Brazil’s Challenge

July 12, 2002

Mark Weisbrot
Janesville Gazette (WI), July 12, 2002

Knight-Ridder/Tribune Information Services, July 8, 2002 

Having won the World Cup Soccer Championship before a captivated audience of 1.5 billion people — nearly a quarter of the world’s population — Brazilians now face an even tougher competition. In this contest, one team defends a goal that is  only two feet wide, most of the referees are on the take, and the home field advantage is much greater than anything the Korean team could have dreamed of in Seoul.

This contest pits the Brazilian people against their own financial elite, foreign bankers and financial institutions, the media at home and abroad, and an army of economists from Wall Street and Washington. It won’t be watched by as many people as the World Cup, but the stakes are high and the outcome will affect much of Latin America and the world outside of Brazil.

The issue, in simple economic terms, is whether Brazil will have a chance to  pursue a more productive, higher-growth, independent development path that can
improve living standards for the majority of its population — including 50 million people now living in poverty.

Brazil used to have one of the fastest-growing economies in the world: from 1960-1980 its income per person grew by 141 percent. Even the military coup of 1964, supported by the United States against a democratically elected government, did not slow the country’s development. But in the two decades since 1980 it has barely grown at all — a total of about 5 percent for the whole period.

These are the decades of the “Washington Consensus,” an era of economic failure well-known throughout Latin America and most of the developing world. It seems that Washington’s panacea of replacing various economic development  strategies with a simple formula of opening up to trade and financial flows, privatization of state enterprises, and high interest rates has failed to produce the promised rewards.

Now comes the Workers’ Party of Brazil, with a two-to-one lead in the polls for the presidential election to be held three months from now. They claim that things can be done differently: lower interest rates, more growth, and a zero-hunger program for the poor.

The financial markets reacted violently as soon as Lula, the Workers’ Party candidate, pulled past 40 percent in the polls two months ago. The Brazilian currency (the real) hit record lows again last week, down 20 percent for the year. The risk premium for Brazilian sovereign debt soared — it is now higher than Nigeria’s, and second only to Argentina (which is already in default).

For most economists and the press, this is the end of the story: the financial establishment has made its pronouncement, and Brazilians had better listen up and stick to the status quo — even if it means record-high interest rates, more painful budget cuts, and continued economic stagnation. Horst Koehler, the head of the International Monetary Fund expressed these sentiments when he announced last week that Brazil would have no problems so long as it stuck to the policies of the current government after the elections.

But this is a dubious claim: Brazil’s public debt has doubled, from 28 to 56 percent of its economy, during the eight years of the present government. Debt service payments now consume over 90 percent of the country’s export earnings. It is quite likely, as some analysts have pointed out, that Brazil will have to renegotiate its debt — or default on it — regardless of who is elected this fall. But Lula and the Workers’ Party — who ironically had nothing to do with piling up this unsustainable debt — have become convenient scapegoats. The business press, including American and European papers, have been all too eager to report the current crisis as having been caused by the “threat” of a Workers’ Party victory at the polls.

Fearing a financial meltdown, Washington’s favorite economists have lately been trying to reassure the markets. Brazil can pull out of this crisis little by little, they say, if only it can win back the confidence of foreign investors with more budget and monetary austerity — more pain and suffering. If that sounds familiar, it’s because they were saying the same thing about Argentina just a couple of years ago, as that country’s economy headed for a train wreck.

It won’t be easy for the Brazilians to take on the rich and powerful, at home and up North, and chart a new course for their economy. But nobody ever won five World Cup championships either, until this year.

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