Thoughts on my 42 Days in Brazil

Thoughts on my 42 Days in Brazil  
Examining my time in São Paulo & Brazil, July 29-September 8, 2018
(slightly redacted version)

Minding the Gap

The State Department asked me to “hold the post” in São Paulo, to cover an unusually long gap between American officers in the public affairs role. They needed someone who could step in w/o missing a beat and then as easily step out again when the work was done.  My experience meant I could do it and my love of Brazil meant I would do. They needed me to stay in São Paulo for 42 days.  That was my mission.

The mission that I set for myself was a little more than merely minding the gap.  The mission I assigned myself was (switching metaphors) to grow the pie with an energetic program of outreach to meet important people, especially those the USG had chosen for exchanges in times past, and to engage them again. Diplomacy is about engaging people.  I wanted to see and hear about what had happened with those we engaged.  This had the added benefit of keeping out contact network alive and vital.  In diplomacy, sometimes just being there is the job. Very often the process of setting up and attending meeting is also the product.

During my too-brief time in Brazil I had in depth contact with dozens of interesting and important people, and more fleeting contact with literally hundreds more.  I feel I earned the “vast sums” the State Department spent to send me here.  An important truth I learned in the FS was that our individual efforts disappear like tears in the rain unless we pass them along by writing notes. I wanted to examine the experience, as well as document it.  I wrote notes about some of the more interesting meetings. So as not to stall the narrative, I will make only passing references to them.

We Americans sometimes complain that people in other countries do not like us, or at least not properly appreciate us.  This has not been my experience.  Of course, nobody is universally liked, and everybody can find something not to like in a great and active power like the United States of America, but my interactions were generally friendly, from taxi drivers, to youth reps to professors or officials local and national.  It may be a blow to American ego, but most people do not think about America most of the time.  This means that they are often not aware of the good we do around the world or about those things we are less proud to have done or tolerated.  Brazilians are certainly not uninterested in the USA, but their interest in the details of our politics or society is not as acute as we might hope or fear.

Soft Power

That is not to say America is absent.  On the contrary, America is ubiquitous in Brazil. This is soft power and exercising soft power is like trying to nail Jell-O to a wall.  So maybe we should just appreciate it for bringing our countries closer.  The irony is that Brazilians sometimes do not think about American culture as American.  I know this sounds odd but consider our own consumption of foreign culture.  When we watch Downton Abby, we are not thinking “Ah British culture,” at least I am not.  We are not appreciating the Germans when we listen to Beethoven, nor are fans of manga usually thinking much about the Japanese.  Yet these are indeed vehicles for cultural expression and could be said to be transmitters of soft power. Rather than being purveyors of these cultural products, a good diplomat can tag along with them, using them to help make connections.  If we want to look like we are leading the parade, we can get in front, but it rarely depends on us.

For example, the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra played a tribute to Leonard Bernstein, including selections from Candide, West Side Story, Slava & On the Town. Good to see American culture showcased in Brazil. The concert was at the beautiful São Paulo Municipal Theater. The Consul-General and I attended the concert, as guests not sponsors.  Yet we could have achieved no more if we had covered the costs and been the impresarios.  The Conductor praised Bernstein and implicitly the culture that produced him.  They brought a 1950s era Ford Fairlane as a prop outside the venue. People lined up to take their pictures with it.  It would be one of the year’s highlights if the Consulate-General had organized the event, but all we needed do was be there to enjoy the music and the praise. Of course, it does make it better if we officially attend. Showing appreciation for the work of others is more than just good manners: it is an influence enhancer.  As the old Yogi Berra joke goes, “Always go to other people’s funerals; otherwise they won’t go to yours.”

Talking to Those Our Programs Touched

We cannot deeply engage with large general audiences, like the hundreds that attended one of the Bernstein concerts (plural – it was a series).  My focus and effort were on a subset of the general population – Brazilians who had been directly touched by one or more of our USG programs. This included IVLPs, youth exchanges, Fulbright and speaker programs.  These programs are resource intensive for the USG. I was confident that participants would have great and good stories to tell, but I did approach with my research with a twinge of trepidation.

Full disclosure – I am a true believer in the value of exchange.  What if it turned out that the exchanges did not work?  I would certainly suffer a crisis of faith.  And what does it mean to say that they did work anyway?  I settled on a general idea that an exchange worked to the extent that it improved Brazilian-American relations, provided lasting connections between our two nations and produced desirable outcomes in Brazil or the USA, preferably both.
My fears were unfounded, and faith rewarded. I understand that my sample was small and not random, biased toward those who had been successful, since they would be the ones easiest to talk to and mostly likely to want to talk with us.  But I found enough great results to make up for the less successful instances I might have missed.  This was not my first foray into this territory.   As public affairs officer in Brazil (2011-14), I made a special effort to reach out to former exchange participants whenever I traveled.  With no exceptions (and I mean zero exceptions), the returnees talked about their experiences in glowing terms, often calling them life changing.   But this time I was looking for a little different angle. Besides asking what they visit had done for them, I was also looking for the longer-term impact on Brazilian-American relations and on common aspirations of our nations.
Some of the Brazilians I met came back from their exchanges decades ago.  There was even one that I would call a second-generation beneficiary, who represents Harvard in Brazil, told me that her father had been an IVLP (or whatever it was called in those day) in the 1970s.  His experience made an impression on him and his family, i.e. her, making connections with the USA seem much more normal and natural. Others, especially many of the youth exchange participants were newly returned within the last couple of years, sometimes months.  To address first criteria – improvements of Brazilian-American relations – these exchanges were a clear success in that we could easily access these important Brazilians.  They all took our calls and were happy to talk to us.  This fact alone satisfied the requirement that the exchange be useful for Brazilian-American relations.
Our one serious glitch actually illustrates the power of the program. I reached out to former IVLP a Brazilian federal judge famous for the prosecution of the crimes identified in the Operation Car Wash (Portuguese: Operação Lava Jato), a case of high-profile scandals of corruption and bribery involving government officials and business executives.

