What do you think of when you think of Brazil? The 2016 Olympics? Violence? The promise emerging economies or the vices of a corrupt governments?
If anything, you should probably think of sugar. When the Portuguese arrived in the early 16th century, there were no major empires like the Inca to subdue, nor precious minerals to extract. But there was plenty of fertile soil, which they exploited in the production of sugarcane. It was labor-intensive and could only be done profitably at scale. Slave labor helped keep costs down, but the abominable conditions led to a death rate as high as 10 percent a year, which is why 80% or more of African captives transported across the Atlantic ended up here or in the Caribbean. This is also why the majority of Brazilians are of African descent.
Since gaining independence from Portugal in 1822, Brazil’s trajectory has been up and down. As Brazil’s military president famously remarked in 1971: “The economy is doing fine but the people are doing badly.” That may be, but there is plenty in Brazil to cheer. The falls at Iguaçu are stunning and Carnival in Rio is worth the hype. Rio reminded us in many ways of Cape Town: a hip city on the ocean with amazing mountain trails right next door. And like Cape Town, Rio faces political and environmental challenges of its own. Let us hope that the statue overlooking the city offers them the redemption they seek.