From Brazil

with Vincent Bevins and guests

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Vincent Bevins é colaborador do jornal britânico 'Financial Times' e correspondente no Brasil do 'Los Angeles Times'. Escrito em inglês, blog aborda principais acontecimentos do Brasil sob o olhar de um estrangeiro.

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Thor Batista – how foreigners see Brazil

Por Vincent Bevins

What does the case of Wanderson Pereira dos Santos tell us about Brazil? What does it mean that he was killed on his bicycle, struck by the car of the son of Brazil’s richest man?

It depends where you’re from.

An article by Simon Romero at the New York Times offers an insight into the way we foreigners tend to see Brazil differently, and the way Brazil’s story is repeatedly told differently outside the country.

Rather than concentrating on who was right or wrong – of course, we don’t know – Romero’s piece concentrated on the circumstances that led to the collision:

Two Brazils also met head-on: one in which a small elite live with almost unfathomable wealth, and another in which millions eke out an existence on the margins of that abundance.

To put it simply, we gringos tend to see this all the time, and this is not exactly what Brazilians constantly see, if I am to judge by comparing English and Portuguese-language media coverage, or by how unwelcome our observations on the subject tend to be here. Much to the annoyance of many locals, many of those of us who grew up outside Brazil tend to view the country through the prism of social inequality.

I may be wrong. but I have a hard time seeing an article with this focus come out in the Brazilian press without being considered quite radical.

Of course Romero is right that some class dynamics led to the collision. Why did Wanderson need to be on a high-speed freeway to pick up milk? It’s remarkable to see the way that highways are often thrown across communities here, without offering residents any safe way to get around them.

And as for Thor, would he have been driving differently if he wasn’t in a million-dollar car? Who knows. But it appears that due to the number of violations he’d already racked up, he shouldn’t have been driving at all.

It’s worth checking out the whole piece to see truly the remarkable way Eike and Thor acted in public after a man lost his life. Do they know how that looks, given the circumstances?

Of course, it is natural that foreigners will tell the story of Brazil differently than Brazilians do. The inverse is also true. As jarring as Brazilian class divisions are to North Americans or Western Europeans, there are countless things we don’t focus on so much in our own societies that are just as striking to Brazilians, the Japanese, or Nigerians.

It’s not obvious for those of us from the US, for example, what it sometimes can be like to be a foreigner in our country. For the amount of power Washington has around the world, it tends to shock foreigners how little we know about much of it. And on inequality, we are not really too much better than Brazil.

Who is right? Is Brazil too used to some problems, or are we foreigners self-righteous, naive and sanctimonious? Maybe neither, maybe both.

But it seems clear that when we tell the story of Brazil outside the country, it will make sense to focus on what is noticeably different for us. And despite all the progress made, one of Brazil’s most obvious characteristics is still inequality.

Links (or, a list of times we foreigners took the equality angle):

New York Times: At War With São Paulo’s Establishment, Black Paint in Hand
Los Angeles Times: Brazil’s poor seem left behind in growth spurt
Financial Times: Sway of the wealthy remains strong in Brazil’s cities
New York Times: Slum Dwellers Are Defying Brazil’s Grand Design for Olympics
Financial Times: 2010 census shows Brazil’s inequalities remain

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