'Brazillionaires' Tracks An Economic Collapse Through The Eyes Of The Rich
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
We've been hearing a lot about Brazil as it hosts the Olympic Games. That country happens to be home to some of the world's richest people. As Brazil's fortunes rose over the past decade, a handful of people rose with it. Today Brazil's richest man is worth $30 billion, and he controls quintessential American brands - Budweiser, Burger King, Heinz, Kraft.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The journalist Alex Cuadros got a rare look into the world of the Brazilian super-rich. In 2011, he was assigned to the billionaire beat for the Bloomberg News Bureau in Sao Paulo. The stories he collected on that beat became the foundation for his new book, "Brazillionaires: Wealth, Power, Decadence, And Hope In An American Country." I asked him about the craziest thing he came across in his reporting.
ALEX CUADROS: The strangest thing I saw - I was in Rio, and I asked a luxury real estate broker to show me his finest property. And he took me to this duplex penthouse on Ipanema Beach. And the master bedroom had a panic button you could press where metal shutters would close over the door and windows.
Then he took us into a room that was covered with these sort of garish bands of wavy stripes. And we were being led around by the butler of the apartment who was a beach butler and wore shorts and flip flops. And he said to me, look a little closer at the walls. And what I saw is that they were made up of thousands of exotic butterfly wings, and...
SHAPIRO: You know that they were all sustainably harvested (laughter).
CUADROS: Yeah. The butler said, don't worry; they've all been environmentally certified.
SHAPIRO: And how does that compare, just for context, to the way a typical Brazilian lives?
CUADROS: Your typical Brazilian makes a few hundred to maybe a thousand or a couple thousand dollars a month. But you know, I visited, for example, a favela in Sao Paulo. And I remember speaking to one man who opened his door, and his house was just big enough to fit a kind of cot. And all of their homes hung precariously over a creek that smelled intensely of raw sewage. So the contrast between the home of a billionaire in Brazil and the home of a working-class person in Brazil, which is the majority of the country, could not be more glaring.
SHAPIRO: The billionaires who you profile in this book for the most part really defend their role in the economy of Brazil and the global economy. And at the beginning of the book, you raise the question, do the ultra-rich take society forward or hold it back? Having written the book, how would you answer the question?
CUADROS: I spoke to a billionaire named Blairo Maggi, who made his fortune in soybeans and - which is an industry that is intimately tied up with the deforestation of the Amazon. He became governor of his state in the west of Brazil, and then he became a senator. And as senator, he became the head of the Senate Environmental Committee.
And when I asked him how he felt about being so rich in a country as poor as Brazil, he said that even though he controlled this company, it belonged more to society because it, you know, provided jobs and tax revenue and so on. So there's this confusion about whose progress are they pursuing, their own or society's as a whole?
SHAPIRO: Not to put too fine a point on it, but you seem deeply skeptical of his (laughter) assessment.
CUADROS: I'm very skeptical of this assessment. And the fact is that the danger in having these people who control swaths of the economy and who have wealth that allows them to influence the political process is that they can make markets less free, and they can distort public policy so that it benefits their self-interest at the expense of society at large.
SHAPIRO: There's an expression in Brazil which you're going to have to say in Portuguese because I don't speak the language, but it means, he steals, but he gets things done.
CUADROS: Yes, in Portuguese it's rouba mas faz, and this saying was invented for a governor of San Paulo who - yes, he was crooked, but he built all these bridges and highways and freeways and so on. And Brazilians, at a certain point, became so jaded by their political process, you know, the basic assumption was that whoever was in power was going to steal. What's fascinating now is to see that that idea may be starting to change.
SHAPIRO: Well, yeah. I was going to ask. At this moment, you have dozens of Brazilian politicians implicated in bribery and corruption cases. Do you think that means the country is beginning to move into a chapter of more honesty and transparency?
CUADROS: I think it's early to say for sure, but I think that there are really promising signs that this culture of impunity in Brazil may be starting to change. What we're starting to see is institutions that are strong enough to stand up to this corrupt old establishment that used to engage in corruption without any fear of getting caught.
SHAPIRO: That's Alex Cuadros, the author of "Brazillionaires: Wealth, Power, Decadence, And Hope In An American Country." Thanks for talking with us.
CUADROS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.