From BrazilFrom Brazil with Vincent Bevins and guests Sat, 27 Feb 2016 23:20:04 +0000 en-US hourly 1 From Brazil signing off Fri, 26 Feb 2016 18:24:09 +0000

This “experimental” blog started up in the beginning of February 2012. Which means that, remarkably, we have managed to keep the thing going for over four years. I might even go so far to say that we had a pretty good run.

But we’re stopping now, and most likely forever.

First, that occasion calls for heartfelt thanks you to all the contributors without whom I could have never kept it alive, let alone made it into an appreciated source of information on Brazil in the English language. So, thank you to Claire Rigby, Dom Phillips, James YoungMauricio Savarese, Anna Jean Kaiser, Gaía Passarelli, Sam Cowie, Nathan Walters, Gavin Andrews, Jules Boykoff, and Laura McQuillan. We’ve linked to their relevant Twitter accounts and updated the bios of the main contributors on this profile page in case you want to find out what they’re doing now.

Secondly, we’re very proud of everything we’ve done, and this send-off post may forevermore be sitting at the top of an inert blog. So we decided to include links to a small number of texts we enjoyed publishing in years past, or that we believe might stay relevant in the future.

Here are some of them:


On beauty in Brazil’s old-school celebrity culture
The type of public women that the Globo network requires, by Dom Phillips
Why has Brazil been getting richer?
Explaining the boom that came before the bust, by Vincent Bevins
Coming up from the street – new movements in downtown SP
Recreating urban life in South America’s biggest city, by Claire Rigby
Who is Neymar?
The new soccer phenomenon, by Dom Phillips


The World cup and politics – a love story
To understand why they built those stadiums, look at political football, by Mauricio Savarese
Blue murder: São Paulo police accused of massacres
On state terror, by Claire Rigby
Rio – it’s a jungle out there
Class and crime on the beaches, by Dom Phillips
Fear and loathing in São Paulo
On the streets the night that the protests erupted, by Claire Rigby
Brazil protests – what is going on?
Taking stock a bit later, by Vincent Bevins


The worst thing about Brazil
nequality and class prejudice so brutal that it becomes second nature, by Vincent Bevins
Brazil nut farmers in the Amazon – photos
Images from the other side of the continent, by Gavin Andrews
Terror in Brazil’s prisons
Trapped in hell, by Dom Phillips
São Paulo: A users’ guide
This big bad city has a heart of gold, by Claire Rigby


Eduardo Cunha and Brazil’s backwards Congress
Explaining the worst of Brasília politics, by Anna Jean Kaiser
The great illusion
What if no one showed up to Carnaval? By James Young
Who’s who in the battle for Brazil?
Why are battling with pro-government protesters and hugging the ones that want it destroyed? By Vincent Bevins
TV from the dark ages shines spotlight on Brazil’s race debate
Shocking racism in the country that won’t speak its name, by James Young

2016 posts still show up on the main blog page, and for everything else you can use the search bar or flip back through the full 23 pages of links. There’s plenty more.

You can find me at or on Twitter @Vinncent.
Thanks and Goodbye!

Six months out from Olympics, rich, not poor, are the big winners Thu, 04 Feb 2016 12:50:26 +0000 IMG_2963
Anti-Olympic graffiti in Rio’s threatened Vila Autódromo neighborhood

In six months time the world’s biggest sporting event will get underway in Rio de Janeiro. Here, Jules Boykoff, author of “Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics” takes a look at the winners and losers in the race for financial, rather than Olympic, gold.

By Jules Boykoff
Rio de Janeiro and Portland, Oregon

When Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff appeared at the Rio 2016 Organizing Committee headquarters brandishing a plaque with her “Ten Commandments of the Rio 2016 Games” – a list of social legacy-oriented good intentions – in November, the cameras dutifully snapped and flashed. The plaque was a gift from Eduardo Paes, the beer-quaffing, English-speaking, mediagenic mayor of Rio, a politician well versed in the art of the photo-op. But with the Games opening in only six months, many of those “commandments” now ring painfully hollow.

This might make Rousseff and Paes Olympic sinners. But as the Games approach, there are also real winners: well-positioned real-estate moguls, construction magnates, and perhaps Paes himself. Meanwhile, ordinary Rio residents are left with only shattered promises, with some even being forcibly displaced to make way for the Games.

These days, very few Cariocas believe the Olympic hype. In 2011, 63% in Rio thought that sports mega-events like the Olympics and 2014 World Cup would bring the city great benefits. By the end of 2015, only 27% shared that illusion.

As with much Olympics-induced public relations, the “10 Commandments” ripple with vapid prattle — one vows to “deliver a better city after the Games,” whatever that means. But some of the promises are quite specific, such as “use private money for the majority of the costs.”

This is relevant because in recent years the Olympics have been unmasked as a fiscal boondoggle, despite five-ring honchos in Rio asserting at every opportunity that taxpayer reais will make up less than half of the overall costs of the Games, with private interests paying the rest. Mayor Paes unswervingly repeats the assertion that private sources are paying for two thirds of the Rio Olympics bill.

But this statistic is extremely misleading. It fails to consider the quiet ways that Rio 2016 shifts public resources into private hands, ginning up large profits for well-connected impresarios with connections.

IMG_2956For starters, Rio 2016 brings enormous tax breaks. One study found that Olympic tax exemptions would be around four times higher than those of the World Cup, where tax breaks were nearly $250 million. In addition, public banks in Brazil are taking on speculative business risks to backstop Olympic projects. Also, local authorities have used the Olympics as a smokescreen to bestow valuable public land to developers at bargain-basement prices.

Nowhere has the transfer of public wealth into private hands been more brazen than in the construction of the Rio 2016 golf course. The Rio Olympics mark the return of golf to the Games after a 112-year hiatus. As was touted in Rio’s original Olympic bid, the metropolis already has two elite golf courses that have staged major tournaments. One of these could have been renovated to meet Olympic standards.

But in an audacious maneuver Mayor Paes decided to locate the golf closer to the Olympic complex in Barra da Tijuca, a wealthy western suburb, even if that meant plunking the course inside the Marapendi Nature Reserve, home to numerous threatened species.

In doing so, Paes teed up a staggering deal for billionaire developer Pasquale Mauro. As long as Mauro paid the bill for the golf course — between $20 and $30 million — he’d also win a contract to build 140 luxury apartments around it.

While the mayor’s office has pointed out the benefits of no public money being used in the construction of the site, these units start at $2 million, with penthouse condominiums pushing upwards of $6 million. It doesn’t take a math whiz to calculate the value of this multi-million dollar sweetheart deal, gift-wrapped by City Hall.

If the Olympics are all about real estate, Exhibit B has to be the Olympic Village. Built by Brazilian construction behemoth Carvalho Hosken, the Village will be converted after the Games into a luxury-housing complex called “Ilha Pura” (“Pure Island”). But Ilha Pura isn’t even an actual, geophysical island.  Carlos Carvalho — founder of Carvalho Hosken and campaign donor to Mayor Paes — explained to The Guardian that the name in fact referred to a “social island,” saying that he wanted to create “a city of the elite, of good taste…For this reason, it needed to be top class housing, not housing for the poor.”

IMG_2959But weren’t Rio’s poor supposed to benefit from the Games? One ‘commandment’ vowed to “Prioritize the neediest areas and the poorest part of the population.” But Rio authorities are acting as if “prioritize” means “prioritize for eviction.”

Since the International Olympic Committee awarded Rio the Games back in 2009, around 77,000 Cariocas have been displaced. “The number is likely much higher, since these are official statistics that traditionally undercount favela residents in all aspects of data collection, much less eviction,” Theresa Williamson, founder of Catalytic Communities, a Rio-based NGO that monitors human-rights issues in favelas, told From Brazil.

“Without the pretext of the Olympic deadline, very few of the evictions undertaken by the Paes administration would have been possible,” she added. “Thanks to the state of exception created by the Games, a small, insular group of people close to the mayor have been making broad decisions during the pre-Olympic period.”

Paes’ office has denied any wrongdoing. “City Hall does not use the instrument of compulsory removal, when families are evicted without prior knowledge or a transition process, and new housing is not offered. In any situation where people have to leave their homes, they only leave with the guarantee of a new home or compensation,” it said in a statement last August.

The experiences of one community, however, tell a rather different story. Vila Autódromo, a small, working-class favela on the edge of the Olympic Park, has found itself in front of the Olympic steamroller. As Rio stretched westward in the 1990s, Mayor Paes, then a young deputy mayor of Barra da Tijuca, alleged the neighborhood was causing environmental and aesthetic damage, and required demolition. He has since led the charge to expel every last resident of Vila Autódromo. In June 2015, efforts by the police to forcibly evict residents even turned violent.

Recently the psychological seesaw has verged on psychological warfare. Authorities have cut the favela’s water and electricity. Residents have experienced out-of-the-blue “lightning evictions” carried out by the Municipal Guard. Even the Polícia de Choque (Rio’s heavily armed and armoured shock troops) have played a part, intimidating locals and erecting a wall so obtrusive it would make Donald Trump proud. Meanwhile, on the other side of fence, Rio Mais, the construction consortium building the Olympic Park, cranks away.

“The Municipal Guard has protected the interests of the Rio Mais consortium against the interests of the population,” Larissa Lacerda, an organizer with the Popular Committee for the World Cup and Olympics in Rio de Janeiro who has worked closely with residents in Vila Autódromo, told From Brazil.

