Contrasts and Enormous Challenges Question Brazil’s Rise as ‘Inevitable’
It is said that when the international community opts for a host of the Olympic Games, such a decision is, in many cases, the global recognition of that country’s rise in terms of prosperity, power and prestige.
In recent times, we can surely see in the Seoul 1988 Summer Olympics such an example. In the 1950s, South Korea displayed a per capita income lower than the vast majority of African countries. Its exports were mostly fish, dried fruit and a few other low value-added goods.
Powered by a smart national strategy project centered on the export competitiveness of its manufacturing industry, by the the 1980s South Korea already signaled that its economic miracle was for real and its prosperity would continue to flourish in the following decades.
Today, South Korea’s per capita income is higher than the average of OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) member-countries. It is the nation that invests the highest proportion (about 4%) of its GDP in research, development and innovation. One of its top companies – Samsung – sells more smartphones globally than Apple.
Seoul-1988 magnified the great organizational capacity of the South Koreans. It helped expand global attention to the immense generational sacrifice families were willing to make for the benefit of their children’s future, especially by saving for and investing in education, science and technology.
Maybe Seoul-1988 did not convert South Korea into a sports superpower (although its athletes are doing extremely well in winning medals at Rio-2016). But those Olympic Games definitely helped global public opinion realize South Korea would soon switch from emerging to “emerged”power status.
With all that said, one is compelled to ask: is Rio-2016 showing the world Brazil is a country on the rise? Is the image of a great-power-to-be the one sent out through mass media and social networks from the most globalized Olympics in history? Here it is worth highlighting two points.
Firstly, Brazil and its nationals are still very little known around the world. The exuberant opening ceremony, which justifiably made all Brazilians very proud, helped the world learn where fashion übermodel Gisele Bündchen was born and reconnect to Bossa Nova via millions of new searches for “The Girl from Ipanema” song on the Internet. But the opening ceremony was also a shining example of Brazil’s great creativity and capacity to adapt to circumstances – the Rio Games really did start out with an exciting party at low costs – especially when compared to London-2012.
The world is indeed still getting to know Brazil. I watched most of the opening event from a makeshift studio put together in a house facing the Maracanã Stadium. The space was packed with network television crews from all continents. All TV teams were in awe of the aesthetic quality and enthusiasm of the great sound and sights spectacle unfolding. Most of them were veterans in covering other Olympics, and this was their first time in Brazil. Thanks to the Games, many features of Brazil’s history, geography and contemporary challenges are only now expanding to the four corners the world.
Secondly, if in 2009, when it was announced that Rio would host the Games, Brazil appeared to the world as irresistibly on the rise, such a “certainty” no longer exists. Many pillars upon which Brazil sustained its rising power status ― such as abundant deep-water “pre-salt” oil reserves, hosting mega-events, average economic growth North of 5% a year, a leader in biofuels ― are less firm now than they were just seven years ago.
Global media outlets are publishing a dense and non-stop flow of stories on Brazil’s many natural wonders and joyful lifestyle. They broadly display Brazil’s rich and diverse culture, its huge potential as a tourism destination, an energy giant and a major player in the creative economy.
But these powerful magnifying lenses also detailedly exhibit the country’s socio-economic ills, its huge income disparities, the inability to improve environmental protection in large urban centers and Brazil’s dysfunctional politics.
Ultimately, the world is learning Brazil’s political economy needs deep restructuring if competitiveness is to pick up so that it may continue to enjoy both “emerging power” and “country of the future” status.
Throughout the years, Brazil was always – and correctly – depicted as a “country of contrasts”. The Rio Games will end up reinforcing that image. The message they send out is not that of a country whose bright future is inertially guaranteed.
The enormous challenges Brazilians have to face show the world their country’s continued rise is definitely possible, but far from inevitable.