“The BRICs are dead,” announced the Financial Times in late January, referring to the now-famous group of large emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India, and China. What is surprising is that the group’s demise did not come when Russia disregarded the international community during the Crimean crisis or even when the Chinese economy began to slowdown last year, a phenomenon The Economist called “Coming down to earth.” The fall of the BRICs came once Brazil became “the sick man” of the group due to much more than the country’s recent Zika virus epidemic.
It is true that Brazil’s economy is performing poorly and that corruption scandals have lost their novelty since a new one seems to come to light every day. All of these events are part of what the media has labeled the “current Brazilian crisis.” However, despite all of the potentially destabilizing forces concurrently imploding in Brazil, the institutional foundations of the country seem to remain firm. That is not to say that they have not been challenged—they certainly have! But they have been able to stage both those being accused of wrongdoing as well as those doing the accusingwithout ceding to the pressures of either side, and that is reason for optimism. That is how a mature and stable nation behaves.
One exampleis illustrative. A number of high-level politicians and businessmen have been accused, prosecuted, and thrown in jail for participating in a corruption scheme that diverted money from the state-owned oil company Petrobrás in order to finance political favors of many colors. Of special significance are those acts involving the Worker’s Party (PT), which has been in power for the last thirteen years, first with President Lula and now with President Dilma Rousseff. This is significant not because the public found out that there is corruption in government—which to many Brazilians defines politics itself—but because corrupt acts are actually being prosecuted and people thought to be untouchable are now in jail.At any other point in time, it would be expected that the ruling party would be able to extinguish any attempt to reveal its illegal activities to the public. However, the federal police and the judiciary have been able to act independently according to the law and within institutional constraints without being crushed by the political sphere, which is what people would otherwise expect to happen.
The depth of this process is evident when we consider that even the “saint-like” figure of former president Lula is now under active investigation by the federal police on multiple corruption charges. If there were any political figure thought to be untouchable, that would have to be him. Not only that, but Lula’s party has always sold the image ofrepresentingthe common people’s interests, where corruption has no place since that is an “elite” thing. It is clear now that in Brazil, no one is immune from facing the punishments prescribed by law and that the institutional foundations of the country are strong enough to counteract the abuses of power and privilege. If Brazil can sustain this posture through the current crisis without reverting back to the traditional acceptance of state capture by political elites, it may just be able to come out of it as a country worthy of the respect it has demanded for so long from the international community.
Beyond the Brazilian case, the rest of the BRICs are also facing critical moments in their development, which indicates that the affinities between the four countries go beyond economic power. The reality of the matter is that Brazil, Russia, India, and China are “growing up” and they now have to deal with aspects of their personalities that are at odds with the “adult world” of developed countries. It seems that the great comic-book superhero, Spiderman, was right: “with great power comes great responsibility.”
For Brazil, the challenge is to adjust its political system to the full demands of the rule of law. This will provide predictability and reliability in its future prospects by the rest of the international community. Russia seems to have already missed its opportunity to overcome its “growing-up crisis,” which came when faced with the option of accepting international notions of sovereignty during the Crimean dispute in 2014. India is another BRIC country that has faced criticism in regards to its ability to respect the developed world’s rules regarding freedom of speech and political equality. During a recent incident at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, students were suppressed after protesting against a myriad of political and social issues within their country, making the international community wary of India’s democratic credentials. As for China, it seems that the more they play by the rules of the developed world, the more trouble they face in producing the rates of economic growth they have shown up until now.
What is ironic is that even though it was the Brazilian crisis that prompted commentators to announce the end of the BRICs, it is Brazil that has shown the greatest degree of maturity during its individual “growing-up crisis.” The South American country is clearly facing an economic crisis, but there is no nation that has never faced economic troubles during their maturing process. It is also evident that Brazil’s economic turmoil is a consequence of its broader political crisis, which was itself caused exactly by the counter-intuitive showing of vitality of a solid political system. By that account, once Brazil is able to solve its political troubles, it will have the means to address its economic difficulties. The same, however, cannot be said for the other BRIC countries. Russia, India, and China, all still have to deal with uncertainty about their political foundations, which are necessary conditions for permanently sitting at the developed country’s table.
Despite the Financial Times declaring the end of the BRICs and crowning the TICKs (Taiwan, India, China, and South Korea) as the new heirs of the front-line toward developed status, it is not clear that Brazil should be dismissed so quickly from the equation. Taiwan and South Korea are certainly important economies, but neither has the potential that Brazil has to play at the “adult table.” In addition, by any measure, Brazil features ahead of Taiwan, South Korea, or even any other BRIC country, with the exception of China, when looking at the size of its economy. What is clear is that declaring a mourning period for the BRICs can only be justified by the dropping of Russia from the group, which would produce the BICs, and not a complete restructuring in the form of TICKs.
The BRICS are still young as a group and have much to learn. This maturing process will inevitably bring a great number of challenges but the end of their developmental process is still uncertain. The current time is one of crisis for all parties, but Brazil does seem to be opting for the arduous process of long-term molding of a system apt to play at the adult table rather than clinging to fleeting youthful desires of grandeur that Russia seems to adopt. China and India still do not seem to have had to face a critical juncture in their “BRIC” path, which may explain why they have not yet been claimed “dead” by the international media. At any rate, to borrow another phrase from the great Spiderman, it seems that for the BRICs, “the choice to lead an ordinary life is no longer an option.” They continue and will continue to be a relevant group to any international analysis.