Although Vila Autódromo has been decimated, some families have refused financial compensation and are determined to stay in their homes. “Cruelty in Vila Autódromo has increased day by day, with City Hall doing everything it can to make life there unbearable. Yet a group of residents continues the resistance,” Lacerda explained.

In late November, I attended a cultural festival in Vila Autódromo that doubled as a solidarity rally. A large group —comprised of residents as well as busloads of community allies who traveled from other parts of Rio — assembled at the community’s cultural center, for music, information-sharing, food, and fun.

But even amid the good cheer, latent frustration bubbled up. Throughout Vila Autódromo slogans — photos of which are posted here — were scrawled in spray paint on the standing walls of demolished homes and on the white wall separating the community from the Olympic zone.

IMG_2607Wending through the rubble afforded an appreciation of the community’s grit and creativity in the face of peril. Someone had written “Paes Sem Amor” (“Paes Without Love”) on the wall that separates the community from the Olympic construction zone: a play on the phrase “Paz e Amor” (“Peace and Love”). Another took aim at a certain construction baron with a penchant for social stratification: “Carlos Carvalho, Não Somos Pobre/Você Sim é Pobre” (“We Are Not Poor/Rather, You Are Poor”).

But the predominant slogan around the favela was “Lava Jato Olímpico,” a reference to the widespread corruption scandal gripping Brazil’s political class by the gullet. The fiasco has, quite understandably, gobbled up the media’s collective attention. One side effect is that Operação Lava Jato has deflected attention from the Olympic build-up and all its deficiencies.

In a way, the double-whammy of political and economic crisis has been a blessing for Olympic organizers, allowing their logistical hiccups to fly under the public radar. But as the Games draw closer, more people are pointing out the stark fact that billions are being spent on the Olympics at the same time as social services in Rio are being slashed. Public spending reveals priorities and values. With the Rio Olympics, it is not hard to see who is being prioritized and valued and who is not.

“Favelas are not always a problem. Favelas can sometimes really be a solution, if you deal with them, if you put public policy inside favelas,” Mayor Paes explained in a slick Ted Talk in 2012. One such “public policy” was Morar Carioca, an ambitious favela upgrade program designed to bring basic infrastructure like paved roads, sewer systems, and improved electricity lines.

In 2010, Paes said that thanks to “Olympic inspiration” the Morar Carioca program would be a lasting legacy of Rio 2016. But by 2014, the program had stagnated and Paes had made a political U-turn, asserting Morar Carioca had absolutely nothing to do with Olympic legacy. The original collaborative spirit of the program has vanished, even if the Morar Carioca label is occasionally trotted out and pinned to public works projects.

If Rio 2016 runs smoothly, Eduardo Paes may be able use his platform as five-ring kingpin to catapult to higher office. Eduardo Cunha, the scandal-wracked Speaker of the lower house of Congress currently being investigated for having millions of dollars reportedly squirreled away in Swiss bank accounts, has anointed Paes as his favored candidate for the 2018 Brazilian presidential election.

The Olympic Games inevitably feature winners and losers on the track, in the pool, and on the velodrome. But Rio 2016 Olympic luminaries vowed to make ordinary Cariocas into winners as well. “Leave a legacy for the entire population of the city,” chirps one of the commandments. With the Games only six months away, this hopeful boast reads like gripping fiction of the cruelest sort.

Troubled times – carnival during the dictatorship Wed, 03 Feb 2016 19:57:20 +0000 Carnaval

As carnival kicks off this weekend, millions of people are will likely take to the streets and forget Brazil’s political and economic woes for a few days. During the country’s 21 year military dictatorship, however, censorship and intimidation meant carnival and politics were too closely linked for comfort.

By James Young
Belo Horizonte

The giddy souls who called for intervenção militar já (military intervention now) at Brazil’s anti-government rallies in 2015 should perhaps be careful for what they wish. For as the country prepares to swivel its hips at Recife’s Galo da Madrugada, Rio de Janeiro’s Cordão da Bola Preta and thousands of other blocos (street parties), big and small, it is worth remembering how carnaval suffered during Brazil’s 21-year military dictatorship.

“During the military dictatorship, just as with song lyrics, plays and films, carnaval did not escape the scissors of the censors,” wrote journalist Mariana Filgueiras in O Globo newspaper last year, in an article about the digitization by Brazil’s National Archive of thousands of historical documents from escolas de samba (samba schools).

While the dictatorship began in 1964, the military censors’ grip tightened considerably at the end of 1968 following the signing of ato institutional no. 5, better known as AI-5. According to this essay by Wellington Kirmeliene, writing in the History magazine of the Brazilian National Library, this presidential decree allowed the authorities “total and unrestricted powers of censorship, as well as practically legalizing persecution and torture, and, as a consequence of those acts, disappearances and deaths.”

During the period, Rio de Janeiro’s samba schools were forced to provide a detailed dossier of their carnaval projects, explaining and justifying the meaning behind their costumes, floats and song lyrics.

In their book “Pra tudo começar na quinta-feira: o enredo dos enredos” (“Everything starts on Thursday: a history of samba themes”, in loose translation) journalists and historians Fábio Fabato and Antônio Simas describe three episodes of government meddling in the country’s carnaval celebrations.

In 1967, the rehearsals of the Salgueiro samba school were monitored by DOPS (Departamento de Ordem Política e Social) officers, while in 1969, the Império Serrano school was forced to switch the word “revolução” (“revolution”) for “evolução” (“evolution”) in a song glorifying the 18th century Inconfidência Mineira rebellion and the abolition of slavery.

And in 1974, the Unidos de Vila Isabel escola was pressurized into including a reference to the government’s Trans-Amazonian highway in a song about the rights of Brazil’s indigenous people.

In such a climate, it, was hardly surprising that, according to Wellington Kirmeliene, all the “elements of “planet carnaval” followed the jingoist message of the military regime”, with the majority of carnaval samba tunes adopting a highly nationalistic tone.

The chorus of one song by the Imperatriz Leopoldinense samba school in the 1970s, for example, described Brazil as a “a giant evolving and moving forward”, while another group, G.R.E.S. Estação Primeira de Mangueira, used nature to proclaim the country’s greatness “Oh, what a place!/Oh, what a place!/Everything you plant here grows/There’s no place like this”, before ending with the cry “This is Brazil!/This is Brazil!!/This is Brazil!!!”.

At the same time, many Brazilian artists used carnaval as a way of expressing their opposition to the military government, such as in “Marcha da Quarta-Feira de Cinzas” (“the Ash Wednesday Song”) by Vinícius de Moraes and Carlos Lyra. “Our carnaval is over/no one will hear the songs/no one will dance happily in the street/and in our hearts/there are only ashes and longing for what has gone,” ran the lyrics of the song, which was written in 1963 but gained added significance once the dictatorship took control.

And in 1965 Chico Buarque released “Sonho de um Carnaval” (“A Carnaval Dream”): “At carnaval there is hope/that those who are far away can remember/that those who are sad can dance/that those who are grown-up can be like children.”

As the dictatorship’s grip finally loosened in the 1980s, the carnaval sambas became more openly critical of the regime and the censorship that accompanied it: “I dreamt that I was dreaming a dream/a dream of a mesmerizing dream/of open minds/and no silenced mouths,” ran the words to one song by G.R.E.S. Unidos de Vila Isabel (again, loose translation).

This year’s carnaval, like others in recent years, is sure to be awash with satirical tunes criticising the country’s disastrous political and economic state. “Criticism through humour has been used for a long time in Brazil, even though it lost strength during the years of repression, with the (former president Getúlio) Vargas and military dictatorships, when there was less freedom…but in the last ten years it has been reborn,” the researcher Weydson Barros Leal explained in this interview with the Diário de Pernambuco newspaper from Recife, one of Brazil’s great carnaval capitals.

President Dilma Rousseff is likely to be the target of many of the jibes, as is the under-fire Speaker of Brazil’s Lower House, Eduardo Cunha, whose home was recently searched as part of the Operation Carwash investigation into the enormous bribes scandal at state run oil giant Petrobras.

One song that is already on its way to becoming a carnaval smash pays tribute to Newton Ishii, the Asian-Brazilian federal police officer who has appeared in TV news footage of many of the Operation Carwash arrests. “Oh my God, now I’m in trouble, the Japanese from the Feds is knocking on my door,” runs the chorus.

Other carnaval tunes, meanwhile, mock the paean to unrequited love that was the letter sent by Brazilian Vice-President Michel Temer to Rousseff in December, and in “Tia Wilma e a Bicicleta” (“Auntie Wilma and the Bicycle”), the President’s love of riding her bike. The latter is built around a play on words based on “pedalling” and the “pedaladas fiscais” (financial manoeuvres) on which the impeachment campaign against Rousseff is based.

While many younger revellers will give no more thought to what it means to have the freedom to criticise their politicians in this way than they will to popping open their first carnaval beer, it is worth remembering that not so long ago, speaking out in public was a much more dangerous affair indeed.

The fog of war – corruption and media in Brazil Thu, 28 Jan 2016 17:18:24 +0000

Confidence in Brazil’s rulers has dropped so low that accusations of corruption usually stick, even when there’s little evidence. In such a chaotic situation, many in Brazil’s media should be doing a better job, says Alex Cuadros. Above, one of a few particularly grievous examples.

