Once Considered A Backwater, Northeast Brazil Is Booming

The northeastern part of Brazil used to be considered the backwards part of the country, far from the riches of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo in the south. That's changed in recent years, and today, northeastern Brazil is experiencing an explosion of industry, propelling millions of people out of poverty and into the middle class. Melissa Block talks with businessman Alfredo Bezerra Leite, owner of a bus company and an engineering firm, and his daughter Rebeca Bezerra Leite, to learn about what's behind this growth in the Northeast.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Now, just a reminder of the scale of the country we're talking about. Brazil has 200 million people in an area bigger than the continental United States, and it's risen to become the world's seventh largest economy. Lately, that growth has stalled but in the northeast of Brazil, where I was last week, it's boom time.

(SOUNDBITE OF HELICOPTER)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking foreign language)

BLOCK: So the best way to see the growth of the northeast of Brazil will be to get up high above it. We're going to go up in a helicopter to see what industry is driving the growth of this part of Brazil.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking foreign language)

BLOCK: We're in Pernambuco state, flying along the Atlantic Coast. The northeast has traditionally been one of the poorest parts of Brazil but in the past few years, it's become the fastest growing part of the country, boosted by both private investment and a lot of government stimulus spending.

REBECCA BEZERRA LEITE: Everything has changed.

BLOCK: We're flying with Rebecca Bezerra Leite, a young businesswoman, part of the region's expanding upper class. She's wearing sky high heels and lots of bling.

So Rebecca, we've been going by some really nice beach houses, all with pools - along the beach. Are those new? Would you have seen those 10 years ago?

REBECCA LEITE: No. No way.

BLOCK: We're headed toward the port of Suape. It started slowly - in the 1970s - and finally now, it's the engine driving growth here, providing jobs for tens of thousands of people.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Suape?

REBECCA LEITE: Suape is there.

BLOCK: Uh-huh. We're starting to see the port.

REBECCA LEITE: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking foreign language)

BLOCK: We fly low over the Suape shipyard, the largest in the Southern Hemisphere. Up ahead looms an oil refinery for Brazil's state oil company, Petrobras.

REBECCA LEITE: All of that is part of the refinery, too.

BLOCK: Ahead of us there. Huge - when was that put in?

REBECCA LEITE: The refinery started at least six years ago.

BLOCK: So really new also.

REBECCA LEITE: Really new. Everything here is really new. Do you see over there all of the green in front of you? All of that is sugar cane plantation.

BLOCK: So everywhere we see industry right now would have been sugar cane plantation.

REBECCA LEITE: Yeah. And all of the real estate area here has gained a lot of value.

BLOCK: We fly over a giant power station, a Coca-Cola bottling plant, textile factory, ceramics plant and all new roads linking these industries to the state capital, Recife. In fact, Rebecca's father's engineering company designed these roads. So when you were growing up, when you were little, how much of this would've been here?

REBECCA LEITE: Almost none of it.

BLOCK: Almost none.

REBECCA LEITE: And I'm 28. It growing 10 years ago and now it's like this.

BLOCK: Rebecca, there's a huge sprawl of houses everywhere we look, stacked on top of each other with red tile roofs. Who is living here?

REBECCA LEITE: The new middle class is living here. These people used to be in the countryside of Brazil and now they have moved to the big cities, next to where the money is now. So they're working for all the industries here, for all these new businesses that are here.

BLOCK: And what's considered the new middle class in Brazil, we would probably consider the working poor in the United States.

REBECCA LEITE: Yes, of course.

BLOCK: We land in Abreu e Lima, 35 miles north of Suape. We've come to talk with Rebecca's father, Alfredo Bezerra Leite, who owns the engineering firm as well as five bus companies. We sit in his office next to a long, glass case filled with his collection of 1,000 toy buses from all over the world. Leite uses another word for Brazil's northeastern boom.

ALFREDO BEZERRA LEITE: (Speaking foreign language)

BLOCK: Explosion, he says. Explosion is a beautiful word. Mr. Leite grew up here in the northeast, a poor area prone to drought, far from the traditional economic centers of the south - Sao Paolo and Rio. To be from the northeast was to be seen as backward.

ALFREDO LEITE: (Through interpreter) Today there is still a divide in Brazil between the north and the south. Lots of northeasterners migrate to the south to work and they're known as palaibas(ph), from the name of a northern state, or simply as northeasterners. These are derogatory terms, racist in a way.

BLOCK: But look at the reversal now, Leite says. Workers who fled the poverty of the north to find work in the south are coming back, a reverse migration. And the north has become a magnet for talent and money from all over the world.

So the future looks bright to you?

ALFREDO LEITE: No.

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: No?

(LAUGHTER)

ALFREDO LEITE: No.

BLOCK: This pessimistic outlook surprises me. After all, Leite is a well-to-do businessman. He's benefiting from the northeastern boom. But he ticks through Brazil's problems - debt, trouble with education, health, transportation, infrastructure. Even with all the spending around the World Cup - new roads, bus lines, subways - Leite is doubtful

ALFREDO LEITE: (Through Translator) The big problem here is that what's happening now is being done without a lot of long-term planning. It's being done for the World Cup, so you have to build a high-speed bus line and access roads to stadiums. But what are we going to do with the arenas after this? They're not going to become schools or hospitals. They're only good for playing soccer.

BLOCK: We do have a future, Leite says, Brazil is a rich country with lots of young people. But we could be moving so much faster.

And that brings us to our word of the day. Every day this week, we're highlighting a word or expression in Portuguese that tells us something about Brazilian culture or way of life. And today, that term is...

ALFREDO LEITE: Jeitinho Brasileiro.

BLOCK: Jeitinho Brasileiro, which means literally, the little Brazilian way. In his book, "Brazil on the Rise," journalist Larry Rohter describes the jeito or jeitinho as the basic organizing feature of daily life; a clever way to maneuver around the red tape or laws or roadblocks that stand in your way.

ALFREDO LEITE: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: Our Brazilian businessman, Alfredo Bezerra Leite, describes it as something that gets you through difficult spots. And when I ask for an example, he reaches into his back pocket and pulls out his wallet.

ALFREDO LEITE: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: Wait. Wait a minute. You've just pulled out from your...

ALFREDO LEITE: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: You've just pulled out from your wallet a student identity card. It's false. You say it's for you. You're how old?

ALFREDO LEITE: (Foreign language spoken) Sixty.

BLOCK: You're 60 years old and you have a student identity card.

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: Why?

ALFREDO LEITE: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: He explains, students get these cards because they're entitled to reduced bus fares. But lots of people who aren't students get fake IDs to take advantage - a jeitinho.

Now Leite doesn't actually use his fake student ID. After all, he does own five bus companies. He got it just to prove how easy it is to get around the rules, just to show how Brazilians do this kind of thing and nothing will happen to them.

ALFREDO LEITE: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: The government knows all about these fake ID cards, he says, but they don't do anything about it.

ALFREDO LEITE: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: Just one example of the little Brazilian way.

ALFREDO LEITE: Jeitinho Brasileiro.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

That's our co-host Melissa Block reporting all this week from Brazil.

Elsewhere on today's program, you can hear NPR South America correspondent Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reporting on Brazil's credit bubble: How easy credit is driving a middle-class boom but also creating a nation drowning in personal debt.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

You can also follow the ALL THINGS CONSIDERED team in Brazil on Tumblr. That's ConsideringBrazil.tumblr.com.

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