Five Things I Like about Brazil and Five Other Things

Ambassador Alan Charlton spoke at Cultura Inglesa about his experience in Brazil

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Alan Charlton CMG CVO

I’m delighted to be giving my final lecture as British Ambassador at the Cultura Inglesa in Brasilia. I admire the work of the Culturas around the country. I have just been in Ribeirao Preto and heard how it is flourishing there. The growing numbers in Sao Paulo are highly impressive. I recall from attending one of your passing-out ceremonies here in Brasilia how many people come through your doors. You will have an even more important role going forward for Brazil does need still further to improve its ability in English in order to compete successfully in the global economic race.

I want to use this occasion to pay homage to Brasilia. Views are, let us say, mixed about this city. The Brasilienses themselves, and we have a lot of them at the Embassy, praise the city; Paulistanas and Cariocas are not quite so sure. I tell new UK staff coming to the Embassy to make the most of this city’s advantages. You have good weather, great outdoors, and an amazing heritage – it still takes my breath away to think of the boldness of Juscelino Kubitschek in setting out to build the city in five years: the museum at Catetinho remains a favourite place of mine to visit to remind me of the achievement.

I want to thank of all of you here today for coming. As I am speaking at the Cultura Inglesa, I have decided to speak in English. If you have any questions at the end, please feel free to ask them in Portuguese if you wish.

You may wonder what lies behind the title: Five Things I Like About Brazil And Five Other Things? Well, please keep in mind throughout that I am a great fan of Brazil and admirer of the progress Brazil has made and is making. I have had four and half wonderful years here and am pleased that the UK – government, business and civil society – have during that time taken much more interest in Brazil. My successor is a lucky man that he will be in Brazil during the World Cup and Olympics, which I am sure will be great successes. Please see everything I say in a positive light.

So what are the five things I like?

The first thing I want to mention is Tolerance and its sister Brazilian friendliness. For visitors to Brazil it is a delight to be received in such a kindly way and find conversation so easy. You here in this audience may not think this is such a remarkable quality. But I can tell you it is not shared everywhere around the world. At moments when a European or American might lose patience waiting for a plane or when something has gone wrong, the Brazilian generally remains calm and keeps smiling. Brazilians show consideration in their relations with other people. This makes everyday life so much more agreeable.

Tolerance between religions is striking. Brazilians are spiritual and religious. But they are not narrow-minded. You can be a committed Christian here but also participate in African religious ceremonies and be strong friends with the Jewish and Muslim communities and with those who have no faith at all. You can be hugely enthusiastic about the forthcoming visit of the Pope to Brazil while not necessarily accepting the prohibitions relating to personal conduct prescribed by the Vatican. Even religion can be the subject of jokes. I loved the cartoon in the Correio in which one Brazilian exclaimed that the new Pope was Argentinian and his companion pointed out that God was Brazilian.

The second like is linked with the first: Diversity. Diplomats are curious people and enjoy finding out about the countries they live in. Brazil is simply in a class of its own in terms of the diversity of experience for a foreigner living here. The people are a wonderful racial mix, as indeed the United Kingdom is becoming. In a crowded room of Brazilian voices I cannot tell who is Japanese, African, European or a mixture with native Indian included. Actually, I simply don’t notice the colour of people’s skin. I was struck again by this diversity when returning to Brazil recently after visiting Peru, where the people appeared mostly of native Indian origin without the African and European admixture. I’m sure that just as London benefits from being the world’s most international city where all races mix freely, so for Brazil this diversity of race will be a great advantage as Brazil increasingly internationalises.

There is also great diversity of landscape. The majesty of the River Amazon and the rainforest with that jewel the Teatro Amazonas in Manaus contrast wonderfully with the hundreds of miles of beaches along the northern and north-eastern coasts and in turn with the Pantanal, a magical place to visit to see wildlife in abundance. I loved visiting Acre and seeing the home of Chico Mendes and how the rubber tappers worked. I loved visiting the interior of Alagoas visiting a school partnering with a school in my home county in England of Nottinghamshire. There I was presented with an Indian spear which presented a particular problem: how to take this on board the aircraft home - fortunately, a colleague from the British Council volunteered to send it to me by post. Then there is the great city of São Paulo. When Mrs Thatcher overflew it 20 years ago, she asked why no-one had ever told her about this place. I am very attracted by the South and would like to see more of the interior of Santa Catarina and Parana – Foz D’Iguacu is a favourite destination. Yet if I was Brazilian I would be a Mineiro: I love the countryside, the history, the food and drink and the people. And, no surprise, Rio de Janeiro is a special place for me as it is for so many other foreign visitors. I shall never forget the night we gave a party for and with Prince Harry on top of Sugarloaf Mountain with David Beckham doing the introductions via video link.

