Brazil is the Country of the Future

And It Always Will Be.
Human Ant Farm

His Roots Go Back To Mesopotamia

July 24, 2001

FOZ DO IGUAÇU, BRAZIL --- Three men huddled on the sidewalk, sipping coffee under the hot Brazilian sun. I was lost in this in this tiny frontier town, and needed help.

"Where can I find a cyber café?" I asked one of the men in broken Portuguese. Without lifting the cup of cafezinho from his lips, he pointed to the sign in a nearby storefront, which read: "CAFÉ — PIZZA —INTERNET."

I had landed in Brazil a week earlier to photograph a famous heart surgeon who operates in nearby Curitiba. After one week, I needed to access an on-line diary that I designed to describe my experiences on assignment in Brazil.

I walked up the three narrow cement steps that led into the store, and told the dark-skinned woman at the cash register that I would like to use a computer. She smiled, then asked me to follow her.

She led me toward the back of the building, and as we walked, I looked around and could see neither café nor pizza. When we reached a small room in the back, however, I saw the Internet. There were about six computers, all rescued from some prehistoric tech-age. The woman pointed to one machine, pulled up a chair, and told me that it would cost seven reais per hour.

Shortly after I began to type, I heard rain start to fall upon the corrugated tin roof. I had once heard someone warn that rain usually causes the Internet to fail in Brazil, so I typed faster.

The Internet problems are not a result of faulty computers, but the exposed telephone lines that carry the signal. Once drenched in a downpour, the wet wires can no longer carry the signal that e-mail requires. It is somewhat ironic that something as high-tech as a computer could be thwarted by something as basic as a wet phone line. As the rains fell harder, I typed faster, finished my e-mail and hit the "send" button. Moments later, the connection failed, bringing my session to a halt.

I walked up to the front desk to pay for my rain-shortened session. As I waited in line for another customer to pay for his Internet use, the cashier called to the café's owner, asking for change to break the customer's large bill.

The café's owner, Mr. Choucky Annahas, hurried across the room to the cashier. He not only had change, he seemed to carry a small currency exchange station in his wallet, which bulged at the seams with Brazilian reais, Argentinean pesos, Paraguayan guarani, and American dollars. After he had flipped through the thick wad of bills to the section with Brazilian currency, he pulled out a few bills and handed them to the cashier. Then he dropped his wallet into this back pocket, where it fell like a small brick.

I said hello to Mr. Annahas, and he looked at me with a bit of surprise and amusement to encounter an American in this far off corner of Brazil. I think he liked the chance to speak in English, for after a few minutes he told me to call him simply "Annahas," and shared the ins and outs of running a cyber café in this backwater town. He told me he was on his way to Paraguay to buy some produce in the open market, and invited me along.

Annahas is a small, rotund, unassuming man with a shock of gray hair. He gives off the concerned air of a guinea pig, his face stamped with fear as though a larger animal were tracking him, about to devour him for dinner.

Before we left for Paraguay, he needed to stop by the bakery that he owns a few blocks from the Internet café. He parked in front of the bakery, then hurried inside while I waited in the car. He emerged a minute later, a plastic bag containing round loaves of Syrian bread in one hand. As he approached the car, I noticed how his short arms swung busily by his sides.

As we began our drive, Annahas explained that he was born in Syria and learned about business while growing up the son of a merchant in the marketplaces of Manama and Doha. He told me that this little corner of the South America is a great place to do business, because here Brazil shares a border with both Argentina and Paraguay, making for easy trade.

We drove a few miles until we reached the Amizade Bridge that connects Brazil to Paraguay. When we arrived at the bridge, the traffic slowed to a crawl.

The bridge was like a human ant farm, bustling with activity. Every morning a stream of cars, buses, motorcycles and people on foot travel back and forth across the bridge. Our car moved so slowly that people of foot began to surpass us, walking between cars toting goats, horses, cattle, and the occasional child. A few women walked by with heavy bundles on their backs. As we sat in the car, children walked up to my window offering Chicklets, oranges, and music boxes.

"Today gasoline is less expensive in Paraguay than in Brazil," Annahas said, as he looked at the other cars on the road. "You can tell by the hordes of Brazilian motorists that have begun to cross the bridge to Paraguay. These people will drive their cars and trucks to Paraguay, fill up their tanks with gas, return to Brazil to siphon out their tanks and sell the fuel for a profit, before returning to Paraguay, again and again until dusk."