Alex Cuadros
São Paulo

Earlier this month, one of Brazil’s most popular magazines, Época, put President Dilma Rousseff’s ex-husband on its cover. The headline reads “In the Sights of the Car Wash”—a reference to the corruption probe that has implicated dozens of businessmen and politicians in a scheme to embezzle billions from the state oil company, Petrobras.

On the surface, the story looks like a massive scoop. Even after their divorce, Carlos Araújo remains an informal advisor to Rousseff, so it would mean that a member of the president’s inner circle is under investigation in the scandal that has shaken the foundations of Brazil’s political establishment. But there’s more going on here than meets the eye.

As I’ll argue below, there’s not much meat to Época’s cover story. It appears that its reporters tried very hard to uncover something incriminating, but found only vague implications. Under normal conditions, most magazines might refrain from printing such an inflammatory cover without any proof of wrongdoing. But conditions are far from normal in Brazil at the moment. Suspicion of politicians—and of Rousseff’s government especially—now runs so deep that almost any implication can stick.

Seen this way, the cover may tell us more about the polarization of Brazil’s media and political landscape than it does about Rousseff’s ex-husband.

Corruption – this time is different

For decades (if not centuries), Brazilians have tended to assume that corruption is widespread at most levels of government. Before this scandal, dozens of sitting congressmen were facing charges for various crimes; one is wanted by Interpol.

What’s new about Car Wash (“Lava Jato,” in Portuguese) is that the crimes aren’t being swept under the rug. Thanks to testimony offered in plea bargains, top executives and politicians have been convicted of corruption. Billionaires have spent time behind bars, and so has a sitting senator. This is a big deal in a country where impunity for the rich and powerful has generally been the rule.

Most of the people involved in the scheme are either allies of Rousseff’s government or members of her party. So far, though, little concrete evidence has emerged to implicate the president herself. This clashes with the convictions of the hundreds of thousands of Brazilians who, since shortly after her reelection in 2014, have marched in favor of her impeachment. They overwhelmingly believe she knew about the scheme and let it happen. Given the scope of the crimes, and the fact that she previously served as chairwoman of Petrobras, this is an understandable conclusion.

Still, the evidence is thin enough that, when Congress opened impeachment proceedings in December, the official case didn’t include any corruption allegations against her. Instead it focuses on Rousseff’s apparent violations of budget rules—an issue at the heart of Brazil’s economic crisis, but unrelated to the Petrobras scheme. So to uncover influence peddling in the president’s inner circle would be a revelation of major public interest.

The media’s role in Car Wash

vejaThe press has played a vital role in publicizing the Car Wash investigations, making a cover-up less politically feasible. But Brazil’s major publications are not exactly neutral. On occasion, they have distorted the facts in ways that seem to serve an anti-government agenda.

The most glaring example came just a few days before the second round of elections in 2014, when Veja magazine ran a cover (left) featuring the faces of Rousseff and former President Lula with the headline: “They knew about everything.” In smaller type, the cover declared that the main witness in Car Wash had “revealed” that Rousseff and Lula were aware of the corruption at Petrobras.

The story itself, though, contained no documentary evidence nor any explanation of how the witness would know what—according to Veja—he claimed to know. And later it emerged that the witness had merely made a logical deduction: Based on the scale of the scheme, Lula and Rousseff must have known. This has little legal value and would make for a much less damning cover.

It’s reasonable to speculate that Veja‘s cover sought to sway the election. But whatever its intention, the effect was obvious: to make Rousseff look complicit in the growing scandal. At voting booths that Sunday, opposition voters wore printouts of the cover around their necks. Knowing this, it becomes easier to understand why most Brazilians are convinced she knew about the corruption at Petrobras, despite the lack of hard evidence.

It has long been an article of faith on Brazil’s left that the establishment media—Veja, Época, the Globo media group, and newspapers such as Folha de S.Paulo—are in league to undermine Lula, Rousseff, and their Workers Party. This is an exaggeration. While it’s true that these outlets generally lean to the right of Brazil’s political spectrum (if we define the center according to electoral outcomes since 2000), for the most part their reporting is responsible. Sometimes, it is crucial. In 2012, for example, O Estado de S. Paulo reported on the massively inflated price of a Petrobras refinery in the U.S.—long before Car Wash would uncover signs of embezzlement in the project.

Also, scoops from the establishment media have often exposed scandals involving the current opposition. Perhaps most famously, in a 1997 front-page story, Folha exposed the congressional vote-buying that paved the way for a constitutional amendment to allow President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Lula’s longtime rival, to run for reelection. (The scandal was never officially investigated.)senhor

But stories like the one I’ve mentioned from Veja, by making spurious leaps based on trumped-up evidence, undermine the credibility of the entire media. Rather than illuminating, they obfuscate, and serve to deepen the already extreme polarization of politics here.

These stories also represent missed opportunities to delve into other alleged crimes—of which there’s no shortage in the Car Wash probe. The president of the lower house of Congress, Eduardo Cunha, is suspected of stealing millions from public coffers, but has received much more cautious treatment from Veja and Época both, despite an abundance of evidence against him. He’s the one (pictured right on another cover) who opened impeachment proceedings against Rousseff.

What did Rousseff’s ex-husband do?

This brings us back to the Época article in question. The cover states that a tycoon involved in the Petrobras scheme sought Araújo’s help in obtaining a government bailout for his construction firm. But does the evidence against Rousseff’s ex-husband justify associating him with major crimes on the cover of a national magazine? Based on a close read, the answer would seem to be no. Here are the facts:

  1. Construction tycoon José Antunes wanted to ask President Rousseff to bail out his company, Engevix—one of the alleged members of the cartel to skim bribes from Petrobras contracts.
  1. Antunes hired an intermediary, Paulo Zuch, to set up a meeting with Rousseff’s ex-husband, Carlos Araújo (a labor lawyer who has no official role in government).
  1. Zuch paid Araújo’s friend Nilton Belsarena 200,000 reais (close to $50,000 at today’s rates) to set up the meeting between Araújo and Antunes.
  1. When they met, according to Zuch, Antunes asked Araújo to set up a meeting with the president, and Araújo said, “Yes, I’ll see to it.”

That’s it. There’s no indication that Araújo himself received any money. Zuch—apparently the main source for the story—and Belsarena both say they didn’t pay Araújo anything. Also, Araújo’s reported promise to “see to” Antunes’s request seems to be based on one person’s memory—Zuch’s—of a meeting from nearly three years ago. Nor is there any evidence that Araújo actually asked Rousseff to intervene. (After the article came out, he said he didn’t.) And of course, Engevix wasn’t bailed out.

Antunes clearly sought to influence the government, but it seems that he failed.

Red herrings

Faced with a paucity of facts, Época—like Veja in its pre-election cover storyresorted to inflated language to make its case. According to the article, a “team of reporters” spent “months” on a “special investigation” to find out if Antunes’s plan worked. “It has emerged that the strategy was at least put in motion,” the article reads. This might less generously be translated as: “We failed to find out much beyond the plan’s existence.”

The article refers to the meeting between Antunes and Araújo as “secret.” This certainly sounds suspicious. But given that neither of the two men is a government official with a public agenda, what classifies the meeting as “secret”? Época doesn’t explain.

Época does reproduce contracts to show how Zuch transferred money from Engevix to Belsarena. There’s also a photo of Rousseff with Belsarena and his wife. These elements give the article a sheen of documentary veracity, but ultimately they’re red herrings, because they don’t actually support the idea that Araújo may have engaged in influence peddling. (This calls to mind a previous Época story on Lula, which made documents showing declared investments in retirement funds—which would otherwise be pretty boring—look like evidence of money laundering.)

The article also refers to negotiations with prosecutors over Antunes’s plea bargain. The way it’s written, Antunes seems ready to implicate Araújo in criminal activities. But all it’s really saying is that his interactions with Araújo were “discussed.”

The strangest bit of misdirection comes on the last page of the article. Reporters caught another Engevix partner, Gerson Almada, at the airport in Brasília and asked him to comment on the plan with Araújo. Almada responded with a jumble of vague promises of future information. This could mean that he was going to reveal details of Araújo’s involvement, as the article seems to imply—or, equally, that Almada was just trying to get the reporters off his back.

Responsible journalistic practice?

Época seems desperate to assuage suspicions over the motivations of its main source, Zuch—who actually did help Antunes in his possibly illegal attempt to influence the government. Zuch’s statements are held up as “trustworthy,” an adjective that shouldn’t even need mentioning. Most readers would probably assume that the magazine wouldn’t rely on sources it didn’t consider trustworthy.

Época also fails to provide essential transparency on its reporting process. According to the article, Araújo “received” the magazine’s reporters at his office. But only one short, indignant quote from him appears late in the piece, and it doesn’t address any substantial questions. Later, Araújo revealed that the reporters pretended to be potential clients and ambushed him with questions once they were alone in a room with him.

This tactic could even be justified as a journalistic strategy, but why hide it from readers? It seems that Época wanted to show that it gave Araújo plenty of opportunity to respond to the accusations questions being raised. But apart from that episode, in its months of reporting, the magazine’s only other contact, according to the article itself, was to call him on the Friday afternoon before the issue was published. These hardly qualify as good-faith efforts to hear Araújo’s side of the story.

