A rich history and stunning beaches draw thousands of visitors a year, but it's not enough to pay the country's bills--and many of the small towns here are barely hanging on. The magnitude of the economic challenge is compounded by the sprawling social misery in the favelas and by a feckless governing elite that can't seem to put things right.
As a frequent visitor over the past five years, I've watched with awe as the Internet has become a regular part of the social scene here in Brazil. Just like their North American counterparts, brick-and-mortar Brazilian companies are figuring out how to bolster their businesses by using the Internet. It's hard now to miss Web addresses of companies and services displayed prominently on television and print advertisements everywhere you go.
Schools for the middle class are getting wired, while lower-income children are gaining access to computer and Internet instruction in impoverished neighborhoods. One local parent I spoke with complained that her biggest problem with the Internet was finding a way to get her son to stop wasting hours at home sending instant messages to his friends.
All of this may not be a big deal to Americans, but the fact that the Internet is no longer a big deal for many Brazilians is a big deal indeed. Unlike the wealthier nations of Western Europe that were also late to the Internet boom, Brazil has had much more to worry about than finding a way to close the cybergap with the United States.
All of this may not be a big deal to Americans, but the fact that the Internet is no longer a big deal for many Brazilians is a big deal indeed.
"The problem is money," said one teacher. "It's not like in America where computers and Internet access is relatively cheap. For most people, these are still expensive items. I was only able to buy a computer for my home last year. Until then, I had to use my school's PC."
In the days leading up to the country's presidential race, politicians are making all the right remarks about how Brazil needs to further build up its Internet infrastructure. That's promising--even if they are not serious about doing anything right now.
Addressing this problem is part of the wider challenge posed by the global digital divide that World Economic Forum Chairman Klaus Schwabto in these same pages. What's clear is that the Internet is changing the way people here communicate and do business--in measured, but perceptible, ways.
Brazil has had much more to worry about than finding a way to close the cybergap with the United States.
As I log on to the Net from this small town in the rugged mountains of eastern Brazil to send this column to the home office, I'm seeing that firsthand.