By Dennis Barker
If infamous American gangster James “Whitey” Bulger had been Brazilian, you would have to say he was certainly a master of the jeito. In some ways the jeito is similar to what might be called in the U.S. “the fix.” In his excellent book Brazil on the Rise, Larry Rohter says the jeito is one of the “basic organizing features of daily life in Brazil,” and defines it like this:
In its most literal sense, to have a jeito is to be adroit at something or to have an aptitude, knack, or talent…. but it’s usually used figuratively to describe the skill required to maneuver around the laws or social conventions that prevent you from achieving an objective.
Rohter brings it up early in his book (p. 34), and it’s clearly a concept you should be aware of if you’re doing business in Brazil (and we mean legitimate business, not Whitey Bulger-type business). This is just one of the “features of daily life” that Rohter describes in his book, which serves as a quick and easy introduction to the most dynamic country in our hemisphere. It’s a fascinating account rather than the dry socioeconomic text the title might suggest.
Brazil transformed itself from a military dictatorship, at times brutal, to a form of democratic government in a couple decades. It’s an incredible story, and Rohter provides a compelling condensed version, with great descriptions of the players.
A good part of Brazil on the Rise deals with business and market issues and lots of politics — you can’t write about Brazil’s transformation without that — but Rohter reports equally well on culture, history, and street-level issues. Soccer (at least nine pages), samba, the beach, carnival — granted, these are all things that make up the popular Brazil stereotype, but Rohter serves up details that would not be known to most gringoes. The book is full of great factoids and observations:
• The 2nd largest Japanese population in the world is in São Paulo, as is the 2nd largest concentration of people of Italian descent
• Ethanol produced from Brazilian sugar cane yields about 8x more energy than ethanol from Iowa corn
• Slavery was legal in Brazil until 1888; divorce was illegal until the late 1970s
• “Sin Doesn’t Exist Below the Equator” is the title of a famous Brazilian song
• During WWII, 25,000 Brazilian soldiers fought with U.S. soldiers in Italy
• “Brazilians regard themselves as ‘the cordial people’”
• It takes 5 months to complete the paperwork required to set up a business in Brazil
Rohter, a journalist for Newsweek and the NY Times, lived in the country for 14 years. As an outsider, he knows what other outsiders should or might want to know about, and he is not a cheerleader. Immense poverty, huge income disparity, racism, snobbism, class stratification, “widespread deficiencies in physical infrastructure,” government corruption, government ineptitude in the Amazon, crime in the Amazon — Rohter gets into it all. He occasionally, subtly, weaves in his own experiences, including a dust-up with former president Lula that deserved more ink, if you ask me.
Brazil has an enviable role as an export king, with some of the world’s greatest natural resources, but Rohter never refers to technology exports or outsourcing services, the large homegrown technology companies or the presence of multinationals. You’d never know Brazil has a thriving domestic IT sector. He describes the country’s various financial crises but never mentions the role Brazilian software played in saving the banking system. It could be he just didn’t think tech is an important part of the country’s narrative. But to a reader who pays attention to that piece of Brazil, it seems like leaving Silicon Valley or the Route 128 tech beltway out of a book that covers the past 30 or so years in the U.S.
Brazil on the Rise is a good, well-paced, compact book packed with facts and observations and useful information— lots of things you should know if engaging with this indescribable country or considering it as a sourcing destination. Perfect to read on the flight down. It’s a great start for someone who wants to begin to learn about Brazil — even though, as bossa nova composer Antonio Carlos Jobim once said: “Brazil is not for beginners.”