By ROGER COHEN
SÃO PAULO, Brazil
Juan Bautista Alberdi, an Argentine constitutionalist and liberal, noted in 1837 that “Nations, like men, do not have wings; they make their journeys on foot, step by step.”
Latin America, long susceptible to the utopian mirages of revolutionaries and caudillos and still not immune to them, has struggled to absorb this truth. But, as Michael Reid observes in his new book, “Forgotten Continent,” durable mass democracies have emerged across the region.
In recent years, these democracies have rolled the dice with an extraordinary variety of leaders, including Michelle Bachelet in Chile; Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the metalworker who rose to govern Brazil; and Venezuela’s barracks-bred Hugo Chávez.
The results have been uneven. Chávez has tested everyone’s patience with oil-fueled bluster about winged Socialist revolution. But step by prosaic step, the continent has moved toward open societies and the global economy.
This progress has come despite gross income disparities, which have made cities like São Paulo labyrinths of riches and ruin. Lula’s unlikely rise reflected the hope that these social chasms could be bridged, just as the early success of Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee reflects a society hungry for change and tired of hedge-fund titans skirting the taxes ordinary folks pay.
As they journey on foot, nations also dream. Democracies are inventive and averse to entitlement. Their imperfections are manifold, but so are their self-renewing mechanisms. They demand hope. The dynamic, over time, trumps the dynastic.
The Brazilian journey has often faltered, giving rise to the nostrum that this was a country with a great future condemned to its eternal contemplation. Annual murder figures in the tens of thousands testify to enduring social problems. Tom Jobim, who composed “The Girl From Ipanema,” noted that Brazil is not for beginners.
Still, as Lula has intuited with his astute pragmatism — is anyone else a friend of both Chávez and President Bush? — the tide is flowing this country’s way. Brazil’s future is now. There are five reasons: land, raw materials, energy, the environment and China.
Vastness defines Brazil; the agricultural use of its territory is nowhere near exhaustion. Already the world’s largest exporter of coffee, beef, sugar and orange juice, it is fast increasing exports of other foodstuffs, including chicken ($4.2 billion worth in 2007, up from $2.9 billion in 2006) and soya. More than 220 million acres — an area greater than that currently under cultivation — remain unexploited outside rain forests.
Another fast-rising export is iron ore. China, which is investing heavily here, wants all it can get, just as it wants food (as does India) and energy. Brazil has an abundance of the latter, and could have much more.
Set aside for a moment Brazil’s vast hydroelectric resources and its recent discovery of a huge deepwater oil field off the southeastern coast.
What will count over the long term is its world leadership in plant-based fuels, particularly ethanol from sugar cane, which produces eight times as much energy per hectare as the corn from which most U.S. ethanol is made. Combine that with near limitless farmland, and Brazil’s important future-to-present shift comes into focus.
As Reid writes, “If China was becoming the world’s workshop and India its back office, Brazil is its farm — and potentially its center of environmental services.”
The country’s leadership in nonfossil fuels and the unparalleled biodiversity of its Amazon rain forest make it a natural leader in the 21st-century struggle with global warming.
None of the above would be significant if Brazil were unstable. But like most of the continent, it has become more predictable. China has realized this and is rapidly developing its commercial relations with Brazil and other Latin American countries. The United States has also pursued a range of free-trade agreements, with uneven results.
Over all, however, the continent has been left with a sense of U.S. neglect, sharpened by Bush’s unfulfilled pre-9/11 promise of a new focus that would reflect the presence of more than 40 million Latinos in the U.S. The next president should make looking south a priority, with Brazil as pivot for intensified engagement.
Latin America’s transformation in recent decades has been underestimated. It has been political and economic but also cultural. Deep prejudices against indigenous, mestizo and mulatto populations have been confronted and, if not defeated, undermined. In historical terms, this has been a time of empowerment for the dark-skinned.
The Americas are changing and, despite the anti-Yanqui rhetoric of Chávez, becoming — step by step — more one.