The third thing I want to mention is Heritage. Brazil is in the new world but hardly a new country having a history going back over 500 years since the Portuguese arrival and thousands of years before that. You can detect the native Indian and African heritage every day. Many countries have large communities here. For the UK, the heritage is rather different. The Royal Navy accompanied the Portuguese government and Royal family to Brazil as Napoleon invaded Iberia in 1808. The colourful and controversial Admiral Thomas Cochrane was the first leader of the Brazilian Navy after the declaration of independence. In terms of fame, he was in those days the equivalent of a world-renowned rock star today. He ensured the Portuguese could not hang on to control of Brazilian Ports and then he went away, inexcusably without taking formal leave of the Emperor and taking money and a ship which he believed was owing to him as compensation. So many Britons made a contribution to Brazil’s development thereafter. Gilberto Freyre’s book ‘Os Ingleses’ gives a lot of detail on this.

I recall talking to the now Brazilian Ambassador in Peru about his ancestor Jonathan Abbot who came to Brazil and became one of its foremost doctors. I have recently visited Nova Lima near Belo Horizonte where the British mined for gold for a century and more and created a community, mostly of people from the mining area in England of Cornwall – there is a wonderful museum there now at the Casa Grande showing the achievements particularly of George Chalmers, Superintendent of the mine for 40 years. I was also invited a few years ago to the 75th anniversary of the city of Londrina, now the third largest in Brazil’s south. It was founded by people from London who created the city out of nothing and now it is a thriving place. Both Londrina and Nova Lima received the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VIII, on his visit to Brazil in 1931. A favourite place of mine is the club Rio Cricket in Niteroi. This was founded in the 1890s and became a centre not only for cricket but also football run by the British community in Niteroi. The pavilion and fields still remain, beautiful as ever, although the club is now very much Brazilianised.

I am fascinated by the cemeterios ingleses. As many of you will know, the British not only came over in serious numbers in the early 19th century to help with the development of Brazil but they also died early in serious numbers of tropical diseases. As most of them were Protestants, it was impossible for them to be buried in church yards. So the Emperor gave a dispensation for English cemeteries and several were built around Brazil. I recommend a visit to the cemetery in Rio which will become ever more accessible as the downtown area of Rio is restored in the Porto Maravilha project. Like others of these cemeteries, it contains many others who weren’t Catholics beyond the British – Americans, Germans, a group of Polish women in Rio for example, Jews and Muslims. I also recommend the cemetery at Salvador recently restored, a beautiful place on the coast. The famous General Abreu e Lima was buried in 1869 in the British cemetery in Recife because the Catholic Church would not have him.

The fourth thing on my list is food. There are two parts to this – the food and drink in Brazil itself and then the culture of meals. The food is wonderful. Just about everything seems to grow in Brazil including things which don’t even have name in English, notably fruits from the Amazon. The fresh vegetables and fruit juices are fantastic. I know the Argentines will hate me for this, and many others will not agree, but I actually prefer Brazilian beef. When it comes to drinks – well cachaça and the caipirinha deserve a greater worldwide success. Tequila has achieved that and is in my view not superior to a good cachaça. Ypioca is now owned by a British company and I hope they will market it beyond Brazil. Then there is the fish. Visiting the Amazon there always seems to be another fish with an Indian name served in a small town restaurant fresh from the waters. I am told these fish have a brotherly connection with fish in Africa before the continents split. But I have to say they taste very fresh to me. And I have to say I have a particular weakness for pão de queijo. My cook at the Residence makes particularly good ones.

The second part of this is how restaurants present food. Two particular examples I believe should be more widely copied throughout the world are the churrasco and the por kilo systems. I remember Prince Harry when he visited Rio a year ago really enjoyed the meat feast and all you can eat buffet at a churrascaria. The problem for first-time visitors generally is that they tend to end up eating too much as the meat keeps coming round. It’s important to have self discipline!

The por kilo restaurant is a brilliant idea. It is a way of providing a wide variety of food in a restaurant and allow people to eat what they like during a meal which can last a very short time or a longer time as they see fit. This is a contribution to world culture.

My final like, number 5, is: Sport. As a lover – indeed fanatic lover – of sport, what a country to be Ambassador! For the first time, I have found my generally not so valuable deep knowledge of sporting history to be really useful in my job. I recall during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa being quizzed live on radio in Rio about the relative merits of the England football squad for the 1966 and 1970 World Cups: it was a pleasure to discuss each player in turn with Brazilian journalists. The codes for most of today’s mass sports were developed in the UK. In the case of football the rules were set out at Cambridge, more known for its university and innovation than football. Famously, Charles Miller returned from a visit to the UK in 1894 and then literally kicked off football in Brazil, himself playing the game well into his middle age. For those of you who have not visited it, I can recommend the Football Museum in Sao Paulo which tells his story as well as many other heroes such as Pele and of course Mané Garrincha. An abiding memeory of my time here was seeing then Prime Minister Gordon Brown discussing at the Museum with Socrates – sadly since departed – the 1982 Brazil-Scotland World cup match.

