Brazil melts its cultural soft power
*Doctorate in Media Communication and Sociocultural Practices at Methodist University of Sao Paulo (Brazil), film critic, writer and finalist of the 60th Jabuti Award with the book ‘Poder Suave – Soft Power’
Images are not just worth a thousand words. A good image generates better market position, healthier interpersonal relationships and, of course, profits. When it’s about the image of a country, its importance gets even higher, not only for economic growth, but for the safety of its citizens. After all, who feels safe in a country that emanates a racist and xenophobic image?
Over decades, Brazil built a very positive international image. We were seen, by a great portion of the world, as a happy, multicultural, multiracial country, with parties, high spirits and exuberant nature. Let’s be clear that these may not be true, but it doesn’t matter, because, in business, image sometimes counts more than reality itself.
Image is power. Soft power. The term was created by the American political scientist Joseph Nye in the 1980’s to designate the ability to attract rather than coerce (hard power), to shape the preferences of others through appeal and attraction, by culture, sports, idiom, political values, religion, science etc. Hollywood, the biggest cultural soft power of the world, was able to destabilize closed regimes like the Soviet Union by the values within its films. Efficient soft powers bring profits, tourists, and social and technological gains to societies. English idiom brought lots of benefits to countries like the US and United Kingdom, facilitating, for example, the international sales of cultural products like films and TV shows. The renaissance art not only softened the image of the Catholic Church, but also shaped Italy – which didn’t even exist as a unified country at that time – as one of the greatest international touristic destinations of the world. Russian ballet is a common “business card” to Russian diplomats in missions worldwide, seducing the world with art, instead of sanctions and guns. The Japanese MAG culture (manga, anime & games) is voraciously consumed even by historical political archenemies, such as China and South Korea.
Although Brazil doesn’t have english as idiom or a great technology, it became one of the countries that most accumulated cultural soft power during the last decades. And we are not talking about the obvious: soccer, which melted its own soft power after World Cup 2014 7 x 1 embarrassment against Germany. We are talking about our great cultural soft powers, that are being dilacerated by the hard power installed in Brasilia this year, in the shape of the far right Jair Bolsonaro’s administration.
Carnival is one of the most efficient soft powers; the one that helped built an image of a friendly and open Brazil. It also attracts millions of tourists from all over the world and it’s parades are sold to hundreds of TVs worldwide. This year, the new and far-right president Jair Bolsonaro decided to talk about the event on Twitter. But instead of using it in favor of Brazil, he posted a video of a man stripping and making obscene gestures in one street party of Sao Paulo. His tweet gained international repercussion and obviously contributed to weaken Brazilian soft power. Instead of building an image of a happy celebration, he created a pornographic and chaotic image of Carnival with one tweet. An isolated and unfortunate case took international dimension when the highest political leader of the country chooses only this angle to comment.
Recently, the president was again in international pages when he declared that Brazil should not become a “gay tourism paradise”. He said: “If you want to come here and have sex with a woman, go for your life. But we can’t let this place become known as a gay tourism paradise. Brazil can’t be a country of the gay world, of gay tourism. We have families”. For a president that wants to make Brazilian economy grow again, this is not only homophobic, but stupid. Sao Paulo is the home of the biggest LGBT parade of the world, that was the scenario of shows like Neftlix ‘Sense 8’. This year, the parade attracted over 3 million people in Paulista Avenue, with hotels all booked for days. While some developed countries fight to have more tourists, Brazil closes its doors to one of its most profitable and democratic events.
Late last month, the Ministry of Citizenship not only imposed an abrupt reduction of investments in cultural events and products like plays, musicals, films and TV shows, but also started an ideological campaign against all cultural manifestation that undermine the “traditional family values”, as most of the ministers use to say. But culture only becomes a soft power when it’s free to manifest ideas creatively. Hollywood only became the biggest cultural soft power of the world because no American president really tried to boycott its products internationally, even when the studios produced films that were directly against the interest of Washington, like the Vietnam-themed movies of Francis Ford Coppola, Stanley Kubrick and Oliver Stone.
The witch-hunt also stroke Apex, the Brazilian Trade and Investment Promotion Agency that works to promote Brazilian products and services worldwide. The exoneration of the president of the agency, Mario Vilalva, was just the tip of the iceberg of a far-right ideological control that the government wants to have in an agency that, to be efficient, needs freedom, rationality and business flair to sell our products abroad.
But not everything is lost….yet. Brazil still has two other great cultural soft powers that, for now, are intact from the hard power attacks. Bossa Nova is still listened, bought and used in films, soap operas and shows in the most distant places from Brazil, like the US, Japan and Australia etc. And for now, there’s no Bossa Nova artist being undermined by the government, although Bolsonaro is not a big fan of Brazilian singer and composer Chico Buarque, a close friend of former president Lula.
Another great Brazilian soft power is its soap operas. Just like Carnival, they helped to shape an image of a friendly country around the world. TV Globo – channel of the largest media group of Latin America – exports their soap opera to over 100 countries since the 1980’s, becoming a very important cultural soft power, seducing and influencing lifestyle in many countries. Escrava Isaura was sold to 27 countries and was watched by 450 million Chinese in the 1990’s. The largest street market of Luanda (Angola) was named Roque Santeiro in 1991 because of the success of the homonym soap opera. Paladar was the name of the restaurant Raquel (Regina Duarte) owned in the story of the soap opera Vale Tudo and became the name of many authorized private restaurants in the economical opening of Cuba in the 1990’s. There are journalistic reports that the first version of the soap opera Sinhá Moça (1986) interrupted warlike conflict in Bosnia, Croatia and Nicaragua. This is soft power in its excellence.
However, TV Globo seems to be more and more in the opposition of Bolsonaro’s administration, especially because the president is giving clear preference to the second largest group, TV Record, owned by a minister, Edir Macedo, whose religion and ideological views are openly aligned with the president and his family. TV Record is also famous for producing religious themed soap operas like A Terra Prometida (The Promised Land) and Jezebel, which are way less creative and are poorer in terms of production and narrative. But who knows if Jair Bolsonaro will use his hard power to give his favorite TV station products a push to become a soft power like the leading channel he never gives interviews for.
But that’s now how soft power works in arts and entertainment. Creativity must walk hand in hand with freedom. And the new president is not a big fan of this last one.