He participated in an IVLP where he visited U.S. agencies and institutions responsible for preventing and combating money laundering.  It is widely appreciated that this guy acted with remarkably strong ethics and probity, even going against members of his own party to root out corruption. This series of investigations resulted in the impeachment of a sitting president and the conviction and incarceration of a former one. Did his IVLP affect his thinking and action? I cannot know for sure because we did not discuss it, could not discuss it.   He accepted my invitation to talk (a plus for the program’s reach) but we decided that it was not a good idea for representatives of the USG to be talking to someone with such a high profile when some of those affected by his opinions were involved in upcoming elections.  Strong circumstantial evidence, however, points to a program success. At least that is what it looks like to me.


I spent many hours talking to alumni and have a few observations to share.  Let me start with IVLP alumni.  You can see more detail in my write-ups at the end. They were doing all sorts of valuable things along the lines of their programs and keeping contact with Americans, not only with USG, enhancing the common good.  One participant had started a blog and movement to tell women’s stories of the challenges with sexism in the workplace and with life.  She was not only inspired by American counterparts but was clearly inspiring some of them.  A true continuing exchange. Another was using information she had gathered on her IVLP sojourn and working still with American colleagues to identify illegally harvested wood.  American colleagues were learning from her and often together they were taking insights arrived at in the collaborations to other countries around the world where tropical forests were threatened. These efforts are helping us effectively enforce our own American laws, like the Lacy Act. During a program on volunteerism, I was embarrassed by the praise heaped on the USA by participants.  They said things about us that none of us could have said.  The program was the launch of a volunteering platform, expected to reach millions of Brazilians created by an IVLP alum whose program had been on volunteerism a few years back.  BTW, this was the national launch.  He already had created or inspired a half dozen such projects on the state level. We met an IVLP whose visit centered on addressing toxic waste in water and soil and was now facilitating USA investment, among other things, by inspecting and remediating brownfield sites.
In short, among IVLP alumni I found nothing but success and mostly resounding success.


Brazil’s flagship youth exchange is the Youth Ambassador Program.  This has been going since 2002 and remains highly competitive, often with more than 10,000 applicants for 50 slots.  Since 2006, the Mission sponsored English immersion courses for runners-up and hundreds of young Brazilians have enjoyed the benefits.  Our binational centers, American Centers and EducationUSA branches all participate, drawing participants from all the regions in Brazil. It would be easy to take all or most of the participants from places like São Paulo or Rio, only from big cities, but emphasis on Brazil-wide inclusion makes the program more effective. Youth Ambassadors and related programs have now affected hundreds of young Brazilians and the earliest recipients are now in their early and mid-30s. More recently we have been doing Young Leaders of the Americas Exchanges (YLAE) for aspiring entrepreneurs.

During my 42 days in Brazil I spoke with dozens of Youth Ambassador Alumni and have been in contact with more.  These supplement and update my previous contacts as PAO in Brazil 2011-14. Whenever I traveled, I made a point of inviting local youth alumni to pizza lunches.  Then and now, I found uniform success.  Youth touched by our programs had become successful and all were grateful for the experience.  “Life changing” was the way I heard the programs described again and again.  But there is more.  Many alumni are now in positions of significant authority in business, government and in NGOs. One Youth Ambassador Alum is running for Congress in this elections cycle.  We have a strong network throughout Brazil and one that is growing in both size and importance each year.
I spoke to a few Youth Ambassador Alums about “reach back.”  How did they think that their experience affected their larger communities?  This was important, since all of them came from challenging circumstances.  It is gratifying to give a few a chance for a better life, even better if the ripples of their success move others along.  I got thoughtful and sometimes inspiring answers. All thought (hoped) that the power of their example was helpful, but most had actually reached back with concrete effort. One very good example was a YA who right after coming back set up a leadership program in high schools in his state.  The program he set up in his own high school reached an estimated 800 kids and it inspired the creation of a network of seven similar programs throughout the state.  The idea is to make the kids agents of positive change.  I am not sure how we can measure that, since in the process of expanding the programs and ideas are adapting to local conditions and so becoming harder to trace.  I am sure that the effects are real, persistent and positive.


During my time here, I had the chance to attend only one speaker program, this on bio mathematics. This visit satisfied a couple of our goals. First was the simple connections principle. One of the most important functions of diplomats is that we act as connectors, putting Americans in touch with counterparts in other places. Connectors play a key role in the information ecosystem but they (we) are easily overlooked or dismissed.  I have confidence that the follow up will be significant and lasting. Second was the USA example of women in STEM.

I also had an experience that I will credit as a speaker program but let me explain the trajectory. It was gratifying to meet Jeremy Buzzell, Chief for the Accessibility Management Program at the National Park Service, maybe more a vindication of old school people-to-people diplomacy.  I connected Jeremy Buzzell with Juarez Michelotti, from SESC São Paulo at the request of then former State Department colleagues, former since this was 2016 and I had just retired from FS.  For me it was a simple matter of looking up on the internet making a few calls.  USG is USG no matter the branch. I did not know the particular people at the Park Service, but I know how the system works generally.   It was harder for Brazilian friends.  Imagine how it would be to find similar Brazilian officials for someone outside the structure.  Anyway, I called Mr. Buzzell, made the connection and mostly forgot about it. I did keep in sporadic contact with Juarez, however, because of my personal interest in his work of ecological restoration of Brazil’s Atlantic forests, and when I came on my sojourn to São Paulo I got in touch to with him to meet him in person and maybe see the forests.  So, my colleague Joyce Costa and I arranged to go.  With the date set Juarez gave me the good news that coincidentally Mr. Buzzell would also be there helping them with a program on accessibly.


