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RIO DE JANEIRO – When Frenchman Gwenel Lecourieux was gearing up to move to Brazil, the country with its swelling upper class and world-renowned hunger for luxury goods seemed like the perfect place to set up his dream business, selling high-end watches.
But Brazil's economy skidded to a halt and demand evaporated for his watches worth thousands of dollars each. Just 15 months after arriving in Rio de Janeiro, 36-year-old Lecourieux is preparing to cut his losses and return to France.
And he's not alone. The number of foreigners receiving work authorizations fell 24 percent between 2013 and 2014, from 62,387 to 47,259, according to the Labor and Employment Ministry. Brazil doesn't track the number of foreign residents leaving the country, but signs indicate the country's allure has slipped since foreign work authorizations peaked in 2011.
Not long ago, Brazil was the envy of recession-encumbered Europe and the United States, with an annual growth rate of 7.5 percent in 2010 and nearly full employment. But falling commodity prices and dampening domestic consumer demand have upended the economy, which barely expanded in 2014 and is expected to recede this year.
Inflation and unemployment are spiraling, and the local currency has lost value, driving up already high living costs. Add to that a kickback scandal that has hand-cuffed Brazil's biggest company, the state-run oil firm Petrobras, and a burdensome bureaucracy and it's not surprising that Brazil's shine is fading.
"There are so many factors that have sunk the country," Lecourieux said. "Today the market is very pessimistic. Few deals are taking place. Insecurity is up as well. People are more frightened than they were a while ago. It's very complicated."
Lecourieux jumped past bureaucratic hurdles, obtained an entrepreneur's visa, and invested some $50,000 in setting up his company — in which he sold his inventory of luxury watches directly to clients in their homes — hoping to rapidly expand the venture.
The collapse of the economy, however, made it impossible for him to grow his business, let alone make it sustainable. Without growth, he cannot meet the requirements to renew his business visa, which includes having a number of Brazilian workers on payroll. Unable to wait for a rebound, Lecourieux says he's decided to sell his business if he is able, and move back to France within weeks.
Brazil remains a beacon for many of the poorest workers of the Americas, who continue to arrive seeking manual jobs on farms and in urban factories. The country is struggling, for instance, with an influx of poor Haitians who started arriving a few years ago during the infrastructure building boom ahead of the 2014 World Cup, the soccer tournament hosted in a dozen Brazilian cities.
But the highly trained professionals who moved in during the global financial crisis, such as engineers and financial industry specialists, are looking elsewhere for opportunities as Brazil's economy bottoms out.
Take Nikola Kouzmanov, a 31-year-old research analyst specializing in oil and gas, who moved to Brazil in 2013 to try his luck in the then-booming energy sector.
"My plan was to give myself a one-year deadline for finding something. If it didn't work out, I'd at least enjoy the World Cup."
But after a year of madly networking, applying and interviewing for jobs, Kouzmanov still had no luck.
"The hiring environment is very difficult," he said.
Last September, he moved back to London and almost immediately found a job doing market research at a bank.
Gabriel Rico, who heads the American Chamber of Commerce for Brazil, said he's seen plenty of anecdotal evidence of other foreigners who came to Brazil during the boom years but have grown disillusioned.
"From 2010 to 2013, Brazil seemed like an excellent investment opportunity, especially because Europe was going through difficult times," Rico said.
During those years, the chamber was flooded by requests from U.S.-based investors and entrepreneurs looking to set up shop in Brazil. But, that's all changed in light of forecasts for slow to negative growth, he said. Requests for information on Brazil have fallen by half in recent months, he said, while requests by Brazilians looking to invest or work in the U.S. have doubled.
"Basically the situation is completely inverted," Rico said.
Such boom and bust cycles are nothing new for Brazil, with an economy built on the export of commodities like sugar, gold, coffee and rubber. While many of the foreigners who flocked here during the last boom may be jumping ship, some say they'll be back as soon as the next good times get rolling.
"I think a lot of people came here with this misconception that 'I'm going to make it big now,' and it's not at all like that," said Barbara Sikorska, who heads the Rio chapter of InterNations, a networking organization for expats with branches across the globe. "Here you need patience, perseverance and stamina" to weather the hard times.
Barney Smeaton, a 32-year-old engineer from Australia who's about to leave Rio after an unsuccessful 6-month job search, said he'd be keeping a close eye on the economic situation in Brazil.
"I'd be really open to coming back," said Smeaton, who specializes in the alternative energy sector. "I still think this country has enormous potential."