Conference Puts Spotlight on Brazil

Duke hosts a three-day conference March 26-28 examining Latin America's largest country

Brazil hosted the 2014 World Cup
Brazil hosted the 2014 World Cup

A three-day conference starting Thursday, March 26, will shine an academic spotlight on the rising global profile of Brazil, the world’s fifth-largest country. Host to the 2014 soccer World Cup and forthcoming host of the 2016 Olympics, Brazil has also been the site of numerous protests by citizens concerned about government spending, health care struggles and other issues.

The free, public conference is a joint effort of the Duke Brazil Initiative and the Global Brazil Lab of the Franklin Humanities Institute. It will explore myriad issues, from art to politics to the future of the Amazon River. Below, event co-organizer John French, a Duke history professor, discusses Brazil and the aim of the conference.

What’s so important about Brazil today?

Brazil has risen in prominence over the last dozen years both economically and diplomatically. The 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics have given Brazil a heightened international visibility. It has made enormous progress in addressing poverty and inequality although systemic corruption in the political system remains an enduring concern that needs to be addressed. 

Is it a bellwether for South America in some way? Meaning, is its growth and struggles indicative of those experienced collectively in South America, or is it unusual?

Brazil has been enormously influential in South America and beyond over the last dozen years and its leftist president Dilma Rouseff just won a narrow reelection, the fourth in a row counting her predecessor Luis Inácio Lula da Silva. Since 2002, the country has stood at the center as South America has shifted to the left electorally in Bolivia, Chile Ecuador, and Uruguay. Whatever the weaknesses, this left-of-center government has followed an active politics of redistribution, lessened inequality, and displayed a openness towards historically disadvantaged populations including adopting active affirmative action policies.

This conference is wide-ranging, with sessions and panels on topics from the environment to art. It looks like a lot to tackle.

This is a not a normal academic conference. The heart of what’s going to be happen is not people talking at folks or reading long papers. Instead, there are conversations in which a small group of individuals will speak for five minutes to open up a discussion about the Amazon, culture and dance, and politics and the state. There are at least 25 people involved with the aim of launching networks and working groups that will lead to new initiatives in the future. We’re starting something here and this is the debut and we even have a lecture-performance by a wonderful guitarist about a unique genre of Brazilian music.

Panels are also not scheduled against each other so that people can see everything and anything they want to. We want to generate excitement about how much there is to learn about this vast and dynamic country. We want a scientist to learn about its art, for example, and an artist to learn about controversies regarding state regulatory policy. The goal is to broaden everyone’s knowledge. It’s not enough to know a piece of Brazil and we have an opportunity to share our knowledge and let people know we’re here and moving forward on Brazil at Duke.

What affects do the World Cup in 2014 and the upcoming Rio Olympics in 2016 have on Brazil in terms of global stature?

There was a lot of talk in advance of the 2014 World Cup about how it would be a disaster, how, for example, the hotels, airports, and venues wouldn’t be finished. But Brazil pulled it off with great success. I think underestimating Brazil is a problem that has been around for a long time. We have a Friday speaker on “Megaevents and Megaprojects” that explores international coverage leading up to the World Cup versus what actually happened.  And of course, the tourists who went there had a fabulous time. Brazil did a very good job as we knew they would.

The World Cup and the Olympics are a calling card to the world for Brazil. Things are changing really quickly, the landscape is shifting, and even political world is on the move as we speak. It’s a country in motion, people speaking up, talking back, and moving the country forward. That’s what makes Brazil such an exciting place to study, to visit, and to come to love.

The conference begins Thursday, March 26 with a session at the Nasher Museum of Art. All other panels will be held at Smith Warehouse. A full schedule is available here.