuddling aspects of the country's politics and economics. He lays out all the connections, between cheap state loans and big infrastructure programs and cabinet ministers who rewrite legislation to make it more accommodating. He provides a taxonomy of the way the media, private capital and the political elite co-exist as a system to maintain the power and privilege of the wealthy – you don't have to start wealthy but you have to acquire these alliances to be superrich and stay there. He takes his readers calmly through the labyrinthine, multibillion-dollar graft scandal at Petrobras, now known by its police code name Lava Jato.

But perhaps more valuable, he explains how Brazilians at every social level view those relationships, and how they choose to interpret and ignore them. He digs into rouba mas faz, "he steals but he gets things done," the phrase Brazilians use for a dirty politician who delivers at least some level of a service to citizens – used not with resignation, but with admiration – for there is no point being rueful.

In addition to the forensic examination of Brazil, Cuadros also delves into what he calls the "squishier" aspects of billionaires: "How their minds worked and how they justified their wealth to themselves and the world." The existence and impact of the superrich raise questions pertinent far beyond Brazil, he points out – "whether it was just plain wrong to be so rich in a country this poor – or in any country … Did the ultrarich take a society forward or hold it back? Could billionaires create progress at all, or did progress simply create billionaires?"

Some of the most fun bits of the book are the glimpses he provides into his quarry in their natural habitat. In Miami (where Brazil's wealthy bought one in 12 of the homes that changed hands in 2012, and many paid cash), he meets a man who runs a firm that caters to solving the problems of the ultrarich. The man has created "a Monopoly-like game called 'Shirtsleeves to Shirtsleeves' – a reference to how fortunes built in the first generation tend to dissipate in the third," to give to the eight-year-old children of anxious billionaires. A real estate agent shows Cuadros a Rio penthouse where the living room wall has a mosaic made from the wings of thousands of exotic butterflies (certified by the environmental agency, he is assured. Certified what? Insane?)

And he takes us with him as time as a spectator on the edge of this world starts to change him, too: "I heard myself using the word just like this: So-and-so is worth 'just' a hundred million dollars." He stalks Eike Batista so closely, as the impresario's promises begin to unravel, that "now and then he showed up in my dreams, and we were pals."

Brazillionaires is peopled almost entirely with men – women make fleeting appearances as trophy wives and heiress daughters – and while this reflects the demographics of powerful Brazil, the sheer absence of female voices is painful. (Cuadros notes that of 150 Brazilians worth at least a billion reais, none is black.)

Cuadros may have been prescient in that Brazil's crisis has made his book critical reading rather than irrelevant. The real beneficiary however is his reader – he's just the right mix of knowledgeable insider, and arch, critical outsider, and Brazillionaires is a welcome addition to the very sparse canon of good books about Brazil.

Stephanie Nolen is the Latin America correspondent for The Globe and Mail.