The high point of my FS career came with my involvement with the Brazilians Science w/o Borders program.  I am morally certain that the Mission’s quick and sustained support was instrumental to the program’s success. Ultimately around 33,000 Brazilian students went to the USA on this program. It contributed an estimated $1.5 billion into the American higher education economy and the benefits of long-term contact I believe will be immense.
Unfortunately, I was unable to do extensive meetings with returned students, since they had dispersed throughout Brazil.  I did, however, talk to Luiz Loureiro, executive director of Fulbright in Brazil, and with academics who worked with the program.  I became aware of a Brazilian Academy of Sciences study that determined that around 20% of SwB participants went on to advanced degrees, compared with only around 5% of similarly situated students who did not go on the program.  The researchers also reported an even greater positive impact on low income participants when compared to their peers.  The study found it too early to say definitively, but so far it looks like a success. That comported well with my anecdotal evidence.  I have reasonable faith that sending more than 30,000 Brazilians to study STEM in the USA is bound to produce good results.  The only caveat in the studies I read were concerns that that the money committed by the Brazilian government might have been better deployed in improving primary education.   That is a value judgement about which I will not voice an opinion.

Interest in studying in the USA declined with the ending of the SwB program in 2016, no surprise there, but has since rebounded.  I was able to attend an EducationUSA event in São Paulo where around 2500 prospective students showed up.  Our EducationUSA offices throughout Brazil are showing increases, according to director Rita Moriconi.  She is considering opening a new one in far off state of Acre.  We opened one in distant Roraima during my last months in Brazil and it is still going strong.

English Teaching and BNCs

I was able to visit three BNCs:  Casa Thomas Jefferson in Brasilia, Cultural in Porto Alegre and had a long visit with Silva Helena Correa, who directs Alumni, the BNC in São Paulo.  I spoke to a group of Access Students in Porto Alegre and to English teaching through sports at SESC in Bertioga in São Paulo state.  Our programs are strong.  Particularly impressive is the maker space in Brasilia that was built in cooperation with Casa Thomas Jefferson, Smithsonian and Mission Brazil. I wrote more extensively about the maker space in an earlier post. Rather than risk stalling the narrative again, I refer you to that.  It also has pictures.

And Just Because it’s Fun …
A Visit with an Old Colleague

A maybe off-beat but rewarding “event” was my visit with Paulo Agustoni. Paulo had been working for the USG for more forty years by the time I started in the FS and he was waiting from me when I took up my first post in Porto Alegre back in 1985. All counted, Paulo would spend more than fifty (50) years in the service of the United States of America. He showed me his service pins from ten, twenty, thirty and forty years of service. They evidently do not have one for fifty. It so rarely comes up. Paulo must be one of the longest-serving employees in the USG.  We will not soon see his like again.

I visited Paulo at his home in Porto Alegre on a rainy Sunday morning.  He is now 91 years old. It was a great history lesson to hear him talk and I just enjoyed meeting and reminiscing with an old friend.  I also got some insights into the immigration history of southern Brazil, things I had not known about Paulo or the State of Rio Grande do Sul.  Of course, my couple of years with him 1985-8 representing only a little wrinkle in time for his long career. Nevertheless, I heard from multiple “grapevine” sources that my visit had been an important day for him. I was happy to do it.

Talking Taxi

Taxi drivers are often a source of good information.  I talked to them less after I figured out I could walk so many places in São Paulo, but I learned a few things nevertheless.

I find it surprising that the drivers do not immediately guess where I am from. Of course, they know that I am some kind of outsider. We Americans think that others think about us more than they really do. Taxi drivers are aware of the USA. How could they not be? But the USA is not top of mind for them. They have plenty of other problems, hopes and dreams. I have did asked any of them specifically what they think of the USA and none volunteered any general attitudes, although many have friends or relatives who have been to the USA. Some of their questions, however, illustrate their impression. One driver asked me if we had homeless in the USA. Another asked if we had traffic that requires a rodizio (where different license numbers cannot enter town during rush hour on different days). I talked to one guy about relative prices. Food is generally cheaper in Brazil than in the USA, but not in relation to salaries, and many other sorts of good, electronics for example, are more expensive both nominally and in absolute numbers.

Some Routine

My assignment was to hold the post and that I did also in those thing that fall between the banal and the mundane. I attended the mandatory meetings and tried to give useful advice, drawing on my experience, about upcoming official visits, media and meetings.  I signed, cleared and commented as appropriate.  I never much liked this part of the job, but it seems a lot less onerous when you know it is not your fate to be doing it for very long.  My grants warrant was no longer valid. It would have been useful to post for me to have a valid grants warrant, but that is maybe a consideration for another time. I took part in the briefings, most notably (i.e. I actually produced notes) for the Smart Cities trade mission and at the social event at the CG’s residence I interacted with the USA representatives and their Brazilian colleagues, I think to some benefit for connections and I interacted with the advance team for a potential visit of Alex Azar, head of Health and Human Services.

Business Cards: Prosaic & Exotic

I brought with me around 100 business cards with only my name, email and the State Department golden eagle, those fancy and expensive Department of State variety. I had them made years ago when I was between tours and wanted something to give.  I still had a box left. I like to give cards and entice my interlocutors reciprocate.  My memory for names is weak and the card also gives me an email to follow up.  I usually write notes or send something if I think we have some connection.  I very quickly ran out of the State Department cards and had to resort to my personal cards. My personal cards were popular. Several people commented on them and a couple people approached me to ask for one, evidently having been shown one by someone else.  I think the picture does it – me standing smiling in front of a forest fire – but people also comment on my gentleman of leisure title. The big problem with my personal cards is that I need to explain my status.  This is good and bad. On the one hand, it tends to hold the person long enough to make that personal connection. On the other hand, it is confusing. At one event, they made a name tag for me that said, “Consul for Virginia Tree Farm.”   On the third hand (yes, third. Who knew?), it does allow them to find me later, after I am gone from São Paulo, not sure if that is entirely good or bad.  One interesting permutation, I got a call asking me to meet someone at CETESB (São Paulo’s environmental regulatory agency), seemed a useful meeting, so I went.  They wanted to see me because of the card.  Someone showed the card to them and they were intrigued by the picture and the function.  We talked about the need for certification of timber products, among other things.  It fits generally (vaguely) in our Mission goals, but I was speaking more as a subject matter “expert” (I dislike using that term for myself) more than a representative.

