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The Economist’s recent Brazil report started a huge debate that in Brazil at least centered on criticism of both the report’s style (the flashy cover) and its substance (impeccable reporting and reasoned analysis that dared to suggest Brazil is far from perfect).

The magazine asked “Has Brazil Blown It?”and over 14 pages wrote about where Brazil is doing things right (agriculture, social policy) and where it is doing things wrong (education, infrastructure, politics).

I’ve lived in Brazil for more than a decade, and written about it for dozens of magazines and newspapers and I long ago realized that if you write 10 nice things about Brazil and one not-so-nice thing Brazilians and Brazil-lovers will seize on the not-so-nice thing and presume you hate their country.

The Economist Brazil covers from 2009 and 2013

The Economist Brazil covers from 2009 and 2013

It’s a sign of Brazil’s immaturity and lack of engagement with the wider world as well as an indication of how passionately people (including expat residents) feel about the place.

For far too many Brazilians and Brazil-lovers, pointing out that there’s too much corruption, or red tape, or that the judicial system only works for the rich, or that the banks are nothing short of thieves means you hate Brazil.

Because in Brazil, if you criticize something it means you’re against it.

I think the opposite is true.

Here’s my question for all those who think there’s a conspiracy against Brazil:

Who loves Brazil more? A corrupt Congressman who siphons off money that should be going to schools and hospitals? A young businessman whose drink driving kills an old age pensioner out walking her dog? A banker charging interest rates of 238% a year?

Or the person who denounces the corrupt Congressman, the young businessman whose drink driving kills and the banking system that allows bankers to rob (and stunt growth and investment) with their criminal bank charges?

To criticize doesn’t mean to hate. Sometimes it means exactly the opposite.

DilmaPresident Dilma Rousseff today once again said Brazil needs to become more competitive, improve its infrastructure and cut down on red tape.

“Our country has to change, and change in the direction of greater competitiveness,” she said, according to this Reuters story. (And more here in Portuguese.)

I’d feel a lot more supportive of Dilma if there seemed to be any real action behind those rousing and sensible words.

Brazilians still pay more taxes than anyone in the developing world and the government hasn’t made any real attempt to cut them. Dilma has at least tried to encourage the private sector to get involved in building infrastructure. It’s still way too little, but it’s something.

And as for cutting bureaucracy, nothing meaningful has been done. Chile, for example, announced this week it would allow people to open a business in one working day. In Brazil it takes 119 days, according to this World Bank report.

Talk is cheap and action speaks louder than words. Brazil needs more of the former and more of the latter.

The offending article

Just when you thought Brazilian laws couldn’t get any more backwards, another bit of needless bureaucracy leaves you not knowing whether to laugh or cry.

I bought a bottle of wine at the weekend in Pao de Acucar, my local supermarket. Over the years I’ve bought hundreds of bottle of wine, vodka, beer and rum at the same supermarket.

This time, though, I had to register.

REGISTER. Not just show ID – but register.

Like you have to do in the US to buy the kinds of fertilizer used to make bombs. Like you have to do in Scotland to buy certain kinds of hard drugs.

No matter that it was a bottle of wine, 13 % volume.

No matter that I am 45 years old.

No matter that it was a quiet Saturday lunchtime.

I still had to provide them with my personal data that they put on their central computer.

Sometimes Brazil beggars belief.

Every time I write stories about Brazil’s elevation to becoming a world player I am painfully aware of the other Brazil, the backward, bureaucratic, unchanging nation that remains stuck in the last century.

Today was one of those days and it involves HSBC, one of the world’s most modern and interconnected banks.

HSBC has been badgering me to open an account with them. So I took over the documents they require; my passport, my tax number, and some bills confirming my home address.

Photo by Steve Rhode

I was finally told today that the head office can’t authorise a new account without confirmation of my parents’ names.

The one Brazilian document containing that information is currently with the Federal Police and it will take them up to six months to give me a new one.

That information was apparently too complex for anyone at HSBC to understand. So after asking me to open an account with them, and pre-approving me, they apologised and said come back when you can prove your (late) mother is Isobel and your father is Fred.

HSBC can learn exactly nothing from having my parents’ names. (Which I gladly gave them, they just don’t trust me not to lie about it.)

No one in the UK or the US has to provide their parents’ names to open an account. So why in Brazil? Isn’t HSBC supposed to be the world’s bank, creating opportunities across the globe? (See ironic pic above.)

There are few clearer examples of the conflict between the new, forward-looking Brazil that has risen to become the world’s sixth biggest economy and a major international player, and the stunted, self-defeating nation of unthinking apparatchiks.

Sometimes I marvel at how far Brazil has come. But just as often I despair at how far it has to go.

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