From Arab Spring To Burgeoning Brazil: A Reporter's New Beat

After years in the Middle East, NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro has started the next chapter of her reporting life in Brazil. From her base in Sao Paulo, she'll focus on the country's environmental wealth, efforts to curb crime and the preparation for the World Cup and Olympic Games.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

First in our Baghdad bureau then from her next base in Jerusalem, Lourdes Garcia-Navarro spent years covering dramatic developments in a region where as she's put it, history happens every day. Now, she started a new chapter from a new base in Sao Paolo, Brazil covering an emerging giant with enormous wealth and pervasive poverty, tremendous natural resources and environmental challenges, and a growing international role emblemized by the coming World Cup next year and then the Summer Olympic Games.

If you have questions for Lourdes Garcia-Navarro about where she's been and where she's going, the phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And you could join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro joins us now from Sao Paolo, Brazil, and nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: It's nice to be here.

CONAN: And how is it, from changing a beat where you expect as a part of your job to have to go cover war on a regular basis to one where that's pretty unlikely?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's right. It's a different kind of challenge. You know, in the Middle East, you sort of wake up in the morning, and gird yourself to perhaps lose your life that day if you were covering a sort of a conflict zone. And coming to Brazil, obviously, it's a completely different thing. One of the great things about Brazil is that - Brazilians themselves know this and they've translated this in terms of their global position in the world - that everyone love Brazil and everyone loves Brazilians, so you say oh, I'm going to Brazil. I'm going to be the new correspondent that everyone just lights up and is so excited. And that is a real change from the Middle East because you say that you live in the Middle East and that's not just the reaction you get from people.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Yeah. You don't really have to keep much of a guest room, do you, in the Middle East?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: No. You really don't. Whereas here I have to tell you there is a long list of friends, family and even random acquaintances who say that they will be visiting me soon.

CONAN: And you should expect them. They will be arriving. Yet it is a country that, of course, has its challenges as well. You've already done one piece on the incredible crime rate in that country. A crime rate, though, building amongst very young children - not as victims, perpetrators.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's right. I mean, I think that's one of the really interesting things coming from where I came from and now being back in Latin America - obviously I lived in Mexico before and Colombia before that. And, you know, Latin America has incredibly high rates of crime. While this is an economy that's emerging and a region that's really burgeoning and changing in so many ways it's so dynamic, they are suffering from this incredible crime rate, and you see that all across the region.

And particularly in Brazil, we are seeing young children now, as you mentioned, people in their early teens, being involved in violent crime. And I think what is most shocking to Brazilians, and certainly to outsiders like me, is that these crimes are really violent. I mean, we just saw the other day, a woman who was assaulted in her office. The criminals tried to take her credit card. She only had about $15 in her back account. So they set her on fire and she died. So it's not just that there's crime here, it's that the crimes that are committed are incredibly violent. And I think that is one of the challenges, really, that remain in a country like Brazil.

CONAN: And the extent of the poverty there is hard to overestimate.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It is. I mean, it's not only that there is poverty. There's poverty in many places in the world, but one of the things...

CONAN: And including this country, let's not forget.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Indeed. One of the things that's so striking is that this is an economic in flux. And so what we've seen here is 40 million people taken out of poverty and pushed into the middle class. But at the same time, these, you know, persistent problems with very rich and very poor, these extremes in wealth that creates so many difficulties, continue. And so one of the things that Brazilians will tell you is that yes, our economy's changing. Yes, we've managed all these wonderful things. There's record employment here which is enviable in other parts of the world, if you think about what's happening in Greece and in Spain and even in the United States. But at the same time, there is incredible poverty here. There are huge areas called favelas, or slums, where people live in desperate, desperate situations. And that really does make the problems here much more acute.

CONAN: There are also - Brazil reminds you such much of the United States in terms of its size, its natural resources. There are also enormous parts of that country that are just beginning to be developed, and, well, at least, according to some, being ravaged.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, I think one of the things that's so interesting to me, as well, coming here, is that it's such a vast country. And in really does remind you of the United States, in many ways. For example, most Brazilians don't speak English, don't speak a foreign language, in the same way that most Americans don't, because they simply don't have to, because this is such a huge country. There's an enormous amount of internal tourism. People travel here or vacation here. And so there really is a sense that this is a country that actually, you know, provides what people need.

