Mirror Mirror on the ground! / Yogendra Joshi

August 1, 2017; New Republic

In writing for the New Republic, Patrick Iber reviews Alex Cuadros’ new book, Brazillionaires, by way of making the point that to understand global inequality, we need look no further than Brazil—and at ourselves.

To contemplate its condition is to behold an alarming portrait, only to realize that our gaze is not directed at a painting, but a mirror.

Brazil is the world’s fifth-largest country by area and population. Until 2010, along with China and India, Brazil had one of the world’s fastest growing economies. (Here is a list of Brazil’s billionaires.) Brazil’s second-largest city, Rio de Janeiro, is, of course, the host of this year’s Summer Olympics.

In addition to its deep recession, massive corruption scandal, and, to put it mildly, dysfunctional politics, Brazil also still justifies social apartheid. Paulo Lins’s searing novel, on which the critically and commercially hit film City of God was based, depicts the quarantined favelas of Brazil awash with narcotics and violence.

But from Brazil’s poor also arise the delights of samba and many other cultural gifts. The opening ceremony of Rio 2016 celebrated these creations. To their credit, the opening ceremony choreographers included in their storytelling Brazilians with African ancestry in shackles. Cuadros makes plain in Brazillionaires that the social ills in Brazil have their equivalents in America, such as our mutual legacy of institutional racism.

Brazil’s civil society is pushing back. Networks of Brazilian nonprofits are arming themselves with information and speaking out against injustice. Brazil and the US may enable its wealthy to shield themselves and their children from social ills, but Brazil’s income extremes shock the conscience. As Iber writes:

Brazil, in important ways, is more representative of the world than any other country. It has been, in recent decades, among the most unequal countries in the world. If you combine all of the world’s people together and measure inequalities of wealth, you get an even higher level of inequality than exists in any single nation. Still, it is Brazil’s profile that comes the closest to matching the global situation: a small, wealthy, and dominant upper class, a modest middle class, and a poor majority that struggles for both income and effective rights.

Shantytowns (favelas) are not exclusively Brazil’s problem. Trailer parks, homeless encampments, and housing in Central Appalachia reveal the shame of America’s income inequality. It’s just that Brazil is more brazen and militant in its exclusion of the poor.

First in preparation for 2014’s World Cup, and especially in the run-up to the 2016 Olympic Games, Rio has been accused of abusing human and property rights. As Leticia Osorio of the Ford Foundation reports, the poor were forcibly evicted from their housing. While the 2016 Olympic Games brought expanded transportation and new facilities to Rio, the money that was promised to help the poor instead hid them from public view.

While cities agree to host major sporting events based on the premise that the resulting development and legacy will benefit everyone, wealthy developers are usually the ones that get all of the gains at the expense of residents, especially those who are poor and marginalized. So what is happening in Rio is not a new story.

Iber notes that the subtitle to the U.S. edition of Cuadros’ book is intentional: “Wealth, Power, Decadence, and Hope in an American Country.” It does not say a Latin American country.

Environmentalists in the U.S. may cry in dismay as enormous swaths of the Amazon are cleared for soybeans and cattle—Brazilian environmentalists do too. But such activity does bring short-term gains to poor areas of the country—and, as Cuadros points out, the U.S. has made the same calculus with fracking in recent years.

In Brazillionaires, Cuadros paints a portrait of Brazil that is critical of the wealthy elite. While he does not denounce them, “He is aware that the myths told about them and that they tell about themselves are deeply damaging.” The same could be said of our esteem for one of America’s billionaires when he raises some $3.5 million each year for a homeless shelter by auctioning a few hours of his time to the highest bidder.

The Olympic Games help us imagine our fullest potential. The games in Brazil also show us a world in which not everyone’s human rights are protected and fulfilled. We want to believe we have the talent and technology to forge a better world, where globalization can be better managed to meet the needs and interests of the majority. While civil society needs to remain at the heart of demanding and driving this change, civil society is constantly being reinterpreted and recreated, especially in countries like China, India, and Brazil. America can help show the way, but we first must look in the mirror.—James Schaffer