Human Relations
I will assert that I improved morale among the LES. Since they will be among the potential readers of this report, I hope I am right. I knew most of them from previous tours and visits.  I think they benefited from having me around.  I served in Brazil in a remarkable time.  The Brazilian economy was booming.  People were optimistic about the future.  In our particular work, Science w/o Borders, English w/o Borders and various outreach and exchange programs were reaching their apogees, or at least local peaks. These were good old days, objectively and make to shine even more lustrously by the passage of time. I could be a souvenir of that.

I also like to think that I improve the collective intelligence of any group I join.  My preferred explanation for this is that I am smart and energetic, but I suspect that the real reason might be that I am obtuse but persistent enough that people have to explain things to me and in process are motivated to think through their ideas in new ways.

Whenever I reached out to contacts, I did it through my LES colleagues.   I think that I provided a good pretext for outreach. I tried to make the contact and then let them get to their business.

Grateful for the Chance to Do it Again
I enjoyed being in Brazil again and in São Paulo for a longer time than ever before.  I enjoyed trying to revive my Portuguese and reach out to once and future contacts.  I walked many of the places I needed to go, including usually the hour and fifteen-minute walk to and from the Consulate-General from my hotel.  I got to know São Paulo from the slower, pedestrian perspective. There is a lot more to this great and big city than you can easily see from the window of a fast-moving car. Of course, in São Paulo traffic is rarely fast-moving, but in those cases you too often see only the brake lights of the cars around. There is some crime in São Paulo (I hear) but I did not and do not feel the city was a very threatening place, if you are aware of where you are going. I was not a victim of crime, at least I hope not. I am writing this on my penultimate day.  Could be I am ultimately unlucky.

I did not achieve all the goals I set out for myself.  My biggest gap was not being able to do a more comprehensive assessment of Science w/o Borders, but that was a task beyond my reach, as I determined when I started to work on it.  I did an active program of meetings and discussions.  I reached out to Brazilians in some way every single one of my 42 days in Brazil save one – Sunday August 26, when I had no appointments and it rained most of the day. I hunkered down.  Some random folks that I approached to talk about … whatever … may just remember the crazy American who wanted to talk to them about their work and thoughts, but I think they will remember.

I coulda/shoulda/woulda done more, but I think I did a lot in 42 days.  It is was a great experience but I treated my time as sprint, rather than the marathon if I had more time. I am kind of tired now and ready to go home, even with some things I wanted to do still undone. Anyway, a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, else what is a heaven for.
All my pictures are from my 42 days in Brazil except the one below.  That is my Virginia tree farm. Got things to do, trees to manage. You don’t think trees will just grow by themselves, do you?

As a parting thought, let me say that my tree farming has informed my understanding of everything else. I see complex ecological relationships in all human interactions and have implicitly and explicitly applied ecological principles to my work in Brazil, and elsewhere.  Trying to find insights in complex adaptive systems is a true joy, whether ecology on the farm or ecology in the community.

I have been lucky enough to have diverse interests and lots of opportunities to examine & indulge them. You need not decide what you “really” like best when you have options.  I have long noticed, however, that when my mind wanders, it mostly wanders into the woods, so it will be nice to be back.

Thank you,
John Matel – Temporary Diplomat, Gentleman of Leisure, Conservationist & Tree Farmer

Value of Hypocrisy

I am a hypocrite and I proudly so. Hypocrisy is a prerequisite for civilization and the basis of courtesy. Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice plays to virtue, since hypocrisy implies acceptance of the value you pretend to have.
Diplomacy, Politics & Courtesy are Hypocrisy Codified
All good diplomats, all good statesmen & most good people are hypocrites. They must work productively with people whose values they do not share, often with people they personally dislike. Would it be nobler to be sincere and express their “true” feelings, presuming they have thought through what the true feeling even are?  It sure would not get more done.

The right question is to ask what people CAN do, not what they can’t. Effective people look for common goals among opponents and common aspirations even among enemies. You need not agree on everything to work together on something.

Look for Agreement
In my diplomatic career, I have usually followed the maxim that – “You make friends shoulder to shoulder not face to face,” i.e. working together on common aspirations is better than talking about your problems. I do not want to disparage dialogue, but you should be looking for shared aspiration, not just airing grievances. Just talking about differences as often leads to finding more differences rather than resolving those you have already. “What can we do together?” is better than “Why don’t you like me?”

When I meet someone, I look for common aspirations – looking for the doors or windows – the ways in – not the stone walls that keep us out. This just makes sense. I do not know why you would do anything else. Yet, I find more-and-more people rejecting this. I hear people saying that they cannot talk to “those people” because “they” are unreasonable. Yeah. They say this w/o seeing the irony.

I joke that when I was serving in Iraq (2007-8) I ate lunch with guys who would have – maybe tried to kill me only weeks before. I do not think it was always just a joke. I have found common aspirations with communists, religious radicals, former (maybe current) criminals and lots of people who just hated people like me or what I represented. It was rarely pleasant at first and often never got better, but sometimes we found something we both wanted and could set aside our dislike to get it.

Feeling Righteous or Being Right
It is satisfying to be self-righteous, to assume that you or your group has a monopoly on “the good.” We all want to think we are fighting the good fight. After the fight, however, how many times have you regretted the need for the violence (real or intellectual).  Surveying the carnage and destruction after the battle of Waterloo, his great victory that he had anticipated for a decade, the Duke of Wellington reportedly said, “The only thing worse than a battle lost is a battle won.”

If we can (and should) look for common ground with foreign enemies, we certainly cannot deny this to our fellow American opponents.

It is NOT a betrayal of principles to work with opponents and find common purpose with enemies. In fact, it is affirming a greater principle of inclusiveness. It is how civilization works. Let’s maybe be less indulgently sincere. Hypocrites often get more done and almost always are more pleasant to be around.

And if you look for it, you may sincerely find good in those you think hate you and maybe you can hate the a little less and maybe learn not to hate at all.

Speaking to Youth in Bertioga

I visited the São Paulo SESC resort in Bertioga.   I will write more later.

