Glow Sticks and AK-47s

I am a ten minute walk from arguably the most famous, certainly the most expensive, beach in the world, but you would never know it from first glance. Young men, barely teenagers, tote assault rifles festooned with glow sticks as they dot around the crowd. And no one bats an eye. Whenever I am asked about Brazil, my mind immediately jumps to those glow sticks and AK-47s.  In the middle of a crowded party and a capirinha-induced haze, I look out over Rio de Janeiro’s magnificent coastline. As I saw the lights of Leblon and Ipanema reflecting on the cold waters of the Atlantic, the disparity could not have been clearer. The favela is controlled by a heavily armed drug gang. Crack cocaine, recently introduced from the United States, has led to a fourfold explosion in the murder rate since 2000. Children attend schools where teachers simply refuse to show up, leaving them, on average, one to two years behind Brazil’s already dismal standards.

Bear in mind, all of this is less than a mile away from the heart of Brazil's Louis Vuitton toting noveau riche. In Brazil, income inequality is not a passe  debate confined to academic circles. It is as blatant as a gun in your face. For all of the Goldman Sach’s-induced media frenzy over South America’s newest economic powerhouse, Brazil has the eighth worst income inequality in the world.

And it is in good company. According to a United Nations development program, 10 of the 15 most unequal countries are in Latin America or the Caribbean. This makes it the most economically lopsided region in the world—even worse than Africa.

This is an unavoidable issue; I chose this as my first topic for a reason. In the midst of all the hysteria about Latin market performance, commodity prices, and newfound oil, we forget that we are dealing with countries with histories of extreme economic and social stratification.

The Brazilian flag is emblazoned with the motto ‘Ordem e Progresso,’ meaning “Order and Progress.” And it accurately sums up the mood here – fervent optimism toward Brazil’s and the rest of Latin America’s future. They have much to be proud of. When I was born, in 1991, Brazil was in the midst of a political scandal that would lead to the ousting of President Fernando Collor. Only three years removed from a brutal military dictatorship, Brazilian democracy was nascent and about to descend into a devastating cycle of hyperinflation that would lay waste to the country’s economy.

Yet only 20 years later, the future seems bright. Brazil weathered the financial crisis with ease and has successfully maneuvered into a favorable position in the so-called ‘multipolar’ world order.  However, the scars of 500 years of slavery, both literal and economic, have not yet healed. The same can be said for all of Latin America. For all of its recent economic success, it still has severe hurdles to overcome.

Glow sticks and AK-47s.  Looking at the throngs of tourists crowding the beaches, I wonder if they realize how close they are to this other world. A world governed not by courts and decrees, but by the arbitrary law of armed thugs. The disparity between their lives couldn’t be greater.

To be fair, these armed thugs throw great parties. Yet, it takes more than a few good parties to address the region’s underlying social ills. Here’s to hoping that they can. And here’s to hoping that my mother doesn't read this.