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Brazil's (non-working?) year ahead

Wyre Davies
Rio de Janeiro correspondent

image copyrightAFP
image captionHoliday celebrations in Rio - but will Brazil actually get any work done in 2014?

There's a spoof calendar doing the rounds in the Brazilian media.

It's particularly popular among online hacks who can't resist a dig at Brazil's many flaws and weaknesses.

The calendar essentially highlights the three or, at a push, four months during the coming year that Brazil will be "open for business".

After the usual extended summer holidays, we'll all be briefly back to work before clocking off again for Carnival.

Then, all too soon, the entire country will be consumed by preparations for the World Cup. The tournament itself, which Brazil will naturally win, will be mandatory time off for most. (Just ask any parent of a child at school in Brazil.)

If, heaven forbid, there's a repetition of 1950 and Brazil fail to win the World Cup on home soil, those (otherwise potentially productive) couple of months in the middle of the year will quite understandably turn into an extended period of national mourning.

September will allow a brief return to school/the office/the bank before the country's attention turns to President Dilma Rousseff's anticipated bid for re-election in October.

Sleeves rolled up in November then, all of a sudden, December comes around and we're all on holiday again!

Forgone conclusion?

The calendar is tongue-in-cheek, certainly, but there's more than a modicum of truth about the challenges facing Brazil this year.

image copyrightAP
image captionThe 2014 World Cup should worry Brazil less than the economy

The World Cup is, arguably, the least of this country's problems. Sporting events come and go and it is Brazil's fortune that the next two Fifa jamborees are due to be held in Russia and Qatar, where controversies over human rights, working conditions and scheduling have already diverted some attention away from the many shortcomings with Brazil 2014.

Anyway, when Brazil wins a record sixth World Cup (which most Brazilians assume is a forgone conclusion) everything else will be forgiven; the stadium overruns and the huge cost to the public purse, the absence of promised infrastructure projects in host cities and the sheer inconvenience of having to rearrange our lives just so the tournament has a chance of running smoothly.

No, it's not the World Cup that Brazil needs to be worried about in 2014, it's the economy. An economy that needs public and private sector workers to be literally working overtime rather than looking at their diaries, wondering whether it is the Maracana stadium on Tuesday and Copacabana beach on Thursday, or vice versa.

After several years of almost stellar growth in the first decade of the new millennium, economic indicators again barely stumbled forward in 2013 just as they had done in the previous two years.

At the end of 2013 the Central Bank reduced its estimate for last year's economic growth from 2.5% to 2.3%. All the while official inflation figures were creeping up towards 6%.

Millions of Brazilians have been catapulted into what can roughly be called "middle class" status thanks to public and private sector initiatives.

image copyrightAFP
image captionDilma Rousseff's bid for re-election in October is widely anticipated

The "Bolsa Familia" (or Family Allowance), which has been outlined in this column several times before, is credited with elevating more than 30 million Brazilians out of poverty, financially empowering mothers and making impressive inroads at tackling child malnutrition.

Similarly, economic growth from home-grown Brazilian companies (and not just those exporting raw materials to China) competing in global markets has created a generation of credit card wielding, aspirational, consumer-driven shoppers... but.

But, Brazil is arguably as inefficient as ever and barriers to overseas participation in the country - on a personal and corporate level - are deeply frustrating and off-putting.

In her end-of-year address to the nation, President Rousseff played it safe - too safe for the liking of some.

It's perhaps natural that, as she seeks to be re-elected to a second term - with a big mandate - she's not proposing any unpopular, though arguably overdue, reforms to public sector pensions, needless official red-tape and serious levels of inefficiency.

She made a point of the need to keep a lid on inflation, although few here are seriously worried about the return of double-digit figures or the kind of loss of confidence being witnessed in Venezuelan and Argentine economies.

However, keeping Brazilians in work and improving productivity is vital - vital if all those Brazilians who use their credit cards like confetti, can still keep paying their bills at the end of the month.

President Rousseff is confident that oil revenues (which should double by the end of the decade) concessions to operate roads and airports and the country's ever-impressive agricultural sector should keep Brazil's economy heading in the right direction, just about. But, so goes the counter-argument, relying on those trusty sources of income hides a multitude of sins, which will hold Brazil back in the long run.

Perhaps, by choosing not to allude to the nationwide protests that almost paralysed the country last year, Dilma Rousseff is hoping she has done enough to placate the demonstrators so that they will not return to the streets.

Many Brazilians do not share her optimism and expect some sort of disruption as worldwide television audiences tune in for the World Cup, particularly in the more politicised cities of the south.

There are many people here who are still football fans but see the World Cup as a missed opportunity.

In almost all of the 12 host cities, integrated transport and other infrastructure that had been promised in time for June's kick-off is way behind schedule or has been downgraded way beyond what was originally proposed.

The overwhelming view is that the protests will return, but perhaps not with the same intensity or nationwide participation we saw in 2013.

Brazil is a country, a continent, of contradictions. For every negative indicator there's a positive one and for every optimist there's a pessimist.

But few would disagree that if Brazil is to fulfil its goal of becoming a major global power with a genuinely diverse and integrated economy, a lot of effort and application is needed.

All of this in what could be the shortest working year on record.