By the same token, of course, as you mentioned, this is a place with a lot of natural resources, the Amazon mining, all sorts of different things. Now, there's - there have been gas and natural gas discoveries, oil. So, you know, this is a country with a lot to offer, and they are grappling with this, what to do with this, how the money should be, you know, distributed. We just have the president, Dilma Rousseff, announce yesterday that more money would be put in unto education. That is exactly one of the things that are on people's minds here, because we are seeing this spurt of - this spike in youth crime, and people really want to see some of the benefit of this recent boom. Will it be plugged back into things that will help Brazil in the long-term, not just in the short-term.

CONAN: Brazil was once a country ruled by military dictatorship. It had sort of - it had all those resources. They weren't developed. It was country with limited expectations. The sky is now the limit.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. I mean, people are really - have a sense of themselves and their place in the world that I think they didn't before. Brazil is still quite a protectionist, in many ways. So you come here, for example - you know, I've looking for a crib, and there's basically, like, five types of crib here, and it just depends on the store that you go. It's the same crib, but you - but basically, you just, you know, it's just the price has changed, because there's apparently three - I started looking into it, because I was just so surprised. There's three companies here that sell the cribs. And so - and they're not allowed to import them from other places.

So you do sort of see this economy that's really changing. It's opening up to the world. It's a, you know, a behemoth, in many ways. You know, the company's here like Odebrecht, which is the Halliburton of Brazil. They have an enormous footprint in Latin America, in Africa. So they really have a reach that the United States doesn't, in places the United States doesn't have a reach. But by the same token, you know, in many ways, this is an evolving economy.

CONAN: An evolving economy, yes, changing to an energy producer rather than an importer, changing from - well, developing its agriculture in new ways. You - there used to be, of course, the expression: There's awful lot of coffee in Brazil. There's an awful lot of everything in Brazil.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. It's extraordinary, and they've really managed to, you know, to capitalize on that. And this is, you know, and it's not just Brazil.

If you go around Latin America now, Mexico, Peru, you just have a sense that things are happening. This is a region for so many decades that experienced just civil wars and stagnation and dictatorships. And now, there is a real sense of optimism and that things are moving. It's a dynamic region. I mean, for example, we're just seeing, you know, a Brazilian candidate and a Mexican candidate vying to head the WTO, I mean, the World Trade Organization. So, I mean, it's really extraordinary what's happening in Latin America right now. At the same time, of course, they have these enormous challenges, but people really do feel that, for the first time, things are moving in a very exciting direction.

CONAN: We keep hearing about the environmental changes in the rainforest. Of course, global warming is global. Brazil is no exception to the effects of this. Do Brazilians feel a particular responsibility? Or are they part of the developing world in this respect, saying, well, you know, the United States, Europe, they had their chance to use their resources and pollute their atmosphere, now it's our chance? We need to develop.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: No. I mean, I think what we've seen is actually deforestation, while it's been spiking in other places than nearby Brazil, be it Peru or other countries, we've seen it, actually, decrease here. I think Brazil has really tried to, they say, act responsibly, really curb a lot of the deforestation and other things, depredations that were happening in that region. There is real sense that they need to - that they're caretakers, and they need to act responsibly.

By the same token, this is a place that is developing. This is a place with, you know, that wants timber, that wants land to raise soy beans and raise cattle. And so, you know, those two things are often in direct conflict, but they have tried to manage that conflict. And they do have a sense of that responsibility. I think most Brazilians that you talk to do understand that there is a direct cause and effect when they do certain things to the environment.

CONAN: Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, who's relocated from the Middle East to Sao Paolo in Brazil. Why, by the way, Sao Paolo? Why not Rio?

(LAUGHTER)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Everybody asks me. Everybody asks me, why didn't you go to Rio? Rio is absolutely beautiful, amazing. Sao Paolo, it was decided by me and also by other people at NPR that, you know, this is the largest city in Brazil. It is the economic hub of Brazil. Many, many things happen here. I think correspondents like to, you know, be located in Rio because it's got the beach and it's beautiful. But I do believe that Sao Paolo provides a lot of stories and a very interesting perspective on a country that is really, you know, moving in all sorts of interesting directions.

CONAN: We're talking to her from her new post there in Sao Paulo. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, coming to you from NPR News.

And let's get Liz on the line, Liz with us from Kansas City.

LIZ: Hi. And hi, Lourdes. I hope your weather is gorgeous because it's freezing rain here. But I'm Brazilian-American, and I've traveled, you know, back and forth. I was born in Brazil. My mother was born in Brazil, but I was raised in America.

