Book review: “The New Brazil” by Riordan Roett
Book review: The New Brazil. By Riordan Roett. Brookings Institutions Press, 2011. 178 pages. $19.79 (kindle, amazon.com)
In this concise and very accessible book, Riordan Roett, one of the United States' leading Brazil scholars, provides a brief overview of Brazil's history and then comments, with some more detail, on political developments during the last five years. After providing some geopolitical context in the introduction, Roett quickly moves from Brazil's colonial experience five hundred years ago to the present, spending little more than a few pages to key episodes such as the Portuguese royal family's arrival in Brazil in 1808, independence in 1822, the abolition of slavery in 1888 and the end of the empire in 1889. The Old Republic, Getulio Vargas, the Estado Novo and the 1946 are summarized in a wikipedia-like fashion, and throughout the reader longs to hear fewer facts but more 'big picture analysis' that Roett is certainly capable of.
Since the book offers virtually no original interpretation of the (carefully researched and throughout adequate) facts, it is not recommendable for Brazil scholars, who are unlikely to find any new information. Rather, Roett's work is an ideal for curious visitors to Brazil who long for a bit more detailed information that the Lonely Planet's Brazil Travel Guide provides. With its 150 pages, the book can be easily from cover to cover during an intercontinental flight to São Paulo or Rio de Janeiro. In the same way, it may be useful as introductory reading for an undergraduate or graduate course on Latin America, although more detailed accounts such as Boris Fausto's Concise History of Brazil are probably more useful.
In several instances, Roett's analysis raises questions the author does not sufficiently address. For example, he continuously refers to 1994 as a 'turnaround', referring to President Cardoso's capacity to reform and open up Brazil's economy and contain inflation, achievements accompanied by unprecedented political stability. Yet he also acknowledges that in many ways Cardoso's Real Plan was comparable to previous anti-inflationary measures, and that his strategy of opening up the economy and reducing the role of the state was in many ways a continuation of President Collor's policies.
The final part of the book shows how quickly Brazil has risen to international stardom. Roett cites a 2003 Goldman Sachs report which predicts that Brazil's GDP will overtake that of Great Britain in 2036 - something that happened in late 2011 already. While in the 1990s Brazilian banks seemed unlikely to turn into global players anytime soon, in 2009 three of the world's top ten banks in terms of market capitalization were Brazilian.
Roett's analysis of regional integration seems somewhat superficial. He writes that "the hope of the members is that UNASUR will evolve, over time, into a EU-like South American Union", yet there is ample evidence that Brazil has little interest in bearing the cost of regional integration. Similarly, when speaking about Brazil- EU ties, Roett heavily relies on summit declarations, which often provide an incomplete impression.
Finally, it would be interesting to hear Roett's thoughts on the challenges Brazil is likely to face over the next decades - such as a potential regional backlash against Brazil's rise, growing security responsibilities in the South Atlantic, and the increasing necessity to take a clear stand on complex issues such as humanitarian intervention.