The country of the future finally arrives
With an export boom and oil finds, Brazil, the sleeping giant of South America is awakening * Tom Phillips
Sitting in his air-conditioned office in Guarantã do Norte, a remote agricultural town on the edge of the Amazon rainforest, local mayor José Humberto Macêdo looked a contented man. Thanks largely to the global boom in commodities, this soya-growing region has been transformed into the vanguard of Brazil's march on to the world stage. "This is going to be the new Brazil," Macêdo beamed, explaining how ballooning commodity prices had made his region, Mato Grosso state, into a powerhouse of the Brazilian economy. Across the country, similar optimism can now be heard among businessmen and politicians, all convinced that South America's sleeping giant is finally waking up. Brazil has long been known as the país do futuro (country of the future). But a series of economic and political crises and 21 years of military rule somehow meant the future never quite arrived. Now things seem to be changing. Brazil's currency recently hit a nine-year-high against the dollar, inflation is under control and millions of Brazilians are being propelled towards a new middle class. Last week, meanwhile, Brazil was awarded "investment grade" status by the financial rating agency Standard & Poor's, sending the country's stocks soaring to an all-time high. Following the announcement, Brazil's president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, said: "If we translate this into a language that the Brazilian people understand, it means that Brazil was declared a serious country, that has serious policies, that takes care of its finances with seriousness and because of this we deserve international confidence." From oranges and iron ore to biofuels, Brazilian exports are booming, creating a new generation of tycoons. Brazil's millionaire club grew from 130,000 in 2006 to 190,000 last year - one of the fastest rates in the world, according to a study by the Boston Consulting Group. "We are the biggest exporters of meat, coffee, sugar, fruit juices and the second biggest of grains," Brazil's agriculture minister, Reinhold Stephanes, boasted at a conference in Brasília last month. Meanwhile, Brazil's stockmarket, known as the Bovespa, was one of the best performing in the world last year. Despite the world economic crisis, the Brazilian government recently raised the projected growth rate this year to 5% - lower than the other so-called BRIC nations of Russia, India and China but impressive for a developing country. "The future has already arrived," said David Fleischer, a political scientist at the University of Brasília. "Foreign investments coming into Brazil are very strong; inflation is more or less under control; Brazil now has more international reserves than foreign debt, and the commodities are booming." Not to mention the oil. A series of huge offshore discoveries by the state-owned energy company Petrobras has led many to dub the president "Sheikh Lula" and claim that Brazil may soon become a major oil producer. In April, when Haroldo Lima, head of Brazil's national petroleum agency, made headlines after claiming that another huge oilfield had been found off Rio's coast, the news appeared to confirm what many Brazilians have long claimed: God is Brazilian. Lia Valls, an economist at Rio's Getulio Vargas Foundation, said: "We are now living a singular economic situation we have never experienced before. The international situation is very favourable to Brazil." In February, when the government announced that it had paid off its foreign debt, Lula boasted that Brazil had "taken an extremely important step towards transforming itself into a country taken seriously in the financial world". "We will transform this country, definitively, into a great economy and a great nation," the president added. Keen to transform itself from developing nation to world power, Brazil is also presiding over a 1,200-strong UN stabilisation force in conflict-ridden Haiti. Paulo Cordeiro, the country's former ambassador in Port-au-Prince, said the presence of Brazilian troops was a "demonstration of Brazil ... wanting more responsibility. "I think Brazil has already reached a certain level of development in which the international community starts calling on it to act more," he said. "Brazil's international leadership has grown a great deal over the last six or seven years," said the University of Brasília's Fleischer, citing Brazil's involvement in the UN mission and its leadership of the emerging nations in the Doha talks. "The tendency is for this influence to keep growing." For analysts, much of the euphoria sweeping Brazil is down to the ability to control the inflation that plagued the country in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In 1993 inflation reached 2,490%. Today the figure stands at about 4.7%. "I think now it is difficult to imagine a return to this," said Valls. Analysts are less certain, however, about the effects that a drop in commodity prices might have. Many believe this could bring a dramatic end to Brazil's boom. Others question whether the infrastructure and education systems are strong enough to maintain the economic momentum. Valls warned: "All this does not mean you are guaranteed economic growth. Brazil still has serious structural problems; there needs to be lots of investment in infrastructure. There are some serious pitfalls that compromise this growth: education, having a qualified workforce, health."