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Five reasons why the world needs Brazil to pull through its political crisis

Five ways Brazil’s turmoil is affecting the world (Video: Nick Miroff, Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

If you caught a glimpse of last weekend’s impeachment proceedings against President Dilma Rousseff, you may have noticed that Brazil is going bonkers right now. There was spitting, shoving and confetti-shooting on the floor of parliament, which at times looked more like a Roman coliseum than a legislative chamber.

Rousseff lost the vote badly, setting up what is likely to be a protracted, bitter political battle to unseat her. She will be forced to step down temporarily if Brazil’s senate votes as soon as mid-May to go forward with the impeachment process, with hearings that could drag on for six months.

How Brazil, the darling of the developing world, came undone

The country of 200 million people, by far the largest in Latin America, is increasingly polarized and entirely consumed with its political crisis. By no means is Brazil on the verge of collapse, but here are some reasons why the turmoil isn’t so good for the rest of us.

1. The Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro are a little over three months away.

Organizers of the Games insist that the events will float above the impeachment fray, but when a country’s entire political class is engaged in a bruising competition of its own, it’s hard to see how the Olympics won’t suffer. The Games were meant to showcase Brazil’s rise as a global power, but the country’s moment in the spotlight will come at its lowest point in decades. It’s like trying to host a huge party with your spouse when you’re in the middle of a nasty divorce.

U.S. officials are expecting more than 100,000 Americans to travel to Brazil for the games, including athletes, their families and sponsors. There’s room for plenty more visitors, since nearly half of the tickets have yet to be sold for many events. Brazilians are generally in a foul mood, and a lot of them may not feel like pretending everything’s fine just for the sake of the Games.

One bit of good news: Most of the Olympic venues have been completed ahead of schedule and are ready to go.
The bad: There are a few other reasons Brazil is a mess right now.

2. The Zika virus is still spreading.

Although Zika has peaked in some places, like Colombia, global health officials say the outbreak is still expanding in Brazil, with many new infections in big cities like Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. Brazilian researchers are investigating thousands of cases of children with undersized heads and birth defects that may have been caused by the virus. With Brazil’s politicians locked in a power struggle, the country may be losing a shot at a well-organized public health response with robust support across the political spectrum.

How Brazil’s impeachment process works

For all the global attention on Brazil’s Zika outbreak, there’s surprisingly little discussion of the epidemic in the country itself. Instead, everyone’s obsessed with politics.

3. Brazil’s economy is the seventh- or eighth-largest in the world, so its financial woes are a drag on global trade.

The country’s economy was growing at 7.5 percent a year as recently as 2010; this year, it’s headed for a 3.8 contraction for the second time in a row. Millions who climbed out of poverty during Brazil's boom years are falling back down, and a country that could be a much bigger market for U.S. exports is “underperforming,” according to Brazil expert and former diplomat Marcos Troyjo at Columbia University.

“Of the 20 largest economies in the world, Brazil is the most insular,” explained Troyjo, director of the BRICLab that studies emerging economies. In some of the fastest-growing countries in the world, such as Chile and Korea, the sum of their imports and exports amounts to more than 50 percent of the country’s overall economic output, Troyjo explained. In Brazil, it’s only 25 percent because so many industries are shielded from foreign competition. “That makes domestic consumption more expensive,” he said.

Even one of the Brazilian economy’s few bright spots — surging soybean exports — is a two-edge sword, since the country’s agribusiness sector is a driving force behind the type of Amazonian deforestation that is harder to control during moments of government weakness and economic woe.

4. Brazilian stability is critical for democratic governance in Latin America.

The country has a free press and independent institutions, and its judiciary is engaged in a major crackdown on corruption that has played a big role in unsettling Brazil’s old political order.

“It’s a vibrant democracy with an independent, feisty media, no relevant ethnic or religious strife and a population that generally shares the values of most Americans,” said Brian Winter, a Brazil expert and the vice president of the Americas Society and Council of the Americas in New York.

“We should want all the world to look like Brazil, at least in those respects,” he said.

Even though the United States is more populous, turnout in Brazil is so high that more people vote in democratic elections there than in any country in the Americas, according to Troyjo.

But many in the region also express disappointment that Brazil has at times been a muted voice for democracy and human rights, especially with a humanitarian crisis looming in Venezuela. The Rousseff government is too weak and too embattled to wield much influence, and its reluctance to criticize its neighbors may reinforce a reputation for geopolitical caution and insularity, critics say.

5. Close relations with Brazil matter to the U.S. strategic goal of countering China's influence in the Americas.  

In a world dominated by two superpowers — the United States and China — experts say Beijing has been winning the contest for influence in Brazil lately. China has become Brazil’s largest trading partner, as it buys so much of the country’s iron ore, farm products and other raw exports.

The United States has a larger and longer history of investment in Brazilian factories and industry, but those are the sectors of the economy hurting the most right now.

Read more:

The battle for Brazil’s political soul

Brazil’s impeachment battle isn’t over, but it’s looking grim for President Rousseff

Brazilians ask: Does Brazil’s vice president want the top job a bit too much?