Party's Over: How Did Brazil's Economy Get So Bad So Fast?

High taxes, poor infrastructure, and astonishingly complicated regulations have conspired to bring an end to the Brazilian Decade

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Reuters

SAO PAULO - For decades, Denis Dias's parents could never break into Brazil's middle class. They started a bakery and a pizzeria in the 1970s and 1980s, but the country's economic instability and hyper-inflation consumed their businesses and their hopes. His father ended up owning a newsstand. His mother worked as a maid. And Denis attended dilapidated state-run schools.

Over the last 10 years, Denis and at least 35 million other Brazilians have achieved their parents' dream. Denis is a corporate lawyer at a Brazilian energy company and a new member of Brazil's middle class, now 100 million people strong. Denis, his company and his nation have ridden the exports of iron ore, soy, oil and other natural resources to prosperity.

But Brazilians ranging from Dias to business leaders to government officials say Brazil must develop a more sophisticated economy and effective government if it hopes to continue its rise. While attention has focused on political turmoil in India, China and Russia, Brazil has quietly emerged as the economic laggard of the BRIC countries.

"Brazil is not competitive," Dias lamented. "We need to change."

AND NOW FOR THE HANGOVER

Two weeks ago, Brazil's finance minister announced that the country's economy grew at an anemic 0.6 percent in the first half of 2012, far below South Africa's 3.2 percent, Russia's 4 percent, India's 5.5 percent and China's 7.6 percent during the same period. Even Latin American rivals Mexico, Chile and Colombia are growing faster, as is the United States.

Other indicators are worrying as well. In 2011, the World Bank named Brazil 126th out of 183 countries in its "Ease of Doing Business" rankings, a drop from 120th the previous year. Fears are high here that the country's unsolved structural problems will prevent it from returning to the 4 percent average annual GDP growth it enjoyed over the last decade.

"Brazil will continue growing at pretty anemic rates," said Pablo Fajnzylber, the World Bank's lead economist in Brazil. "It will likely not go back to that 4 percent."

To become a sophisticated economy with consistent growth, experts say President Dilma Rousseff must double Brazil's spending on infrastructure, radically reform an education system that produces far too few skilled workers and engineers, ease high taxes and byzantine regulation, and curb corruption.

The ruling Workers Party defends its performance. In an impressive economic feat, middle-class Brazilians - defined by the government as a family of four making $600 to $2,500 per month - rose from 38 percent of the population in 2002 to 53 percent today, according to the World Bank.

A combination of strong economic growth and former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva's famed "bolsa familia," or "family allowance" program - the largest conditional cash transfer program in the world - reduced poverty by 40 percent. Extreme poverty - defined as families struggling to obtain enough food - dropped by 50 percent, and Rousseff has vowed to eliminate it.

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David Rohde is an investigative reporter for Reuters and a contributing editor for The Atlantic. A two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, he is a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor. His latest book, Beyond War: Reimagining American Influence in a New Middle East, was published in 2013. More

He is also the author of Endgame and, with Kristen Mulvihill, A Rope and a Prayer. He lives in New York City.

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