Given that few people will read past the cover (the full version of the article is not even available online), Época‘s gestures toward responsible journalistic practice seem perfunctory. The second page of the article acknowledges that there’s no evidence that Rousseff knew about the plan to influence her. But the article waits until the very last paragraph to concede that “it would be premature” to say that Araújo had a role in the Petrobras scheme. If it’s so premature, one might ask, is a cover story justified?

Prosecutors, the article says, will clear the matter up. And truly, they should investigate every lead. But is Araújo actually under formal investigation? The cover says that he’s “in the sights of Car Wash,” but this phrase is vague enough that it could just mean his name had been cited.

Whether it actually has in any substantive way, beyond the negotiations that Época reported over Antunes’s plea bargain, is unclear.

Impeachment – a special moment for Brazil

Given that dozens of people are implicated in Lava Jato—including some with allegedly key roles in the scheme and great power in Brasília—why did Época choose to pour its energies into a story on Rousseff’s ex-husband? Is it an attempt to smear a president who, for all her many errors, appears to be one of the few clean politicians in Brasília?

As with Veja‘s pre-election cover, Época‘s intention may be beside the point. The effect is to rally public opinion behind the idea that Rousseff is corrupt—“dirt on top of dirt,” reads a typical comment on the story—just as impeachment proceedings are about to resume. Though of course, if corruption isn’t at issue in the proceedings, why does this matter?

It matters because impeachment is as much a political process as a legal one. The woeful state of the economy and outrage over corruption will weigh as much or more than evidence that Rousseff violated budget rules. New anti-government protests have been called for March, and Congress will be taking the temperature of the streets as it decides how to vote on Rousseff’s fate.

The press has an essential part to play in Brazil’s quest to root out corruption. But by exploiting a chaotic atmosphere and foregoing rigorous standards of proof, these magazines reduce journalism to a tool of political rivalry. They make corruption, a national problem, look like the problem of one government. That’s a disservice to the democracy they claim to be protecting.

Notes from the US – no one understands Brazil Fri, 08 Jan 2016 13:10:23 +0000 From Brazil blog founder and editor Vincent Bevins recently spent some time in his hometown of Los Angeles. Here he reports on attitudes to Brazil in the US, and the differences between his former, and his adopted, homes.

Vincent Carnaval

By Vincent Bevins
Los Angeles

In the second half of 2015, I spent a bit of time away from Brazil, in Los Angeles, the city where I grew up. It was the first time since my arrival in São Paulo in 2010 that I had been out of the country for consecutive months, and the first time since 2007 that I’d spent more than a few weeks at a time here in the US.

Rather than just put up a standard blog **Vacation notice** we had the excellent James Young handle the blog while I was gone, and he’ll be continuing as an editor in the future. I also tried to make use of my time in the world’s most powerful country to reflect a little on Brazil’s relationship to the rest of the world. A number of things struck me.

So here’s a few quick thoughts from the US:

No one understands Brazil

It never ceased to amaze me how little people know about the other most populous* country in the Western Hemisphere. Even among dedicated readers of international news, few people know much more than “Brazil had a boom and then the World Cup, right?” People that know that that boom has fallen apart, or why, or that there is a political crisis, are quite hard to find.

And of course, the average person in the US, who doesn’t keep up with international current affairs, is an entirely different story. He or she is unlikely to know more than that Brazil is “South of the Border,” where the people probably speak Spanish.

Brazilians that travel abroad are reminded too often of this. But I have to admit I found myself shocked.

All of this can be a bit humbling for those of us who make a living trying to tell the story of Latin America in the English language, and sometimes even take risks to do so. It has been easy to meet people that don’t even know newspapers actually have international news or people stationed abroad. Hearing things like this became normal to me.

Of course, a caveat is in order. It is granted that I am in Los Angeles, a city where being a Kardashian is not only acceptable, but richly rewarded. When I went to Russia recently, or when I am back in London, people have been a bit more keyed in.

But in the US, nope. Basically no one knows or cares.

The US isn’t that great, and Brazil’s not that bad

Two years ago, in this blog’s most popular post ever, I wrote that after so much time, I found that adapting to life in Brazil meant adopting some wonderful practices, but also adopting attitudes I found deeply regrettable. Then, the issue was classism.

But upon returning to the US, I found that I had also bought into the very common myth that everything is great in the USA, that life here is the serene endpoint of the shining path to development. If Brazil could only hunker down and do everything right politically and economically, we think, for maybe a generation, or two, or three, we could live the dream of functioning advanced capitalism like they have in North America.

Back in 2015 American reality, this ideology lasts about five minutes. Considering that US GDP per capita is over five times larger than Brazil’s, things here are remarkably crap. The homeless problem in Los Angeles is just as bad as São Paulo’s “cracolândia,” if not worse. Healthcare is an expensive mess. Poverty and child hunger are real. Our tax dollars have recently been used on bloody and hugely disastrous wars few even support any more. I ask, heretically, is this so much better than accepting bribes for oil contracts?

Nice old grandmothers here are terrified of the police – even white ones! Then there are our seething racial wounds. It would not be hard to go on.

Even as the crisis drags on in Brazil, and even as I returned and visited some of the most disadvantaged parts of the country, I often got to thinking, quietly, that this isn’t really that bad.

Yeah, life here is better than in Brazil. Of course. This is the richest country in the history of humanity, and your odds of material comfort are much, much higher. The murder rate is much lower than in Brazil, where it should be a national emergency.

And yes, in the US, cars and things are cheaper and the supermarkets have way more stuff.

But the gap in welfare between the two countries is not nearly as large as is accepted as common sense in Brazil.

Hip Hop Nation

Last point. Bear with me. The final thing that shocked me is the extent to which hip hop is the official sound of the United States. This felt so radical coming back from Brazil, where many – far too many – still view rap or hip hop as a deviant, dangerous genre they associate with an irredeemable underclass.

Not so in the US. This summer in Los Angeles, “Trap Queen” was so ubiquitous it felt as if they were pumping it through massive speakers throughout the city. Since that faded away, “Hotline Bling,” became our temporary national anthem.

That part has been nice.

*Edited for clarity after publication

Tristes Tropiques – Brazil’s gloomy 2015 in review Thu, 31 Dec 2015 14:43:29 +0000 DilmaThe economy tanked, President Dilma Rousseff faced toxic approval ratings and the threat of impeachment, the shoddy, megalomaniacal caperings of the likes of Eduardo Cunha, the Speaker of the country’s Lower House, dragged an already grubby political landscape further into the mire, and the internet reflected back a society that often seemed riven by social and racial differences. Here, From Brazil looks back at some of the key themes of Brazil’s annus horriblis. 

By James Young
Belo Horizonte

JapaWorking at the Car Wash:

In 2015 the sheafs of stodgy political news that take up the front sections of most Brazilian broadsheets finally contained something to interest ordinary readers, as the Federal Police’s Operação Lava Jato (Operation Car Wash) investigation into corruption at giant state-controlled oil company Petrobras dominated the headlines.

The probe into the billion dollar bribes racket has seen the arrest of top executives from a number of Brazil’s leading construction companies, along with several major political figures, including the former treasurer of the governing Worker’s Party, João Vaccari Neto. It has also made a household name of the scheme’s bagman turned informant Alberto Youssef, and earned Newton Ishii, known as O Japa or “The Jap”, a police officer present at many of the arrests, his own carnaval theme tune.

Despite the damage wreaked upon Petrobras and an already reeling economy, many observers have suggested that by bringing down senior business leaders and crooked politicians Operation Car Wash represents proof that Brazil has finally sickened of its seemingly ingrained culture of impunity, and also demonstrates the healthiness of the country’s separation of powers, plus the strength of its judiciary – Lava Jato has brought about the first ever arrest of a sitting Brazilian senator, Delcídio do Amaral.

Cynics, however, would point out that much the same was said around the time of Brazil’s last enormous corruption scandal, 2005/2006’s Mensalão (“Big Monthly Payment”) swindle (and the enormous corruption scandal before that, and the one before that…), and suggest that it will take decades to root out the institutionalised culture of graft that riddles the country’s political framework.  

ProtestosProtest Songs:

If things were bad in Brazil in 2015, then at least there was no shortage of people willing to speak out against them.  Many of the year’s demonstrations had an anti-government theme – from the panelaço (pot-banging) demonstrations that echoed from the balconies of apartment buildings in August, to the hundreds of thousands that took to the streets in the same month to call for impeachment, an end to corruption, and in some disturbing cases, military intervention.

Critics, meanwhile, dismissed such protesters, who in many cases were drawn from the better-off sections of Brazilian society, as merely reflecting upper middle class self-interest. In response, pro-government supporters took to the streets in smaller, but still significant, numbers in December.

Perhaps more encouraging than such partisan affairs was the #NãoFechaMinhaEscola (“Don’t Close My School”) protest movement in São Paulo, where thousands of students occupied their threatened schools and eventually forced the state government to suspend an educational reform programme that would have meant the closure of hundreds of learning institutions.

There was also what at least one article described as an embryonic “Women’s Spring” movement – a series of public actions in support of women’s rights, built around opposition to proposed law changes that would further hamper Brazil’s already extremely limited access to abortion.

Further highlighting the wrongs of the country’s often unpleasant culture of machismo was the online #MeuPrimeiroAssedio (“My First Harassment”) campaign, where, following the posting of a number of lewd comments about a 12-year-old female contestant on Brazil’s MasterChef Junior TV show, tens of thousands of Brazilian women used social media to recount the first time they had suffered sexual harassment.

