Beyond its infrastructure concerns, the South American giant is plagued by alarming levels of violent crime. For all the attention paid to drug-related killings in Mexico, Brazil has a significantly higher overall murder rate. For that matter, the Brazilian homicide rate is approximately twice the Nicaraguan rate and roughly five times that of the U.S. Brazil’s security problems made global headlines last month, when a prominent criminal judge, Patrícia Acioli, was shot dead in the city of Niterói, close to Rio. “She was best known for convicting members of vigilante gangs and corrupt police officers,” the BBC reported.
The level of violence among young Brazilians (aged 15 to 24) is particularly alarming: According to a Brazilian justice ministry report published in February, the country’s youth homicide rate nearly doubled between 1998 and 2008. As the author of the report, sociologist Julio Jacobo Weiselfisz, told the Associated Press, “The murder rate among youths has reached epidemic proportions.” Indeed, it is among the highest in the world.
In the short term, violent crime will greatly complicate planning for the World Cup and the Olympics in Rio (where the murder rate has declined substantially but is still quite high). Over the long term, the biggest threat to Brazilian competitiveness is a poor education system. On the OECD’s latest Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) test, administered in 2009, Brazil ranked 53rd out of 65 countries and school systems in reading and science, and 57th in mathematics. Its scores in each of those three categories improved from the previous PISA test, in 2006. Yet as The Economist noted, “the recent progress merely upgrades Brazil’s schools from disastrous to very bad.” Brazil fashions itself a Latin American regional superpower, but on the reading portion of the 2009 PISA test it scored below Chile, Uruguay, Mexico, Trinidad and Tobago and Colombia. On the math and science portions, Brazil scored below all of those countries save Colombia.
To be sure, Brazilians can take justifiable pride in their country’s recent economic achievements. The days of hyperinflation in the late 1980s and early 1990s are now a distant memory. But government officials must not become unduly arrogant or complacent. Brazil is still a long way from becoming a wealthy, advanced country, let alone a global superpower.