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Ambassador Almino Talks About Unique Ties Between Brazil and UW-Madison

MADISON – Brazil’s rising prominence and influence on the international stage in recent years has captured the attention of a growing number of American universities.

At the University of Wisconsin–Madison, meanwhile, the interest in Brazil has much deeper roots, with activities and interactions dating back more than 60 years. The recognition of Brazil’s recent ascendance led to the launch of the Brazil Initiative in April 2009.

“The University of Wisconsin in Madison is a perfect choice for Brazil, for what the university represents, for its tradition in Brazilian studies and for having some key people who are really interested in strengthening these ties with Brazil,” says Ambassador João Almino, Brazil’s consul general in Chicago.

Almino, best known in Brazil as a political scholar and novelist, recently made his sixth visit since 2008 to Madison, where the Division of International Studies presented him with a Global Citizen Award, to honor his efforts to strengthen the university’s ties with Brazil.  While here, he spoke about Brazil, its relations with the United States, and its connections with UW-Madison.

Getting to know Brazil

“Brazil is a multiethnic country, very similar to the U.S. in many respects,” he explains. “It is a country that values its democratic principles, an open society with respect for freedoms in general. This is another area in which we have similar world views.”

In fact, he mentions that Brazil’s first republican constitution borrows from the U.S. Constitution.

In general, Brazilians are knowledgeable about the United States, he says, “… basically because North American culture reaches all corners of the globe. Generally speaking, Americans are well-viewed and loved in Brazil.”

Almino acknowledges that many Americans tend to view Brazil through stereotypes. He describes such views as not entirely wrong, but oversimplified and superficial.

“People who know a little about Brazil know about samba, soccer, coffee, maybe poverty, and the Amazon,” he says. “All of these elements have some relation to what Brazil is, but Brazil is not mainly that.”

For example, he explains, “Coffee is a product that is very much associated with what Brazil is. In the first decades of the 20th century, coffee did represent for Brazil something like 40 to 50 percent of all exports. Nowadays it represents something like 3 percent.”

By comparison, exports of aircraft now are far more important than coffee for Brazil, he says. “The third-largest aircraft producer in the world (Embraer) is in Brazil.”

He describes Brazil as technologically sophisticated in many fields: “Brazilian agriculture is very productive and technologically advanced. And Brazil is the sixth largest country today in industrial output. The industrial sector is very sophisticated and diversified.”

Some aspects of Brazil’s rich culture are better known internationally than others. For example, while Brazilian music is well-known outside of the country, the country’s literature is less known.

“Those who go to Brazil have the opportunity to know more about the country, and see that Brazil is not just those stereotypes,” he says.

Brazil’s global emergence

Over the last 25 years, Brazil has enjoyed a period of sustained political and economic stability.

“Political stability is an important element to this successful phase of Brazilian history,” Almino says.  With strong democratic institutions in place, he adds, “opposition parties have come into power without any crisis whatsoever.”

This has gone hand in hand with economic stability, which has led to increased domestic and international investments in the country.

Today, Brazil is the seventh largest economy worldwide.

“So it already has some weight in terms of the world economy,” Almino says. “It is indeed one of the few countries that can really make an important contribution to world economic growth.  At a time in which the world economy as a whole is going through a crisis, in which there is stagnation in many countries’ economies, Brazil’s economy is growing and it’s growing in a sustainable way.”

Indeed, Brazil’s economic concerns have changed over the last couple of decades.

“In the ’80s, we had a foreign debt crisis,” Almino says. “Nowadays, we have almost the opposite of that. We have very significant financial reserves. We have a problem which is quite new, having to somehow contain the large inflow of capital. And we have to be concerned about overvaluation of our currency, which would make Brazilian products more expensive in other markets.”

Relations with the U.S.

Almino describes relations between Brazil and the United States as “very intense and very positive.”

Noting that U.S. presidents have visited Brazil 15 times and Brazilian heads of state have made 17 visits to the United States, he says, “This shows that there has been a strong interest by both parties to have close relations.”

Over the last decade, the two countries have moved to further strengthen these ties. President George W. Bush visited Brazil twice, and the Bush Administration signed a memorandum of understanding on bio-fuels with Brazil.

