Seeing America from Abroad

Brazil 2001

By Tom Fiedler

June 09, 2009

The impressions that register are not so much about Brazil, but about how much more clearly I see our country

SAO PAULO, Brazil -- I went off to Brazil this month with the high-minded purpose of learning more about this colossus of South America, a country whose vast size rivals that of our contiguous 48 states and whose wealth already makes it Florida's biggest trading partner with much potential to come.

And now I leave Brazil having learned so much more about the United States.

It's true what they say about travel, that the outer journey -- the one that includes the visits to historic, cultural and natural sites -- is often less important than the inner journey, the one that occurs inside ourselves as we suddenly begin to see familiar things in a fresh or different way.

Over most of the past two weeks, as part of the Pew Foundation's international fellowship program, I and other journalists saw much of the Brazil of the brochures. We took in the sites, human and otherwise, along Rio's Ipanema and Copacabana beaches. We visited Brasilia, the country's ersatz capital carved from barren plains 40 years ago in a mostly vain hope of drawing Brazilians away from the coast and into the nation's enormous and virgin interior states. We slept under the blackest sky I've ever seen on open-air hammocks in the Amazon. And we, like 20 million of its inhabitants, choked on the pollution in this frenetic mega-city.

Brazil is a nation of inherent contradictions. The country's wealthy elite often live in luxury within sight of its hungry and desperate poor who jam together in slums called favelas, many of which are literally governed by drug lords who keep the police at bay with weapons and bribes. Its indigenous people still live today as their ancestors did centuries ago in the headwaters of the Amazon while the products of its top universities go off to work at corporations such as Embraer, the world's fourth-largest maker of jet aircraft whose eager customers include top American carriers.

This is a nation, too, where worried ecologists from all over the world work desperately to try to protect the threatened rainforest -- the globe's best check against global warming -- from being destroyed. Meanwhile the government and others try equally hard to try to find ways to exploit this treasure in the belief that it holds the key to enabling Brazil to take that final, big step from being among the ``developing'' nations into the club of ``developed'' nations. It's a balancing act of enormous consequence.

Economists estimate that 60 million of its 170 million population enjoy purchasing power equal to or above that of typical Americans. That's a number that equals 15 Switzerlands. The value of business between Brazil and Florida reached $8 billion last year. And ponder this: if you drink orange juice concentrate in the United States, chances are it either came from Brazil or from Florida processors owned by Brazilians.

All of this just begins to describe the complexity of Brazil, which the policy makers in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere describe as the linchpin on which South America will turn in the coming decades.

But as I ended my trip, the impressions that register most strongly in mind are not so much about Brazil, but about how much more more clearly I see our own country. Time and again, as various experts spoke with us about Brazilian attitudes, what struck home were not the differences, but the numerous parallels between our nations, our cultures and our lifestyles. We are separated more by time than by language.


Both of us are nations settled by people from Europe, Africa and, recently, Asia. We revel in our vast size, spanning a continent. We are self-absorbed, almost insular, separated by our neighbors in part by language and in the main by attitudes. Brazilians are not -- contrary to what most Americans may think -- like other South Americans.

To visit the cities is to see America in a time warp -- perhaps the 1950s -- where struggles for racial equality and for educational opportunity are ongoing, but where a national optimism pervades.

I don't mean to minimize Brazil's problems, beginning with horrendous disparities in wealth, an immature political system and lingering, chronic corruption in politics and government services. But those should be weighed against many instances where Brazil seems to have found its way to solutions that could well inform us, such as in its nationwide health-delivery system and model anti-AIDS treatment program.

Another interesting lesson can be found in how the nation is coping with an energy crisis at least as severe as California's -- and brought on by some of the same problems of governmental mismanagement and lousy planning.


But while California fears massive blackouts and its politicians engage in lawsuits and blame tossing, Brazil took a different path that seemed so obvious. President Fernando Henrique Cardoso directed a 20 percent cut in consumption.

It has been left to individual Brazilians to decide how to do it -- no massive government program, no rationing, no price caps. And so far it's working without perceptible impacts on daily life and the economy.

Imagine that: Government is trusting the people to do the right thing without onerous rules or direct intervention. Sounds so very American -- like we used to be.