My picture shows a SESC program we (the Consulate) co-sponsored.  You might call it “English learning through sports” – in this case baseball.  The boys in the picture play baseball AND study English.  I talked to the team for about an hour.  They were a little scared to speak English at first, but a few minutes in they were asking questions.  The English in their questions sounded good.  I cannot properly judge how well they understood, but they seemed to laugh at the right times.  None of the question was hard. They asked a few questions about the USA but rather more about things that I liked or did not like in Brazil. Since I am very fond of Brazil, I think they liked the answers.  I dodged questions about my favorite Brazilian football team.  Well … I told the truth, that I did not know enough about the teams to have favorites.  They just thought it was a joke.  The only significant pushback came when I told them that I did not like açaí, a palm fruit that, IMO, tastes like dirt.  They all liked açaí, but as we talked we came to understand that we were talking about different things.  They like a kind of sherbet. It is frozen and has lots of sugar and other flavors.  That is okay.  I used to get the purer version of it when I traveled in the Amazon. It is not so good w/o the added ingredients.

I enjoy these sorts of encounters and I think kids do too.  The kids are very familiar with America through the media, but these kids, fairly underprivileged, are likely to have few contacts with living Americans.  They are surprised, and I think they are pleased that an American diplomat wants to talk to them.  I learn from the sorts of questions they ask and their reactions to what I say.  It is one of those ground truth checks.

These contacts have ripple effects, in that they talk to their friends and family about the encounter and I know that there is staying power.  I sometimes meet people who tell me about times we met a few years ago.  During my years in diplomacy, I must have spoken to thousands of young people in these sorts of engagements.  It is one of the parts of my old job I liked best.

A little background – I am not sure you could call SESC an NGO, since it has mandatory contributions by members of the service industry.  SESC along with SESI (industries) and transport SEST (Serviço Social do Transporte).  These were established by government fiat back in 1946 and the president of SESC is nominated by the president of Brazil. On the other hand, SESC is private and non-profit.  Since it is supported by contributions by the commercial industry, it is not open to all Brazilians. It is a membership organization. Only workers in the covered industries and their families are eligible to participate.

SESC, SESI & SEST work in similar fashion, so I describe one with the stipulation that the others resemble it.  Each Brazilian state and the DF have their own SESC and there is significant autonomy and diversity among them, not least because their budgets come from local industrial contributions.

We don’t have anything like SESC in the U.S. and I think that this system is unique to Brazil.  They are sort of like a YMCA on steroids.  They provide social services, health, education, leisure and cultural activities as well as programs to promote good citizenship.  They have swimming pools, gyms & theaters.


The praise was a bit embarrassing, and I am not sure I liked how it was tactically deployed, but the masters of ceremony held up the USA as the paragon of volunteerism.  They gently disparaged the Brazilian audience, pointing out that only around 4% of Brazilians were involved in volunteer activities.

The Importance of Volunteerism
“Do you know what that number is in the USA?” the MC asked the audience.  A few hands went up with guesses ranging from 10-40%.  Then she dropped the brick.  “84%,” she said.  I would not vouch for the accuracy of that number.  I think we are dealing with various definitions of volunteerism and different durations of the activities.   There is no doubt, however, that Americans are remarkable in the amount of their time and money that they voluntarily donate, and this is a consistent thread that runs through our history. But all his is a narrative for a different place.

My colleague Wesley Oliveira and I were at the kickoff of “Transforma Brasil,” an interactive web platform that connects volunteers with opportunities and aims to register 5 million volunteers and 20k non-profit organizations by 2022.

A Big Launch for a Big Idea
And what an event it was.  The auditorium at Civi-co São Paulo was packed.  Talk show host Fátima Bernardes (who Wesley tells me is the “Oprah of Brazil,” absent the car giveaways) introduced the program, emphasizing that she and all the other people present were volunteers.  The obligatory reading of honored guests included mayors and high officials, the Governor of São Paulo and three presidential candidates, although we actually saw only one of these.

Transforma Brasil is the creation of Fábio Silva, who is a 2014 IVLP alumni from Recife. It was this connection and the specific request from our colleagues in Recife that moved us to attend this event. I am sure glad that we did.  This had most of the important aspects of public diplomacy. We saw and were seen (we were among the honored guests mentioned), made and renewed contacts and gained insights into a developing trend in Brazil.  Volunteerism, at least the idea of it, is trending in Brazil, as evidenced by the high-level of interest in this event. Some of this result from a need to fill in gaps left by government services, but much of the real power comes from a realization that citizenship in a democracy means involvement beyond voting and demanding that others do something.
Fábio Silva was aware of volunteerism statistics and seeing advantage to Brazilians society to improve them, as a social entrepreneur he decided to create organizations that could be platforms to help connect would-be volunteers with appropriate NGOs.  The idea was not only to raise awareness and encourage volunteers, but provide those encouraged with practical ways to get involved, i.e. turn aspirations into useful actions.  I like to think that this was at least partly an insight he got from his IVLP visit, that specifically addressed volunteerism and how to move people from indifference, to aspiration to action.  If people do not know how to do something, they usually will do nothing.  It is a primarily tenet of marketing, both of products and ideas (although I stipulate that some object to the use of marketing in this context, I find it apt) that the initial inspiration and call to action must be closely followed by a simple answer to the question, “So wadda we do next?”

In Recife it Began
Fábio Created his first version of a platform in his native city of Recife in 2015, and in cooperation with others, similar platforms have been installed in Campinas (São Paulo), Petrópolis (RJ), Cuiabá (MT) and Campina Grande (PB). “Transforma Recife” has already registered 120,000 volunteers and 400 NGO, registering more than a million hours of volunteer work in Recife. Recife features a Voluntariômetro, an outdoor tabulator that counts the volunteer hours in the state of Pernambuco in something like real time.
Fábio Silva was already an active social entrepreneur before he was nominated for IVLP.  That is how we found him and why we wanted to help.  We cannot claim that the program turned his life around, but we can say, as he does, that the program greatly accelerated and facilitated his progress and gave him ideas.  In other words, our program was part of a web of factors responsible for success. A logician might say that the program was necessary although not sufficient to these great results we are seeing.  Even if it sounds like faint praise to some, I consider this one of the greatest compliments. All great things are accomplished in cooperation with others, which means that many are necessary, but none are sufficient, even if some like Fábio play the lead role. Fábio expressed this sentiment well in his own remarks.

