"It's so good to see my country more known abroad, more respected," says Tatiana. "I feel proud to say I'm from Brazil. 'Olympic town' is such a strong adjective, don't you think?"
Her pride in Brazil's selection was echoed across the country, as thousands of Brazilians poured onto the streets and beaches to celebrate. The International Olympic Committee's decision to entrust the summer games to Brazilwhich will be the first South American nation to host themseemed to confirm the nation's arrival as a serious player on the world stage.
"The Olympics are a crowning achievement in the efforts that Brazil has made to participate actively in world affairs," says Amaury de Souza, a political analyst in Rio.
With close to 200 million people, Brazil is the world's fifth most populous country and has the largest economy in South America. It has a booming agricultural sector, a diversified industrial base, and untapped natural resources, including enormous recent oil finds that are expected to thrust Brazil into the ranks of the world's oil powers in the years ahead.
A Growing Middle Class
Economists say Brazil is now poised to realize its potential as a global player. The growth is being felt across the economy, creating a new class of super richin 2007, the number of Brazilian millionaires grew by 19 percentbut also significantly expanding the middle class.
Long famous for its unequal distribution of wealth, Brazil's income gapthe gap between rich and poorhas shrunk more than any other country in South America this decade, according to the World Bank. While the top 10 percent of Brazil's earners saw their cumulative income rise by 7 percent from 2001 to 2006, the bottom 10 percent shot up by 58 percent, according to the Getulio Vargas Foundation in Rio.
People are using their new wealth to buy consumer goods like TVs, refrigerators, and furniture, and this consumer spending is fueling even more economic growth.
As the United States and Europe struggle with recession, Brazil's diversified economy seems to be holding up better. Even though exports of commodities like oil and agricultural goods have driven much of Brazil's recent economic gains, the growth of Brazil's domestic market and its increased spending power has provided something of a cushion.
"What makes Brazil more resilient is that the rest of the world matters less," says Don Hanna, the head of emerging- market economics at Citibank.
While Brazil has made great strides in recent years, challenges remain. There's still a great deal of poverty, crime is widespread, and violent gangs control large swaths of Rio de Janeiro's slums, known as favelas. In October, a firefight between rival gangs in a Rio favela left 20 people dead, and gang members shot down a police helicopter. Rio has one of the world's highest murder rates, with 4,631 homicides last year (compared with 523 in New York City).
"It will take time to resolve the problems of the gangs, organized crime, and the drug traffickers in Rio de Janeiro," President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva told reporters.
Unlike the rest of Latin America, which is primarily Spanish-speaking, Brazilians speak Portuguese, a legacy of the country's history as a Portuguese colony from 1500 until 1822, when it was declared an independent country. Before slavery was abolished in 1888, millions of Africans were brought to Brazil. Today, almost 40 percent of Brazilians are mixed-racedescendants of those slaves, European settlers, and indigenous Indians.
Like much of Latin America, Brazil has endured a good deal of political and economic turmoil. It wasn't until the 1990s that the political situation began to stabilize and the economy began to grow. President da Silva, a former auto worker with a fourth-grade education, was elected in 2002 and has helped make Brazil the economic and political leader of South America.
At first, da Silva's background as a union leader and a leftist was a concern to Brazil's neighbors and Washington. But his respect for private enterprise has calmed foreign investors and kept Brazil's economy on an even keel during the recession. Indeed, his economic achievements, along with his charisma and popularity, have helped him eclipse Venezuela's headline-grabbing President, Hugo Chávez, as the region's most influential leader.
While Chávez has been largely shunned by the United States, da Silva has met with President Obama at the White House, negotiated military deals with France, and become an important player in global climate-change discussions. (The ongoing destruction of the Amazon rain forest and Brazil's efforts to control it are critical to a number of environmental issues.) Brazil has also been on a short list for several years of countries being considered as additional permanent members of an expanded U.N. security council.
Major Energy Power
There has also been an element of luck in Brazil's recent good fortune. Petrobras, the national oil company, announced the discovery of an offshore oil field in 2007 that could hold 8 billion barrels of oil, with potentially billions more in surrounding areas.
In the next five years, Brazil could move ahead of Mexico and Canada in total oil reserves. This is heady stuff for a country that only became a net energy exporter in 2006mostly because of its aggressive development of sugar-cane ethanol and hydroelectric power.
"All of a sudden Brazil is emerging as an energy power," says Peter Hakim, president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.
At the same time, Brazil is outspending most of its neighbors on social programs that are lifting millions of Brazilians out of poverty, according to David Fleischer, a political analyst at the University of Brasília.
One program, called Bolsa Familia, gives small subsidies to millions of poor Brazilians to buy food and other essentials. Many families have used the subsidies to meet basic needs, and then apply for small loans to start businesses and get a toe-hold in the middle class. That's what 28-year-old Maria Auxiliadora Sampaio and her husband did.
The couple, who live in Fortaleza, a city of 2.4 million people, used their $30-a-month Bolsa Familia payment to support their three children. Then, in 2006, Maria Sampaio used a $200 microloan to buy nail polish and start a manicure business from her home.
Realizing a Dream
Today she is making around $70 a day. The income from her new business has allowed the couple to retile their house and buy a television and a cellphone. Recently, her husband, who works at a factory, was able to realize a dream: to buy a $780 drum set.
"I feel like we are part of this group of people that are coming up in the world," she says. "When you don't have anything, when you don't have a profession, don't have the means to live, you are no one, you are a mosquito. I was nothing. Today, I am in heaven."
(The New York Times Upfront, Vol. 142, December 14, 2009)