1526513Fear and loathing on the internet (and everywhere else):

If social media has allowed many of Brazil’s previously disenfranchised groups to find their voices, it has also given other sectors of society space to share the rather less edifying contents of their minds, and 2015 saw a number of incidents of online racism. Comments such as “I’ll pay you with a banana” and “lend me your hair so I can wash the dishes” were left on the Facebook page of black actress Taís Araújo in November, while TV journalist Maria Julia Coutinho suffered similar abuse in May.

Imbecilic TV comedy show Pânico Na Band, meanwhile, briefly thought it would be acceptable to feature a character known only as The African, played by a “blacked-up” white actor, who spoke only in grunts and shrieks and acted in what the show’s creators appeared to believe constitutes typical “African” behaviour – scratching at parts of his body, tearing at plants and leaves and performing a dance of thanks for the judges of a cooking contest.

Away from the headlines, such high-profile instances of prejudice reflected the reality of life for millions of black and working class Brazilians. The country’s social divisions came to the fore once again in September when, following a number of mob robberies on the city’s beaches, Rio de Janeiro police instigated searches of public buses running from the poorer northern suburbs to the wealthier seafront districts of Zona Sul.

At the same time, local residents set up vigilante groups to deal with the threat. “We’re looking for kids in cheap flip-flops, who look like they haven’t got R$1 in their pockets,” said one of the brave urban warriors. “It’s obvious that they’re here to steal,” said a shop worker from Copacabana. “If they want terror, we’ll give them terror. It’s self-defence.”

Dilma 2The Ballad of Dilma…

The storm clouds of impeachment have arguably been building in Brazil since President Dilma Rousseff narrowly clinched a second term in office back in October 2014, following a surly and spiteful contest. At the time, opposition leader Aécio Neves claimed he had lost not to a political rival but to a “criminal organisation”, while his PSDB party muttered darkly about being the victims of electoral fraud. Rousseff’s foes have been gunning for her and her governing Worker’s Party ever since.

The argument for impeachment often seems to follow one of four strands: (a) we don’t like Dilma very much (Rousseff’s approval rating sank as low as 8% in August) (b) Dilma used to be president of Petrobras (see Operation Car Wash, above) and so must be a crook (c) we don’t like Dilma very much and (d) the government’s pedaladas fiscais, or financial manoeuvres, where transfers to banks responsible for making a number of welfare programme payments are deliberately delayed, making the overall financial situation look rosier (or at least less terrible) than it actually is. Such manoeuvres, say those calling for impeachment, are illegal.

The pro-impeachment movement believe the pedaladas fiscais represent their smoking gun, and proceedings against Rousseff are now underway. The government, meanwhile, say the pedaladas have been common practice since 2000, when the opposition PSDB was in power, while Brazilians who oppose impeachment describe the process as a coup. No one knows how this particular novela will end, but two things are guaranteed – it won’t be short, and it won’t be pretty.

Cunha…and Eddie

No pantomime would be complete without a villain, and there have been few shadier politicians in Brazil in 2015 than Eduardo Cunha, dubbed the country’s Frank Underwood by a number of commentators. While Cunha has not (yet) pushed a reporter under a speeding subway train, his skulduggery in other areas seems unbounded.

“In all my time in politics, he’s the most Machiavellian figure,” Ivan Valente, the experienced president of the left wing opposition party PSOL, told The Guardian in an interview in October. “Cunha is a politician who is opportunistic, intelligent, ambitious and corrupt.”

Since being elected Speaker of the Lower House in January, Cunha – whose PMDB party remain, officially at least, Rousseff’s allies – has made it his mission to add to the President’s woes at every turn, leading campaigns to overturn government sponsored legislation or pushing through his own, usually government-unfriendly, bills.

At the same time, Cunha has been accused of taking millions of dollars in bribes as part of the Petrobras swindle, and of stashing the money in Swiss bank accounts. At least his alleged machinations have lent the often deadening weight of the recent corruption sagas a touch of glamour – Cunha’s wife reportedly used some of her husband’s ill-gotten gains to pay for lessons at Nick Bollettieri’s exclusive tennis academy in Florida.

At the same time, he has attempted to use his authority to accept or reject impeachment petitions to curry favour with both the opposition and the government.

Cunha, an ultra-conservative evangelical Christian who supports the creation of a “Heterosexual Pride Day” in response to what he sees as a growing “gay ideology” in Brazilian society, finally pulled the trigger to initiate impeachment proceedings mere hours after Worker’s Party deputies announced they would support an Ethics Committee investigation into his denials of the existence of the (alleged) Swiss loot.

Despite recently having had to endure the indignity of an early morning police raid at his home, Cunha snorts at suggestions he might step down, as well as the Frank Underwood comparisons. “He’s a thief, a murderer, and a homosexual,” he is reported to have said, “and I’m not”.

MarianaSweet River No More

One of the most distressing sights of the year was the devastated landscape around the town of Mariana in the state of Minas Gerais after millions of gallons of mining waste burst free from a collapsed tailings dam.

At least 15 people are known to have died in the flood, and the ensuing environmental damage is likely to be catastrophic, with the sludge now having flowed down the Rio Doce (“Sweet River”) to reach Brazil’s Atlantic coast. “This is a permanent blow. The cost is irreparable. A lot of life forms are never coming back,” Professor Carlos Machado, a researcher at the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation in Rio de Janeiro, told the LA Times in December.

Describing the dam burst as a natural disaster is misleading, however. This is a tragedy with human hand-prints all over it, with the aftermath revealing both the potential negligence of the mine’s operator, Samarco (a joint venture between the Anglo-Australian mining company BHP Billiton and the Brazilian firm Vale), and the failings of Brazil’s “outdated mining code and decrepit regulatory system”. According to an article in The Daily Telegraph, only 400 of Brazil’s 15,000 mining dams were inspected in 2014.

The environmental news was little better elsewhere – a critical water shortage saw São Paulo suffer long periods of water rationing as the south east of Brazil underwent its worse drought in 80 years, while almost a thousand towns and cities in the dry inland regions of the north east of the country declared a state of emergency because of a lack of water.

PoliciaThe Killing Fields

Police killings in Brazil are hardly a recent development – according to a report by the São Paulo based Brazilian Forum on Public Safety there were 11,197 homicides carried out by police between 2009 and 2013, a rate of six a day. Even so – perhaps it was down to greater media awareness or the ubiquitous presence of cell phones, useful for filming or photographing wrongdoing – the relentless stream of negative headlines involving Brazil’s police forces this year felt unprecedented.

From 10-year-old Eduardo de Jesus Ferreira, who was shot and killed by police in the Complexo do Alemão favela in April (his mother claimed that a policeman standing over her child’s body told her “I might as well kill you, just as I killed your son, because I killed a bandit’s son”) to the five young men slaughtered when their car was sprayed with bullets in the Lagartixa community in the north of the city in November, Rio de Janeiro was the scene of many of the police killings.

The September murder of four young men outside a pizza restaurant in Carapicuíba in Greater São Paulo (a police officer, who claimed the men had mugged his wife, was later arrested and accused of the crimes), and the death of 20-year-old Alisson Campos da Silva, shot and killed by police as he reached for his cell phone – which the officer in question believed was a gun – in Recife earlier this month, shows that Brazil’s police murders, whether in the form of trigger happy cops on duty or extra-curricular vigilante killings, and which invariably seem to involve young working class black or dark-skinned men – are a national, not a local, disgrace.

As the writer and journalist Xico Sá put it when writing about such young men in an essay inspired by the footballer Flávio Caça-Rato (Flávio the Rat Catcher), who grew up in poverty in Recife – “some, like Flávio, escape, thanks to football, funk or rap, but most are lost along the way, little Rat Catchers doomed to a life amidst the human refuse or, worse, ended by the bullets (nothing stray about them) of the police – almost always dead by the time they are 30.”

Brazil’s WhatsApp ban: the ins and outs Fri, 18 Dec 2015 15:22:10 +0000 15169158

Brazil’s “sad day” without WhatsApp was a short one, thanks to an appeal swiftly overturning a 48-hour blackout. But why was Brazil’s most popular app banned to begin with?

By Laura McQuillan
Rio de Janeiro


On Wednesday, a judge ordered telcos to cut service to WhatsApp for 48 hours, effective from midnight (the eventual blackout only lasted about 13 hours).

But little was clear in the case.

The judge’s ruling followed an injunction request by an unknown petitioner over WhatsApp’s repeated failure to comply with a court order to wiretap suspected drug traffickers.

In July, a court ordered WhatsApp to comply with a police request for the messages of three users – a Brazilian and two Paraguayans – believed to be using the app to commit crimes. The trio were reportedly part of São Paulo’s Primeiro Comando da Capital gang, although most details in the case remain suppressed.

In August, a judge fined WhatsApp’s parent company, Facebook, for failing to comply with the order. And on Wednesday, Judge Sandra Regina Nostre Marques, of the 1st Criminal Court of São Bernardo do Campo, granted the injunction – penalising not just WhatsApp, but about 100 million users in Brazil.


Due to the immense secrecy surrounding the criminal case, it took hours for WhatsApp’s reasoning to trickle out.

A Facebook post from Mark Zuckerberg appeared to indicate the company had simply refused to hand over information about users: “I am stunned that our efforts to protect people’s data would result in such an extreme decision by a single judge to punish every person in Brazil who uses WhatsApp,” he wrote.

