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Brazil: An Object of History — or a Subject?

Brazil must act decisively to become a leader or be relegated to an object of history.

November 14, 2013

Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. (Credit: doromonic -

With good reason, Brazilians are incensed about the vast overreach of U.S. power as witnessed during the current NSA scandal. To rein in seemingly endless U.S. espionage practices, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and Dilma Rousseff are right to lead an international movement for much more restraint.

But Brazil must do more. The country needs a proactive global strategy, not just a reactive one.

At the core of Brazil’s self-reinvention must be to end the country’s penchant for basking in splendid isolation. This has led to a severe case of never-ending introspection, as well as endless political infighting. Neither is useful in the global arena. In fact, such tendencies are self-defeating.

If there was ever a clear-cut opportunity to make a fresh start, then the NSA scandal provides it. Brazil must use this incident in a constructive, forward-looking fashion by developing a serious global strategy for the country. Otherwise, it will continue to be seen more as an object of modern history, rather than an subject and a principal driving force.

Rare unity

For once, the odds of that happening aren’t bad. The scandal has achieved something historically rare in Brazil. It has unified Brazilians in their dismay across all party lines.

Such unity was lacking in the past, even though Brazil’s economic reforms during the presidencies of Cardoso, Lula and now Rousseff, spanning almost 20 years, almost quintupled the country’s nominal GDP in U.S. dollars. As Brazil became one of the largest economies in the world, former President Lula’s deft foreign policy also catapulted the country onto the world stage.

At the time, the country became the darling of global financial markets, especially in the United States. But there were some ominous signs on the horizon already. Brazil’s political coming-of-age was not equally welcomed in Washington.

The unease broke out into the open when the Brazilian economy started to slow down in 2012. Ever-fickle and trigger-happy financial markets quickly cast doubt on much of the country’s major economic accomplishments.

Conveniently, the economic downturn was also utilized as an opportunity for other forces to rein in Brazil’s growing political clout. And so it is no surprise that a veritable campaign is underway now to make sure that Brazil is falling out of favor.

No doubt, Brazil faces major challenges in corruption, the education sector, the health care system as well as in the nation’s infrastructure. These problems are well understood by Brazilians themselves, as evidenced by the recent street demonstrations.

Advertising Brazil’s achievements

Yet, as if to atone for their previous enthusiasm, financial markets now seem focused only on the negatives. Meanwhile, they fail to acknowledge the substantial progress that Brazil has made not only in terms of economic reform, but also in improving the country’s chronic social inequities.

As Brazilians know full well, programs such as Bolsa Família under President Lula as well as Brasil Sem Miséria have made huge strides in fighting poverty in Brazil. But does the world really know? We would argue not, or at least not anywhere near sufficiently.

As a result of economic progress, controlled inflation and these anti-poverty programs, the country’s poverty rate has fallen. In sharp contrast, many an advanced country, most notably the United States, have experienced the opposite trend.

Brazil’s real tragedy, though, is that the country does not seem to grasp the degree of misinformation, or rather lack of information, abroad that leaves these achievements largely unacknowledged. Basically inward-oriented, like France, Brazil still lacks an active international outlook. And it certainly lacks an international strategy to deal with all the lobs thrown its way.

Most Brazilian decision makers, officials and business leaders alike, do not even notice. This is perplexing, given that one must assume that they are mandated, at least in part, to stand watch over the international reputation of their country. Whether they are working in the public or the private sector, it would seem that sheer self-interest dictates that.

Time to wake up

The reality, though, is even worse. Rather than dealing with the looming global reputation issues forthrightly, many Brazilians continue to go on — almost inconceivably — with what by now must be described as the nation’s second-biggest sport: fighting each other.

No doubt, in order to fight for one’s global reputation, a country must also work on some key substance issues. Ultimately, no amount of crafty spin can — or should — cover up fundamental flaws. But a keen interest in smart self-defense is quite a different matter.

However, there isn’t even a full-blown national debate underway on that subject in Brazil. Instead, the nation is quite passively glued every Sunday night to watch new televised revelations about how it is made, time and again, an object of U.S. arrogance.

The irony in this is considerable. Brazil, very much like the United States, was endowed with very favorable conditions inn terms of land and resources. Over the last 20 years, Brazil has also shown that it has the capacity to reap the benefits of these conditions — instead of continuously being ridiculed as the country of “great potential.”

Brazil has every reason to consider itself a subject of history, as ideally all nations should.

If the NSA sandal is to have a positive outcome, one thing is for sure: Understand the NSA scandal for what it really is — a fantastic rallying call to Brazil to wake up and end its dangerous dream of happy-go-luckydom on the global stage.


Brazil needs a proactive global strategy, not just a reactive one.

If there was ever a clear-cut opportunity for Brazil to make a fresh start, then the NSA scandal provides it.

Brazil must become a principal driving force or it will continue to be seen as an object of history.

The NSA scandal has achieved something rare in Brazil. It unified Brazilians across party lines in their dismay.

Brazil's political coming-of-age in the last 20 years was not welcomed in all of Washington.

Brazilians know they face challenges on corruption, education, health care and the nation's infrastructure.

Brazil is nightly glued passively to the new televised revelations about how it is made an object of US arrogance.