Déjà vu

The OECD’s Brazil economic survey comes with a long echo. As a young reporter, I attended a 1980s news conference in Rio de Janeiro at which Brazil was presented as having “excellent long-term prospects”. It made me think of Harry Hopkins’ famous comment during the Great Depression: “People don’t eat in the long run.” Brazil has been the country of the future at least since I got here in 1977. The problem with this long tomorrow is that it never quite comes. There’s always a temporary obstacle in its way. In the late 1970s, Brazil was stymied by the energy crisis but “long-term prospects” were good.

In 1982 it was debt re-negotiation but, “for the long term,” prospects were excellent. Brazil made progress in the 1990s until the Mexico crisis and then the Russia crisis and then the Asia crisis got in the way but, “for the long term...” In truth, Brazil is vulnerable today not because of some temporary condition demanding removal but because change is always half-finished. Masterful improvisations (“Brasília, TheReal Plan”) mask weak institutions.

Some advances are incorporated into the body politic, while others wither. The Central Bank and the Securities and Exchange Commission (CVM) enjoy well-deserved acceptance. But the courts dither and the schools decay. It’s a Brazilian paradox that banks are safe but the streets are not. In Raizes do Brasil, historian Sergio Buarque de Hollanda said, “We place our reliance upon a web of personal relationships, rather than the impersonal workings of modern institutions.” He touched upon the joy, and the frustration, of a great nation, one still in the making.

Tom Murphy, Senior Editor, AE-Brazil (www.aebrazil.com

©OECD Observer No 229, November 2001

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