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Brazillionaires: Wealth, Power, Decadence, and Hope in an American Country (Inglês) Capa dura – 11 jul 2016

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Sobre o Autor

Alex Cuadros has written for The Washington Post, The New York Times, Bloomberg Businessweek, The Awl, Slate, The Nation, and Mother Jones. After six years living in São Paulo, he recently moved back to New York City.

Trecho. © Reimpressão autorizada. Todos os direitos reservados

Chapter 1

God Is Brazilian

The New Brazil, Miami, and Hidden Wealth

“I follow the rules that I built for myself.”

—Abilio Diniz (4 billion)

A helicopter descended from the sky, its glossy body catching the oblique winter light. As it drew closer to me, a machine hiss overwhelmed that familiar deep faraway chop. Its little wheels perched gingerly on the roof of the São Paulo Sheraton. A pilot wearing wraparound sunglasses and pilot’s headphones hopped out, slid open the back door, and set up a three-­step ladder for us to board. He clasped his hands in front of him, waiting for us to get in, a chunky metallic watch on his right hand. It was 4:25 p.m. His punctuality was English, as Brazilians like to say.

The helicopter wasn’t for me. It was for a top editor visiting from New York, whose time Bloomberg News judged more valuable than the fifteen hundred dollars an hour it cost to hire a chopper to ferry him around. I was a twenty-­nine-­year-­old reporter tagging along to meet a big newsmaker. I climbed aboard with three other colleagues, my knees touching theirs in the backseat. Everyone put on a pair of those headphones.

As we rose into the air, the helipad retreated, São Paulo shrank. The Pinheiros River dwindled to a dark stripe, tiny cars filling up six lanes of freeway on either side. We left behind the Octávio Frias de Oliveira Bridge, a concrete X intersected by yellow cables supporting two crescents of road. We passed over office towers of gleaming dark blue glass, luxury condos of imitation granite, new buildings copying many architectural styles at once. I took photos on my BlackBerry, craning to see a city whose chaos seemed from this height to reorder itself in neat rows. The Bloomberg editor also sneaked a shot or two. Then, almost as soon as it had begun, the trip was over.

From the helipad we tromped downstairs into an office of many beiges—­the carpets, the desks, the filing cabinets. We were in the headquarters of a company known as Brasil Foods, BRF for short. It was surprisingly quiet given that BRF was Brazil’s biggest producer of packaged foods and the world’s biggest exporter of poultry, feeding millions of Russians and Arabs and Chinese. We settled into a conference room to wait for the company’s new chairman, Abilio Diniz, one of Brazil’s richest men. He owed his four-­billion-­dollar fortune to his family’s supermarket chain, Brazil’s largest—­another superlative. It was called Pão de Açúcar, Sugarloaf, after the iconic mountain in Rio.

Abilio Diniz famously worked out several hours a day, running, lifting weights, boxing, and playing squash, even at seventy-­six years old. He ate like a stereotypical Californian, avoiding the Brazilian staples of rice and beans and red meat. I’d seen a picture of him in a tank top doing the pectoral fly, and his face, lined and tan as a leather shoe, looked Photoshopped onto the body of a much younger man. Now here he was, bounding over to shake our hands, wearing khakis and a simple white button-­up shirt, no tie. He sat down, and the Bloomberg editor jumped straight into the interview. This was a mistake. In Brazil, you can’t cut straight to the chase. You need to ease into business, glide through some small talk, something about soccer, the weather, traffic. The other mistake was hitting him with the most obvious and least comfortable question first: How can you possibly be chairman of two public companies that do business with each other? Pão de Açúcar bought BRF’s TV dinners and yogurts and smoked turkey. “In all my time as a journalist, I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a thing,” the editor later said.

