While I contemplate the crash, yet again, of our last run at that old lady, Ms. Democracy - already a troubled woman way back in its younger Greek days - it comes to my mind a few memories with my grandfather.
Clovis Maia, to whom I own my identical name, was born in 1914 in a middle-size farm in Passos, a city in the state of Minas Gerais. His father owned the farm and was himself born from farmers of Portuguese heritage, back when they dominated both the land and its workers - slavery was in place when my great-grandfather was a kid.
But this is not a story about my grandfather. This is a story about a lad 3 years younger than Clovis, his cousin Sebastião Maia, better known as "Tião" Maia, born in a nearby farm too. I still remember my grandfather telling me about the little youngster following the older cousins while they were taking care of the cattle, learning how to lead it through the pasture.
After learning the basics, the boy would offer his services to the family in exchange not of money, but cattle. At 16 years old, he already owned a few of his own. At 20, he moved to the farmlands of Araçatuba, in the state of São Paulo, and started a business selling and buying cattle by the hundreds.
Tião Maia soon realized who had the upper hand to set up the cattle prices: the companies who bought from the slaughterhouses and run the distribution of the meat to the bigger cities across the country, mostly in the hands of a few American and British firms. So when the 40's and WWII came, and Oil became gold, he made a double business of deforesting land and selling the wood for the railroad companies to burn, while planting grass in the same land to later on feed the cattle. With the extra cash, he mounted a reserve to buy up land and cattle from troubled farmers at every drop of the meat prices. Soon he set up his own slaughterhouse, the TMaia Company, and reproduced the same strategy of buying up every slaughterhouse around who got in trouble too. Now he was dictating the price of the meat to the Gringo's companies, before taking over a few of them too, and establishing a multinational distribution system. He was one of the first entrepreneurs to send a mission to recently established Israel, in order to hire Rabbis to ensure a kosher process (and market access) to his production line.
By the end of the 50's, Tião Maia was the richest man in Brazil. And a folkloric figure among the parties and socialites of Rio de Janeiro, where his cowboy mannerisms and language (he never finished basic school) made him the darling of gossip tabloids. He married a Miss Brazil and soon divorced, because she was "too jealous" (women tend to be, when their rich husbands take every girl at every party).
He was on a roll, but no party can go on forever: 1964 came and Tião Maia was a friend of João Goulart, the deposed President of Brazil back in the day. He was also a friend to the previous President, Juscelino Kubitschek (the president who created Brasilia in 1960, the city I live in now). Both presidents where friends for a reason: they were also fellow farmers and cattle businessmen. Imagine that, my dear friends who bought up the idea that Brazil needed a coup in the 60's in order to save it from communism: what were the odds that Tião Maia and his presidential/farmer friends would support a Marxist movement that would take away their wide and vast farmlands?
Tião was imprisoned in the first days of the coup in 1964, but as they had nothing else to accuse him of, he was fred after a few weeks. To show that his Midas touch was not related to political connections, I mention that, in the begin of the 70's, Tião was also a founding partner of TAM, a small airline taxing company he was invited to take part at, because he was the first businessman in Brazil to buy his own private airplane. TAM later on grew up to be the biggest Brazilian airline company, merging with LAN Chile a few years ago, being now the mighty LATAM group.
But life under autocracies isn't always fair, even one installed under the pretext of saving our capitalism: the regime started price controls in order to fight back the recession and inflation of middle 70's, and soon Tião was in jail again, accused of holding up his cattle from the market in order to not sell it at the low prices our purported "saviors of capitalism" mandated. Oh, the ironies of life.
Fed up by the State interference in his businesses, Tião called it quits. He disinvested and sold everything he could, and in 1976, almost 60 years old, decided to start anew. Tião didn't know a word in English, but he knew Australia was a main source of the meat sold for Americans and British, so there he goes. He arrives and in 6 months buys up so much land in Queensland, the local governor calls him for a personal meeting and asks "Why in this crisis, when no one is buying cattle anymore, a Brazilian comes up here and buys all this land? You will undo the agrarian reform we just finished!". European Common Market new regulations had recently caused a massive slaughter of cows, and crashed the price of cattle worldwide. Tião just answered the Governor, with the help of a translator: "The prices will rise again". And it did, making Tião an ever richer man, famous back then in Australia for herding the cattle with the help of helicopters.
|Tião in Australia|
He now used the extra money to make what he liked best: to have business and fun, all at the same time. He went to Las Vegas, not only for the parties and girls he would enjoy, but with the idea of starting a business in the real state sector. He realized the city had far too many hotels and casinos to attend for the tourists, but the people working for all that to happen would need houses themselves, so he set up the Tiao United States (TUSA) company and made up some more money building and selling residential condos. He made the point of building a near replica of the White House for himself too.
The life of partying and gambling was fun, but Tião could never fulfill a dream at any of his many marriages: to have kids. It turns out he was sterile, maybe a function of the many times he contracted malaria while running cattle as a young boy back in the day. At some point he adopted one, Mr. Aramis Maia, and we can maybe hypothesize that his life of partying and dealings did not allow for a proper bonding of father and son. A stroke in 1998 made Tião a shadow of his former self, and his son used the opportunity to take up business by every means. Tião, once the richest man in Brazil, a successful businessman at world stage, an inspiration for a famous 80's Brazilian soap opera character, was now a poor old man who couldn't cater for himself.
Fortunately, his siblings back in Brazil were also made prosperous by the cattle business, and "Juquinha" Maia, his brother still living in Araçatuba, provided for him a decent life till the end. Tião Maia died in 2005 in an apartment in São Paulo, not too far from where I was then living while doing my PhD.
Staring back at Great-Uncle Tião and his entrepreneurship, I confess to be ashamed that, at the verge of a new round of 'saving the country from communism' (or so our new-but-so-old military men winning this election tell me), I feel afraid for my own future. When asked what he would do in Australia, not knowing the language, Tião answered "I don't need to, I am rich". The lore says that, in Vegas, the only words in English he knew were "steak and eggs" (which was what he asked for at the restaurant every day). I know a bit more English than that, but the idea of starting anew abroad, approaching my 40's years old, is a bit daunting. Am I made from the same stuff Uncle was? I guess few people are...