About Brazil and the United States

03/11/2015 11:26 am ET | Updated May 11, 2015

This month marks my three-year anniversary writing this column. Then, Folha's editors gave me a broad mandate: "Write about how the United States sees Brazil, and anything else that interests you." What a vote of confidence! But it's pretty tough to capture in 450 words how one huge country sees another, especially when often we don't see one another at all.

Still, traveling around and writing about the Americas since the Reagan era has given me some perspective on the geopolitical, foreign policy and domestic shifts that placed Brazil on the map. Here, I have written about Brazil's success in reducing poverty and inequality, and about its ability to compel a different discussion with the traditional powers about what constitutes, and who defines, legitimacy in international relations. I've written about politics, protests, petroleum, prisons, the environment, gender, and race -- often with a nod to these same issues in the United States.

We do have a lot in common: the weight of slavery on our history, our more recent attempts at an inclusive social contract, how to be (or not to be) a hegemon in the Americas -- these traits call my attention repeatedly. I've also written extensively about American politics, politicians, pop culture, foreign policy -- even the pope. And because I've been working at a foreign policy think tank, I've shared my perspective on a number of issues in Latin America -- especially changes in Cuba, U.S. policy toward the island, Venezuela, Colombia, Mexico, and relations in the region. But I don't live in Brazil or visit enough to dive deep into its complex politics, the latest corruption scandal, or the trajectory of social and economic schisms in Brazilian society.

Yet watching Brazil try to design, finance and implement massive social programs for its most disenfranchised citizens has turned my focus to a similar era in American history, the 1960s, and especially the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-1969). Thinking about the 1964 coup, or Vietnam, right? OK. But LBJ's Great Society programs and civil rights laws shaped our country in a thousand ways with laws to improve access to voting and representation, health care, birth control, national parks, a clean environment, arts, literacy, higher education, and functioning infrastructure. In fact, Lula may have drawn upon passages from LBJ's Great Society speeches for his own.

Like President Obama in Selma, Alabama, last weekend, Americans are reflecting on the 1960s these days. Me too. I'll be writing a biography of Lady Bird Johnson, the first lady whose contributions to American public life, to the Great Society, have been largely ignored or dismissed. With a former first lady quite possibly returning to the White House as president in 2016, now is the time to tell Lady Bird's story. And this column? Likely more about the United States. Thanks to Brazil.

This post was originally published in Portuguese in Folha de São Paulo. It is available here.