Joel Stewart traveled the world and was fluent in Russian, French and somewhat in Spanish long before he started speaking Brazilian Portuguese.
But the linguistics-professor-turned-immigration-attorney found his calling — and people he could relate to — as he forged bonds with a flood of Brazilians moving to and investing in Florida.
"They have a lot of the same qualities we have; they get along very well with Americans," Stewart said. "They don't like to stick together; they like to reach out."
Before he knew it, Stewart, 70, had become general counsel of the Brazilian Consulate in Miami and emerged as a leading advocate of increased two-way commerce between Florida and Brazil. In pursuit of that mission, he recently launched the Tampa-based Florida Gulf Coast Brazilian Chamber of Commerce.
Stewart, who also maintains a day job as an immigration attorney for Fowler White Boggs, talked to the Times about his latest Tampa venture and why Brazilians absolutely love coming here to shop. Here are excerpts:
How did you move from academia to becoming an immigration attorney?
I was a Russian teacher. I started many years ago in the Northeast, in Connecticut, after studying Russian linguistics and literature at New York University. I taught for 12 years. I read all the Russian literature — Dostoevsky, Tolstoy — all the great writers. With that, plus the normal aging and maturing process, I came to the idea that I'd like to do something different with my life and not just be a Russian teacher.
I went to law school at the University of Connecticut at night. I started practicing law in New Haven, Conn. I basically fell into immigration law and it worked out very well.
After moving to Florida, how did you get involved with the Brazilian community?
I was speaking a little Spanish and thought maybe I'd do (immigration law) there … but the Spanish people just didn't embrace me. In 1986, Brazil had an economic crisis and all of a sudden they appeared, coming to the United States. And I was there.
Their phonetics system is very much like Russian. If you speak Russian, you can usually pronounce Brazilian Portuguese very well and vice verse. So I just flowed into Brazilian Portuguese. I started speaking it at home.
I had a lot of Brazilian clients. It was a perfect marriage, and I just grew up with the community. In 2005, the Brazilian ambassador asked me to work for the consulate in Miami. It gradually increased to the point where I have my own office in the consulate now.
Visitors from Brazil have emerged as a top driver of Florida's tourism industry. What lures Brazilians here?
Brazilians are born with the notion that they deserve a trip to Disney World. It's a Brazilian tradition to send their children when they're 15 to Disney World. It starts with that. Florida is a logical destination with the climate and culture that resembles (Brazil) to an extent. Florida has become Brazilianized.
They just feel very comfortable with Americans. I was in Sao Paulo three times in the last six months. I went to a chic shopping center and was looking at the movies at the multiplex … There was not a single film that wasn't an American film.
Tampa International Airport has targeted Sao Paulo as one of its options for expanding international routes. Do you see that happening?
I think it's going to be difficult to have a direct flight in the near future. They need to fill those planes. Most in Tampa now will take American Airlines and make the connection in Miami … or go to Orlando to take a non-stop flight.
I predict they will start by having charter flights. Most of these airlines without established routes start with some kind of charter flight.
Why form a Brazilian chamber in Tampa?
There was a Brazilian chamber in Tampa before. About five years ago it just died … It didn't die because of lack of interest from the Brazilians. It died because the leaders of the chamber moved to Orlando or moved out of Tampa.
So there was kind of an empty space in Tampa, and I though we really needed a chamber there. Naples, Fort Myers, Sarasota and Tampa all needed to be served with some sort of chamber. So there are three (Brazilian) chambers now in Florida: the Miami chamber, the one in Orlando and now the one on the west coast.
How big is the area's Brazilian community?
It's hard to say, but I would estimate if you take the whole gulf coast … maybe about 5,000 Brazilians. It's much larger than that in Orlando and in South Florida.
What's the response here so far?
We have about 50 members who are pretty actively involved. If it hasn't grown faster, that's only because I haven't had time to send out as many announcements as I wanted. But I think the time is right. We've had a lot of interest.
Despite the recession?
The fall in our economy is actually a boost for the Brazilian presence. They come here to make purchases.
Everything in Brazil is extremely expensive. An iPhone in Brazil is $1,500. They can buy one here without a subscription plan for $700. So they come here and buy everything — ostensibly for their own use, but truth be told, they have people they buy for.
The main reason they come is for shopping, if I had to pick one reason. Maybe it's even more important than Disney World.
What's the focus of the chamber?
We developed three priorities for our new agenda. The first is exporting; the second is real estate; and the third is education. There is a lot of interest in attracting strong students. The fact is that America is a very prestigious place to study and it helps (students) with their resumes and careers. A master's degree in the U.S. is of great significance in Brazil.
A lot of Brazilians who can afford it will come and get a green card mostly so their kids can go to school here.
I don't have the attitude that everyone should come here. To the contrary, there are many reasons to go to Brazil and any chamber should have a two-way approach, inbound and outbound.
Will investment in Brazil pick up?
It's a tough road. Since I've traveled to Brazil recently on several occasions I've been asking that question. There are certain areas of business and investment that are very safe in Brazil. Energy, infrastructure and construction.
But Brazil's economy has been cooling off. Is this a good time for a chamber promoting investment there?
Is Brazil in a bubble? It depends on who you talk to, but there are indications the market is softening a little bit over there. Some say the Brazil real estate bubble will be different than the U.S. because it wasn't as widespread as here. It only occurred in certain urban areas.
I think as long as the Olympics haven't taken place yet, for the next two years there is tremendous opportunity for money being funneled into Brazil. It's a really good place to invest, at least for the short term. It's coming up to number six or five as one of the world's greatest economies. It's a great country with a lot of natural resources and doesn't depend on foreign oil at all.
There's still disenfranchisement, however. The middle class is just starting to form. And there are a lot of people concerned about security. You can't be guaranteed of being safe anywhere in the world, but for the time being Brazil is viewed as less safe.
There are people who have come in and have said they've been kidnapped. There are lightning kidnaps where they get in a car and take you to an ATM to give them money.
And then there's the real McCoy where they put you in the car and cut your ears off. That's not too common any more.
They're cleaning up their act some because of the Olympics and the World Cup. But they have a very high murder rate and extremely high kidnapping and assault rate. It's hard to find a family that hasn't had someone murdered or kidnapped.
Isn't there another downside beyond security? Some local companies, notably Tech Data and Raymond James, have pulled out of Brazil citing issues like government bureaucracy, heavy regulation and high taxes.
There are the labor laws and the high taxes. The taxes are somewhere (up to) 80 percent on production. Everything is three times more expensive than it is here. It makes it difficult for private entrepreneurs and small businesses.
Jeff Harrington can be reached at (727) 893-8242 or [email protected]