MARÍLIA Sardenberg Zelner Gonçalves remembers the times as a diplomat in her country’s Foreign Affairs Ministry when she was fearful of talking to journalists because she would have risked losing her job. That was in the 1970s, when Brazil was in the grip of a dictatorship. But now, more than 20 years later, Zelner Gonçalves, the Brazilian Ambassador to Slovakia, speaks freely and very optimistically about her homeland – explaining that Brazil, often described in the past as a “sleeping giant in a cradle”, has now become an important player in the global economy and a strong partner among democratic nations.
“We used to be invited to international meetings before, but as our President Lula used to say, ‘they invited us just to dessert’ and we arrived after everything was decided,” Zelner Gonçalves explained. “Now we are invited to participate at the dinner and to talk, give our opinions and influence decisions; and this is what we want to do. It is like a new personality Brazil has; but we have not forgotten that we still have many problems.”
The Slovak Spectator spoke to Zelner Gonçalves about the immense changes in her nation over the past two decades as well as the challenges Brazil still faces, and about the links that connect a giant country like Brazil with a much smaller country like Slovakia.
The Slovak Spectator (TSS): Over the past decade nearly 30 million Brazilians entered the middle class, which now accounts for more than half of the population. What empowered the rise of the Brazilian middle class and what challenges has this brought?
Marília Sardenberg Zelner Gonçalves (MZG): Brazil, being a huge country, was a land of sharp social contrasts. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva [Brazil's president from 2003 to 2009], who himself came from a poor social background, made reduction of poverty, hunger and inequality his priority and came up with public policies to address them. One of the successful programmes was called Zero Hunger and Lula enjoyed wide-scale support, not only from the socially weak but also from the middle class and the rich because all of society acknowledged the impacts of inequality and thought that Brazil had to overcome it if it was to become a great nation. Today, one of the Lula-improved social programmes, the so-called “family basket” covers 30 million families. This wasn’t, however, unconditional financial help for poor families but rather a direct transfer of income with conditionality, such as sending the kids to school and following basic health recommendations, including vaccination, while making sure the children were not on the streets. Then the administration changed the system in a way that financial support flowed through the mothers rather than the fathers, which was the previous practice. The Lula government also fought against racism since Brazil’s large population of citizens of African descent had weaker access to benefits. The idea was not to just give money to people so that they could eat, the conditions that were set were very important in order to integrate these groups into the wider process of development in the country. The health-care system also underwent a reform that extended social protection and changes to the labour market. Thanks to the reforms and social policies, about 20 million people were elevated from extreme poverty to the level of poverty and then 30 million from the level of poverty to the middle class. President Dilma Roussef, the first female president of Brazil, has already committed to maintain the successful social programmes and even to expand them.
What is happening is that people are starting to be conscious of their rights and to be more demanding for things that they are able to afford. They are starting to demand better education and a better health system; they want more opportunities to have leisure and to travel abroad as tourists. And we started to have a whole change of perception among the middle class.
TSS: Was the education system able to meet this demand for better education? What are the main challenges within Brazil’s education system?
MZG: When I started to work with children’s rights, our main concern was to put each Brazilian child in school. We have managed to get 98 percent of the 60 million children into elementary schools but we didn’t have secondary schools that were prepared to receive this crowd of new students. So we are having a serious crisis in this area: we lack technical education even though we have good universities and elementary schools. When I arrived here in Slovakia I identified the area of technical and professional training as one of the fields where our countries could cooperate, since we would benefit very much from your experiences in this area.
TSS: Brazil’s unemployment rate last November dropped to a record low of 5.2 percent. What steps has the country taken to deal with unemployment?
MZG: The huge new middle class created a very large and vibrant internal market. This is one of the reasons why we survived the crisis so well, because industry has to work to meet these domestic demands. Also the government made considerable efforts to address the issue of the ‘informal economy’ and to legalise the status of workers in Brazil. This, of course, impacted on and expanded the system of social contributions. We continue in this direction. Now we are passing new legislation to protect domestic work. Nevertheless, we do have problems with the lack of qualified labour, especially with the newest technologies and developing industries. If you have a booming economy, which we do, you need even more qualified people. We are actually seeing qualified workers coming from Europe.
TSS: Brazil has the Amazon rainforest, with the largest biodiversity in the world, home to 13 percent of all species. Deforestation of the rainforest is a major environmental challenge. How is Brazil addressing this and what are the most important changes over the past couple of years?
MZG: The Amazon rainforest is one of the richest biological areas and it has been affected by both legal and illegal activities due to its treasures. In the late 1990s Brazil created a system of permanent monitoring of the borders of the Amazon (SIVAM) along with satellite monitoring (LandSat) and this has improved the control of all activities in the region.
It is important to note that large, developed nations grew at a time when the concept of sustainable development did not exist. As Brazil is experiencing its growth it has been facing the question: are we going to develop without touching on the Amazon? I do not think it is feasible. But we do realise that there is a richness there that must be protected. We have already achieved a reduction of 60 percent in actions leading to deforestation between 2004 and 2007. We have opted for a model of development which is not purely economic, but rather one which integrates the economic, social and ecological aspects. It’s not perfect yet; I am not going to tell you that there is no deforestation at present.
But we are aware and we are dealing with the issue. Rio de Janeiro will host the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, called the Rio+20, this June that will bring about 50,000 people to the city of Rio 20 years after the concept of sustainable development was first adopted by the Rio 92 Conference. In this international meeting, Brazil will prioritise the ecological approach, the ‘green economy’. And the Amazon, of course, is high on this agenda. We want the green economy to mean sustainable development; that is, to change the way the economy operates while the social and ecological aspects are strongly considered.
