QUESTION: So, how was it?
ANSWER: Well, I’ll give you the speech I always give people. There are a few things everyone should know. First of all, Rio is one of the greatest cities in the world. I’ve never been to a place like it before, and even though I still haven’t been to Europe or Asia or Africa, I can’t imagine seeing a place like it again. The people fly around like birds and have a sort of chirp when they talk, and instead of going to parks they go to the beach. It’s more than beautiful, it’s simply a special, unmatched place. São Paulo is surprisingly pretty because of the parkland, but it’s an enormous city that can be intimidating at first. I didn’t feel truly comfortable until about a week or two after arriving and then got to explore the full scale of the city. But I ended up loving it there, too.
Q: So you liked Rio more?
A: Of course I did. But I’d rather live in São Paulo if I were able to make a choice—it’s more appropriate for what I want to do with my life.
There are a few other things you should know. First of all, I’ve taken two common hand gestures in Brazil and incorporated them into my own body language vocabulary. This one (slapping tops of fingers against bottoms of fingers in a rapid, alternating motion) just means “eh, who cares.” You’d probably use it if you were trying to describe to a foreigner how Americans think of Canadians. The other is just waving the index finger back and forth to indicate something is wrong. You click your tongue to signal disapproval.
Q: Were you held at gunpoint? Did you get mugged?
A: Of course not. I’m here talking to you about how much I loved Brazil. You know how we’re paranoid, mostly irrationally, about terrorism on airplanes? That doesn’t happen in Brazil. But some people are afraid to walk out of their homes because they’re paranoid in the same way about street crime. Barbed wire and tall gates encircle high rise apartments. Some of it is warranted; a war between the military police and a prison gang flared up for about a week and led to bus burnings and MP assassinations in São Paulo while I was in town. Kids can be kidnapped for ransom. Not long after I got back, an 11-year-old girl was killed by a lost bullet fired from a MP’s machine gun in Rio.
It’s easy to be paranoid when those are the most common news items. Sometimes, I put things in perspective, though. Example: I plan to move to Chicago after I graduate. The crime rate there, especially with all of the gun crime this summer, is about the same as São Paulo’s. But no one flinches when I say I’m moving to Chicago, nor did anyone flinch when I talked about working in Philadelphia last summer. Americans are statistically safer and generally feel safer than Brazilians do, but bad things happen in Chicago, New York and Philadelphia just like bad things happen in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Salvador. I didn’t see nearly enough of the country, but I feel like that’s a fair assessment.
Q: What surprised you?
A: Being there and actually experiencing what I’ve studied for years was definitely the most surreal part of the trip. Last semester I wrote a final paper about how the largest television network in the country was able to help support the military dictatorship and influence the results of an election because of the power of telenovelas. People still love telenovelas, but the outrageous influence has died down. Soccer fans told me they decided to watch Bandeirantes Network instead of Globo Network because Globo’s reporters were partial to the Brazilian equivalent of the Yankees during the lead-up to a major soccer final.
There’s more political diversity than I had expected. One of my friends complained about how all of her friends were out to kill her when she wore a red star to support the Worker’s Party on the day their candidate won the presidency in 2002. But another friend complained that things were more peaceful and robberies or corruption didn’t happen during the dictatorship.
Q: (Sighs a little bit.) Really?
A. Yeah, I know. It’s heavy. But I definitely feel like after coming back, my economic views have been completely confirmed. I’m a capitalist. Being there, seeing the growth and development of a city like São Paulo under the watch of a left-wing government that practices a form of responsible capitalism felt like a bizarre mixture of all of the potentials and failures of the system.
The level of poverty there is astounding, and sometimes I feel like we’re privileged to be complaining about an 8 percent unemployment rate. But there’s a true sense of optimism among most people I met because the middle class is growing. Many feel that life is getting better and Brazil is a better place to live. I wish we had that optimism here.
Q: That’s one of the smartest things I’ve ever heard you say.
A: Thank you. But seriously, I own all three major Apple products, so this capitalism talk shouldn’t be surprising.
I’m not exaggerating when I say that briefly living the daily life in an “emerging economy” was the most eye-opening experience I’ve ever had. I wish I could throw out my freshman year C in Econ 101 and go back to learn everything about the economics between hybridization and globalization that I’ve missed for the last four years, but I’ll just have to resort to my local library.
But walking through São Paulo or driving around and seeing some of the more economically-humble areas of the country made me realize that if Lula had made a hard-left turn in 2003, the over-socialization could have brought the economy to its knees. I don’t think anyone needs to be a degree-holding economist to believe that. Privatization works in some places, nationalization works in others. It’s all about grey areas. The war between socialism and capitalism left some nasty scars in Latin America—especially in Chile and Brazil—but being there made me wonder why it even happened in the first place when it’s obvious that each economic problem requires an individual, prescribed solution instead of ideological praise or condemnation.
People here, especially the Occupy folks, regularly refer to the “end of capitalism” in their rhetoric. That will never, ever happen. Never. There has never been enough worldwide consensus in that worldview, however idealistic it may be, for it to become successful. I’m not saying we should all pick up Atlas Shrugged and worry only about ourselves, I’m saying that it’s ridiculous to suggest that capitalism has failed because of what happened in the United States. The form of capitalism we employed failed and could fail again because of our fetish for individualism. Inequality is rising here, and the cries for reform seems to fall on deaf ears. But it’s been a major concern in Brazil for decades, and since Brazil is a less individualistic country, they seem to have found a way to make things work. Call it “compassionate capitalism.”
Q. Sounds like you had a great trip. Want a beer?
A. Yeah, grab me a Spotted Cow if you can. It feels good to be back in Wisconsin.
And thanks for listening, too.