What really strikes me, as you said earlier, is the crime with young children. I'm really concerned how the education system is going to grow. I'd like to see it grow with the wealth that they've gotten, you know, in the last 10, 15 years. And that's one of my big concerns. And I just wonder what you thought.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, I certainly think that that is something on everyone's mind. I mean, by all indications, the education system here leaves a lot to be desired. And it's not only just the education system. I mean, striking me is - I'm a, you know, a recent mother - the fact there are very few pre-kindergarten schools here, there are few places, daycare centers, just, you know, that sort of stuff here has really started to come to the forefront, because it has been now proven that, you know, criminal tendencies start, you know, could be influence by the environment that you have when you're very, very young.

And so I think people are really starting to look at that very, very seriously. And certainly, the education system is on everyone's mind. And so I think it's one of the big challenges that Brazil faces right now.

LIZ: Yeah. I agree. I agree. Thank you very much.

CONAN: Thanks very much, Liz.

LIZ: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is Marina(ph). Marina's with us from Cincinnati.

MARINA: Yes. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure. Go ahead.

MARINA: I'm also a Brazilian-American. And I want to ask why she hasn't talked about corruption of all the governmental officials yet. She has talked about many things that is still very accurate, but...

CONAN: Well, she's probably not talked about corruption because I haven't asked her about it. But, Lourdes, what about corruption?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What about corruption? I'd like to also just make it clear that I just got here, so I am not an expert yet. But certainly, corruption, as it is throughout all of Latin America, is one of the big issues here.

I think what we've seen recently with one of the big scandals that erupted is that this government has certainly made it at least, you know, a central part of their campaign to say we are not - we're going to have zero tolerance over corruption. But, you know, only yesterday, we saw that 50 police officers in Rio were sanctioned for accepting bribes.

Corruption is a part of everyone's life here. And I think that is something that really erodes people's confidence in what is a thriving democracy here. People just do not have faith that the judiciary, that the police, that the political figures are honest and are really on their side. And so there is a sense that there is impunity. And that really, I think, erodes people's confidence in the future Brazil, and in the present.

CONAN: Let's go next to Ken, and Ken's with us from Memphis.

KEN: A corollary question regarding the legal system: Are they going to be able to participate in international commerce, or are we looking at another China?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I think they do. But I think, you know, certainly Brazil's - I think Brazil is trying to find its place. You know, it's been very aggressive in a lot of ways, in how it deals with Latin America. It is building (technical difficulties). It's, you know, it has a lot of trade with various countries in the region. But by the same token, it's also extremely protective in certain areas. And so - and by all, you know, by all accounts, definitely, its currency is overvalued. I can attest to that, since I'm paid in dollars.

So I think, you know, I think that there is a lot - people are wondering which way Brazil's going to go. I was talking to an economist the other day, and he said to me, you know, Brazil is still trying to figure out what it's going to be. Is it going to be something like the United States, where it is going to have free trade and have open markets? Or is it going to look more towards the Chinese model? And at the moment, it seems to be taking a bit of each piecemeal.

And some economists say that just simply isn't working, that that isn't the right way to do things, and they are looking - and they're going to have to change. And maybe that's why the economy is going down so much.

CONAN: Ken, thanks very much.

KEN: Thank you.

CONAN: I have to ask, yes, you're busy learning a new beat in an amazing new country and an amazing new place, do you still check in on the Middle East first thing in the morning?

(LAUGHTER)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The Middle East still checks in on me. Unfortunately, once you get on the Israeli-Palestinian lists, you will get emails for the rest of your life, let me tell you. I have written to them many times and asked them to please no longer send me emails, because I don't cover the Middle East. And I'm afraid once you're on their lists, it is a lifetime commitment. So I do check in all the time.

I think, you know, once you've been in the Middle East, you'll always see what's happening there, you know, looking at what's going on in Syria and other parts. You know, it's always a place that you will come back to. But I have to say, I've got my hands full just learning about my new beat.

CONAN: I also have to observe that I don't think anybody's successfully unsubscribed from anything.

(LAUGHTER)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Fair enough.

CONAN: So unless you changed your email account, you're still going to be getting those. And I assume you're brushing up on Brazilian soccer.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Absolutely. I mean, you know, it's - as I wrote this week, it's not a sport. It's a religion here. And so just getting into the different teams and the different loyalties, it's a pretty big deal. And that alone is going to take me a while to get my head around, because people take it extremely seriously. And if you don't know what you're talking about, they'll look at you with utter contempt.

CONAN: Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR's South America correspondent, with us from her base - her new base in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Thanks very much for being on the program.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're welcome.

CONAN: And good luck with that search for the crib.

(LAUGHTER)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Thank you.

CONAN: Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY with Michael Pollan on how to cook food he thinks we should be eating. Join us back here on Monday. I'm Neal Conan. It's TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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