If you want to make great things happen, play your role and help others play theirs and let something bigger than the sum of the parts emerge.   This seems to have happened here.
Media attention to the event
FOLHA DE SÃO PAULO: ‘Tinder do voluntariado’ conecta doadores e organizações
DIÁRIO DE PERNAMBUCO: Recife exporta modelo de voluntariado
UOL, Blog de Jamildo (colunista de politica e economia de Pernambuco: Ciro, Marina e Amoedo participam de lançamento de plataforma nacional de voluntariado
SUPER INTERESSANTE: Conheça o “Linkedin” para quem quer fazer trabalho voluntário

Young Entrepreneurs in Brazil (YLAI)

Innovation is hard to measure and nearly impossible to anticipate.  After all, innovation means something new or at least different.  If it is not discontinuous to previous developments, it is not much of an innovation, after all.

All of the returning Young Leaders of the Americas (YLAI) alumni were practicing entrepreneurs in Brazil and all of those about to embark on their exchange program hoped to be.  I will not explain the YLAI program here, since you can get information more directly from the YLAI Link.  For our purposes here, it is enough to know that we were attending a reception for alumni and those just going out.

This was a network opportunity, in keeping with the YLAI goals of creating and maintaining networks.  I talked to both returnees and outgoing YLAI, rather more returnees, since I was interested in their experiences in the USA and since their return.  The returnees were very enthusiastic about talking. They took their networking seriously.  People I talked with had been to Kansas City, Atlanta, Palo Alto & Charlottesville, among other places.

They were interested in talking about their projects, but sometimes not as hopeful as I had hoped.  One woman averred that America had spoiled her a bit. It was harder in Brazil, she said. Not only was there less access to capital for true start-ups, but the Brazilian society was less tolerant of failure.  Still, everybody had some sort of working business.  I suppose it might be an example of selection bias, since successful entrepreneurs would be more likely to show up for the reception.

The American appetite for risk is something I have heard about during my entire FS career.  Everybody seems to notice it and many returnees comment.  This was as true in my other posts as in Brazil.  It is not always portrayed as a positive.  There is an undertone that Americans are a little too insouciant.

But America tends to be the land of many chances. If you think you only have one shot, you tend to be much more cautious.  I am not sure if this can be easily duplicated elsewhere.  It comes not from programs that can be copied, but maybe from a more mobile society.  We have a tradition, or at least a national myth, that we can pick up and move farther west or down the road.  Form the time of the pioneers to Route 66, we are movers. I read that Americans are moving less than we did in the past.  I wonder how this will affect our tolerance for failure.

I thought about my networking in the USA as compared to Brazil. Since I am here only a short time, I think I get only the one touch.  I followed up with emails, but it is not the same as long term.  In the USA, I have developed the “book gift” system.   When I talk to someone, I often bring up a book I read about whatever we are discussing and in that age of Amazon, I can easily send them the book (providing a get an address).  I am not sure if they really read the book, and I suspect most do not, but it is a powerful reminder and a commitment tailored to the needs of the person.

One of the most flattering things you can say to someone is, “I have been thinking about what you said, and you are right.”  This says that in double.  If I was going to be a full-time diplomat again, I would think of the equivalent.

have been enjoying my time in Brazil immensely, but I am getting a little tired. The daily (many times a day often) are rewarding but intense. I love it here. Brazilians are wonderful people, but will be ready to go home when my time is done.

My picture shows the new CG getting ready to address the YLAI meeting and me with one of the participants. I took a lot more pictures, at least I thought I did, but they seem not to be on my camera. Sorry.

Interesting subplot to the CG picture. Later in the evening I was speaking to the woman in the picture. We were speaking in Portuguese. She mentioned how hard it was for her to speak in English, which she was doing in the picture. I thought her English was fine. I had not noticed, which is the ultimate compliment (I told her) to someone speaking a foreign language. I guess we never feel comfortable, no matter how good we get.

Maker Space at Case Thomas Jefferson

I cannot claim credit, but I was present at the creation and I am deeply gratified by the small part I played – I signed the original seed grant and helped facilitate contacts between Casa Thomas Jefferson and Smithsonian. What I can claim is a useful perspective. I saw the start of this idea and how it grew with the help and active participation of so many people, in Brazil and in the USA. Coincidentally, I was Senior International Adviser at Smithsonian when CTJ people visited to follow up on plans. And now I get to see the program in glorious fruition

The choice to build an updated American space to include a maker space seems like a natural one now, prosaic and mundane. Back when CTJ made the decision, the future was not as clear. Lucia Santos, then fairly new as director of CTJ, had to make a courageous decision to commit a large amount of money and staff resources to a project that lots of people could not understand. CTJ was already in a great position, the most prestigious English teaching cultural institution in Brazil. It would be easy to rest on the laurels. But they did it.

The partnership with Smithsonian was crucial. Despite my subsequent sojourn at Smithsonian, I have no special knowledge of how they came up with that idea, so I will refer you to the great article in this link, “Side by Side by the Smithsonian.” I became aware of the program when the Smithsonian contacted the Embassy about CTJ. They were looking for some of the best spaces in the world, to serve as models for others, and CTJ rose to the top. We facilitated the visits. Well … it worked.

The idea is to go beyond CTJ, although CTJ with all its branches is pretty big just by itself. (They just opened a branch in Uberlândia, first time outside the Federal District.) CTJ is reaching out and working with other BNCs in Brazil and in Latin America.

