Brazil’s relationship to its former imperial power has changed dramatically in recent years, reports Dom Phillips from Lisbon. Above, a bookshop there
By Dom Phillips
“I went to Brazil about seven years ago,” Sandra Meleiro told me, sipping a beer in the weak Lisbon Spring sunshine. “I have relatives there. I love it. And it used to be so cheap for us.” She smiled wanly. “Not any more.”
Hanging out one recent Sunday at the LX Factory, a former industrial area transformed into a second hand market and food fair near the river in Lisbon, Sandra and her diverse group of friends were in agreement on one thing: things are not going well in Portugal. As her comments illustrated, the relationship between little Portugal, once an imperial power, and big Brazil, its former colony, has completely reversed in recent years.
The Portuguese discovered Brazil in 1500 and dominated their far-flung colony until it broke free in 1822. Even a decade or so ago, Portugal was one of the countries Brazilian economic emigrants headed for – as illustrated in Brazilian director Walter Salles’s 1996 thriller Terra Estrangeira (Foreign Land). But the Portuguese economy is in recession and contracted another 3.2% last year, unemployment is a staggering 16.9%, and the broke government is battling the constitutional court to get the tax rises through it needs to hang on to its European Union bailout plan. In vivid contrast, while Brazil is not the darling BRIC economy it was – its economy grew just 0.9% in 2012 – it still enjoys almost full employment, has no major foreign debts, and is increasingly a target for foreign professional immigrants, not just from Portugal, but even from countries like the United States.
Now it is the Brazilians who command the relationship between the two countries. It is Brazilian tourists who wander Lisbon streets, because for them, Portugal is a cheap holiday option, not the other way round. And instead of Brazilian immigrants flooding into Portugal looking for work as they once did, today it’s Portuguese heading the other way. Sandra says she knows many Portuguese who are desperately trying to emigrate to Brazil.
This was my first time in Portugal, and it reminded me of Brazil in the food, the architecture, and the colourful porcelain tiles. Colonial Brazilian cities like São Luís echo the colourful, winding streets of Lisbon. Portugal’s old world formality survives in Brazil. As does the language, which the Brazilians simplified to get rid of one of the two forms of ‘you’ common in Latin grammar. But Brazil is made up of much more than Portugal or the Portuguese – witness its indigenous place names, the African religions and rhythms, or the huge immigrant groups like Japanese, Germans, Italians or Lebanese.
Both countries are as different as they are similar. Lisbon is a subdued, polite city, where people talk in hushed tones. In this, it is very different to garrulous, go-getter cities like São Paulo and Rio, where people sometimes joke that the Portuguese are dim-witted, blame the Portuguese for their cumbersome, overcomplicated bureaucracy and corruption, or even argue that if Brazil had been colonised by another country instead of Portugal, it would be an organized, first world country today.
In his book ‘1808’, journalist Laurentino Gomes described how, with Napoleon and his army bearing down on Lisbon, the entire Portuguese royal court boarded a fleet of ships and relocated to Rio de Janeiro. The impact on what was then a colonial backwater of 5,000 European aristocrats, along with artists, musicians, clerks and hairdressers, was dramatic. It dragged Rio de Janeiro into the modern world. The book was a huge bestseller in Brazil, as was Gomes’s follow-up ‘1822’, in which he described how the Portuguese prince Dom Pedro, left in charge after his father, the king, returned to Portugal, declared independence.
Brazil finally became a republic in 1889. Perhaps the Portuguese are yet to forgive them. Some observers argue that both countries need to rethink the way they feel about each other. One is British ex-pat and Lisbon resident Michael Dacosta Babb, a specialist in business development and former executive director of Portugal’s Creative Industries Development Agency. He says that both countries should look to redefine the relationship, much as the USA and the UK did with their ‘special relationship’ when Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan formed such a close bond in the 1980s. “Portugal has to do the same in its relationship with Brazil. It is not just about a common past and language. It is about economy and good sense,” said Babb. “For that to happen the Portuguese must swallow their pride and stop using national stereotypes. The same needs to be done by the Brazilians.”
Babb argues that Portugal’s inherent conservatism is what holds it back – particularly in the creative industries. Brazil certainly has one quality Portugal seems to lack: a sense of optimism, of change, of possibilities. Of a future to be lived, not a past lived long ago. Portugal could do with a little of that Brazilian confidence, drive and hustle. Then, just maybe, the Portuguese could go back to taking holidays in Rio.