Brazil… I’m Back

I’ve always wanted to run the length of the Rio beach walkway with its bricks shaped in two- toned waves. I’ve covered sections over the years but have never traversed from the tip of Leblon, past Ipanema and Copacabana, to Lemme and back. It’s Sunday. Avenida Atlantica, the main artery, is closed allowing the skateboarders, bikers, baby strollers, wheelchairs, walkers and joggers to pulse vibrantly in parallel with the hawkers, volleyball players and beach beauties. I’m not meant to be here. I was scheduled to work with AIG in Atlanta but hurricanes Harvey, José and Maria erased any chance of insurance industry strategy sessions. And so I could once again attend the annual board meetings of the Fundação Dom Cabral – South America’s largest business school. I know I’m in Brazil to work. But first. The beach.

It’s been twelve months since I flashed my ten-year visa at immigration and there are a few new additions to the abundant seaside entertainment. Bright green exercise contraptions now allow you to diversify your efforts to burn off calories post excessive caipirinha consumption. Overheating? Stand by one of the “you are here” map stations and enjoy a good misting. Need the internet? The beach chair concession stands now offer Wi-Fi. You can buy a new bikini from the men who carry an assortment of bathing suits hanging off an umbrella – replete with a “we take MasterCard” sign. As I pass through different communities the price of coconut milk (fresh from the nut they slaughter on the street) varies from 4-6 reals. In fact, if you don’t need misting you can guess the neighborhood without a sign based on the patrons and roadside food offerings.

At points you might be forgiven for thinking you are in Tel Aviv except the Kadima ball here seems to bounce to a different beat. Rio also has a touch of Vegas’ faded glory and my fellow board member and past Bush speechwriter swears the coastline looks like Sicily with its jagged rock formations and family of boats waiting for the understaffed ports to receive them.

What’s increasingly international are the opportunities to share bikes or an Uber. At our futurist session at the FDC I also learned about Uber’s development of solar charged cars—a joint project with aviation manufacturer Embraer. Brazil lacks many things, but the sun bucket overflows.

All along the road, entrepreneurs continue to turn dirt into money. Literally. They make sand sculptures of iconic buildings and charge you when you try to take a picture. I’m onto that trick so I capture the image surreptitiously.

The biggest surprise greeted me as I approached the hotel. The military were standing guard. Gun battles between drug lords and police in the Rocinha favela (slum) had been going on for days. Schools, businesses and a major road by our venue were closed. The militia were brought in to (in Brazilian terms) pacify the community. Things had gotten a touch better during the Olympics, but have deteriorated again along with the economy and the country’s political leadership.

From the time I returned from my run until I left 48 hours later, we were advised not to leave the premises. Our hotel was perched dramatically on a bluff with gorgeous views of the water to our left and direct site lines into the impoverished windows of our neighbors to the right. The divide between rich and poor stares you down and many locals just blink and keep on walking. Public services and safety are limited in the favela and yet we are all trapped. I am imprisoned by the consequences of inequality and encouraged not to go out alone.

“It’s going to change,” many say, optimistically, but it will be painful. There’s evidence that the old order won’t be tolerated. In the last year many leaders (with gobs of money) ended up behind real bars. Corruption! “Well, the judicial system is working,” the natives boast.

On Wednesday, former Governor Sergio Cabral was sentenced to 45 years in prison for money laundering and leading a criminal organization. Cabral was in office during much of the run-up to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and Rio’s hosting of the 2016 Olympics. I was also his guest for dinner during a previous board meeting. One of my friends advised I not take a pic with him. Whew. They were right!

Brazil is known for its labyrinth of tax codes and the hours of paperwork required to comply with regulations. During our meetings, one of the rallying cries was to make Brazil an easier place to do business, and in so doing reduce the temptation to go out of the law to launch and maintain enterprise.

Promoting business ethics, innovation and inclusion topped our board’s agenda. However, thanks to the multicultural group, the purpose of the impassioned presentation on invention was questioned by a Chinese colleague who wondered why don’t we just “teach people to copy?” If it works. Why change it?