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Brazil's Two Battles

Author: Kenneth R. Maxwell, Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations
June 30, 2002
Folha de Sao Paulo

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Thank goodness for Univision, the U.S. Spanish language TV network. Where I live in Connecticut I can tune in to the local Univision station, based in Hartford, the state’s capital. Hartford now has a large Hispanic population, a Hispanic mayor, and, glory of glories, a large soccer loving public demanding access to coverage of World Cup games. Univision transmits the World Cup games the old fashioned way over the airwaves. Whosoever owns a television set with an antenna can capture its signal. This is called these days “free TV.” So to watch the World Cup on Univision there is no need to subscribe to a restricted access channel via satellite or cable system. From my mountain top in Connecticut I can therefore see without interruption, very early in the morning, live from Asia, the World Cup Games. And with knowledgeable Spanish language commentaries entirely free from the irritating transliteration of everything in the alien language of American football, as if no one had eyes and could, if encouraged, begin to understand what was going on for themselves.

To its credit, the New York Times has sent its very best sports writer, George Vecsey, to cover the World Cup, and his coverage deserves a Pulitzer Prize, if such a prize exists in sports commentary. Without doubt his is some of the very best writing I have ever seen in that newspaper. For those who read the sports pages of the New York Times, the optimistic Brazil of yesteryears is back and booming. The best recent headline from Vecsey was “Brazil Is Still The Center of the Universe” (June 25, 2002). But on that very same day the international business section of the New York Times, under the headline “Brazil’s Roller Coaster Market,” led with a photograph of Lula, the Worker’s Party presidential candidate who is leading in the polls, his arms extended as if he was about to strangle Wall Street investors.

I had hoped the sports news would help counteract the gloom and doom of the business coverage. But when I suggested this to a former editorial writer for the New York Times he told me that the Times is the only newspaper in America where the business pages have more readers than the sports section, so the battle of images will be more complicated than I had anticipated.

And be in no doubt that the two images are linked, and that in the current environment of cascading bad news on the economic front, only the power of a win by Brazil in the World Cup might just have the ability to force better news into the mainstream international media. To some degree it already has—attractive enthusiastic Brazilians celebrating a victory have made the morning TV mainstream programs on both sides of the North Atlantic, and no American or European journalist will give up the chance of flying down to Rio to interview scantly clad cariocas on the beach. All this helps.

But set against these happy images will be the usual recycled Brazilian news carried by the American media: stories long sitting on the desk dragged up and served as if hot off the press. The coverage of the brutal death of the TV Globo reporter Tim Lopes at the hands of drug traffickers is a perfect, if tragic, example. The story appeared in the New York Times on the 27th of June, twenty-five days after his disappearance in the favela of Vila Cruzeiro in Penha, in the North Zone of Rio de Janeiro. So the breakdown of law and order looks to the casual reader as if it only began yesterday when the market bottomed.

None of this is new—far from it. Competing images have been with Brazil from the very beginning. In 1502 Amerigo Verspucci’s vivid and lyrical account of Brazil and its pre-European population inspired Sir Thomas Moore’s Utopia in 1516. But a less positive image was not far behind. As Father Anchieta observed in 1586, Brazilians were a people prone to relaxation, sloth, and melancholy, who spent all their time on “festas, in singing and in merry making.” No doubt this image discouraged the Vatican. It took 502 years for the Papacy, after all, to find a Brazilian (who was actually Italian) suitable for sainthood. How odd for the world’s largest Catholic country to have to wait so long. Surely a saint or two might have been chosen from among those heroic sixteenth-century Jesuits who stoically battled the avarice of the settlers, and the incomprehension of the Indians. But as we know the Jesuits are about as popular with the current pope as they were with the Marquês de Pombal, who expelled them from Brazil in 1759.

So behind the battle for the World Cup this weekend is also a very long and ancient battle for the image of Brazil which has taken on a new and urgent relevance. If the four R’s—Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho, and Roberto Carlos, all members of FIFA’s All-Star team—bring victory to Brazil, it might just help also bring some sense of balance. I was not surprised, courtesy of my Univision station in Hartford, to see a Mexican flag raised among the Brazilian fans celebrating the victory of Brazil over Turkey. One thing is certain: the Hispanic audience in the United States that watches Univision will be entirely rooting for Brazil in the World Cup final. The only pity is that there are not more of them on Wall Street.

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