However, Facebook spokesman Matt Steinfeld later gave clarity to WhatsApp’s position, explaining that the technological structure of the app meant wiretapping was impossible: not only did the company not save messages, but they were encrypted along the entire pathway from sender to recipient.

“We’re disappointed that a judge would punish more than 100 million people across Brazil since we were unable to turn over information we didn’t have,” he told the New York Times. While it wasn’t known what WhatsApp told the court, it was likely the judge would have been aware of the company’s position.

Facebook itself regularly cooperates with similar data requests: in the first half of this year, it received 1265 requests from the Brazilian government for information about 1954 users, and produced data in just under 40 per cent of cases.


The injunction was later ruled to be on shaky constitutional ground. A higher court judge upheld an appeal by WhatsApp and telco company Oi on Thursday, reinstating the app at about 12.40 pm. Judge Xavier de Souza, of the 11th Criminal Chamber of the Court of São Paulo, ruled that “in light of constitutional principles, it doesn’t seem reasonable that millions of users are affected because of the inaction of the company“.

WhatsApp was rolled back out across mobile networks on Thursday afternoon. It wasn’t clear why other telcos weren’t involved in the appeal, although they had previously complained about losing revenue from their own pricey text messages to WhatsApp’s free data-based service.

However, an association representing mobile providers, SindiTelebrazil, told Associated Press the other companies were not behind the injunction.


Absolutely nothing, except frustration amongst users, whose WhatsApp chat screens continuously read “connecting”, but never connected. The outage prompted a handful of memes from Brazilian social media users, who joked they wouldn’t be able to survive two days without “zapping”.

The ruling also ticked off Zuckerberg, who called it “a sad day” for Brazil.

But in terms of compelling WhatsApp to intercept and hand over users’ messages, the court failed: being blocked didn’t change the way the app operates.

However, there were two big winners out of the ban: WhatsApp’s competitors, Viber and Telegram, accumulated huge numbers of new users during the short outage.

At 10 pm on Wednesday, Telegram tweeted that it had picked up 500,000 million new users in three hours. By 12.30 am, the number had hit 1.5 million “and counting”.

Viber told Associated Press that its Brazilian user numbers had grown by 2000 percent in 12 hours. On Thursday morning, the company tweeted that it had 27 million users across the country.


The WhatsApp ban is expected to head back to court: Souza’s written judgment shows he granted WhatsApp an injunction against the original injunction. The Folha de São Paulo reported a final decision on WhatsApp’s status would be made either on Friday, or early in the New Year.

Souza also indicated that a higher fine for WhatsApp would be a more appropriate punishment than the blackout.

As for the original criminal case involving the alleged drug-traffickers, it is not clear if or when it might make its way to court, or what bearing the WhatsApp case might have on the police investigation.


All signs point to yes. This wasn’t the first time an injunction had been granted against WhatsApp in Brazil – but it was the first time the app had been taken offline.

In February, a judge in Piauí ordered WhatsApp to be blocked over the company’s failure to give up messages sought by police as part of a two-year investigation into “serious” offending against children and adolescents. In that case, too, many details were kept a secret. The court’s decision was overruled the following day.

Brazil is not alone in its moves to block WhatsApp, as governments around the world grapple with the use of encrypted communication.

Investigators believe the assailants in last month’s Paris attacks organised the shootings and bombings through WhatsApp and Telegram, and FBI director James Corney said “the use of encryption is at the centre of terrorist trade craft”.

The British government has indicated it is considering banning WhatsApp, along with iMessage and Skype. And last month, China – which has allowed the use of WhatsApp, despite a ban on Facebook – blocked mobile service to some users of the app.

School’s not out for summer: student protests in São Paulo Wed, 16 Dec 2015 14:15:11 +0000 School 1

With many Brazilian schoolchildren already enjoying their summer holidays, thousands of pupils in São Paulo have been protesting to save their schools from closure. Their efforts have provided a welcome break from the unseemly behaviour of the country’s adult political leaders in Brasília. 

By Gill Harris
São Paulo

As the Operation Car Wash investigation into the massive bribery scandal at state run oil company Petrobras rumbles on, impeachment proceedings against President Dilma Rousseff get underway, and Eduardo Cunha, the corruption-dogged speaker of Brazil’s Lower House, has his home searched by police while dressed in his pyjamas, a rather more edifying political movement has taken place in São Paulo.

In early October pupils across the state discovered their schools were to undergo what was described by Governor Geraldo Alckmin as a “restructuring” of the education system, a move that would have entailed the closure of 93 schools and the transferal of over 300,000 pupils. The state government claimed a new system based on ciclos (which roughly translates as year groups) would benefit students’ learning.

Many critics of the reforms suggested that the government’s proposed changes were economically driven and pedagogically flawed: simply an attempt – and a fairly transparent attempt at that – to cut costs.

Either way, São Paulo’s outraged students were not about to take the closures lying down, and around a month later began to occupy the threatened schools. What had begun as just a few students camping out in classrooms swiftly turned into a regional insurgence against the government’s education policy, a movement that spread across social media via the hashtag: #naofechaminhaescola (“Don’t Close My School”).

On November 12, BBC Brasil reported students were camping out in several schools throughout the state, and by the end of the month almost 200 schools had been occupied.

Despite increasing pressure from the politicians and police, who in some cases treated students with truculence and aggression, the youngsters held firm, and last week Alckmin was forced to suspend his plans for reform.

While maintaining the position that the reorganisation would benefit students, Alckmin recognised the need to involve students more directly in any decision made on the matter. “In 2016 we will begin to engage in debate. We will open up dialogues, school by school,” he said. Amidst the backpedalling, state secretary for education Herman Voorwald resigned.

More cynical critics, however, have suggested that the decision to suspend the changes only came after Alckmin’s popularity took a battering.  Recent figures released by Datafolha showed approval for the governor had dropped to just 28%, the lowest in his time in office.

School 2
The street outside the Fernão Dias Pais school in São Paulo is blocked during a demonstration.

In spite of the suspension, however, protests against the restructuring in downtown São Paulo have continued, although the number of occupied schools has fallen to 57, according to the state education department.

Students from Fernão Dias Paes State School in Pinheiros, in the west of São Paulo, one of the schools that initiated the protests, told BBC Brasil they considered the battle to be only half won, while another newspaper report described the students’ belief that the suspension is merely a conciliatory strategy. The protesters are demanding an official statement from the government that the reforms will be dropped permanently from the agenda.

17 year-old Ana Luisa has been occupying two different schools for the past two months: one in outlying São Vicente until the evening, and then another in Praça Roosevelt in the centre of the city, where she spends her nights.

“With all the protesting and travelling I’ve barely had time to eat. I’ve lost three kilos,” she told From Brazil in early December, showing the space around her waistband. “But it’s worth it. Things here have reached a critical moment. We students know we’re making history. And we’re not going to stop until we have official proof from the government that they’re listening to us.”

The demonstrations come at a pivotal moment for the culture of public protest in Brazil. While the massive 2013 marches against political corruption, poor public services and the money spent on last year’s World Cup briefly captured the public imagination, their effectiveness was ultimately diluted by the sheer breadth of demonstrators’ complaints, and despite a vague, panicky government response that made promises of investment in public transport and political reform, few concrete benefits have emerged.

That movement has since been replaced with this year’s anti-government, pro-impeachment rallies, largely middle class affairs where protesters have dwindled in number as the spectre of impeachment has moved closer to reality, while this week saw around 50,000 demonstrators gather in São Paulo to protest against the impeachment campaign, which they describe as a coup. Politicians, meanwhile, have annexed the spirit of as ruas (“the streets”) for their own ends.

Against such a backdrop, and compared with the sordid political capering of the likes of Eduardo Cunha in Brasilia, this youth movement, along with other organic demonstrations such the recent public actions in support of women’s rights, feels refreshingly heartfelt and optimistic.

University professor and state deputy Carlos Giannazi has praised what he calls this “Arab Spring” of student politicisation, while Folha de São Paulo columnist Raquel Rolnik, a professor of architecture and urban planning, has called the movement “the most important political event of the year.”

The mother of one young protester, Rose, meanwhile, told the BBC that the protests were restoring her faith in politics: “it’s a lovely sight to see. These teenagers are taking to the streets to demand better quality education; we’ve never seen anything like it before.”

With growing mistrust in those who run their country, these children are taking their education into their own hands. A similar school occupation movement has begun in the mid-western state of Goiás, where organisers say they have been inspired by events in São Paulo, and a website, (“What I Want In School”), posts videos of pupils demanding a more wide-ranging curriculum, school trips, and opportunities to discuss issues such as racism and misogyny.

In São Paulo, meanwhile, the debate as to who rules the school continues. “We might just be kids,” Ana Luisa said, “but I think we could do a better job of it than the adults.”

Editor’s note: On Friday (18th) one student group, the Comando das Escolas em Luta (“Fighting Schools Command”) announced it would end the school occupations, and that it was “time to change tactics”. Other students, however, said they had yet to decide if they would call a halt to their occupations. 

Brazil’s impeachment – questions answered Sat, 05 Dec 2015 14:18:08 +0000 she's on fire

What is happening in Brazil? The President has not been removed, but the government as we have known it since Dilma started her second term in January has fallen apart. Some questions answered.

So Brazil’s president has been impeached?

