January in Brazil is like August in France. Shops shut down. Families head for the beach. In the land of Carnival, not even an economic crisis can stop the music...
Shored up by major offshore oil and natural gas discoveries, Brazil has more financial wiggle room than a bikini. But in the US, where the national culture shows signs of unraveling, predictions of another "great depression" rile everyone from survivalists to soccer moms. Average Americans don't know if they're waiting for Obama or waiting for Godot.
In Brazil as in the US, culture plays a big role in how nations survive the slump. Known for beaches, beauties, rain forest and laid back music, Brazil's national motto is "Order and Progress." Big government can get a bad report card. But it always gets respect.
During the recent credit crunch, president Luis Inacio "Lula" da Silva tag teamed with automakers on a tax cut and year-end deals, boosting new car sales 11.5 percent last month, finishing off the year with a 14 percent gain. You didn't hear Detroit testify about that at the bailout hearings. Brazil is one of their major global markets.
While Americans balk at amending their Constitution and reforming the Electoral College, embracing change is an important feature of Brazil's national identity. Half a century ago president Juscelino Kubitschek called for "fifty years of progress in five." He moved the capital from Rio to Brasilia, a city built from scratch. The Itaipu hydroelectric project that produces 25% of the nation's electricity was also competed in in five years. The music known as Bossa nova ("new wave" in Portuguese), that brands Brazil to the world, was organized as a national project coordinated by government and the entertainment industry to promote Kubitschek's program of social change.
Over the years, Brazil's technocratic form of state capitalism has struck a balance with the free market strategy advocated by US administrations. It also matches up with the ideas of French political philosopher Raymond Aron, who maintained that a strong social contract between government and citizens is key to maintaining national identity in a global economy.
One reason perhaps that French president Nicholas Sarkozy spent a rather un-Gallic noel on the beach outside Bahia after finalizing multi-billion dollar nuclear energy and military deals with Brazilian counterpart "Lula." It was Sarkozy's second trip to Brazil in less than a year. France is also backing Brazil's bid for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.
The amped up French connection provides Brazil with a unique gateway to the European Union. French Guiana and Brazil share a long common border along the Oyapock River. A bridge linking the two nations will soon spark trade and create jobs in hungry northeastern Brazil. With that, increased Franco-Brazilian military cooperation can help stabilize unruly border zones around Colombia and Venezuela in the region's northeastern tier.
Brazil elects a new president next year giving Obama a small window of opportunity to work with Lula on trade and environmental issues. Waiting in the wings is Latin America's top technocrat, Jose Serra, the neo-conservative governor of powerful Sao Paulo state and odds-on favorite to win next year's vote.
It's ironic that Christian conservative Bush would reach out to leftist Lula, whose inner circle contains enough reformed ex-terrorists to make Obama pal Bill Ayers look like a tame puppy. Yet Bush made multiple visits to Brazil and, while not getting high marks from environmentalists and racked up points on the trade side. When Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice gave Bush an "A" in foreign policy, Brazil was one of the nations she was talking about.
When the party's over in Rio next month Barack Obama will be president of the United States. Brazil's diverse social and political culture could provide him with some outside-the-box thinking as he attempts to build trust and change America's identity.
Eric Ehrmann writes on sports and global issues from Brazil. He is a member of PENim.