Lucia Santos told me that they are aware of the competition among English teaching operations. Binational Centers have history on their side. Binational Centers, as the name implies, are Brazilian-American joint ventures. The first ones were founded just before and during World War II, when Brazilians and Americans alike feared the active and aggressive “cultural” influence of the Nazis in Latin America. They were not initially strongly associated with the United States government, but rather with U.S. NGOs, semi-government and philanthropic organization. We just had not yet developed those mechanisms. USIA was founded only in 1953. But American diplomacy was soon involved. I learned to love BNCs during my first posting in Porto Alegre. They are wonder venues for cultural events and learning, much better, IMO, to those commercial schools who may do a competent job of teaching English, but do not feature the broader commitment to culture, the arts and development of Brazilian society. This commitment, however valuable, is not w/o costs, so the BNCs need to stay a step ahead of the competition.

This American space/maker space is more than a step ahead. There is currently no equal in Brazil. CTJ uses the space to teach its own students, but shares with public schools, scholars and entrepreneurs. In this sense, it is almost like a business incubator.
A couple of projects that you can see in the pictures were designed by students to help teach blind kids about science concepts. They can feel the 3D river system, for example. The student task is to identify challenges and then figure ways to address them. This has the double advantage of exercising the minds of the students and providing useful tools to those who need them.

BNCs are one of “our” best program. I put our in quotation marks, because they have grown so far beyond our initial vision. CTJ, for example, supports itself and in fact supports us. We could not run programs like Youth Ambassador or much of our outreach w/o BNCs. They do the educational advising and they provide library services. BNCs operate our Access Program that reached the less fortunate. We always know where to find friends in Brazil. They are at the BNCs.

CTJ celebrated its 50th Anniversary while I was serving in Brazil. I wrote the linked note. In Salvador, I attended the 70th Anniversary in 2011. Yeah, got history.

São Paulo Symphony Orchestra played a tribute to Leonard Bernstein

The São Paulo Symphony Orchestra played a tribute to Leonard Bernstein, including selections from Candide, West Side Story, Slava & On the Town. Good to see American culture showcased in Brazil. The concert was at the beautiful São Paulo Municipal Theater.
I went with the new Consul General in São Paulo, Adam Shub – seems a good guy, very interested in cultural events. We went to a Peruvian restaurant before the show. My choice. The food was good, but the immediate neighborhood was not good. I walked to the restaurant, got there a bit early and reconnoitered. There were lots of odd people hanging or as often laying around even during the day, graffiti and boarded up building. I did not feel comfortable even in broad daylight. After dark, I thought it best to take a taxi rather than walk the five-seven minutes to the theater. Those who know my predilections about walking will appreciate that this is not usual for me. Not good.

There were signs of improvement, I suppose what we would call gentrification, and there was a clear dividing line. Actually, it was more like a couple of blocks of bad surrounded by good or okay. Unfortunately, it got a little too grungy between where we were and where we wanted to be. When we picked up the taxi, I apologized for the short trip, but the driver said that we made a good choice not venturing through that gauntlet and said that a lot of his business is just driving customers around that couple of blocks. We gave him a good tip.
The area around the theater was nice. It is an attractive 19th Century building, beautiful inside and out, as you can see in the pictures. They are very enthusiastic that you not check your phone. There are guys deployed in the top balcony that shine laser pointers on anybody who takes out a phone. They to this to the end, when everybody takes out the phone to get pictures of the players and selfies, I suppose. They parked a classic Ford Fairlane outside, I guess because or West Side Story. Lots of people were taking pictures with it, so we did too.

Me too

 An Active and Effective Woman

Juliana de Faria created a #metoo type movement in Brazil a couple years before it took hold in the USA. She was moved by the same sorts of actions that affected Americans.  I will let you see her explain it herself at her TED Talk linked. She is speaking in Portuguese, but the talk has English subtitles. She is founder of the feminist blog Think OLGA and the campaign Chega de Fiu Fiu (Enough with the Catcalling) that challenges sexual harassment in public places. She was recently named one of “8 Incredible Women Who Will Inspire You to Break the Rules” by Cosmopolitan magazine and the Clinton Foundation’s No Ceilings Project.  Ms. de Faria partnered with the Public Defender of the State of São Paulo to create and disseminate informational material about sexual assault. Her e-book Meu Corpo Não É Seu (My Body Is Not Yours) was published 2014.

She was one of our IVLPs who traveled in 2016 on IVLP regional project “Women Leaders – Promoting Peace and Security,” so I was interested in learning more about her experiences on our exchange and if it affected here activities.  We had coffee and discussed her program. BTW – I asked her permission to write this up and share it, since I otherwise take out the names and some details.

Juliana was already active and effective before she went on her IVLP visit, which is how she came to the attention of our Consulate colleagues.  We talked about added value.  She talked about the power of networking and that the visit gave her a greater appreciation of how that works.  It is not enough, she said, to get lots of attention of lots of people interacting on social media, although those things are important.  Affecting lasting positive change requires lasting commitment, and that requires organization, and creation or influencing institutions.  She also came to appreciate more the need for partnerships.  Partners need not agree with everything you are trying to do. They may even be opponents of some of the things you consider important, but it is better to find points of agreement and work on those.

Networking and the Art of Working with Partners

As we talked, I realized that what she was describing was essentially the theory of networking and idea transmission that we had long studied and tried to implement in public diplomacy efforts.  I was concerned that I was hearing what I wanted to hear and feared confirmation bias. I rephrased what I thought I heard her saying, admitting the possibility of confirmation bias. She thought that the rephrasing was consistent with what she was saying, so we were reading from the same page.  We agreed that it was less an example of confirmation bias as simple confirmation.  We both believed that this was a useful and effective way to pass information and help promulgate ideas.

The Joy and Challenge of Multi-Regional Projects

Speaking specifically about the IVLP experience, Juliana said that it has facilitated her networking with Americans and with others from Latin America who had been with her on the tour. One drawback was that most of the other participants were from Spanish speaking Latin America.  Spanish and Portuguese are similar but not interchangeable and it tends to be a one-way transmission in that Portuguese speakers can understand more Spanish than Spanish speakers can understand Portuguese.  Juliana and other Brazilian participant were okay with English, but Spanish translation was provided and that tended to make positive group dynamics a little harder.