Not exactly. The speaker of the lower house accepted a petition to open proceedings, which sets the gears in motion. Now both sides have to present their cases in Congress, and two thirds of the house must vote to continue with impeachment. This process could take months, and it’s quite possible – considered likely at this point – that President Dilma Rousseff survives. But things could change.

What did she do? It must be related to that multi-billion dollar corruption scandal at Petrobras, right?

Remarkably, it’s entirely separate. It’s a bit complicated but essentially she’s accused of violating fiscal responsibility laws by failing to get Congressional budget approval after government revenues dropped.

This is not a great thing to do, but at any normal moment in Brazilian politics, this would be very small potatoes indeed. But this is no normal time for Latin America’s largest country. The “Lava Jato” investigation uncovered a multi-billion dollar corruption scheme at the country’s state-owned oil company, Petrobras, and has led to arrests of top economic and political leaders, including in Rousseff’s Workers’ Party (PT).

Though she hasn’t been implicated personally, this has cast a big, dark cloud over her administration, and it hasn’t helped her dismal approval ratings that Brazil is going through its worst economic crisis in decades. Basically, a lot of people want her out, and some people are now trying to get her on a technicality. However, there’s nothing necessarily legally or politically illegitimate about using a small issue to impeach.

But my friend told me this is all the desperate, vengeful plot of a hated and corrupt politician trying to save his skin?

Well yes, a bit. This wouldn’t be happening, at least not now, if it weren’t for a man that many people in this country describe in exactly those terms. But Eduardo Cunha couldn’t do this all on his own. It only works because Dilma has lost control and is extremely unpopular. And most impeachment supporters want Dilma out, not to help Cunha.

Cunha, the speaker of the house that accepted the petition, is being investigated for large-scale corruption, hiding millions of dollars in Swiss bank accounts, and accepting bribes. But when it comes to dodging accusations like these, Mr. Cunha has a good deal of experience.

He’s considered a Machiavellian figure, and many progressives here consider the conservative evangelical leader their worst enemy. Some highlights of his recent rule have included a push to remove restrictions on corporate campaign finance, and a proposal to pass a law banning “heterophobia,” and throwing whomever commits whatever that is in jail. For a long time, he was technically in a coalition with Rousseff, while many in the center-left PT winced at everything he did.

So why did he start impeachment?

He’s in the hot seat. We have now entered the Brazil politics version of “Hunger Games.” He had threatened to impeach Dilma unless the PT blocked a current ethics commission investigation which puts him at real risk. The PT debated what to do for days. The fact that the PT – a party that swept into power with Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva in 2003 and promised to change a culture of corruption – even considered this at all is a testament to how much of a mess Brazil’s politics are these days.

As soon as the PT announced they wouldn’t save Cunha, he announced he was impeaching. The fact that the process started in such a seemingly craven manner is likely to help Dilma. But Cunha’s machinations would be impossible if Dilma’s numbers weren’t so bad.

How bad are they? I heard her approval rating is in the single digits! That’s crazy.

The reality is indeed crazy, but it’s not actually right to say her “approval rating” has ever dropped that low. Datafolha polling is tripartite – so recently 10% of the country thought her government is “good / great” while 22% called it “regular,” and 67% considered it “bad or terrible.”

What happens now? Does she step down during the proceedings?

No, she stays. But it would be a stretch to say we can expect a fully functioning government while all of this takes place. Either the Presidency changes course or the Legislature changes course, and for the time being these two teams will not be working together. This is not good. The government needs to function to fix the economy.

However, the stock market has had a great few days since the impeachment was announced. The theory is that whatever happens, at least this puts us on a path out of the current gridlock.

This must be personally terrible for Rousseff, right?

Weirdly not. The timing of the impeachment is in her favor, since most analysts think the economic crisis and scandals will worsen into 2016. And the whole thing now has Cunha’s stink on it. Right now, the impeachers just don’t have the votes in Congress. But if things got worse for regular Brazilians, that could change.

I saw that in São Paulo, student protesters have been clashing with police. Because of the impeachment?

Nope. Nothing to do with it. Those protests were against São Paulo Governor Geraldo Alckmin, who had a plan to reorganize the school system. He’s on the other team. His party opposes Rousseff. There are 26 other parties in Congress, and their level of allegiance varies.

What really? 28 parties? Is Brazilian politics always this complicated?

Yeah basically. Have you ever heard that Tom Jobim quote?

Which one?

“Brazil is not for beginners.”

Photo above: Eduardo Cunha, left, and President Dilma Rousseff
Note: This post written in haste, so it may be updated later. Find me on Twitter.

Dangerous work: journalist murders in Brazil Mon, 30 Nov 2015 13:58:49 +0000 Gleydson Carvalho
Gleydson Carvalho was killed as he presented his radio show in August this year (Reprodução/Facebook/Gleydson Carvalho O Amigão)

Over 30 journalists and bloggers have been murdered in Brazil since 1992, making it a dangerous place for those who speak out against local corruption – especially in the country’s remoter regions. And a culture of impunity means the killers are rarely brought to justice. 

By James Young
Belo Horizonte

In a country like Brazil, where there were more than 52,000 murders in 2014, it is not always easy to identify patterns. Especially in cases such as that of Roberto Lano, murdered in the town of Buriticupu in the northern state of Maranhão just over a week ago, and victim of one of the most typical types of Brazilian homicide – a gunman pulling up on a motorbike, squeezing the trigger, and speeding off into the night.

Or the death of 30-year-old Ítalo Eduardo Diniz Barros, killed in almost identical circumstances in another Maranhão town, Governador Nunes Freire, the Friday before that.

Or even the murder of Israel Gonçalves Silva, shot dead in a stationery store at 7.30 in the morning, again by men on a motorbike, in Lagoa de Itaenga, in the north-eastern state of Pernambuco, on November 10th. He had just dropped his two young children off at school.

What connects the deaths of Roberto, Ítalo and Israel – or Décio Sá, murdered in São Luís, the capital of Maranhão, in April 2012, or Gleydson Carvalho, shot last August as he presented his radio show in Camocim, Ceará, or any of over thirty other homicides in Brazil since 1992 – is that all were journalists or bloggers, and were apparently killed because the investigative or critical nature of their work had made them some powerful, dangerous enemies.

Ítalo Diniz criticised local authorities on his blog, and had told colleagues that he had often received threats from “mayors and town councillors”, while Lano had also recently attacked local politicians. Israel Gonçalves Silva regularly talked about corruption allegations on his radio show.

Another blogger, 67-year-old Evany José Metzker, was found dead in the countryside of the south-eastern state of Minas Gerais in May this year. His decapitated body showed signs of torture, and according to reports, police believe that the murder was motivated by the journalist’s investigations into child prostitution and drug trafficking.

Many other Brazilian journalists have had to deal with violence, threats, and even imprisonment as part of their work. A report by Brazil’s Associação Nacional de Jornais (National Newspaper Association), quoted in this article in The Guardian, has said that in addition to the killings, 24 journalists have been imprisoned, 33 have been the victims of assault and 59 have received threats since 2008.

Police intimidation and aggression is also an issue. A June 2013 survey by the Associação Brasileira de Jornalismo Investigativo (Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism) revealed that during the massive month-long street protests of that year, eight journalists were arrested and 52 were beaten across ten of Brazil’s 26 states.

Décio Sá
Jornalist Décio Sá was murdered in a bar in São Luís in 2012 (Reprodução/

“The killings, particularly coming so close together, are very worrying and we urge authorities in Maranhão to make every effort to get to the bottom of them,” Andrew Downie, the São Paulo-based representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an independent, non-profit organization, said after the murders of Roberto and Ítalo.

“We ask that they devote the necessary manpower and expertise to finding the culprits and that they conduct their investigations in as open and transparent a manner as possible.”

“Other local bloggers have told the CPJ that threats are a common practice in the region and it is vital that local, state and federal government act together whenever possible to ensure they send the message that threats against the press will not be tolerated and will not go unpunished,” added Downie.

According to the CPJ, at least 16 journalists have been murdered in Brazil in retaliation for their work since 2011. To make matters worse, the killers are rarely brought to justice.

While the murderer of Décio Sá was sentenced to 25 years imprisonment in 2014, and the killers of two other murdered journalists, Walgney Assis Carvalho and Rodrigo Neto, were also recently brought to justice, the CPJ points out that “as with the majority of cases…accountability has extended as far as the gunmen but not the mastermind.”

Brazil ranks 11th on the organisation’s global Impunity Index, which spotlights nations where “journalists are slain and their killers go free”. That makes the country slightly tougher at dealing with such crimes than Russia, in 10th position, but less effective than Bangladesh, India and Nigeria.

President Dilma Rousseff has promised to tackle the problem. “The federal government is fully committed to continue fighting against impunity in cases of killed journalists,” she said in a meeting with CPJ representatives in Brasilia in June last year, when she pledged to support legislative efforts to federalize crimes against freedom of expression.

Rousseff’s current political woes, however, mean that the safety of journalists is unlikely to be her struggling government’s top priority at the moment. And in any case, a tougher stance from Brasília against those who murder bloggers and journalists may not prove to be much of a deterrent against the often corrupt local level politicians and pistoleiros that hold sway in the backlands of states such as Maranhão and Pernambuco, where local law enforcement and infrastructure can be lacking.

For now then, it seems Brazilian journalists and bloggers who have the courage to speak out against corruption and wrongdoing in their communities will have to continue looking nervously over their shoulders.

