Brazil is immensely diverse—socially, culturally, racially, economically—and rife with profound contradictions that are not always evident at first. All this makes for a complex nation that eludes easy definitions—but is fascinating to discover.
Brazil's contrasts are everywhere. Take a look around when you land. Dense forests that are home to pint-sized monkeys and birds found nowhere else brush up against gleaming high-rises, which in turn border favelas (shantytowns). Juxtapositions of this sort can make any experience breathtaking and shocking at once.
A stroll through any Brazilian town will show you this is one of the most racially mixed populations anywhere. The country was shaped not only by the Portuguese, who brought their religion and language, but also by millions of enslaved Africans, the native indigenous, and waves of European, Arabic, and Japanese immigrants. Most Brazilians include elements from several of these backgrounds in their cultural and ethnic heritage.
Brazil never had the Jim Crow laws and institutionalized discrimination that marked the U.S., yet it is far from being a color-blind society. In spite of the recent economic boom, blacks and the indigenous still face stiff discrimination and underrepresentation in government. They also far outweigh whites at the broad base of Brazil's economic pyramid.
Brazilians are known for their warmth, their tiny bikinis, their frequent public displays of affection—it's not uncommon to see couples kissing at length on a park bench or a beach blanket—and their riotous displays of joie de vivre in annual Carnival celebrations. But the country is also home to the world's largest Catholic population, and conservative sexual mores shape the culture more than visitors might imagine.
Brazil's current president, Dilma Rouseff, is an example of how Brazil defies stereotypes. The fact that she is a woman—and twice divorced at that, currently living without a husband—was scarcely discussed during her 2010 campaign for president, even though this is a country were machismo (male chauvinism) still thrives.
Of far greater importance to voters was that she is a member of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) or Workers Party, and had the support of the immensely popular outgoing president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who has towered over the political landscape for the last decade.
Lula's story is fascinating. Born into poverty in the country's northeast, he rose to prominence in São Paulo as a union leader while the country was still under the rule of a military dictatorship that had seized power in 1964. Buoyed by his charisma and his appeal to poor Brazilians, Lula was elected to the presidency in 2003, then again to a second four-year term.
Rousseff, the no-nonsense administrator who succeeded him, has maintained similarly high approval ratings by keeping in place transfer-of-wealth policies that have helped alleviate poverty, and by cultivating the image of a leader who brooks no corruption with public money of the sort that have long been a hallmark of Brazilian politics.
After punishing years of economic instability and hyperinflation in the 1980s and 90s, Brazil's GDP began to grow along with prices and demand for the commodities that make up the base of its economy, including soybeans, sugar, iron ore, and oil.
The last decade of social progress has created real improvement in the quality of life for Brazil's new middle class. About 35 million Brazilians have hoisted themselves out of poverty in that time. Over half of the country's 194 million people now officially belong to the middle class. However, many still hover perilously close to the bottom, and many more live in neighborhoods that still don't have such services as trash collection, sewage treatment, and safety. But the improvement is real and visible.
Brazil has the world's largest Catholic population, although Roman Catholicism has been losing worshippers to Evangelical churches. These churches are booming, especially in poorer communities where it is not uncommon to see several modest storefront churches on a single street.
In religion, like in so many other aspects of Brazil, the reality is more complex than it first appears. The country's rich ethnic and cultural heritage means that the dominant Christianity is often blended with other sects and religions, creating fascinating local variants that are unique to Brazil.
The most widespread examples of this blending happen within Afro-Brazilian religious practices. Forbidden from worshipping the deities they brought with them from Africa, enslaved men and women established connections between their orixas, or gods, and saints from the Catholic faith of their masters. This way, they could pay homage to their own gods while keeping up appearances by seeming to pray to Catholic saints.
While freedom of religion is enshrined in the Constitution, Brazil's many contradictions surface in attitudes toward Afro-Brazilian faiths such as Candomble, the more orthodox of the variations, and Umbanda, an even more syncretic religion incorporating elements of French-based spiritualism. Although some Afro-Brazilian practices are popular, including wearing white on New Year's Eve and leaving gifts of flowers and fruit on the beach to honor Iemanja, the orixa of oceans and seas, serious practitioners can be frequent targets of discrimination.
You don't even have to set foot in Brazil to know that soccer—or futebol—is king here. The country's mad about it, and there's good reason: Brazil has produced some of the world's best players, and it is the only nation to have won five World Cups. The displays of passion seen during major games make them worthy of a visit. Although there is criticism over the way soccer is run—and there have been wide-ranging protests about the costs of hosting the 2014 FIFA World Cup—love for the "jogo bonito," or beautiful game, is unabated.
Volleyball is also a favorite. Beaches are often settings for spectacular displays of beach volleyball, and of a Brazilian combination of the two: futevolei, where the players can use only their feet, chest, and head to touch the volleyball.
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