From Brazil

with Vincent Bevins and guests


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.



Brazil vs. Argentina

Por Vincent Bevins

A mostly pointless post in which I quickly and subjectively compare the two countries, and share some (slightly) juicy, but meaningless, gossip about glamorous Argentine President Cristina Kirchner.

I just got back from Buenos Aires, and it has occurred to me to do a very quick post on the (very significant) differences between the two countries. But this is all based on cursory investigation, stereotypes and first impressions, and is extremely subjective. I know a lot about Brazil but much less about Argentina. Actually, I am just comparing Brazil to Buenos Aires. I will also share some stories about Cristina (reportedly) acting a bit important.

This post isn’t journalism – just a blog. Don’t take it too seriously, if you even read it.

Argentines care more about politics. A lot more. One could call Argentina a place where your man on the street is extremely politicized. Extremely. One could not say the same for Brazil. You stumble across all kinds of protests in Buenos Aires, and quite earnest ones – I saw a large one complete with Che flags, covered faces, and clubs – and barroom conversations turn to politics quickly. Brazilians are indeed tuned into the social issues they live with daily, but the response to them and the ongoing conversation are not as explicitly political.

As one Brazilian said in Argentina: “It’s incredible. All the graffiti here is political. In Brazil, most of the graffiti is the name of the tagger or his gang.”

Or as another said: “It’s crazy here. These people talk about politics like we talk about football.”

Argentines take themselves more seriously. This one smacks you in the face quite quickly and is one of the most often-repeated stereotypes. I find it’s broadly true. Brazilians are laid back and extremely unpretentious. Argentines are many things. Unpretentious is not one of them. Even for the most intellectual Brazilians, being able to laugh off your ego and hang out in an extremely laid-back manner with absolutely anyone is a prerequisite to social behavior. In Argentina, you’ll come across a remarkable amount of people with purposefully challenging haircuts who want to talk about all the very difficult books they read.

I’m not sure which I like better. Something in the middle, is probably the easiest answer.

Argentines only eat red meat and red wine. That is the only thing they eat. The only thing. This makes for a fun couple of meals, kind of like having ice cream for breakfast, but it didn’t do my system much good in the long term. In Brazil, yes, steak is central, but it will invariably be served with rice, beans, lettuce, tomatoes, and onions. In Buenos Aires you are lucky to get some french fries on the side.

Brazilians aren’t anti-American. At least, not like that. Perhaps the clumsy, sunburnt, fat American tourist is viewed as an idiot (where isn’t he?), but not so much as a representative of Empire. In Buenos Aires I was called bourgeois and yankee a few times, and only as a half-joke. Most everyone liked me, but thought I was Brazilian at first, and most were often a little let down when I was American. They were quick, though, to insist, relieved, that it must have been because I realized my country sucks and decided to leave forever. This stirred fond memories of my time living elsewhere in Spanish-speaking Latin America.

Buenos Aires is nicer. São Paulo is a terrifying mega-city which brings to mind 20th-century visions of a post-apocalyptic future. Blade Runner, most notably. I love it, and I love its energy, but it is not nice. In São Paulo, you need a lot of money to live well, and for a large section of that (hyper) rich population, living well just means hanging out in impossibly tacky shopping malls.

In Buenos Aires, you can cheaply enjoy a very high quality of life in a sophisticated environment that reminds of Paris. It’s neat urban space with stunning architecture and natural interactions with other people in public areas. São Paulo is totally closed and private.

Rio is set within a stunning natural environment, but the city itself is not nearly as nice as Buenos Aires. The inequality gnaws at the conscience of most foreigners in Rio, and it’s also deadly expensive.

I’d personally rather live in São Paulo. It is more exciting, more is happening, and the city and Brazil suit me, especially at the moment. But Buenos Aires is nicer, hands down.

Brazil is more “investor friendly”. Brazil has emerged as an economic and global power, during a period in which the government established macroeconomic stability. It’s an environment in which citizens and investors know more or less what to expect. It’s a vision much more in line with what the US-educated banker or economist thinks a country should do to grow. In Argentina, you are immediately struck with the realities of a more heterodox, more old-school Latin American, approach to development.

As a foreigner you can change your dollars at the official rate, or you can go to a black market dealer, who will pay you more, because the government is currently limiting the amount of dollars Argentines can buy with their pesos. So those who need more than they are allotted go to the black market. And there was of course the famous debt default a decade ago, which cut off access to capital markets. Locals don’t trust the system, either – you have to buy your home in dollars, and nowhere takes credit cards as payment.

In Brazil, if you tried to tell a favela resident that they couldn’t change their money to dollars, or that they couldn’t use plastic to pay for lunch, they’d stare at you in disbelief.

I’m not taking sides – a lot of smart and earnest people support the current economic policies in Argentina, and the default, few would disagree, worked out fairly well. But Brazil certainly feels more like the US in the way the economy works.

They treat the government differently. Argentina is a classic republic – like most of the rest of Latin America, a nation originally founded through struggle and bloodshed, inspired by 19th-century republican ideals. Brazil is a different, more subtle story. It is a huge piece of territory that was handed down from monarchy to empire to democracy, to dictatorship, and back to democracy. And all of this, remarkably, happened with comparatively little direct confrontation. Brazil is not a revolutionary country, like Mexico or the US or France or Argentina.

This may or not be related to the fact that the government and its symbols are treated with more reverence and seriousness in Argentina. Or that may just be an issue of national personality. Or, it may be an issue of the personality of the current president of Argentina, who is rumored to, as it turns out, take herself a bit more seriously than Dilma or Lula.

According to two figures in the São Paulo business and political community, Cristina acted a bit funny on a trip here. It is totally harmless, pointless stuff, but serves to illustrate the way Brazilians see Argentina. The story comes from two figures high enough in the Brazilian business and political community that their opinions matter, but not high enough that you can figure out who they are. I can’t confirm they are telling the truth.

They say that when the food was served at the first official lunch with then president Lula, Cristina presented a problem. She would not be having the Brazilian food which had been elaborately prepared for the foreign visitors. She had brought her own from Argentina, they said. This caused great offense until Lula smoothed things out.

Then, they had planned to shuffle her into a helicopter to the next event – this is extremely common in São Paulo. She refused. Doing that would mess up her hair, the story goes, and she was going to be photographed later. So she preferred to go by car. Everyone had to wait three hours to be able to shut down massive Avenida Paulista and bring her a motorcade.

As they told the story, it was clear the Brazilians thought this was a little bit annoying, but very hilarious and mostly, preciously Argentine.

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