In Peru some years ago I was trying to convince the head buyer for a fast food chain that he ought to source U.S. frozen fries. But it was clear he was just waiting for the meeting with this gringo to end. So I gave him my business card and told him I'd be in touch. But then he looked at the card and saw my home address. His face, once flat as a stone, lit up. "Brazil!," he said. "Women! Soccer! Beaches!"
That's been the kindly, neighborly, image from which Brazil has benefitted for a long time. But that might be changing as the country rises to the status of regional power. You don't get there without becoming a target.
And that may be why the Brazilian federal senate is sending a delegation to neighboring Paraguay by the end of the month. As many as 6,000 Paraguayan 'landless' protestors are camped around and on Paraguayan farms owned by Brazilians and their descendents.
Right in the middle of harvest.
Brazilians have been living and farming there for forty years or more - with many of them having arrived at a better period in Brazil-Paraguay relations, when the famous Itaipú hydroelectric dam was built across the river separating the two countries.
Today, there are said to be as many as 350,000 Brazilians in that country, with lots of them producing soybeans, and, according to at least one report, even Paraguay's president says they're responsible for something like 20% of that country's GDP.
Back in the 1800s, Brazil's then-emperor invited Lebanese Christians, Germans, Italians and even U.S. Confederates over to populate the countryside and bring ag know-how (with the Brazilian cotton industry springing up in a town dubbed Americana.)
By the 1970s, then Paraguayan Dictator Alfredo Stoessner made it easy for Brazilians to come and start farming. And a lot of those Brazilian producers were the descendants of exactly those lighter-skinned Europeans who came to settle a hundred years earlier, in southern Brazil.
In fact, Paraguay's biggest individual soybean producer is a Brazilian with the Italian surname of Fávero.
But more recently, new and popularly-elected governments have put an emphasis on land reform in both Brazil and Paraguay. And the Paraguayan landless, called carperos, have amassed around the farms owned by Brazilians and their descendants, alleging they're not legal (perhaps the Stroessner government, eager to get land into the hands of those industrious Brazilian farmers, didn't worry too much about surveying to make sure some of that land wasn't already owned by someone else.)
Now at least one Brazi-guayan, as they're called, said he's ready to pack it up and leave Paraguay. The landless are blocking access to and from their farms, squatting on their land, impeding the end of the harvest.
So what's likely to come of the mess? Granted the land sales were made when both countries were ruled by military dictatorships that have since been ousted.
On the other hand, those who bought land and followed the law - as it was written at the time - must feel like they're not getting a fair deal.
And those Brazilian senators going over to straighten out the Paraguayans? Let's hope that some of them will be sitting on the committees that make a final rewrite of Brazil's own foreign land ownership rules, later this Spring. My guess is they'll come back with their eyes open about nationalism, an injection of foreign know-how, and land reform.
And then, maybe Brazil will be able to go back to being the land of pretty women, soccer and beaches.