By Matija Šerić
When students, out of desire or need to learn geography, take the globe in their hands and start spinning it, they will very quickly come across the Federal Republic of Brazil. This is not surprising since Brazil is impossible not to notice on the political map of the world – it is located roughly in the center of the globe just below the equator and is huge in area – it occupies about 50% of the territory of South America.
Brazil covers 8.5 million square kilometers in four time zones: from the great Amazon River and the Amazon rainforest to eastern metropolises on the Atlantic Ocean such as Sao Paulo (the most populous city in the Americas with 12 million people). According to the latest estimates, Brazil has about 217 million inhabitants and demographically makes up 50% of the population of South America. Brazil is the largest nation in Latin America by area and population.
When looking at a map of the world, less knowledgeable observers would necessarily classify Brazil as one of the most powerful countries in the world, both in politics and in the economy. At first glance, such a conclusion is logical because Brazil is just behind the United States in terms of surface area, population and resources. Therefore, the power and influence of Brazil in the international sphere, political and economic, should not be far from the influence of the USA.
However, in reality, Brazilian power has always been far weaker than American power. Due to specific internal and external historical circumstances, Brazil has never been anything more than a regional power, and the status of a regional power was often only formal precisely because of the influence of “Uncle Sam” and the Monroe Doctrine. Due to its grandiose potential and modest results, Brazil has always been classified somewhat ironically as a country of the future, and that future should finally happen in the current century. A huge territory and population, a potent economy (tenth largest in the world), abundant natural resources, democratic political system, developed national identity, indicate that Brazil has the potential to become a superpower in the 21st century.
An unusual historical path
Brazil’s search for superpower status actually begins with the declaration of independence in 1822, but even earlier. Brazil’s collective sense of identity stems from the colonial era, the vast area of the territory, ethnic and racial diversity, the mixing of races and because of the unique language. Brazilian Portuguese is a different language from the Spanish spoken in the rest of Latin America, and very different from the Portuguese spoken in Portugal and some African countries. Linguistic uniqueness is the result of the fact that the Portuguese did not allow the establishment of a university in Brazil or the publishing of a press. In addition, the presence of millions of African slaves and European immigrants brought to Brazilian Portuguese a fine melodiousness that reflects the pluralism of the Brazilian people.
Brazil’s modern history began in 1808 when the Portuguese royal family moved their entire court of 15,000 people to Brazil to escape Napoleon’s invasion and preserve the Portuguese Empire. Since then, the capital of Portugal has become Rio de Janeiro. In 1815, Brazil received the status of a kingdom within Portugal, and independence seven years later when the Portuguese regent Prince Dom Pedro refused to follow his father and return to Portugal and declared independence.
In the next hundred years, the construction of modern Brazil began, which fought wars for borders, but defined most of them peacefully. The status of the monarchy brought great stability to the country in the 19th century (unlike other countries in the region that were raging in civil wars), and it was not until 1889 that a parliamentary republic was established. It is interesting that Brazil was the last country in the Western Hemisphere to abolish slavery only in 1888. Soon, millions of immigrants from Europe and Asia poured in to develop the Brazilian economy and find a new life for themselves. Today, in the 21st century, the Brazilian population is one of the most multicultural and ethnically diverse in the world.
Entering the international scene
Although Brazil did not participate in the First World War, it was a founder of the League of Nations, from which it withdrew in 1929 because it did not receive the status of a permanent member. In World War II, Brazil joined the Allied coalition from 1942 and was the only South American nation to send troops to fight on the European continent. During the founding of the United Nations, American President Franklin Roosevelt thought that Brazil should be given a permanent seat in the UN Security Council, but the American administration rejected the idea.
For some Brazilians, this was proof that the great powers conspired against Brazil to deny it the progress and international status it deserves. From the second half of the 20th century to the present day, the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has grumbled about that decision. The Brazilians believe that they should have a permanent seat in the UN Security Council, which is why they have joined forces with Germany, India and Japan, who are demanding reform to gain more influence in resolving crises. In the Cold War, Brasília was firmly on the side of the West. The authorities tried to achieve as much economic growth as possible on the basis of a protectionist nationalist policy, which led to inflation and a currency crisis. In 1964, a military coup took place with the support of the CIA, so the military junta ruled authoritarian until 1985. Since then, the democratic order has been in force.