This buying and selling occurs with every consumable product, Annahas said. If a person can figure out how to earn a real, peso, or dollar by finding a discrepancy between the value of something in Brazil and Paraguay, they will be on this bridge, a testament to the proof that the free market moves people with a pull as powerful as gravity.

Annahas told me that just as some people buy gasoline in one country and sell it in another to take advantage of price discrepancies, some men do nothing but buy and sell currency all day long, to take advantage of different exchange rates between Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay.

We traveled to Paraguay to buy tomatoes and bananas for the grocery store that Annahas operates in Foz do Iguaçu, because he says that the Chinese grow the best tomatoes in South America. In addition to the Internet café, the Syrian bread bakery and his grocery store, Annahas also owns a large piece of land in Paraguay that's covered with cattle. He seems to be a South American version of Warren Buffett, owning a variety of different businesses that generate steady income.

Annahas pointed to a woman a short distance from our car as she carried a large bundle of cardboard boxes on her shoulders, all tied together with twine. "Watch this," Annahas told me, and I observed as this woman hobbled along, hunched under the immense weight. She then walked toward the side of the bridge and dumped her cargo into the river below.

"Look down there," he said, gesturing to the water below. We watched as the two men paddled over to the spot where the boxes had plunged into the Paraguay River. One man paddled with an oar, the other with his hand. "Those boxes are full of cigarettes, and the customs agents at the end of the bridge will not let them across," he said. "Cigarettes are very cheap in Paraguay, much more expensive in Brazil, so they will make a good profit selling them on the black market in Brazil," he said. As we sat in the car we saw the men pull the boxes into their boat and begin to paddle to the Brazilian side of the river.

Although a customs station sits at the Paraguayan side of the bridge, the customs officers did not stop many cars, nor inspect many packages. They might stop a caravan of obvious smugglers, but the slow, steady traffic across the bridge passes unhindered.

There seems to be an understanding that people have the right to figure out how they will make some money. Down and dirty, this is the free market in action.

The Brazilian Jeitinho

The word jeitinho (pronounced zhay-cheen-yo) is a commonly used expression in Portuguese that describes the Brazilian knack for finding a way over an obstacle, around a problem, or out of a jam.

Brazilians use the jeitinho to get what they want, as evidenced by the woman shoving the cartons of cigarettes into the river to smuggle onto the black market. The endless stream of drivers fueling their cars in Paraguay and selling the gas in Brazil is another example of the jeitinho at work.

A woman in São Paulo told me that she knew of a cake that had sat in the glass case at a bakery for an entire week without being sold. It became stale and the frosting hardened and lost its luster. The owner of the bakery scraped the old frosting off, re-iced the cake, and put it back on the counter to be sold during the coming week. In a display of the truly industrious Brazilian spirit, the bakery owner used the jeitinho to avoid throwing away an old cake.

There are a lot of problems in Brazil, as in any country. But Brazilians seem to admit to being lazy, and rarely face a problem head on, because they're always looking for an easy way out. I wonder if the sneaky, crafty jeitinho is the cause of some of Brazil's problems, or just a way to survive in a less than perfect country.

Brazil is the Country of the Future and it Always Will Be

There's a saying the pops up in conversation every once in a while when Brazilians are discussing politics or economics. With an ironic smile they say, "Brazil is the country of the future and it always will be." What does this country know about itself that the rest of the world doesn't?

Brazil is an enigma to the outside world, as it is hard to know if Brazil's cup is half full or half empty. The country has an abundance of natural resources --- diamonds, gold, agriculture, petrochemicals --- and an enormous workforce, yet it struggles to keep its head above water in the world economy.

Brazil is like a baseball player with boundless potential. He has strength, power, speed, agility, yet he never makes it to the big leagues. Why? Brazilians have been asking themselves this question for years, and they often agree the corruption is to blame.

When I asked Annahas why Brazil experiences such poverty, inflation and economic instability, he said, "In one word, corruption." To illustrate his point, he said, "Let's say that we need a bigger bridge because of all of this traffic. The cost would be very high, say $10 million reais. Well, the government would collect taxes for two years, there would be big plans to construct this bridge, and then it would never be built. The money disappears, and no one knows where it went."

