The global view of Brazil may not extend much beyond skilful football, samba dancing and the Amazon rainforest. All three are key elements in the Brazilian mix but as the fifth-biggest country in the world and the sixth-biggest economy, there is far more to the nation. It is the least discussed of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) group of nations but it has the second-biggest economy, with GDP of $2 trillion in 2010, perhaps surprisingly ahead of India and behind only China’s $4.6 trillion.
Brazil has a population of 197m, far greater than any other Portuguese-speaking country, and it is the second-most populous-country in the Americas after the US. It covers 48% of the total landmass of South America and has wide geographical variation from the semi-arid northeast coast, to the temperate grasslands of the south and the Amazon Basin in the northwest, which contains almost half of the earth’s remaining rainforest.
Some geographers compare Brazil to Australia because its population is heavily concentrated along the coast and much of the interior is very lightly populated. It also shares Australia’s experience of starting to come to terms with the historic marginalisation of its very first inhabitants.
Global interest in Brazil is certain to increase over the next few years because the country will host both the 2014 Fifa World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games. The government is spending $15.7bn on the World Cup alone, following the South African model of modernising some existing stadia and building others from scratch. In the case of Brazil, the new facilities will include a new stadium in the biggest city in the Amazon, Manaus.
The 2010 World Cup pushed the South African government into trying to tackle the country’s growing road congestion. It sanctioned the Gautrain project in Gauteng Province and increased funding for other rapid transit schemes in the country’s main cities. Brazil suffers from even greater traffic chaos in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. The Brazilian government is also seeking to improve conditions in its well known informal suburbs, called favelas, and the security services are intensifying the war against the drug cartels that thrive in such poverty.
Like South Africa, Brazil is finding that any attempt to make its main cities look more attractive for such globally important sporting events results in genuine improvements in living conditions.
Real progress has already been made on tackling poverty. The gap between the rich and poor remains very wide but an estimated 40m people have been taken out of poverty in less than the space of a generation. Most progress was seen during the Lula presidency. He led the country and his Workers’ Party for the eight years up to the end of 2010 and managed to sustain an economic boom at the same time as promoting social justice. Like much of Africa, Brazilian economic growth has been underpinned by exporting agricultural produce and mineral resources to the Chinese economic juggernaut. Lula’s government used some of its export revenues to introduce the Bolsa Familia programme to provide cash supplements to many of the country’s poorest families, ensuring that the income of the poorest in society grew more rapidly than the richest during his time in office.
While sustaining traditional exports such as coffee and oranges, Lula also ensured that the state benefited directly from the oil industry through state-owned oil firm Petrobras and was fortunate that oil production increased steadily during his time in office on the back of new deepwater oil fields.
He handed over power to Brazil’s first elected female head of state, Dilma Rousseff, his protégée and also a former chairwoman of Petrobras. Rousseff has pledged to continue Lula’s policies in order to make further progress on living standards, while her predecessor continues to play an important role in national political life.