With the Middle East in flames and Japan in meltdown, I decided to head for Brazil. As somebody who makes a living commenting on international politics, I was worried that my choice of destination might seem eccentric. But President Obama evidently sees the world the same way. While American cruise missiles rained down on Libya, he was giving a speech in Rio, as part of a five-day tour of Latin America. There is method behind this apparent madness. The President and his advisers think that, over the past decade, the US has wasted too much time, energy, money and blood on the Middle East. They are determined to focus on new global powers. Brazil, which will soon be the world’s fifth-largest economy, is clearly near the top of the list. What is more, the Brazilians like the American president. Lula da Silva, who stepped down as Brazilian leader late last year, joked that ‘Obama looks like a Brazilian’. But while Obama might look like a member of the country’s football team, he certainly does not look like a member of its elite. I was in Sao Paulo to take part in a series of seminars. Every Brazilian speaker — politicians, businessmen, diplomats — was white, and so was almost every one of a group of 50 or so students from Sao Paulo University who were in the audience. It was quite striking, given that this is a country in which over half the population is black or of mixed race.
Brazil has long had a great image — all that football, music and sunshine — and is now more fashionable than ever. It has been awarded both the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016. But they have work to do on their infrastructure. The international airport in Sao Paulo, the biggest city, is a dingy mess, with broken escalators and flickering lights. It’s certainly not a patch on the sparkling South African airports that greeted football fans and freeloaders at the last World Cup. The Brazilians may have improved matters in three years’ time, but not many people I met were confident. The Brazilian World Cup might also hold other surprises. I told a colleague at the FT that if I go to the football, I would base myself in the city of Manaus, the gateway to the Amazon. It sounded romantic. But my colleague told me not to bother — apparently it’s a humid dump.
The Brazilians are getting used to their own new president. The charismatic Lula, a one-time factory hand, retired from the presidency with sky-high approval ratings. His hand-picked successor, Dilma Rousseff, his 62-year-old former chief of staff, was regarded as a bit of a bore in comparison. But her life story is every bit as interesting as Lula’s. She was a student radical in the 1960s who was arrested by the military government, imprisoned for three years and regularly tortured. One welcome consequence of her past is that she has toughened up Brazil’s approach to human rights. While Lula pursued a bizarre friendship with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, Dilma has been tougher, condemning Iran’s decision to push ahead with the stoning of a woman accused of adultery. And when she went to Argentina, she visited the ‘Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo’ — the parents of former dissidents who were ‘disappeared’ by the Argentine military. Still, Brazil’s concern for human rights only goes so far. It abstained on the UN motion authorising force in Libya, alongside Russia and China. And Germany.
Just as Obama arrived in Brazil, I headed for the United States. Rather foolishly, I had agreed to speak at yet another conference, in California, over the weekend. I had vaguely assumed that the trip would be a relatively short hop. Big mistake. It took longer to fly from Sao Paulo to San Francisco than from the UK to Brazil. So I have learned a valuable lesson in geography. Brazil really is a very big country. The whole conference circuit is slightly bizarre, anyway. At times, it feels like the same group of people, circumnavigating the globe and then re-assembling in posh hotels in different parts of the world. The first person I bumped into at the hotel in Brazil was Peter Mandelson. In California, the keynote speaker at the World Affairs Council meeting was Fareed Zakaria, who I had last met in Davos. The ratio of speaking to travelling time also doesn’t make much sense. It took me 14 hours to fly from Brazil to the US. When I checked into the St Regis Hotel, I found a little note reminding me to ‘restrict your opening comments to no more than ten minutes’. Oh well, it could be worse. I could be in Tokyo or Benghazi.