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While a half million international visitors flood into Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Olympic Games, there’s a growing group of foreigners in Brazil who are scrambling to get out permanently: expats.

We’ve seen a decrease of almost 40% of expatriates in large companies

Aurea Imai, a managing partner in Sao Paulo for international headhunting firm Boyden, said many professionals flocked to Brazil between 2010 and 2013 when they saw growth potential and a demand for high-quality executives. Now, many of them are leaving – quickly.

“We’ve seen a decrease of almost 40% of expatriates in large companies,” Imai said, “and resumes from global executives have decreased to almost zero.”

Spaniard Javier García-Ramos is one of them. When BBC Capital first caught up with him in 2014 he had traded a sluggish economy in Madrid for a thriving one in Sao Paulo. Now, the investment banker has returned to Spain and said a number of friends and colleagues also returned home as the economic outlook soured in Brazil.

Spaniard Javier García-Ramos came in 2014 for a job, but this year returned to Spain. (Credit: Javier García-Ramos)

Brazil – once a fast-growing member of the so-called BRIC economies, which also include Russia, India and China – has seen its fortune fade in recent years. Its currency is weak, inflation is high and the economy has entered into a deep recession thanks to a corruption scandal involving the state-controlled oil company Petrobras and a political scandal that finds President Dilma Rousseff suspended from office pending an impeachment trial.

If anything, the Olympics have only heightened concerns about the health of the nation, giving disgruntled public workers a platform to express their anger. In June, a group of protestors made global headlines after they stood in the arrivals hall at Rio’s Galeao International Airport with banners that read: Welcome to Hell. The signs claimed, “police and fire-fighters don’t get paid,” and, “whoever comes to Rio de Janeiro will not be safe”.

Statistics show a 62% decrease in foreign worker permits

Brazil isn’t the only Latin American economy struggling through upheaval at the moment. Neighbouring Venezuela is facing an economic crisis of much grander proportions, where for many it isn’t even possible to find adequate food in the supermarkets to feed a family.

Statistics provided by the Brazilian Ministry of Labour show a 62% decrease in foreign worker permits granted in the first trimester of 2016, compared with the same period in 2014, due to both a lack of foreign interest and fewer available jobs.

Protestors in the arrivals hall at Rio’s Galeao International Airport just weeks before the 2016 Olympic Games. (Credit: Getty Images)

Multinational retreat

Several big companies have pulled out of Brazil over the past two years citing unfavourable conditions for growth. The British-based multinational HSBC joined Citigroup and Societe Generale last June in becoming the third foreign bank to abandon or scale back operations in the country in 2015. Barclays announced similar plans to retreat from Brazil earlier this year.

The situations in Brazil and Venezuela are markedly different

Unemployment in Latin America’s largest economy soared to 10.9% in the first quarter of 2016 from 7.9% a year earlier, according to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics. Meanwhile average monthly wages fell over that same period from 2,031 Brazilian reals ($620) to 1,966 reals ($600).

When to go?

Are expats in Brazil right to be concerned about instability?

Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin America programme at the non-partisan Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC, believes the situations in Brazil and Venezuela are markedly different.

While there might be ongoing contraction in the Brazilian economy, “the caretaker government has been doing things that are helping to restore the confidence of the business community,” Arnson said, noting that the investigation of corruption “creates stability as opposed to disruption in the system.”

There has been a 62% decrease in foreign worker permits granted in the first trimester of 2016, compared with the same period in 2014. (Credit: Getty Images)

But that hasn’t kept expats from leaving so far.

That said, the International Monetary Fund predicts the Brazilian economy will hit rock bottom this year and bounce back with positive growth of 0.5% in 2017. Imai, of Boyden, also predicts a more upbeat outlook for the coming year. “Our perspective is that, from the second half of 2017 onward, companies will start hiring again,” she said.

For now, however, the economy remains too bleak for many foreign workers. And the Olympic Games may have arrived one year too early for Brazil to showcase its true potential.

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