A French expatriate who had lived in Brazil for several years told me that Brazil's problem is not corruption, but the inefficiency of its corruption. "Corruption is a part of every country, even successful ones like the U.S., Japan or Chilé," he said. "In these countries, you know who you need to go to with your money and what you have to pay to get what you want.

"Brazil is so disorganized and inefficient in its corruption, you might have to bribe one police officer and then another and still you have not reached the right guy," he said. "Or you pay off one corrupt judge, or a politician, and there's absolutely nothing done on your behalf. Sometimes you have to bribe someone once, and then bribe the same person again," he said.

His Roots Go Back to Mesopotamia

Finally the traffic let up and before long we had crossed the bridge and arrived in Punta del Este, Paraguay. There was no grand reception when we arrived, no welcoming party. In fact, it looked a lot like the Brazilian side. Until we drive down a narrow street, and took a few turns. Suddenly the road widened and we have arrived at a full-fledged market, an open-air bazaar.

This bazaar was like the place I had read about in stories and seen in action movie chase scenes, filled with fruit carts, children, animals and clothing.

Our first stop was at a large produce stand where a dozen Chinese people --- all speaking fluent Spanish --- ran about with crates full of fruit. Annahas said hello and gave the loaf of Syrian bread from his bakery to a man who appeared to be the produce stand owner, who appeared both pleased and surprised.

After Annahas inspected the tomatoes, he bought a few crates and they were quickly loaded into our car by a group of young men. Annahas speaks not only Portuguese and English fluently, but he also speaks Spanish. In the car I had heard him speaking with his son on his cell phone in German. The more time I spent with Annahas, the more I understood his worldliness.

Annahas' success in South American markets is most likely a result of his growing up amid the marketplaces of the Middle East. As a child, he learned about commerce by watching his father, a merchant, who spent his days buying and selling along the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in fertile Mesopotamia.

Annahas in the Paraguayan marketplace. ©1999 Jeffrey Luke

We passed a large store that sold televisions, video cameras, and other high-end goods. At the front door stood two men with large automatic weapons. I had noticed a few other men with large guns walking about the market, so I asked Annahas if robbery would be a problem if these men with guns were absent, or if their presence is a preventative measure. He responded quickly: "That's the same question looked at from different angles."

I sensed that Annahas was a bit of fish out of water. Although he can deal in the South American marketplace, he is not truly at home here. "If you go to the markets of Manama, in Bahrain, or Doha, in Qatar, you will see the origins of the Paraguayan market," he said. "But in those countries, there is no need for weapons. In the Middle East, people know how to treat each other in the market."

As we drove through the dirty streets, people constantly walked up to the car trying to sell us oranges and gum. Children tried to wash our windows, but Annahas waved them away. I looked out my window and saw a string of calabresa links hanging at a butcher's stand, sitting in the hot sun next to what appeared to be a large cow liver. Then I saw a cow head, horns still attached, sitting on a table. I had never before seen the decapitated head atop a table, and could hardly believe that someone would buy it.

After bargaining with a street vendor for crate of spinach, some eggplants, and beans, Annahas and I decided to drive back across the bridge to Brazil. The day had given me a feel for life in this corner of the world, and showed me why Annahas's wallet is packed with so many different types of currency.

As he travels across borders all day long, he wears the hats of buyer, seller, and currency exchange agent. Speaking Arabic, English, German, Portuguese, and Spanish, and carrying a thick wad of cash, Annahas' livelihood requires his fluency in tongue and fluidity in assets.

As we started our drive back to the Internet café, I wondered if corruption is really what's holding Brazil back, preventing it from realizing its potential. Maybe it is the jeitinho, the Brazilian knack for finding an easy way out. Brazilians seem to chronically avoid responsibility and take advantage of each other, always re-frosting an old cake and passing it off to someone else as new.

Some people say that Carnival is the heart of Brazil, and everything else only fills time, and others blame everything on the heat.

The only thing that seemed certain as we made our way back across the Amizade Bridge, the sun falling in the early evening sky, was that the next day people would scurry back and forth across this bridge, in the unending search for things to buy and sell.

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