After her return she had a visit with President Obama.  Juliana praised his intelligence and his commitment to improving the situation for women.  She mentioned that she was pregnant during the visit and President Obama joked that Barack is a good name for a baby.  This was in October of last year when she participated in a dinner for former President Obama when he visited Brazil.  That seems some very high-level networking.

Biomath – if your model says it is raining, it is still a good idea to look out the window

I was not sure what “biomathematicians” did, but when I looked it up I learned that I was familiar with the work, if not the more complex current techniques. You can trace the field at least as far back as John Snow (the London man who traces a cholera epidemic to a polluted well and helped create the whole science of public health, not the King of the North in “Game of Thrones”) Biomathematicians essentially map and model biological phenomenon, such as disease spread or dynamics of wildlife populations.

This I needed to know because the Mission sponsored a lecture visit by two biomathematicians – Dr Lora Billings from Montclair University and Dr Shweta Bansal of Georgetown. They were collaborating with colleague around Brazil, for us more specifically at the State University of São Paulo (UNESP). I got to have lunch and attend some lectures and a media event.

Connecting people and ideas
For the Mission, this visit satisfied a couple of our goals. First was the simple connections principle. One of the most important functions of diplomats is that we act as connectors, putting Americans in touch with counterparts in other places. Connectors play a key role in the information ecosystem but they (we) are easily overlooked or dismissed.

Women in STEM
When connecting works as it should, it grows way beyond our capacity and it is tempting to believe that it “would have happened anyway.” I am aware of this attitude because I used to share it. It was only with a fair amount of experience and some focused study that I came to appreciate the connector niche. The second of our goals, more a “meta-goal,” was to highlight women in science, in the STEM fields. Both goals were achieved.
Lots of the math was beyond me, but I did finally learn what an eigenvalue did, at least in a general sense. It is a measure of stability. The reason I bring up this piece of esoterica is that since I was in college one of my jokes (of limited use) was that in my statistics studies I learned about eigenvalues but in all my years after never saw them in action.

Modeling Disease Spread
Dr Banal talked about modelling the spread of influenza. It is not as easy as running time series, since there are many factors in complex relationship. The flu itself mutates every year and this interacts with weather, behaviors that change in relation to other factors, random chance … lots of things. She mentioned that complex is not the same as complicated and talked about how that affects ability to predict, i.e. prediction in complex systems is not possible in detail but you can model and get some ideas that can inform decisions and action.

Dynamics of Ecological Systems
Dr Billings talked about the dynamics of ecological systems, modeling what happens when you add in an invasive species or take out existing ones and/or change the dynamic as in climate change. The good news is that the impact of invasive species may be limited, in that they invade into disturbances and then may moderate. The bad news is that there are lots of disturbances these days.

Malaria Transmission
One of the Brazilian colleagues, Dr Roberto Kraenkel,  talked about modeling malaria outbreaks. He had some kind of graph that could show relationships among variables that were not clearly correlated or were both correlated to other factors. Experts understand these things. For guys like me he gave a simple example. Water in a lake is correlated with rainfall in the watershed. If you know something about the watershed, rainfall may be predictive of lake levels. However, lake levels are not predictive of rainfall, but you can tie both to other factors. Even the simple example soon moved beyond my full understanding. What I got was more rain makes the lake rise – sometimes, not always.

Reality Checks
All the participants mentioned the need for boots on the ground study and they listened to local information. They were concerned that models could get ahead of reality and so built in realty checks. I thought this was great wisdom. Big data and computer power can find lots of relationships and correlations, sometimes even when they really are not there.
That is why even if your model says it is raining, it is still a good idea to look out the window.

Climate Change IVLP

The day’s third meeting was lunch with Lunch with an IVLP in “Climate Change Adaptation & Infra Structure Planning,” in 2015)

It was a little poignant for me to hear the praise of the USA leadership in climate change and know that we have to a large extent abdicated that role. He said that he had thought about it during the IVLP visit. Lots of the climate change moves were made by presidential initiative. While he respected the speed that the decision could be taken, he wondered that if one president could do another could undo.

I repeated the mantra that I have repeated every year in my 31 years in the FS – “The American nation is greater than the American government and the American government is greater than the current occupant of the White House.” He understood this. One of the things he noticed and admired about the USA was that we were truly decentralized. States and localities took initiatives. Universities, firms, NGOs and even individuals acted as they felt necessary. Brazil is a federative republic in theory, but in fact there is much more centralization.

We talked about the difference between having one big plan and having lots of little ones, competing, combining and producing lots of options. We agreed the lots of options is usually more useful, since we live in an uncertain world. True diversity is a strength. We learn from failure, maybe more than success, and all success begins with (survivable) failure.

I asked if anything had impressed him about the program itself and he answered that it was the program itself. Even before he left Brazil, he was impressed with a country that would have a program like this, one designed to show various aspects of a pluralistic society.
The poignancy hit me again. Our open and pluralistic values are those of the America I love. Those are the values that should abide and I hope the current divisions are ephemeral.
Since he returned to Brazil only a few years ago, there was not a long term to assess, but even in the short term there are results. He is organizing programs with American NGOs and maintains a strong cooperation with many of those he met during the IVLP visit and his fellow Brazilian participants.

We had just come from our meeting with Harvard and mentioned that. Our contact thought that his organization, Fundação Getúlio Vargas, might be able to have meaningful cooperation with Harvard’s Brazil unit. They are, after all, literally just across the street from each other. You could throw a baseball from one and hit the other. I put our contacts in contact and I hope it is the start of a beautiful friendship.

My pictures are not closely related. I lost my hat and I needed a new one to keep the rain from pounding my bald head. The place selling hats had only Marvel Superheroes. I wanted Thor, but failing that, I got the Hulk. Next is the monorail, under construction. In the evening, I had dinner at KAA with my colleague Mark Pannell and one of our speaker participants. Nice place. Had a couple caipirinhas. They are better in Brazil. I think the limes are different here.