I just love the way Brazilians – men and women – describe their support for a particular football club. You say “Sou Corinthians”, “I am Corinthians”. There is no messing around about this, talking about supporting a team: you are a team. At an event at Fluminense before the recent Brazil-England friendly after declining during my time here to pledge support for a Brazilian club I announced “Eu sou fluminense”. What Brazilians have in common with Britons is that there seems to be magical process, particularly among boys, in their early years when for some reason or other they decide to support a particular theme. I recall my eldest son watching the English Cup Final on TV deciding he would support forever whichever team won: Liverpool won and he has supported them ever since.

It is incredible to see football being played not only all day but all night under floodlights in cities around Brazil. It is humbling to see the level of skill of football, volleyball and foot volley on the beaches. What chance have the teams from other countries against such depth of skill? I was delighted at the quality of the football when England played Brazil at Wembley on 6 February this year. It was a joy to see the Brazil-England match at the new Maracana on 2 June.

I am delighted how the London and Rio Olympics have brought the two countries together, closer than any other countries hosting back-to-back Olympic Games. We continue to download our experience to the Brazilian Olympic Committee and Brazilian government. A number of British companies are working on preparation of the Rio Games. This has extended into collaboration on school games: Brazil sent a delegation to the England school games last year and a British Team came to the Brazilian school games in Cuiaba last year and will again attend this year. We expect the Mayor of London Boris Johnson to visit Brazil next year.

It is impressive to see how much progress Brazil is making in Paralympic Sport too. Brazil was in the top ten of medal-winning countries at the London Paralympics last year. I am sure they will do even better at Rio 2016. The Paralympics were developed at Stoke Mandeville hospital in UK after the Second World War. They were a huge part of the success of the London 2012 summer.

Brazil and UK are two countries which believe that sport is not only wonderful in itself but has the potential to transform society. We have run with Brazilian authorities programmes of youth leadership through sport. We have called jointly on the International Olympic Committee to stage Olympic School Games in tandem with the Olympic Games every four years. Brazil co-hosted during the London Olympic Games a Hunger Summit so that the poor and miserable of the world would not be forgotten – and we hope Brazil will carry forward this initiative in Rio. Vice-President Michel Temer co-hosted another International Hunger event in London just a few days ago on 8 June.

So many good things I like, and I could go on to add more. What are the five other things? They are actually linked with the five things I like.

First: the other side of the coin of tolerance. Perhaps Brazilians are sometimes too easy-going. I notice a reluctance sometimes to criticise and hold people to account. Perhaps because of the shadow of dictatorship, Brazilians have in the past not believed it politic or worthwhile to criticise abuses. It used to be said of a major politician “rouba mais faz”, in other words he may steal but he gets things done, with the implication that that is good enough..

I have the impression that that is no longer good enough for the rising generation of middle-class university-educated Brazilians. Civil society is growing stronger particularly through the use of the internet. Pressure for ficha limpa, for action on climate change four years ago, and focus on the Supreme Court Trial 470 last year indicate to me that there is decreasing tolerance of things which seem to be wrong. I hope this is right because it would be healthy for Brazil if that is so. Civil Society has a big role to play in the Brazil of the future.

Tolerance can sometimes seem to the foreigner as not very tolerable. As someone from a Methodist background who has spent most of his life in the UK, Germany and the United States, I do find Brazil’s attitude towards timekeeping rather challenging. A British Ambassador, of course I have to live up to the stereotype and make sure the hora britanica reigns supreme in whatever I do. But it would be great if Brazilians would turn up on time when invited or even turn up at all (I remember one story from a colleague who met a guest who had not turned up a few days later only to learn the guest had been on his way to the dinner but had seen there was film playing at a local cinema he had not seen and decided he should go for that. What my colleague thought was particularly remarkable was that the Brazilian considered this perfectly normal.) This also applies to official Brazil. There is a tendency not to reply to official communications, not to say yes or no to proposals when foreign ambassadors are looking to arrange programmes for senior visits. A tendency to change everything at the last minute. I know this is deep seated and cultural, but I’m not sure it’s essential. When asked by my successor what I had found most difficult in Brazil I said it is arranging visits for Ministers etc and not knowing for sure what the programme will be. On the other hand, it would not do for the life of an Ambassador to be too straightforward. We need challenges to make our work interesting!

Brazilians can operate differently. I have been most impressed during my stay how the airlines have changed to make a big effort to ensure flights depart on time. The World Cup stadia are all beautiful but surely they could and the related infrastructure projects could have been organised to be completed on time and budget. Brazil is an advanced country and could do this.

