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Olympics affirms Brazil's rise, Lula's legacy

RIO DE JANEIRO
Fri Oct 2, 2009 1:48pm EDT

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RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Rio de Janeiro's successful bid to host the Olympics in 2016 culminates Brazil's remarkable rise over the past decade from a near basket case to an economic and diplomatic heavyweight.

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Just as the Beijing Olympics of 2008 marked China's revival as a world power, Rio 2016 may be seen as a stamp of approval on the South American giant's coming of age.

After decades of underachievement, Latin America's largest country in recent years has finally made good on the immense promise of its abundant natural resources, vibrant democracy and vast consumer market of 190 million people.

Rio's Olympics victory may be the most spectacular sign of Brazil's surging profile under President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the country's first working-class leader who nurtured an economic boom that has lifted millions of people out of poverty and made him one of the world's most popular leaders.

Even the global economic crisis was unable to knock Brazil off its stride for long as the economy swiftly emerged from recession and returned to growth this year.

"The financial crisis hit us last and we got out of it first," Lula told the International Olympic Committee meeting in Copenhagen this week ahead of Friday's decision. "We do not have that complex of being second-rate citizens any more."

Brazil's seeming inability to live up to its promise was long summed up by the joke that "Brazil is the country of the future -- and always will be."

That largely held true during the dark days of the 1965-1984 military dictatorship and the years of runaway inflation and economic crises in the 1980s and 1990s.

The country was still struggling in 2002 when, as Lula was poised for the presidency, financial markets crumbled on fears Brazil would go the same way as crisis-hit Argentina.

Since then, years of robust growth and Lula's earthy charm, which plays as well at world summits as in Rio slums, have lifted Brazil to economic and diplomatic respectability.

By 2006, Brazil had paid off its International Monetary Fund loans early and this year pledged to lend the IMF $10 billion. It has won three coveted investment-grade ratings in the past 18 months and has increasingly taken its place as an equal among major diplomatic powers on issues ranging from world trade talks to climate-change negotiations.

World-class companies like oil firm Petrobras (PETR4.SA) (PBR.N) and mining company Vale (VALE5.SA) (VALE.N) have flourished in recent years, helping spread Brazilian investments and influence throughout Latin America and beyond.

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In the wake of the financial crisis, Brazil has been at the forefront in pushing for more clout for developing nations in international decision-making, raising the profile of the G20 as well as the BRIC group of big emerging markets, made up of Brazil, Russia, India and China.

Lula's appeal for South America's first Olympics followed a similar line -- that rich countries have enjoyed more than their fair share of the Games' spectacle and prestige.

Brazil's revival has translated into a path out of poverty for about 20 million people, many of whom have benefited from Lula's generous welfare programs.

A run of luck also has worked in Brazil's favor, from the commodities price boom that boosted its exports of raw materials such as iron ore and soybeans to one of the world's largest recent oil finds off Rio's coast in 2007.

The discovery, which the government hopes will help lift Brazil to developed-nation status, prompted Lula and others to revive the old saying that "God is Brazilian."

Yet Brazil still has plenty of challenges to tackle before it joins the elite club of developed nations.

The education system suffers from chronic underinvestment and Brazil has no world-class universities, leaving business leaders worried about a lack of qualified labor. Its creaking infrastructure also threatens to cramp its growth.

Despite its multiracial identity, racism remains a severe but widely ignored barrier to education and jobs for blacks and indigenous Indians. And for all its economic progress, Brazil remains one of the world's most unequal countries with widespread poverty, lawlessness and illiteracy in its northeast region and the vast Amazon rain forest area.

(Editing by Todd Benson, Kieran Murray and Will Dunham)



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