Brazillionaires: Wealth, Power, Decadence, and Hope in an American Country by Alex Cuadros

Brazillionaires: Wealth, Power, Decadence, and Hope in an American Country BY Alex Cuadros. Spiegel & Grau. . $28.
The cover of Brazillionaires: Wealth, Power, Decadence, and Hope in an American Country

By nearly all accounts, Rio de Janeiro’s Summer Olympics were not as bad as they could have been. In spite of green pool water, Ryan Lochte’s lies, and terrible American TV ratings, there were a lot of people who made a lot of money. Brazillionaires, a recent journalistic account of Brazil’s billionaire class, is a capable and thorough examination of the kinds of Brazilians who profited from the Games. The book chronicles the accumulation, entrenchment, maintenance, and expansion of the country’s largest fortunes and business empires.

Take, for example, billionaire landowner Carlos Carvalho. He is a nonagenarian developer who owns thousands of acres of property in Rio, and he has provided substantial financial support for the city’s mayor. He built the athletes’ Olympic Village in the swanky Rio neighborhood of Barra da Tijuca, which will be sold off as luxury apartments now that the Games have concluded. Similar facilities for athletes built for the 2012 Olympics in London had units set aside for affordable housing. Last year, Carvalho said that such a plan would not work in Brazil. He wanted to build a city of “good taste,” which meant “noble housing, not housing for the poor.” To make way for the festivities, up to 20,000 families were displaced as part of a slum-clearing operation that had been planned for years.

Brazillionaires offers a comprehensive portrait of Brazilian society, including the favelas. Its author, Alex Cuadros, started writing about the emerging uber-wealthy in Brazil for Bloomberg in 2011, when they were one chunk of the then-ascendant BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) nouveau riche. Occupy Wall Street had called to attention the one percent’s hold on American society, and the American economy had not fully recovered from the housing crash. To American eyes, Brazil looked like a country of winners.

The biggest such winner, and the closest thing to a protagonist in Cuadros’s vignettes, was Eike Batista. For a brief time, Batista was the wealthiest man in Brazil. At his peak in 2012, he was worth more than $30 billion. Other Brazillionaires include the Marinhos (net worth: $15.6 billion), who control the media conglomerate Globo, one of the largest media companies on the planet; Jorge Paulo Lemann ($30.6 billion), a Warren Buffett-like figure best known for taking over big-name American brands like Burger King and Budweiser; and Edir Macedo, a Pentecostal preacher and media mogul (he recently dropped off the list amid some challenges with his own business) whom Brazilian prosecutors have accused of money laundering and fraud. There are sketchy construction magnates, “hidden billionaires” who own bits and pieces of everyday Brazilian life—yogurt, beer, door locks—and “old money” that precedes Brazil’s investment boom in the early to mid-2000s.

Like Elon Musk, Batista pitched the world (and investors) on an ambitious and technical vision of the future. He described a Brazil that would fully master its natural resources, and he launched a series of companies, collectively called the EBX Group, that formed a vertically integrated process for carrying out his plan. One of these firms, OGX, focused on offshore oil exploration and extraction. Another, called OSX, was meant to construct one of the largest shipyards in the world, which would have then made vessels to transport Batista’s extracted oil. Batista’s other companies dealt with everything in between, from precious metals (MMX) to entertainment media (IMX).

But like Donald Trump, Batista possessed an aptitude for showmanship that outstripped his business savvy. His fall came much faster than his ascent. Promised profits never materialized. Some of the gigantic oil finds he boasted about were harder and more expensive to drill for than expected. He borrowed a lot of money from people who suddenly wanted it back. His current net worth is around negative $1 billion. (Though, as Cuadros notes, billionaires don’t really lose “all” their wealth; his family now takes first class for international flights instead of private planes.)

Although Batista’s spectacular combustion is the most gripping story in Brazillionaires, it’s something of an anomaly. Brazil’s wealthiest billionaire, Lemann, is a staid, Harvard-educated financier who buys big, boring brands and squeezes them for profits. Though overt corruption is the norm in Brazil in ways that it isn’t in the United States, there are plenty of Brazillionaires who operate like their more shadowy neighbors to the north; the subtitle of Cuadros’ book is “Wealth, Power, Decadence, and Hope in an American Country.”

Cuadros spends many pages expounding on the unique relationship that Brazilian businesses have with the government; he says that Brazilians have never drawn “a clear line between public and private.” There are readymade words for this business and political culture, like malandro (“tramps who live off the occasional swindle… [who] can also be a kind of antihero”) and jeitinho (the malandro’s “‘little way’ around society’s rules”). Cuadros offers up at almost another dozen words referring to cheats and scams, including Brazillionaire methods for hiding wealth: testa de ferro (front man), rabo preso (a gentleman’s agreement between corrupt politicians who are too compromised to rat one another out), laranja (another word for front man that literally means “orange”; Cuadros calls it an “etymological mystery”). While there is a general sense of exasperation with the raw deal that many of the country’s poorest are getting, by and large Brazilians are complacent about it. It’s part of the way modern Brazil has always operated.

At one point, Cuadros recounts the way in which Globo founder and ur-Brazillionaire Roberto Marinho “framed disputes as political when the real issue seemed to be money.” In the 1970s, Globo, then a burgeoning monopoly, was denied a TV license in the northeastern part of the country. Marinho’s response was circular and unchallenged: Globo needed extra help from the government because it needed to keep growing, and it needed to keep growing because otherwise it would decline. Koch Industries, the second-biggest private corporation in America and the source of Charles and David Koch’s combined $82 billion fortune, has been a routine target of the Environmental Protection Agency. Perhaps the Koch Brothers took a cue from a media baron below the equator? In a 2014 op-ed, Charles criticized calls for more EPA regulation using a bit of limp wordplay that would have made Marinho proud: “More government means less liberty, and liberty is the essence of what it means to be American.”

Noah Kulwin is the technology editor of VICE News. He lives in Brooklyn.