Why is Brazil important?
Posted by Mauricio Savarese
Originally published at Folha de S.Paulo’s English blog, edited by LA Times reporter Vincent Bevins.
“Why is Brazil important?” As the only foreigner in a very British MA course, I expected loads of strange questions about my country from my 49 colleagues. But I wasn’t ready for that one. It happened more than once during my first week in the course back in September 2012. One year later, I feel they know a bit more about the place I call home, but it isn’t clear whether that is because Brazil was more in the news recently or because I am the first Brazilian most of them have ever talked to. Perhaps both, maybe neither.
Before arriving, I took it for granted that every Briton had heard of the Amazon, the growing economy and the major sporting events coming here in the next years. I was sure many of them had been to Rio or Salvador. I believed those who refused to visit were too focused on reports of violence. But time after time I noticed I was wrong. Very often all I saw was a gigantic question mark on their faces. It wasn’t arrogance or disregard for our achievements. It just wasn’t a place they could relate to. Why should it matter?
At first I blamed the Commonwealth countries for their lack of knowledge about Latin America’s powerhouse. After all, Brazil was never a British colony. But that notion faded as I told them about the issues I covered as a journalist. One of those who asked about the importance of Brazil suddenly started studying our landless movement. Others debated the recent protests with real interest. Many promised to come for the World Cup. The more information they had, the less reservations they showed. But it was just curiosity.
If Brazil is an interesting country and foreigners get tempted when I talk about it, why is it so difficult to translate what we are about to people around the world? It was a shock to see that a big part of the blame for their indifference seems to belong to us. Again and again I heard Brazilians who knew nothing about their country using stereotypes to explain it. Some were too condescending, others were too whiny. Brazilians who want a say in the international community had no clue where they come from.
That made me see that the gap between what Brazil needs to say and what foreigners think about it is greater than I thought. It became evident as soon as the protests were on the BBC. After a first wave of support, as if Brazil were Turkey, most colleagues and fellow journalists gave up. They were confused by the hysterical behavior that Brazilians very often mistake for passion. Many international friends were turned off by those suggesting a boycott to the World Cup. Others, by pro-government enthusiasts.
Who can blame them?
One of the reasons for the confusion is the fact only a small elite has the chance to be overseas and explain what Brazil is. Out of guilt, as I noted in many conversations in Europe, some of the wealthiest Brazilians talk about issues as if they had nothing to do with them, no responsibility for them. As if the bad governments they themselves put in power were never a part of the problem. The class of Brazilians that created, reproduce, and profit from huge inequality then turn around to lament that inequality to foreigners.
In the few weeks that I’ve been back, all I heard was Brazilians thinking, more than ever, that they were sure that foreigners will understand us, make our agenda global and help us get attention in protests during the coming sporting events. They promise nothing back. Brazilians want to be understood by foreigners, but do they make the same effort to understand the rest of the world? I don’t think we do.
And foreigners seem less interested than ever in anything that isn’t their own (frail) economic recovery and the places they already know. Latin America still seems to be a different universe to many people around the world, but many Brazilians barely even recognize they are part of Latin America too.
Not all is lost for Brazil to be recognized as an important country and for our citizens to behave accordingly. During my time abroad, as it goes for many Brazilians, I realized I can be a bridge. There is a generation that could gladly live abroad in places like New York, or London. But they stay for an even better cause: making a real difference in improving their home country.