The constitution adopted in 1988 established a presidential political system, and the country is a federation of states. The Federal Republic of Brazil consists of 26 federal states and the federal district – the capital of Brasília. The president is not only the leader of the state but also the leader of the government and is elected for a term of four years, with the possibility of re-election for a second consecutive term. However, after a break of one or more mandates, the former president can be re-elected. The National Congress is a bicameral legislative body of the federation consisting of the House of Representatives and the Federal Senate. Voting is mandatory for literate persons between the ages of 18 and 70, and optional for illiterate persons and those between the ages of 16 and 18 and over 70.
Progress at the beginning of the new millennium
Like other Latin American countries, Brazil often resisted various forms of American imperialism, but never to the end. After the financial problems at the end of the 20th century, with the coming to power of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in 2003, a big change took place. Silva advocated stronger “South-South” cooperation, with other nations of Latin America, and began to fiercely oppose American neoliberal policies in the initiatives of the IMF and the World Bank. The authorities created strong economic growth, an export economy, and enabled the growth of standards. Structural reforms were implemented and extreme poverty was drastically reduced. Poor communities such as those in the favelas are included in society by social programs such as Bolsa Familia Brasília and Fome Zero. The government also negotiated trade agreements of an energy, military and infrastructure nature with non-democratic states despite the disapproval of the USA and the European Union.
In the first decade of the 21st century, Brazil became one of the strongest emerging markets and a strong contributor to global growth. That is why Brazil became a founding member of Mercosur, G20 and BRICS, the organization of the largest emerging economies. It is not by chance that Brazil received the initial letter of that organization. B is the letter that stands for Brazil, and Brazil stands for the global south and the potentials of that same south, which throughout history were hindered first by European imperialism and then by American neocolonialism. Major sports events, the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics, were the reward for the increasingly strong political, economic and environmental progress achieved by the Federal Republic of Brazil.
During the reign of Dilma Rousseff from 2011 to 2016, Brazil unfortunately began to stagnate both economically and socially. Economic growth slowed to 2.6% less than the Latin American average, resulting in a loss of fiscal discipline, lack of economic progress, layoffs, recession, and general discontent. The nation has been rocked by extensive corruption scandals involving top officials of Brazil’s economic and political elite. That’s why Rousseff was impeached in parliament in 2016, and the same thing almost happened to her successor, Michel Temer.
The nation is deeply divided between left and right. Even former president Lula ended up behind bars, which shows that corruption scandals are used as a political weapon. Temer was replaced as president in 2019 by the controversial right-wing leader Jair Bolsonaro, who implemented pro-Western policies (deforestation of the Amazon rainforest, neoliberal economic policy, close relations with the USA and Israel) but also nationalist policies that strive to make Brazil powerful. That is why he never turned against Russia and China as many expected, and relations with the USA cooled after the arrival of the Biden administration.
Due to the accumulated problems, mainly due to the mismanagement of the corona crisis, Lula da Silva returned to power in 2023 after he was previously acquitted of all corruption charges. The return of Lula allowed Brazil to unequivocally return to the paths of multipolarity and, in addition to levitating between the great powers (USA, Russia, China), Brasília is building its own status in the international community. Brazil wants and can be the main representative of Latin America and the Global South. In the simplest way, Lula can achieve this goal by gathering Latin American countries into political and economic blocs independent of the USA.
In practice, these are the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) and the Southern Common Market (Mercosur), which are an alternative to the Organization of American States (OAS) dominated by the USA. Of course, there is the indispensable BRICS, which advances every year. The most important processes that it brings are de-dollarization – trade in national currencies (Brazilian real) and expansion, which will include six new members next year. The processes brought about by BRICS are strongly in favor of Brazil, which can be seen in the strong relations with China and other members.
The nominal GDP of Brazil last year was 1.89 trillion USD (10th place in the world), and the GDP per capita was $8,831 (79th place in the world). After the corona crisis, GDP grew by 2.9% last year. GDP consists of services (62.9%), industry (17.6%) and agriculture (5.9%). The most important agricultural products are: coffee, soy, wheat, sugar cane, cotton, cocoa.
The most important industrial sectors and products are: chemical, aerospace and automotive industry, iron ore, engineering and transport equipment, textiles, timber. The labor force is about 108 million workers. The unemployment rate in 2022 was 9.4%, the public debt was 72% of GDP, and the inflation rate was 9.2%. Last year, Brazilians exported goods and services worth USD 308.8 billion, while the value of imports was USD 250.8 billion. Main countries where exports went: China (31.3%), the USA (11%), Argentina (4.2%), the Netherlands (3.3%), Chile (2.5%). Main import partners were: China (21.7%), USA (18%), Argentina (5.4%), Germany (5.1%), India (3.1%), Russia (2.6 %) and others.
