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Country profile: Brazil

View of Rio

The iconic view of Rio and the Lagoa da Zona Sul. © Lianne Milton / Panos Pictures

Brazil is the country of the future, and always will be, Brazilians ruefully used to say. Then, in 2002, the Workers Party (PT) came to power, led by the immensely popular trade-union leader Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, and it seemed that the future had finally arrived.

Flag of Brazil

Re-elected in 2006, his two terms in office coincided with a boom in commodity prices and the discovery of huge offshore oilfields. The economy grew at over seven per cent per year and – thanks to groundbreaking income compensation programmes, a real rise in the minimum wage, and full employment – extreme poverty was all but eliminated. Millions who had never previously had a bank account became consumers and credit-card holders. Primary-school enrolment reached almost 100 per cent, child mortality fell dramatically, and quotas and government loans opened up higher education to hundreds of thousands who had never dreamed of going to university.

But the dream was short-lived.

In 2014, Dilma Rousseff was re-elected president for the fourth consecutive PT government, just as Brazil began to be hit by China’s slowdown, the slump in oil and commodity prices, and the bad economic decisions of her first government, which squandered the bonanza years. Together with the economic downturn, the revelation of a vast multi-million-dollar corruption scheme involving state oil company Petrobras, major construction firms and the PT, led to a nosedive in her popularity. Although the corruption scheme began under previous non-PT governments and involved politicians from many parties, the media focus was on the PT. As a result there were demands for her impeachment from a hostile Congress, the conservative media, and sections of the electorate. By 2016, Brazil had lost its status as an attractive emerging market and had plunged into recession, with double-digit inflation and soaring unemployment.

The beautiful game outside a church in Providencia, Rio’s oldest favela.

Lianne Milton / Panos Pictures

The failure of Brazil’s first leftwing party in power to carry out big, bold reforms and dismantle an extremely unequal society was a huge disappointment to many of its members, who had hoped for ambitious land reform to benefit millions of poor rural labourers, and a crackdown on billion-dollar tax evasion by the wealthy. Instead, obliged to form coalition governments to get a majority in Congress, the PT made alliances with the same corrupt politicians they had criticized while in opposition. Big business and large landowners found they had nothing to worry about, after all.

Besides these huge political and economic problems, Brazil also faces the consequences of climate change, propelled by deforestation of the Amazon. PT governments, ignoring the terrible cost to indigenous communities, have pushed ahead with giant billion-dollar hydropower dams on Amazon rivers, in preference to renewables like wind, solar and biomass, all of which are abundantly available. The exceptionally harsh year-long drought of 2015 contributed to the proliferation of the Aedes egyptii mosquito, causing widespread epidemics of dengue fever and spreading the zika virus, suspected of causing micro-encephaly and brain damage in thousands of newborn babies.

Yet while the PT government has faltered and, in many areas, failed, Brazil remains a country free from the major ethnic and religious conflicts that have torn apart so many others. At the same time, there is a paradox: with so much going for it, why is it still one of the most unequal and violent countries in the world? Between 1980 and 2013, almost half a million young people aged 15 to 29 were killed by guns. A disproportionate number were black. For many, this is the legacy of almost 400 years of slavery, and Brazil still has a long way to go to wipe it out.