TSS: Brazil is the sixth biggest economy in the world and has about 200 million citizens in comparison with Slovakia with its population of about 5.5 million. What do two countries of such different size, divided by an ocean, offer each other in the way of cooperation?
MZG: This is one of the areas in which I have worked for the last three years and I still must recognise that we aren’t there yet. Our cooperation and our relations are still not what they could be and much more can be done. There is certainly a big potential. We have a lot in common: we have the same values and wish to improve our democracy. I think one of the primary problems is the lack of mutual knowledge. There is not much knowledge about Brazil here and about Slovakia in Brazil. I don’t think cooperation is a matter of size; rather it’s a matter of working on developing more common knowledge and interests.
We have a good structure of agreements but some of them need to be updated and expanded. We have an agreement on diplomatic consultations but it has to be inaugurated. Since I arrived in Slovakia, we have finalised an agreement on the training of diplomats (we have a very traditional and well-known diplomatic academy in Brazil) and one in the area of economic cooperation. We also have agreements in education, culture, and science and technology that were established in the time of Czechoslovakia so we are negotiating new and more up-to-date agreements. We are also negotiating an agreement for spouses of diplomats and officers to be able to work here and Slovak family members to work in Brazil.
Generally, the Brazilian approach to cooperation is taking the ‘doing-together approach’. It’s not like a donation that you give to a country and then you attach some conditions. We are aware that Slovakia has good experience in the heavy machine industry and cooperation would be beneficial in this area, including the automotive industry. Brazil has strong experience in agricultural research, including the areas of clean energy and bio-diesel.
In the area of education, Brazil is now launching a big fellowship programme called ‘Science without Borders’ and we have already sent all the information to the Slovak government and we think it could work out. Right now we only have exchange students on a very limited basis due to the language barrier: Brazilians do not speak Slovak and Slovaks do not speak Portuguese. But then this is changing and many Brazilians who live here speak good Slovak.
TSS: How do Brazilian investors view Slovakia as an investment location? What advantages or disadvantages might Brazilian investors see when considering Slovakia?
MZG: Slovakia has many advantages such as political stability and your government is looking to improve democracy and is fighting against corruption. Then there is the strategic location factor: I have spoken with major Brazilian enterprises since my arrival here, and they tell me that when you think about Slovakia as part of the broader region, it becomes really interesting. Slovakia could become the entry point for Brazilian manufactured products to this whole part of Europe.
The pharmaceutical industry is another area which could be interesting for cooperation. Production of generic drugs is booming in Brazil and we are home for several significant institutions for biological and medical research. We manufacture vaccines and have a huge programme for free AIDS treatment. So, there are many areas where it could be interesting to establish cooperation. We do face some shared challenges: establishing stronger links between academia and businesses so that universities match the market’s demands. Another area is the development of micro as well as small and medium-sized enterprises. The whole process is developing here, I think it’s good to have input when you start.
TSS: How do you assess the knowledge or awareness of Slovaks of your country? Also, since culture is one of the best tools of diplomacy, how open do you think Slovaks are to Brazilian culture?
MZG: When I talk about Brazil, I always say that there is a tendency to establish stereotypes. These stereotypes must be challenged. They say “Brazil is the land for samba, beaches, beautiful women, Carnival and soccer”. All these things are there, of course, but it’s not only this, it is much more than that... When I came to Slovakia, I was surprised that many people – even some governmental officials – did not really know Brazil as an important developing country. Of course, we have had relations with Slovakia since the split of Czechoslovakia in 1993, but the issues were first handled from the Embassy in Prague, and then from the Embassy in Vienna from 1996. When I was sent here to Slovakia in 2008, this was a political decision by the Brazilian government. I came to open the embassy but my mission wasn’t to establish relations but rather to strengthen, to amplify and to expand bilateral relations. In a few words, I came to create more visibility for Brazil.
Brazil is a very open country. We are tolerant, we are informal. We tend to accept differences. We are easygoing. There is also a strong sense of enjoying life. I think we have this kind of gift – people are working hard, are engaged, but they don’t forget that you also must have fun. And that you have to be happy. Maybe that’s why so many foreigners like Brazil: they come to Brazil and a few days later, they feel relaxed, they feel happy.
We are considered a big exporter of culture, especially because Brazil has been a melting pot of cultures and traditions throughout our history. Diversity is the word to describe it. Our arts, crafts and popular music reflect all the various influences in our land over the centuries. The Portuguese and African influences are evident but then during the 18th and 19th centuries we had strong immigration from Europe (mainly Germans, Italians and Polish). Also from the Middle East and from Japan: we probably have more Lebanese living in Brazil than living in Lebanon. We also have the biggest Japanese community outside Japan.
I was happy to see that Slovakia also has very diverse culture and this is translated into music, art and all kinds of culture. There is also huge interest in Brazilian art here in Slovakia. For example, capoeira [a Brazilian martial art] is now a part of the Slovak landscape. There are four academies and I have been present at many capoeira events, some with more than 200 students of capoeira. This really represents complete integration of part of our culture into Slovakian cultural life.
TSS: Brazil is already preparing for the 2014 World Cup in football and the 2016 Summer Olympic Games. What is the significance of these events for your country?
MZG: We are trying to ensure that these are not going to be only sporting events. Sports in Brazil are a very strong tool for integration of all levels of society: everybody loves sports in the country, poor, rich or middle class. For us, it will be a Decade of Sports: in 2011, we had the Military Games (Slovakia was present); in 2013, we have the Paralympics Games; in 2014, it is the football World Cup (in the capitals of the 12 states of Brazil); and in 2016, we will host the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. We are trying to bring something important to people from these events beyond just the sport itself: they have to bring a social impact; they have to represent an improvement in the quality of life of Brazilian people as a whole.