With all the resources available, it is one of the most socially unequal countries in the world – the richest 10% of the population owns as much as 50% of the national income, and about 8.5% of the population lives below the poverty line. Among large countries, Brazil is the leading country in terms of income inequality. As in many movies, the rich enjoy unprecedented luxury while the poor barely survive. The symbol of the poor are favelas characterized by crime. In some districts of Rio and Sao Paulo, even the police are not allowed to enter without stronger support. However, as time passes, the situation improves and the favelas become more pleasant to live in, but the problem of poverty still remains and generates many other problems.
Resources and soft power
Brazil has rich deposits of strategic minerals (bauxite, iron ore, manganese, uranium, copper, tungsten, gold, nickel, zinc, vanadium, lithium, titanium) and precious stones (amethyst, emerald, aquamarine and opal). When it comes to energy, Brazil is self-sufficient in oil and is one of the world’s leading producers of hydropower. It has a tenth of the world’s fresh water reserves and the largest preserved rainforest – the Amazon, which has great biodiversity. Arable land is suitable for the production of numerous crops and biofuels. The country is a prominent producer of beef, chicken, dairy products and pork.
Due to its resources, experts believe that it is very likely that Brazil will acquire a dominant role in international relations, especially when it comes to environmental issues. Additionally, Brazil is influencing the world with its version of soft power. Until now, carnival, samba, coffee, football and favelas were the most recognizable Brazilian symbols that should be used in an even better way to spread the Brazilian influence. In recent times, Brazilian cuisine, music, film industry and art have also appeared as segments of soft power.
Brazil’s biggest shortcoming in the past was the absence of military power. In the 20th century, governments have shown little interest in investing more in their military, in part because their South American neighbors pose no security threat. No one punished the weak military power due to natural barriers. The absence of military force was an obstacle for stronger engagement in foreign policy. However, in the last 20 years or so, Brazil has progressed militarily as well.
According to the Global FirePower website, the Brazilian army is 12th in the world, which is a respectable place. The Brazilian army is the second strongest in the Americas after the US. Brasília has developed its own military-industrial complex that produces sophisticated military equipment and weapons. Brazil is among the top five countries in the world including the population available for military service (87 million people), the total strength of the air fleet and the total number of airports (4,000) and major seaports (17). Brazil’s shortcoming is the aforementioned insufficient attention to security – battle against organized crime.
A stronger military force enables a stronger Brazilian foreign policy. It should also be kept in mind that during the 1970s, Brazil launched a nuclear weapons program. Although the country eventually decided to abandon its nuclear program because of its commitment to a world without nuclear bombs, it still possesses the technological resources and specialized expertise needed to produce nuclear weapons if necessary.
The idea that Brazil can become a superpower is not recent but old. Brazilian politicians, diplomats and generals thought about such aspirations as far back as the 19th century, and even American foreign policy experts such as Henry Kissinger and George Kennan predicted a few decades ago that, given the potential, the South American giant would wake up sooner or later. That’s what’s happening right now.
Although the current situation is not bright, when considering the long-term perspective, with a lot of work and reforms, the Brazilian people and the country can only string success after success. Brazil should finally become the driver of the development of the developing countries that make up the Global South (numerous countries of Latin America, Africa and Asia). In addition to enormous natural, material and human resources, the advantage of Brazilians is that they have a democratic state that provides political, media and other freedoms. Brazil can become a superpower that can strongly contribute to the construction of a fairer multipolar world, and the prerequisite for this is internal stability and a government that will be politically prudent, economically expert, but also transparent and non-corrupt.
After all, as one of the world’s largest democracies, a supporter of multilateralism, fair globalization, a preference for dialogue and peaceful solutions, Brazil has better predispositions to build a fair international order than other great powers that are constantly involved in war conflicts, sometimes near and sometimes far from their borders. The statue of Christ the Redeemer above Rio de Janeiro is a reminder that Brazil is the most populous Roman Catholic country in the world. It is the commitment to Christian moral and ethical standards that could help Brazil rise and become a country of progress with much less corruption, crime and poverty. The 21st century should definitely be Brazilian. This will be achieved if Brazilians adhere to the national motto “Order and Progress”.