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GUEST COLUMN: How Brazilians are a lot like us

We recently spent a month in Brazil. You can't help ticking off features you find familiar and those you find strange, and of the latter, those that are delightful and those that aren't so attractive.

I have been to Brazil perhaps four or five times. I first went there as a Fulbright lecturer in 1983 and have been back at least once a decade since. This time, my long-time colleague Clelio Campolina Diniz invited my husband, Rod, and I to come to write about a huge new contemporary art museum and botanical gardens, Inhotim, built over old mining pits about two hours from Belo Horizonte. It is fascinating and quite problematic at the same time. We are trying to make an argument to the international development community that economic progress is not the only priority — that cultural and environmental gains are equally as important. We hope to enumerate Inhotim's benefits and deficits as a case study.

I find it baffling that we rarely hear about Brazil in U.S. news. Brazil occupies a place of considerable prominence in the world. Like the U.S., it is among the five most populous nations and only about 10 percent smaller in land area. Like our country, it stretches vast distances north to south, spanning multiple climate zones that enable exotic fruit and sugar cane farming in the north to diversified cattle, goat, sheep and soybean farming in the south.

The state I've spent most of my time in is Minas Gerais (or General Mines), the temperate region that was host to 18th century gold mines and slave labor, and more recently, and to this day, large open pit iron ore operations like our Mesabi Range. It hosts the largest concentration of Latin American steel mills and auto assembly plants. Its capital city, Belo Horizonte (Beautiful Horizon), nestles in a bowl of mountains.

Campolina's family invited us to live with them. This made it affordable and very fun. His wife Alda cooked marvelous food — excellent meats, familiar vegetables like potatoes and distinctive ones like manioc, and wonderful fruits that never make it to our markets: papaya, maracaju (which grows in their back patio), and mangos that make you weep with pleasure. On their ancestral farm, they grow sugar cane to make cachaza, a rum-like liquor, mixed with lime and sugar to make the famous Brazilian caipirinha. Every Sunday, their grown son and daughters and granddaughters (two more babies on the way) gather at their home for a long afternoon together, a very lovely custom.

We all spent most of a week visiting Inhotim, about an hour from their country place. Rod pitched in to fix problems that Alda had been saving up for him. He designed and crafted a beautiful bench for their yard and installed a much-improved clothesline. After working all day at the books and carpentry, we'd all go swimming, steam in a sauna and then jump under a freezing-cold falls tumbling a hundred feet or so to pound on our backs.

Brazil has its problems. Sadly, their trading economy remains heavily tied to ore and steel (12.8 percent of total exports), oil seed (10.6 percent), meat (6.8 percent), machinery including computers (6.3 percent), mineral fuels including oil (6.3 percent), vehicles (5.9 percent, mostly to the rest of Latin America), and woodpulp (3 percent). Brazil produces state-of-the-art small aircraft — many of the flights from Duluth are made on their Embraer jets. Large investments in computers and other high tech industries have had disappointing results.

But it's not the only thing holding Brazil back. Political corruption has been rampant in recent years. While we were there, some of the country's most prominent politicians were unmasked for accepting huge bribes from organizations including Petrobras, the major producer of deep-sea oil in South America. We have our forms of corruption, too — the ability of rich individuals and corporations to buy political good will through campaign contributions. It's what I call "soft corruption," but its consequences are just as debilitating. Corruption and decades of discrimination means that Brazil has one of the most unequal income and wealth distributions in the world.

Above all, I love the Brazilian spirit. Friendliness, liveliness, stewardship for the culture. For decades, I've loved bossa nova and the protest music of the 1980s — Musica Popular Brasileira. We went to beautiful museums that cherish and explore the good, bad and ugly of Portuguese slavery and colonization. Brazilian design ranks, in my books, among the highest in the world, and you can see this in everything from street art to fashion windows to art and history museums. And about Inhotim, we are still sorting through our arguments and evidence — stay tuned for that!

Writer Ann Markusen is a Carlton County freelance writer/columnist and retired economist and professor emerita at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. She lives in Red Clover Township with her husband, Rod Walli.

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