November 4, 2009 Volume 2 Issue 17
. . . an e-conversation with the Faculty of Gordon College . . .
By Ruth Melkonian-Hoover
Last month, as the world waited for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to announce its decision on the 2016 games, many expected Chicago to win. After all, its most famous resident, the president of the U.S., had campaigned hard for its selection.
Instead, the IOC chose Rio de Janeiro, on grounds of its “strong technical bid” with “long-term aspirations for the future.” Some reports said this would be “good for Rio de Janeiro.” But I’ve come to believe it might be the other way around: showcasing Brazil through the Olympics could teach the world some important lessons.
For one, Brazil’s politics conform to neither of the two Latin American stereotypes: (1) concentrating power on the left (Chavez in Venezuela) or (2) concentrating power on the right (Uribe in Colombia). Brazil’s democracy and economy in contrast are stable, its leadership international, and its society open. Brazil has left its monarchical and authoritarian history behind, and has now nearly 25 years of democratic rule, moving from oppression to freedom in admirable ways.
These last few decades Brazil has pragmatically stabilized its economy and supported social programs simultaneously. It’s fought poverty through land reform and investments in healthcare and education. By facilitating economic growth via increased openness and fiscal prudence, employment and wages have risen, lifting many out of poverty and increasing the middle class from 38 percent to 50 percent since 2003.
Brazil’s economy is also wisely diversified—not solely dependent upon any one product or trade partner. It has attained energy independence, but offers other key commodities (sugar, soy, grains, etc.) along with significant service and manufacturing sectors (aircraft, textiles, automobiles, etc.). Brazil is not overly reliant on its trade with the U.S. or its neighbors, but has also built strong trade relationships with Europe, China, India and others.
Brazil is known as a leader of its region, and of the global South. While others make empty claims to such positions, I believe Brazil has done more to merit this. It was a key leader of the walkout of the 2003 WTO meetings in Cancún over Northern agricultural subsidies that unfairly disadvantaged the global South, became one of first nations to prioritize accessible ARV treatment for AIDS victims, and successfully fought U.S. drug companies via the WTO for flexible drug patent laws in times of public health crises. Even at the latest G20 summit, Brazil won support for a greater share of voting power within the International Monetary Fund, and continues to press for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and for reform of that body.
With a diverse society, Brazil is also known for its wide-ranging new social movements and interest groups. It supports religious freedom, has the largest Catholic population in the world and the largest Pentecostal population in Latin America.
This is not to say that Brazil has no problems. It does. For instance, its progress in economic development has too often come at a steep cost to its indigenous peoples and its environment. Though Brazil has one of the top ten economies in the world, it continues to be troubled by unequal income distribution and racial inequality. In the next few years, we could see increased violence in some Rio neighborhoods due to newer aggressive efforts to control gangs/militias. And I’m also worried that President Lula appears to be currying favor in the South through some irresponsible means, such as supporting Iran’s nuclear program and dismissing its democratic movement, and by failing to speak out more boldly against global human rights violators.
Still, I believe Brazil’s ‘underdog’ story will continue to inspire us. As with its experience hosting previous international summits, Brazil has shown an ability to ensure calm in Rio, and it has seven years of Olympic preparations to address any other concerns. If it does, and if it approaches the Olympics in a way that builds on the best aspects of its development to become a global power, it will offer a model to the world that merits the gold.
Dr. Ruth Melkonian-Hoover is assistant professor of political studies whose specialty is Latin American politics. She and her husband Dennis and their family live in Hamilton, MA.