By Robert Eugene DiPaolo
July 15, 2014
This column is about my experience living and working in Brazil. First let me begin by telling you that as hard as it is for me to believe, I’ve spent more than a decade living in Brazil, now the world’s fifth largest economy. During this time I’ve learned a lot and mostly, as I will tell you, the hard way. And as I will also tell you, the more I’ve learned, the more I’ve realized what I thought I knew was wrong and that the longer I stay, the more obvious it becomes to me that I remain a stranger in a strange land. As beautiful a country Brazil is and despite its economic growth and great potential, it remains something of a cacophony of sounds, traffic, curiosities, trash pickers, street cleaners and the like. That said, I’ve discovered as will you if you live here or decide to visit, if you really want to understand Brazil you need to be able to conjugate not just its 14 verb tenses, but more importantly its culture and cultural heritage dating back to 1808 when the Portuguese court decided to flee Portugal in light of Napoleon’s pending invasion. While this is more than 200 years ago, Brazilians oddly enough still blame the Portuguese for all Brazil’s problems, as if the Portuguese had shown up for the first time last week.
How I Ended Up In Brazil
The first time I came to Brazil was in 1997, after which I came back on a regular basis for work and pleasure. Then in 2004, I came to Brazil intending to stay for four months and then return to my glorious life as a glamorous BIG LAW corporate lawyer in NYC. Or was it as a white collar slave trapped in my office 12 hours day? It’s hard to remember… Either way, as things turned out, I didn’t go back to BIG LAW. Instead, seeing what I believed to be a bigger opportunity, I decided to stay in Brazil. I opened a legal/business consultancy with an office in São Paulo and NYC to provide professional services to foreigners doing business in Brazil and to Brazilians who needed US legal advice in connection with cross-border transactions.
To be honest, it has not been easy, but doing business in Brazil is not easy. That said I have nothing to complain about as I’ve managed to navigate what often feels like a circus where there are no fixed rules and situations which make you think Brazil has intentionally made it difficult for foreigners to establish new businesses or to do business here. I’ve also been fortunate enough to have witnessed approximately 25 million Brazilians pulled out of poverty into the middle class. Unfortunately, rather than doing this right, Brazil more often than not has seemed to be imitating all the things that others countries have tried, the US in particular. The result? Hundreds of thousands of Brazilians who previously had no access to credit, piling on the debt like there was no tomorrow, getting fat and learning the skillful art of living beyond their means. But that tale is for a different day.
During the last decade Brazil has emerged onto the world stage as a member of BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China) as what until recently appeared to be a serious global player. Unfortunately, approximately four years to the date after The Economist’s cover announced Brazil takes off” (November 14th – 20th 2009), The Economist’s cover asked “Has Brazil blown it?” (September 28th – October 2013). What happened? To address that question one needs to put economic calculations aside and look at a far more important aspect of economic development than The Economist and others seemed to have overlooked. I sure did!
Without realizing it when I picked up the book, 1808 – The Flight of the Emperor by Laurentino Gomes, I had accidentally discovered a resource that would give me the answer. In short, the answer is culture! You can’t change a society without addressing its culture. Brazil will never change until Brazilians themselves decide to change and then to change Brazil. Change cannot be orchestrated from the top down, it must happen from the bottom up. Or, you can pull people out of poverty, but if you don’t provide them with the opportunity to be educated and to learn new life skills that will allow them to exist and fully participate in the middle class, they will soon slip back into the poverty from which they not so long ago emerged, and likely for the worse.
Brazil tends to be a highly paternalistic society/culture. Brazilians are not very individualistic and in general don’t attempt to better themselves with education or other opportunities. As Brazil tends to treat its citizens like children, most Brazilians would much rather be given a fish than be taught how to fish. While this is an overly broad generalization, as there are plenty of Brazilians who have bettered themselves, it is essentially true. And those who have bettered themselves generally started with a foot up to begin with and simply built upon that foundation. While there are few exceptions to this rule of thumb, Silvio Santos (Google him) pops to mind, let’s face it, if a silly and extremely lucky television personality (or a futebol player for that matter) is the role model for self-improvement and personal success, you know (or should know) that your economy is in jeopardy. Not everyone can be a successful TV personality or professional soccer player. In fact, hardly anyone can.
I decided to write this column, about which I’ve been thinking for a few years, to share, in a highly self-deprecating and hopefully humorous manner, what I have learned (and am learning) during my time in Brazil. Without realizing it, what I’ve learned and mostly the hard way, as I am a slow learner, has had more to do with Brazilian culture than anything else. With respect to Brazil, I have learned it’s not cash but culture that is king. If you do not understand Brazilian culture, you will never understand Brazil. Put down The Economist, and pick up Veja, Caras, or turn on Fantastico, Big Brother or one of the billions of novelas (evening soap operas) et al. No, I can’t believe I just wrote that, but… well… or as Stan Lee used to say, “Nuff Said!”
This column will be based upon my experience living and working in Brazil. It will also draw upon my observations. Most important, it will be about things I’ve learned (and as said above, generally the hard way) from living in Brazil. As an American from a highly individualistic – do it yourself (or at least it used to be) culture – I’ve had to learn how to survive and manage my existence in a foreign and often impenetrable culture, which unfortunately often feels more foreign to me the longer I am here. Life is funny that way. You don’t really know a place until you’ve lived there and as comfortable as you may become, the longer you stay the more you realize how much you really don’t know. But, I like Brazil and some days I love it. Where else can you treat every day like an adventure because it really is? You just have to open your eyes and enjoy the parade as it passes by. Every day I witness events that one could only imagine. It really is like a beautiful circus to which I am fortunate enough to have a front row seat.
I had other possible titles for this column, but settled on the above because the best thing about Brazil and at the same time the worst thing about Brazil, is the fluid, organic and often seemly chaotic nature of its culture, which often feels like you are at the circus, with all its wonders, magic and yes, chaos, than anything else. Or to put it another way, the best thing about Brazil is that it’s a mess waiting to be discovered, while at the same time, the worst thing about Brazil is that it’s a mess just waiting to be organized into something great.
That’s Brazil! And if you ask me, likely to be Brazil for some time to come. It’s the place where the future never seems to come, despite claims that it has finally arrived. But I have my fingers crossed! And can tell you from my own experience that Brazil is a country that has everything it needs to make it great, other than the vision to do so and the dedication of its people to make it happen. But, changing a culture means changing habits and cultural norms. This is hard work! And Brazilians would rather go to the beach (why not) than work hard. Again, I over generalize, as many Brazilians work very hard. In any event, I hope that will change as I’ve taken a big risk on Brazil. But, I digress. I hope you will join me on this adventure, whether you are an expat trying to make sense of your experience here or someone interested in Brazil because it’s a beautiful country or the world’s fifth largest economy. Thanks for reading! I can be reached by email with thoughts, comments, ideas, etc. at firstname.lastname@example.org.
2014 Robert Eugene DiPaolo
Previous articles by Robert:
Brazil’s Surprising Expansion of the Legal Definition of a Tax Haven
Getting a “Permanent” Visa in Brazil
Doing Business In Brazil: Part 5 – Acquisitions, Investments and Joint Ventures
Doing Business In Brazil: Part 4 – The Despachante
Doing Business In Brazil: Part 3 – Starting Your Business
Doing Business In Brazil: Part 2 – The Variety of Brazilian Companies
Doing Business In Brazil: Part 1“