A Year of Fellowship and Official Visits

On the eve of the KWF ’15 trip to Brazil, President Dilma Roussef went on television to appeal for patience and support for fiscal austerity measures. Her appear-ance was widely met with jeers and some nasty names.

The fellows arrived in the economic and cultural center of São Paulo at a pivotal time for Brazil. The once-promising economy is on a downward spiral and anger is rising over a massive corruption scandal involving the state-run oil company Petrobras. We learned all about this and more in seminars and roundtables organized by Suzana Singer, editor at Folha de São Paulo, in between lavish meals and a dance lesson. Our hosts Sabine Righetti ’13, Sylvia Colombo ’14 and Silas Marti made sure everything went smoothly.

There were plenty of surprises along the way, starting on our first day when we got a special viewing of an apartment in the landmark Copan building, a curvy structure in the heart of downtown that was designed by modern- ist architect Oscar Niemeyer. Reporter Fabricio Lobel recently rented the flat and opened his new home to us for a glimpse of the glorious view from his windows. We then took a bus to the Liberdade neighborhood, home to the city’s vibrant Japanese community, for a sushi and tempura dinner. Coffee plantations lured Japanese workers to the area more than a century ago and Brazil now has the largest Japanese diaspora in the world.

We also met with some of the coun- try’s top luminaries. Henrique Meirelles, a former Central Bank governor and cur- rent chairman of holding company J&F, gave us a rundown of the evolution of the economic problems that have caused inflation to spike and the Brazilian currency to plunge against the dollar. We discussed what’s driving the growing global demand for meat. Meirelles has some ex- pertise in the subject; J&F controls JBS, the largest meat production company in the world. Then we returned to an auditorium at Folha for a candid discussion with Delton Dallagnol, a federal prosecutor who is leading the task force investigating the Petrobras scandal. He explained how the arrest of a single money launderer led to a probe that has reached into the president’s inner circle. I’d pick Bradley Cooper to play him in the movie.

A major highlight was a new addition to the Brazil program. We hopped on a plane for an hour-long ride to Belo Horizonte, the capital of the southeastern state of Minas Gerais. World Cup fans will remember this area for its Mineirao stadium, the site of Brazil’s devastating loss to Germany last year. The first order of business was of course dinner at the restaurant Xapuri, where we were treated to stewed chicken, farofa and other local delicacies capped by a buffet of delicious desserts.

The following day took us on a mountainous trip to the Inhotim open-air museum, a 5,000 acre complex filled with contemporary art installations and exotic gardens. The park is de- signed to encourage an in- teractive experience between visitors and the art. The best example of that was the Cosmococa pavilion where one room has a dimly lit swimming pool in which a few brave fellows took a dip while listening to the music of composer John Cage. Another room plays Kimmi Hendrix tunes while visitors lie in hammocks. We had lunch at a buffet, battling bees for dishes of salad, fish and pastries. Then the park’s creator, mining magnate Bernardo Paz, met with us to discuss his vision saying, “This is not a museum. This is life.”

Later, a bus took us on a 2 1⁄2 hour ride to Ouro Preto (which means Black Gold in Portuguese), a 17th cen- tury colonial mining town. There Silas Marti, Folha’s arts and design critic, gave us a tour of the church of St. Francis of Assisi designed by AntÔnio Francisco Lisboa, which is perched on a steep hilltop and features carved decorations and golden woodwork, paintings and statues. It also boasts an amazing view of the cobblestone- street lined city.
For the weekend, it was back to São Paulo. We spent our next to last day with renowned architects Fernanda Barbara and Fabio Valentim who treated us to a personalized tour of the museums in the modernist Ibirapuera Park, including the Afro-Brazil museum. Brazil was the last place in the Americas to abolish slavery, in 1888, and the exhibit includes rare photos.

A bonus was watching skaters defying gravity under a long concrete canopy that distinguishes the park. We also saw the Sesc Pompeia, a unique cultural and leisure center with two towers that act as a sports center and are linked by covered walkways. That night fellows enjoyed a forro dance lesson and a glimpse of local clubbing. After some awkward but fun moments on the dance floor, the group got more comfortable in an adjacent dining area where they were offered caipirinhas and beer.