Abilio wasn’t just chairman of both companies, he owned stock in them. This had led to a clash between him and his French partner at Pão de Açúcar, Jean-­Charles Naouri. Alleging that Abilio’s dual roles made for a glaring conflict of interest, Naouri had filed for international arbitration. The dispute permeated the business press. For Abilio, though, it was just his latest messy public battle. In the early eighties, his father had decided to hand out shares in Pão de Açúcar based on his children’s performance in the company. Abilio got a sixteen percent stake while each of his two brothers got eight percent and their three sisters got just two percent each. Fights ensued, and as the alliances shifted, the siblings spilled their woes to a series of delighted journalists. In 1993 Abilio finally persuaded most of his family to sell their shares to him, cementing his control.

Abilio spoke halting English as he explained to us that the legal issues existed exclusively in Naouri’s head. There was no conflict of interest because Abilio felt there was none. “I follow the rules that I built for myself,” he said. He bounced in his chair, looking from one to another of us as though being interrogated. Now and then he squinted at his PR people with a look of pained incomprehension, and they helped him explain what his English couldn’t. Pressed on his dual roles, he snapped at last, in Portuguese: “Did you come to interview me, or did you come to provoke me?”

The conversation kept on like this for twenty minutes, until Abilio glanced around and asked, “Okay?”—­indicating our time was up. This was a man with a hierarchy of attentions. Journalists ranked low, though possibly above his press people. These he addressed without ever quite meeting their eyes, making offhand orders—­“I’ll take a water”; “You’ll send me that article later?”—­in the way of someone who rarely repeats himself.

But there was more to Abilio than conflict. In recent years he’d become a champion of healthy living. He wrote a best-­selling self-­help book, translated into English as Smart Choices for a Successful Life, and created a sports research center to advise Brazil’s Olympic athletes (and himself). Prepping before the chopper ride, I’d explained this to the Bloomberg editor. And so as Abilio began to hover from his seat, the editor’s last question was “What about health?”

Abilio settled into place again. His demeanor shifted entirely, his voice growing soft, quiet. His wife was forty-­one, younger than all four children from his first marriage. With her he had a six-­year-­old daughter and a three-­year-­old son. He believed these were signs he’d been blessed, literally, with special vitality, and his duty as a Catholic was to share this gift with the world. “The thing inside Abilio is my faith in God,” he said. “Okay?” Then he stood up, thanked us, and hurried off to other battles.

The helicopter returned to whisk the Bloomberg editor to the airport, an eleven-­minute flight that could take three hours by car during rush hour. I didn’t get to join him this time. Instead I walked to the nearest bus stop, an island in the middle of six lanes of frenzied traffic. There was an aerial walkway, but a half-­dozen people stood by the side of the road waiting to leap through a gap in the oncoming cars. They wore jeans, springy old running shoes, and puffy jackets whose color had faded in the strong sun of subtropical winter. In erratic dashes a few at a time, they surged across. Brazil was booming, but people still risked their lives just to get to work and back.

Brazil sounded more idyllic when I was growing up in Albuquerque, New Mexico. My parents told me stories about coming to Brazil in 1980. They had met by chance while traveling in Guatemala earlier that year, and made their way to Rio de Janeiro together. They went to a party with Jorge Ben Jor, the funk musician, and my dad first told my mom he loved her at a café in Copacabana. In their yellowing snapshots, they have long hair.

I heard another kind of story from my godfather, a private investigator named David Sullivan. He lived in Brazil off and on in the seventies and eighties and married a Brazilian who became my sister’s godmother. They later divorced, but he went on visiting the country up until his death in 2013. He used to tell me wild tales that ended with him greeting the morning sun on the beach, bleary-­eyed after a night of adventure. Once he told me how, when he first arrived in Brazil as a twenty-­something quasi-­drifter, he met a woman on the street hawking apartments for rent. He made as though he had more than a few dollars to his name, a fiction she didn’t even believe, he said, and she agreed to show him one of the units. Within moments, they were making love on the bare floor. Samba implicitly played in the soundtrack to these stories.

David dismissed São Paulo as a secondary attraction, a place you go to work, so I skipped it the first time I came to Brazil. It was 2005, and David had invited me to the house he’d built on an island near Paraty, down the coast from Rio. I’d just graduated from a small liberal arts college, and I decided to spend a month down there with my college girlfriend. Since I already knew Spanish, I figured three hours of Portuguese lessons would be enough to prepare me. I was wrong. The taxi driver at the airport seemed to speak solely in nasal vowels, breaking here and there into a theatrical falsetto. I could barely understand a word.