“Now, the dialogue has even been taken to a higher level,” Almino says. This includes new strategic dialogues in several areas, including energy, trade, and economic matters.

“Several agreements were signed during the recent visit by President Obama to Brazil, which was a visit that basically recognized the new place Brazil occupies in the world as a whole,” he says. “This already high level of dialogue has been brought to an even higher level during the Obama Administration.”

This comes as Brazil seeks to increase its participation in global decision-making. Brazil currently holds an elected seat on the United Nations Security Council and is seeking to become a permanent member, alongside the United States, China, Russia, France and the United Kingdom.

“The dialogue with the U.S., which is a key player in this world system, will always be considered fundamental for us,” Almino says.

Brazil also hopes that the dialogue on trade and economic matters will bear fruit.

“The U.S. is our second most important trading partner right now, after China,” he says. “From the point of view of investments, the U.S. is a key country for Brazil. But Brazil also has become an important investor in the U.S.”

He points to an $11 billion a year trade imbalance between the two countries, in favor of the United States. “Brazil would be interested in increasing the overall level of this trade, increasing the level of our exports to the U.S.”

The two countries have differences, for example, on agricultural subsidies in the United States, as well as other countries, including the European Union.

“This is something that Brazil views as creating some kind of unfairness in world trade,” Almino says.  “We see that trade has been liberalized in the industrial sector, but very little has been done in the agricultural sector. We feel that this should change though negotiations.”

Overall, he says the wide-ranging exchanges and interactions between the two countries have been positive and open. “We do not agree on everything, but we have always had a very good level of dialogue. We think that, with full dialogue, we can solve the differences that we may have in one area or another.”

He adds, “As the Brazilian economy becomes more complex, as the country becomes more relevant worldwide, we believe that this dialogue also becomes more important.”

The Madison connection

Brazil’s rising profile internationally has drawn the attention of a growing number of American universities, Almino notes. Of course, Brazil welcomes this increased interest.

“For Brazil, it is very important to strengthen its relations in the educational field,” he says. “Recently, during the visit of President Obama, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff mentioned education as one key area in which she would try to increase the number of students who come to North American universities.”

Almino points to UW-Madison as one of two Midwestern universities—the other is the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana—as institutions positioned for particularly deepened relations with Brazil.

“The University of Wisconsin in Madison is a perfect choice for Brazil,” he says.

He points out that the university established a Portuguese language program in the 1940s. Also, the Luso-Brazilian Review, a prestigious peer-reviewed academic journal that publishes interdisciplinary scholarship on Portuguese, Brazilian, and Lusophone African cultures, was founded here in 1964.

“Many important Brazilian intellectuals have visited this university and have been visiting professors here,” Almino says. “It is among the very few North American universities that have a strong program in Portuguese and the Luso-Brazilian world. We are building upon a tradition that already exists.”

Key professors at UW-Madison who have played vital roles in developing the relationship he says.

“Professor Severino Albuquerque, who is now the director of the Brazil Initiative, was someone whom I did not know personally, but I knew by reputation,” Almino says. “I gave him a call when I arrived in Chicago, and he organized my first visit here. We started this dialogue that led finally to the Brazil Initiative.”

He also cites Guido Podesta, associate dean in the Division of International Studies, as a key participant. And he values the involvement of Dean Gilles Bousquet, Division of International Studies, who met with Almino on his first visit to Madison.

Looking to the future, Almino says, “The initiative is still new. Each year, it multiplies. The university itself has found so many ways of strengthening these relations with universities in Brazil, bringing scholars here, promoting some research, joint research in certain areas, having a regular writer-in-residence program here, having a large annual conference on different aspects of Brazilian reality.”

He envisions the expansion of the relationship to a widening range of fields: “”I think this can be brought to new fields, both in the humanities and the scientific and technological areas.”

Noting the high quality of research in science and technology at UW-Madison, he suggests connecting researchers here with institutions in Brazil that also have been doing key research in certain areas.

“There is no limit to this,” he says.

For more information about the Brazil Initiative at UW-Madison, go to the website, http://brazil.wisc.edu/ or contact Severino Albuquerque, director of the Brazil Initiative, at 608-262-2528, sjalbuqu@wisc.edu.

By Kerry G. Hill, kghill@international.wisc.edu, 608-262-5590