When I met V, he was working in construction, making 1100 reais (335 pounds) a month, about twice the minimum wage in Brazil. V lived in a small one-bedroom house with his girlfriend, M, her two-year-old son, and her aunt. V had three kids with three other women. He was twenty-three years old.
Yet, despite his paltry earnings, V drove a shiny new 300cc black and red Honda motorcycle. The bike cost fourteen times his monthly salary; he bought it on a four-year installment plan. He spent so much on the bike that he had no money left to pay for his driver’s licence and insurance. Afraid of being stopped by the police, he took alternative routes, avoiding the busiest streets.
Then, one day, I saw V in the city. His arm was in a cast. He had suffered a terrible motorcycle accident, broke his arm in three places and spent a week in the hospital. The bike was destroyed and he was left with a bank debt he could not pay, over forty unpaid installments on the bike, and unable to work because of his broken arm.
Guys like V seem to be everywhere in Brazil these days: riding in vehicles they can’t afford, buying the latest generation TV sets and smart phones, getting hooked on endless installment plans and the allure of easy credit. It’s understandable: five or ten years ago, V couldn’t dream of owning such a powerful machine. Now, he wants it all. Brazil has changed a lot in the last two decades. Since the advent of the Real Plan, in 1994, which opened the Brazilian economy to the world, life has improved. Gone are the days of hyperinflation and daily price hikes in supermarkets. Social assistance programmes, huge discoveries of deep-water oil fields, the development of the ethanol industry and advances in agricultural technologies helped Brazil improve its economy and the lives of Brazilians. Three years ago, President Obama even referred to our then-President, Lula, as ‘My man’.
Financial stability in Brazil has created a new mass of consumers, a phenomenon known locally as the ‘rise of the C class’. Picture thirty-five million people suddenly being able to afford new cars, electronics and mobile phones, in an avalanche of consumerist obsession that had been repressed for decades. Powered by easy credit, this crowd is spending money like never before.
São Paulo is the biggest and richest city in Brazil. It has eleven million people. If you include the metropolitan area, this number goes to almost twenty million.
On any given day, if you look up to the sky, chances are you will see a helicopter. Or ten helicopters. Or twenty. There are more private helicopters in São Paulo than in any other city in the world. São Paulo has a traffic control center exclusively dedicated to choppers, the only one in the world. The joke amongst ‘paulistas’ is that they like traffic jams so much that now they are experiencing them up in the air.
In November, 2012, one new shopping mall was opened every three and a half days in São Paulo. Luxury stores such as Chanel, Bulgari, and Prada are always packed. Airports are also filled to capacity: in 2011, domestic plane passengers surpassed bus passengers for the first time. Last year, Brazilian tourists spent over twenty-one billion dollars overseas, a thirty per cent increase in comparison to 2010. It is no coincidence that the United States recently adopted measures to facilitate the issue of visas for Brazilians. For any Brazilian over twenty, this is big news. We used to spend endless hours in line at the American Consulate, begging for a visa. Now, they encourage us to go to the U.S. and spend our money.
I grew up in the 70s, when the image Brazil showed to the world was of a tropical paradise flooded with violence and corruption. We saw Ronnie Biggs, the British fugitive of the Great Train Robbery, sipping caipirinhas with British tourists on Copacabana Beach and socializing with popstars. Brazil was a place where life was cheap and you would never get caught.
In British and American films, every criminal dreamed of Brazil. The robbers in The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), A Fish Called Wanda (1988) and Nuns on the Run (1990), tried to escape to our tropical paradise. So did the Nazis in Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946). In The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), Steve McQueen weighed the pros and cons of a Brazilian exile: ‘samba, Sugarloaf, jungle, piranha’.
Michael Caine, who co-starred with Demi Moore in the universally panned romantic comedy Blame It on Rio (1984), said: ‘Brazil is a cliché for a good reason: Brazil produces more beautiful people than any other country. If you want to be taken more seriously, I think you should dance less and get uglier. We (the British) can’t dance like that and we are very ugly, so everyone takes us seriously.’
In 1983, Brazilian rock band Ultraje a Rigor released Inútil (Useless), a humorous and self-deprecating pop song about Brazilian’s inability to do anything right: ‘We don’t know how to elect a President / We can’t take care of ourselves / We can’t even brush our teeth /Some “gringos” think we are destitute / Useless! We are useless!’ It was one of the biggest hits of the decade in Brazil.
But things are different now. Brazilians are experiencing a kind of optimism that has not been seen in the country for decades. When the International Olympic Committee announced that Rio de Janeiro was chosen to host the 2016 Olympic Games, crowds gathered in Copacabana Beach to celebrate. Together with the 2014 World Cup, which will happen in twelve cities in Brazil, this boosted local morale to new heights.
The country still has major economic and social problems – it is one of twelve countries in the world with the worst wealth distribution – but these numbers are changing fast. In 2011, Brazil reached its lowest level of wealth concentration since 1960. Between 2000 and 2010, average income shot up to twenty per cent in some parts of the country. Child mortality rates dropped almost fifty per cent. Life expectancy went up from seventy years, in 1999, to seventy-three in 2009.
There is a lot of talk about the explosion of a ‘new middle class’ in Brazil, a phenomenon the government is trying to market as the most important in the country’s recent history. Eighty per cent of these new middle class citizens are black.
With more and more people using planes, buying cars and talking on mobile phones, the precarious and outdated Brazilian infrastructure becomes more apparent. Our airports are obsolete and continually crowded; our roads are insufficient and badly maintained; our telephone system is outdated. It is not uncommon for someone to call a friend and get a message: ‘This phone number does not exist’.
Easy credit has also become a nightmare for many people. In June 2012, almost a third of all credit card holders in the country were at least 90 days late on their payments. Economists fear mass default.
News about the absurd costs of the World Cup and the Olympics have also created controversy, with many fearing that billions will be wasted in overpriced and unnecessary stadiums.
The National Stadium in the country’s capital, Brasília, for example, will cost over one billion reais (304 million pounds) and seat 70,000 people. But the local football championship attracts an average crowd of, believe it or not, 886 fans.
What will happen after the World Cup and the Olympics? Is Brazil poised to follow the example of our friend V, and buy fancy gifts that we don’t need nor have the means to pay for?
Will our stadiums, sports arenas and Olympic golf courses become, like V’s motorcycle, huge piles of expensive trash? Are we trying too hard to show off to the rest of the world?
Every time someone questions the extravagant bills we are accumulating, Brazil seems to counterattack with some stroke of luck: in August, Petrobras, the state oil company, announced the discovery of a new offshore oil field. Combined with huge discoveries made in the last five years, Brazil will likely jump from ninth place to become one of the five biggest oil producers in the world. ‘God is Brazilian’, says a local proverb. Seems like this was never more true than it is now.
Photograph © Paul Sableman