Secondly: Diversity. There’s no other side of the coin to this. But I do wonder whether Brazil is open to another large influx of immigration. While diverse, the population of Brazil all speaks Portuguese and identifies itself with Brazil. Brazil is becoming ever more attractive to immigrants and also needs foreigners with skills owing to the tight labour market in the country. I could imagine the trickle of immigrants becoming at least a steady stream in the future and I wonder how Brazil will deal with this in terms of visas and also culturally. Probably very well but it is not a challenge Brazil has faced in recent decades. An issue here is how slowly visas for skilled individuals are processed – this cannot be good for Brazil’s economy or its image.

Actually, I have to declare here that I am personally a strong supporter of immigration. At times when birth rates are falling and life spans growing we shall enter a period when the demographics of many countries will change and impact their economic growth. In respect of the UK, studies suggest our growth rates will benefit a lot in the next generation from the large and unexpected influx of immigrants of recent years already boosting our population.

Third: heritage. There is still quite a lot to be done in the valuation and evaluation of Brazilian history. I’m not just talking about the period of the dictatorship into which the Truth Commission is looking right now. I am also thinking of the era of slavery. I think it wonderful that the Porto Maravilha project in Rio will highlight a lost cemetery where slaves were buried in the area, many of whom died soon after arrival in Brazil. Over 6 times as many slaves were transported to Brazil as North America. It still seems to be part of the Brazilian curriculum to teach that the British tried to force abolition of slavery on the Brazilians for reasons of commercial gain. I don’t think that’s by any means the full story as the strong religious revivalist movement in Britain in the first half of the 19th century had a lot to do with this. Those of you who have seen the film Amistad, in which former US President John Quincy Adams defends slaves who were shipwrecked on the American coast, will know that the Royal Navy had the role of trying to interdict slave shipments across the Atlantic during this time. As many of you know, the phrase ‘Para Ingles ver’ came out of the tendency of Brazilian governments to sign up to abolition of slavery in treaties with the UK without meaning to implement the promise. The fact is that history is not set in stone; it can change as more is known about the events, period and people concerned. The books 1808 and 1822 have been understandably popular here. I think being honest with your own history is something which every country needs to do including the UK in relation, for example, to some of its former colonies. As a lover of history, I think knowledge and discussion of it enriches our lives.

Another aspect of this is that some parts of Brazilian history are disappearing. I was struck recently meeting a Brazilian with an entirely British name who was aware her great-grandfather was British but knew little more. There are books about aspects of the British presence but I would invite some historian to write the full story. Perhaps that might interest the Cultura Inglesa too.

I’m not going to suggest there is another side of the coin to what I have said about food. So I’ll use the slot for the fourth other thing to talk about Brazil’s internationalisation. I mentioned this in a lecture in São Paulo last week, which is available on the British Embassy website. I do believe that the world needs Brazil to play a positive role in the great debates on global warming, eradication of poverty and international trade and many other things as well. I think also that Brazil needs the world. In the global economic race, I have already mentioned English is vital. So is openness. That is the way to encourage innovation. President Dilma Rousseff’s programme Science Without Frontiers is an important step in opening up Brazil to the ideas of the world and bringing them back to Brazil. What is then needed is the right environment in which this new knowledge can prosper including espousal of free trade. The new Pacific Alliance is showing the way forward on this. You don’t become competitive and innovative unless you welcome competition and are open to the world.

Finally: Sport. Brazil is very good at many sports. But what about rugby and cricket? We Brits are ready to help on those. Beyond that, I think it is vital that Brazil should have a great legacy from the World Cup and the Olympics. I can see that happening in some Brazilian cities to some extent – I think it great that in Rio the pacification programme (to bring the people of these areas into the city with its services and taxes) and the revitalisation of the Centro are brilliant ideas – reminding me of what the Olympics have done in London to revitalise the poorest part of the city. Citizens expect more than white elephants.

It is amazing that when you look at the world turnover of football England has around 30% and Brazil only about 2%. Even with the high quality of foreign players in the English league, this does not reflect the true attractiveness of the relative products. I believe the issue is around organisation. It will be wonderful if the new stadia for the World Cup could also help generate a new style of football club here which are solvent, commercialised themselves better in terms of television and merchandising, and have no tolerance for violent fans. Similarly, on the Olympics, I hope the Games in 2016 make a lasting difference in the evaluation of sport in society and also in the promotion of sporting champions in Brazil. The UK has institutions and universities which can help.

Well I have told you a few things straight from the heart – five things I like and five other things. I hope you have not found it too difficult to hear my outpourings. Thank you very much for listening. I would be happy to answer a few questions if you wish.

Published 12 June 2013