David received us in Rio. In Copacabana we walked the calçadão, the promenade whose white limestone and black basalt sidewalk forms geometric waves mirroring the waves offshore. Bronzed dudes in Speedos on the beach passed a soccer ball from head to chest to foot to knee without ever letting it drop to the sand. We passed the Copacabana Palace hotel where Brigitte Bardot stayed, and then we passed a nightclub called Help, and David told us stories about the prostitutes there. In the street, a ragged minivan burped along with the sliding door ajar and a dark-­skinned kid hanging out, shouting out destinations to potential fares. Past the city, from the top of Corcovado Mountain, Christ the Redeemer spread his white stone arms to us. East was Pão de Açúcar, Sugarloaf, a giant thumb of rock poking up from the sea, with tiny tramcars creeping up and down distant threads of tramline. Corner shops offered the juice of dozens of fruits we’d never heard of, delicious flavors that just can’t be compared to anything up north: jabuticaba, acerola, caju. Of course we couldn’t help but notice the favelas. They crawled up the hills jutting from touristy neighborhoods, dull red cinderblock shacks stacked upon one another, crawling upward till they couldn’t crawl farther.

Along the way I meandered into Portuguese. I learned words with no English equivalent, like saudade, a nostalgic longing, and cafuné, the act of lovingly stroking someone’s hair. Malandros are tramps who live off the occasional swindle—­a category that, by consensus, includes most Brazilian politicians. But the malandro can also be a kind of antihero, because he gets what he wants in a country where most people struggle just to get by. My godfather told me about a malandro nicknamed O Cagão—­The Big Turd—­who seduced a whole town’s married women yet always skirted retaliation from their husbands. The malandro’s talent is jeitinho. If jeito means “way,” then jeitinho is the “little way” around society’s rules. A word like that suggested a culture very different from the one I’d grown up with. I was hooked; I wanted to learn more.

In 2008 I quit my job at a publishing house in New York. My girlfriend had broken up with me, and I decided to take off backpacking around South America. I meant it as a salmon-­like repeat of my parents’ trip, except that I hoped to stay somewhere along the way and try my hand at journalism. I spent a month and a half in Brazil but ultimately settled in Colombia, which was much cheaper for a fledgling reporter.

I’d been freelancing for a year in Bogotá when someone from Bloomberg called me up and offered me a gig in the bureau there. My idea of the company was so vague that I didn’t even connect it to Michael Bloomberg, its billionaire owner and then the mayor of New York. Bloomberg News turned out to be the media appendage of Bloomberg L.P., which makes most of its billions by renting out financial-­data terminals to bankers and investors for twenty-­four thousand dollars a year. I knew nothing about finance and next to nothing about economics, and I was way more interested in writing about the poor. But I imagined the job would give me good reporting experience. More urgently, my savings had run out. So I accepted. With a few embarrassing errors along the way, I figured out the basics of quarterly profits, stock prices, bond yields. Surprising myself, I ended up fascinated by what I learned. Since I’d picked up some Portuguese while traveling, Bloomberg eventually offered me a job in São Paulo, Brazil’s financial capital. I took it for a simple reason—­I wanted to live in Brazil.

Bloomberg was one of scores of foreign companies expanding in Brazil. Commodity prices were soaring, and the economy had just about doubled in size in a decade. In the wake of 2008’s global financial crash, the GDP had stalled only briefly before revving up again. Some analysts predicted that, any day now, Brazil would surpass France and the UK to become the world’s fifth-­largest economy. The Brazil my godfather had seen in the eighties and early nineties, when prices at shops could double in a single month and forty million people barely earned enough to eat, seemed distant now. In a sign of its newfound credibility, Brazil had won its first-­ever investment-­grade credit rating from Standard & Poor’s. The Economist summed up the mood with a cover that showed Rio’s Christ the Redeemer statue rocketing skyward with the headline Brazil Takes Off.

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