As the impeachment trial of Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff proceeds, I’m reminded of the old saying, “Brazil is not for beginners.” Articles by observers with little inside knowledge of Brazil proclaim the current political and economic crisis in Brazil is a return to the lost decade of the 1980s, when inflation hit over 400% and unemployment was rampant. These observers assume Brazil’s gains of the past twenty years will wash away like sand castles on Copacabana beach.
It’s actually much more complex.
There is no question that Brazil is in serious trouble, but the beginners are making the classic mistake of missing the shift that has fundamentally transformed this country of 200 million people. From 1999-2011, Brazil’s economy expanded, moving over forty million people from poverty to the middle class. Unlike recent periods of economic growth in the United States, where gains have primarily benefited those at the top, Brazil’s season of growth lifted those at the bottom rungs of the economic ladder. During the expansion, the income level of the poorest 40% of the population rose, on average, 7.1% (in real terms), compared to a 4.4% income growth for the population as a whole.
This shift has been much more than a matter of adding money to people’s pockets. There has been a transformation in education and expectations of millions of Brazilians. From 1990 through 2010, Brazil’s increase in the educational attainment of the labor force was one of the fastest on record in the world.
To get a sense of what this shift means, look deeper than the numbers. I go back to my first trip to Brazil in 1975. Almost before you perceived a person’s gender, you knew their class and status in society. How someone walked and held their head conveyed much more than their economic position—it was a statement of one’s destiny and expectations. Class was identity. It seemed as solid as concrete, serving as a foundation for day-to-day life. And, especially for the poor, the implications were inescapable: if you were born poor, you were destined to die poor.
When I returned to Brazil in 1995, at the beginning of the recent economic boom, the fabric of class was beginning to fray as poor people were finding opportunity. The change was striking: I could feel it in the street. It was no longer so easy to automatically perceive someone’s class at a glance. Class as identity in Brazil had started to crumble. I have returned again and again over the past fifteen years, watching the transformation. Since 2012, I’ve participated in the changes as US-Brazil Connect has joined forces with the Brazilian Confederation of Industry to bring 500 emerging leaders from the US together with 5000 Brazilian students in 32 Brazilian cities for educational exchange and leadership development.
Through our partnerships, our US-Brazil Connect Fellows have gained deep understanding of Brazil’s complexities by working and learning side-by-side with Brazil’s next generation. Over 98% of our US-Brazil Connect Fellows say the best part of our program is connecting with these young Brazilians. We work together intensely, over a period of seven months, including six months via technology and one month on the ground in Brazil. Our Brazilian students are primarily from modest backgrounds, but these backgrounds don’t define them. They have fully embraced the idea that if you work hard, you should be able to get ahead. They have an entrepreneurial spirit and discipline. They are curious and skilled. Connected via technology, they are not just aware of global issues, they have made friends around the world.
In my experience, Brazil’s youth has little faith in political leaders. But they have faith in themselves. And, unlike generations before them who had little hope for the future, this generation has dreams and expectations for a better life. They have rejected the notion that the poor will always be among us.
Any predictions about Brazil’s future must consider the role this generation will play in shaping what is to come. Today, the real question is not whether Brazil will return to the old patterns. Rather, the question is– What future will this new generation create?