The last day summed everything up. We started with a tour of several poor neighborhoods on the outskirts of São Paulo. Our tour guides were bloggers who write for Folha’s Mural blog with the mission of portraying more than poverty and violence. We saw crowded favelas occupying land literally across the street from barricaded wealthy housing units. Break dancers and graffiti artists showed Fellows how they give voice to youths. In a sharp contrast that must be felt daily by all Brazilians, we then gathered for lunch at a swanky steak house where waiters carved meat straight onto your plate until you turned up a red card signaling for them to stop. Finally we boarded the bus for the airport, on the same day that hundreds of thousands of Brazilians gathered in the downtown streets to protest the president and call for her impeachment.

South America: A Study in Contrasts

The addition of Brazil to the itinerary gave the Fellows’ annual South America trip a neat duality. Argentina: the continent’s most European nation. Brazil: its biggest melting pot. Argentina: mature but troubled economy. Brazil: rising powerhouse. Argentina: governed by the polarizing Kirchners. Brazil: governed by the popular Lula.

The list goes on. At a pre-trip briefing at Wallace House, two U-M professors used dance to contrast the two cultures. In the more Europeaninfluenced tango of Argentina, the tempo is deliberate, faces are largely impassive, footwork is highly synchronized, and the songs have a thematic tradition of deep, bitter melancholy.

In the more African influenced samba of Brazil, the dance is more rhythmic and pelvic, the attitude more celebratory and flirtatious. The tango/samba divide is real, our briefers suggested, but a lot less simple than it sounds (as we’d come to appreciate in our travels).

Our days in Buenos Aires had a rhythm familiar to past Fellows: regular immersions in beef, wine and flan, punctuated by seminars and explorations.

There was a neat duality in that, too: glimpses of a brilliant and seductive culture on the one hand, and a famously stormy, adversarial and sometimes dysfunctional political economy on the other. The combination — good at living, worse at politics — may be as Argentine as the tango.

We heard from an analyst who mused about the Argentine “paradox”: the unusual pairing in the same nation of high levelsof education and corruption. We met with a founding member of Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo, the protest movement of mothers whose children “were disappeared” during The Dirty War of the 1970s and early ’80s. We lunched with our hosts at the newspaper Clarín and discussed their bitter clash with the Kirchner government.

We met with a justice of the Supreme Court, Dr. Elena Highton de Nolasco, who has fought to put the issue of domestic violence on the national agenda.

We sat down with the smoothly charismatic head of the national bank – Martin Redrado, a kind of stylistic anti-Greenspan – for a long conversation about the Argentine economy, the global meltdown and managing his public’s longstanding nervousness about the peso and infatuation with the dollar.

The most remarkable thing about that meeting was what soon followed, when Redrado refused President Cristina Kirchner’s demand to transfer billions in reserves to pay down government debt. She fired him. He appealed to the courts before tendering his resignation, which Kirchner refused. (The Financial Times called this “another bizarre twist” in the Kirchner-Redrado “soap opera.”) Alas, Mr. Redrado was soon gone. He was a gracious host and a seemingly principled certain banker.

The trip to Brazil was a departure on many levels. Going to Brazil was a first for KWF. So was combining two countries in one trip.

What we found in Brazil was – carefree samba aside – a roaring engine of commerce and trade, a robust currency, a nation slated to host a World Cup and Summer Olympics, and in São Paulo, a city disorienting in its scale and sprawl.

Our guide was former Knight-Wallace Fellow Helio Schwartsman ’09, a writer with our host newspaper Folha de São Paulo, who led us with imperturbable informality from one day to the next. We went to the symphony and to samba school – a combination of fejoada, musical performance and group dance. (The two most memorable sights on the dance floor: a certain samba queen in a certain body-skimming white dress, and a certain mature member of the KWF party in a certain white hat.)

We discussed Brazil’s racial culture and social inequalities. For a nation that – South America, continued from page 1 prides itself on racial harmony, there is an almost limitless list of words and phrases for every variation in skin hue (blue, pink, white pink, even green). And racial identity is treated as an almost entirely subjective concept that has less to do with DNA or skin color than status or social context.

We visited a hospital for the well-todo in an affluent neighborhood, and another staffed by some of the same doctors paid more for serving the poor at a nearby favela. We discussed the Brazilian style of politics (far less confrontational than in Argentina) and how President Lula’s popularity has set the stage for the coming presidential election (he can’t run again). We attended detailed economic briefings full of elaborate charts in which the trend lines unfailingly pointed upward.

Then we danced our last samba, and headed home, to a place where the trend lines have been pointing in a different direction.