Diplomatic Pouch / November 9, 2009
By Larry Luxner
Flush with pride that his native Rio de Janeiro has been chosen to host the 2016 Summer Olympics, Antonio Aguiar de Patriota is clearly bullish on Brazil — but acknowledges that his developing country still has a long way to go.
Patriota, Brazil's ambassador to the United States, spoke Oct. 15 at a lunch seminar hosted by liberal Washington think tank NDN, just a week after the International Olympic Committee, meeting in Copenhagen, awarded the games to Rio.
Patriota noted that President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is hugely popular not only for raising Brazil's profile abroad but also for slashing poverty and creating millions of jobs at home. He also said that in the face of a global recession, the Brazilian economy has held up surprisingly well.
"Brazil was one of the last countries to be affected by the global economic downturn, and in all likelihood will be one of the first to come out of it," said Patriota, who will soon be stepping down as ambassador after three years. An impeccable English speaker, the veteran diplomat is likely to become Lula's deputy foreign minister, serving directly under Foreign Minister Celso Amorim.
Patriota, whose previous postings include Geneva, Caracas, New York and Beijing, said that today, 100 percent of Brazil's embassies worldwide are now headed by career foreign service officers rather than political appointees — a rarity in the world of diplomacy.
"We have opened 50 new diplomatic missions in the past seven years, most of them in Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia," he said, "and we will be one of the first countries in the hemisphere to have a standing embassy in every country in the Americas."
Patriota, predicting that his country will enjoy growth of 1.9 percent this year and at least 4.5 percent growth in 2010, praised the "natural affinity" between Lula and President Obama, who have met each other several times on the sidelines of major international events — most recently at the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh.
"Obama has joked that he looks a little Brazilian, and that he'd go unnoticed on the streets of Copacabana," Patriota said to laughter in the audience. "He also knows how to bodysurf, which is something we all learn at an early age."
Patriota said Brazil's newfound sense of optimism is due in part to the heavy investment in biofuels and ethanol, along with the discovery of enormous crude-oil discoveries off the shores of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo states. The could soon make Brazil a net petroleum exporter.
"Of all the BRIC countries [Brazil, Russia, India and China], we'll be the only one self-sufficient in energy, food production and water," he said. "We have the cleanest energy matrix among the BRICs, with 43 to 45 percent of our energy needs being covered by renewable sources. That compares with an average of 12 to 13 percent for the member nations of the OECD [Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development].
Furthermore, trade has been on the upswing, he said. Today, Brazil's total exports exceed $200 billion a year, Bilateral trade with the United States is a record $53 billion, with U.S. imports growing by 170 percent in the last five years.
"We see extraordinary possibilities for developing closer relations with the U.S. during the Obama administration. There is great admiration in Brazil for many of the initiatives he's already taken," he told NDN.
"All this has happened in a context of reducing inequality, with tens of millions of Brazilians rising from poverty into the middle class. Today, 52 percent of Brazil's population can be described as middle-class. Employment has been soaring. This year, it's expected that a million new jobs will be created."
The ambassador proudly discussed Brazil's most recent initiatives in Africa, "which range from improving health-care in São Tomé and Mozambique, to creating an ethanol industry in countries such as Senegal that produce sugar-cane."
Patriota acknowledged that violent crime in Brazil's major cities has tarnished the country's image. Only three days after his speech at NDN, in fact, a major gun battle erupted in Morro dos Macacos one of Rio's worst favelas — leaving 14 people dead, including two police officers aboard a helicopter. Nearly 2,000 police operatives were involved in the explosion of violence, which took place not far from the world-famous Maracanã soccer stadium — one of the venues for the 2014 World Cup.
In his speech, Patriota didn't dwell on his native city's problems, instead explaining how Rio de Janeiro must build one million apartment units for its inhabitants and construct thousands of new hotel rooms to accommodate the Olympic crowds come 2016.
"In 10 or 20 years," he predicted enthusiastically, "Rio will no longer be known for its shantytowns and crime."