The short unhappy life of the Brazilian football coach Thu, 12 Nov 2015 13:38:58 +0000 Brazil's form under truculent coach Dunga has been poor
Brazil’s form under truculent coach Dunga has been poor

Brazil face Argentina in Buenos Aires tonight in a crucial World Cup qualifying tie. Win or lose, however, Brazil’s future looks less than bright under unpopular manager Dunga. But, as James Young explains, the country’s footballing problems run much deeper than that – and it might just be the fault of the fans. 

By James Young
Belo Horizonte

“Brazil needs a coach with scientific knowledge, coupled with the wisdom to be a good observer and a desire to win, while playing attractively. Forget it! It was just a fantasy, and now it’s gone. The reality is quite different, and much sadder. The reality is Dunga,” wrote 1970 World Cup winner Tostão after the Seleção appointed its new manager after the World Cup. And not much Carlos Caetano Bledorn Verri had done since has proved him wrong.

Sure, there were a few perky friendly victories between the Mundial and this year’s Copa America in Chile. In those games Brazil at least looked energetic and organised, and were certainly an improvement on the doleful lot who succumbed so humiliatingly to Germany in Belo Horizonte in the World Cup semi-final. But, Neymar aside, the lack of attacking flair and creativity was painfully obvious. Dunga’s Brazil were a counter-attacking side, the long, symphonic passing movements of old a fading memory.

Still, those effective, if unappealing friendly wins seemed like the glory days compared with Brazil’s performances in Chile. Dunga’s team were turgid throughout the tournament, losing to Colombia and only squeaking past Peru and Venezuela in the group stages, before getting knocked out by Paraguay in the quarter-finals.

Things have not improved much since then. Brazil were no match for Chile and Alexis Sanchez in their opening World Cup qualifying game in Santiago, and were unimpressive again in a win over Venezuela in Fortaleza. Now, Dunga’s side travel to Buenos Aires to face the old enemy Argentina – themselves struggling for form after a miserable start to the qualifying campaign.

Dunga, with his thuggish pitch-side manner and aggressive approach to dealing with the media, makes an easy cartoon villain. But perhaps the most worrying thing for Brazilian fans is the lack of alternatives. The hire ‘em, fire ‘em short term thinking of the country’s clubs means that talented young managers are an endangered species in Brazil. Dunga is the symptom, rather than the cause of the disease that ails Brazilian football.

It was reported this week that of the twenty coaches who began the Serie A season back in May, only two – unsurprisingly, Tite at Corinthians and Levir Culpi at Atletico Mineiro, the country’s top two teams – were still standing by its end. It was the lowest number since 2005.

In the last few weeks alone, with the season just a few games from its end, coaches were sacked by Coritiba and Avaí (both fighting relegation) and São Paulo (trying to finish in the top four and earn a spot in next year’s Copa Libertadores).

The stumbling explanation for the sacking of manager Doriva from São Paulo director of football Gustavo Vieira de Oliveira gave a rather chilling insight into the thinking, or the lack of it, that goes on behind the scenes in Brazilian football. “From his performance in this short period of time, and the observations we’ve made of his work, we don’t see anything wrong, but we want to try something else.” Doriva had been in charge for seven games and just over a month.

A report by the Mexican publication El Economista last year revealed that coaches in Brazil last just 15 games on average, compared to around 54 in Germany, 80 in England, and 88 in Major League Soccer. In the ten year period covered by the survey, at least four clubs had employed close to 40 coaches – or four a year.

The 7-1 World Cup defeat against Germany exposed Brazil's problems
The 7-1 World Cup defeat against Germany exposed Brazil’s problems

Such impatience has two obvious negative outcomes. One is a lack of understanding and cohesion on the pitch. While Corinthians and Atlético Mineiro this year, and Cruzeiro in 2013 and 2014 have played intense, fast-paced football, with the ball (generally) moving quickly from boot to boot, such collective awareness is rare.

Most Brazilian league games are cumbersome affairs, with players taking a touch (often two) to control the ball before pausing and looking around in search of a teammate. The telepathic awareness of others’ movement and positioning that comes from playing in the same system over a long period, best typified in recent years by Barcelona, is an elusive dream.

The other consequence is that the confidence, willingness to experiment, and ultimately careers of promising young coaches are destroyed. Dado Cavalcanti, manager of Serie B side Paysandu, has coached 15 clubs in nine years – before his 35th birthday. After doing well at Avaí in 2008 and 2009, Silas managed Grêmio for eight months, and was then sacked by Flamengo after just over a month in charge. In 2012 Grêmio sacked Caio Junior, who had coached an impressive Botafogo team in 2011, after just eight games in charge.

As a result, coaching jobs at the biggest Brazilian clubs tend to go to the same old faces, such as Muricy Ramalho, Dorival Junior (admittedly currently doing well with Santos), Celso Roth and Vanderlei Luxemburgo. One of the names mentioned in connection with the vacant position at São Paulo is Paulo Autori, who has coached close to 40 teams and has won nothing of note in the last ten years.

Even Brazil’s best coaches are flawed. Corinthians’ Tite is the current toast of Brazilian football, but he has had a long and chequered career, and favours a prosaic style of football that is not always easy on the eye. Atlético Mineiro’s Levir Culpi and Marcelo Oliveira, who did so well at Cruzeiro and now manages Palmeiras, while attack minded coaches, can be tactically naive.

All of which goes some way to explaining why, when the CBF (“the Brazilian FA”) ran out of patience with Mano Menezes as Brazil coach in 2012, they turned, with ultimately disastrous results, to Luiz Felipe Scolari (who managed the team in 2001 and 2002) and, following Scolari, appointed Dunga (who had coached the Seleção between 2006 and 2010).

Brazil’s club directors and football administrators are largely to blame for the situation. Club presidents and their posses, who more often than not lack the clear-headed professionalism and conviction required to maintain a long-term strategy, are democratically elected, meaning they depend on the approval of the fans to keep their jobs. And if the team is losing, that approval will disappear very quickly.

Which means, by a rather ironic twist, that as much as Brazilian fans may loathe Dunga, they may be at least partly responsible for him getting the job in the first place.

By howling for the head of their coaches after just a handful of defeats – the torrents of social media abuse aimed at Atlético manager Levir Culpi now his team’s bid to win the title seems to have fallen short are only one example – they fuel the atmosphere of impatient, hysterical short-termism that pervades the Brazilian game and that is a direct cause of the country’s dearth of coaching talent.

Win or lose in Buenos Aires tonight, it is Brazilian football that is paying the price.

Rio Olympic spending turns from gold to bronze Tue, 03 Nov 2015 17:15:02 +0000 The Olympic Park in Barra, Rio de Janeiro
The Olympic Park in Barra, Rio de Janeiro

As the Rio Olympics draw closer, organizers are cutting costs – but it may have more to do with Brazil’s crumbling economy than IOC initiatives or financial good governance. Jules Boykoff, author of “Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics” explains.  

By Jules Boykoff
Rio de Janeiro

Back in 2009, when the International Olympic Committee awarded the 2016 Summer Olympics to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil’s economy was riding high. The Rio 2016 bid book boasted of “financial certainty” and assured IOC bigwigs that Brazil’s “proven economic policies” would “provide a solid economic foundation to support Games delivery.” Later that year The Economist published a cover featuring the iconic Cristo Redentor statue blasting off like an unstoppable rocket.

But no amount of Photoshop trickery can get around the fact that since then, Brazil’s economy has tanked. Despite those “proven economic policies,” the country’s financial tectonics have shifted mightily. In the past year alone, the real has lost 70 percent of its value against the dollar. Inflation has spiked to close to 10 percent.

At the same time, President Dilma Rousseff’s popularity ratings have plummeted into single digits and now hover around 9 percent. The scandal-wracked political system seems dangerously close to implosion, with impeachment being bandied about the halls of political power and the Frank Underwood-esque speaker of the lower house, Eduardo Cunha, threatened with removal on corruption charges. This is the worst recession the country has suffered in 25 years, and economists expect it to extend through the Rio 2016 Games.

In the Olympic world, the tectonic plates have also moved since Rio won the Games. In December 2014, the IOC unanimously passed a slate of recommendations called “Olympic Agenda 2020.” This was a direct response to the fact that the Olympic movement itself had hit a low point. To host the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, Russians spent $51 billion, a gob-smacking total that surpassed the costs of all the previous Winter Olympics combined.

In addition to that boondoggle, bidder interest in the 2022 Winter Games was wilting, with only two candidates still in the race — Beijing, China and Almaty, Kazakhstan — both of them anti-democratic, repressive states. IOC President Thomas Bach needed to take urgent action — or at least appear to do so. After all, a Tupac-style hologram of reform might just do the trick.

Enter “Olympic Agenda 2020,” a set of nebulous recommendations, rather than full-force policies. The recommendations spoke of the obvious need to halt runaway spending. Host cities were encouraged to use existing arenas and would now be allowed to hold Olympic events outside city limits.

The goal was to reduce the number of venues destined to become what sports mega-event mavens call “white elephants”: hulking, underused structures that drain city coffers through pricey maintenance costs long after the sporting spectacle leaves town.

The IOC also streamlined the bidding process, reducing it from a forest to a mere meadow of paperwork. Overall, while Agenda 2020 is awash with jargon about “synergies” and “stakeholders,” the wider goal of reducing host-city costs makes sense.

In 2009, when Rio bid jockeys floated their plan, extravagance was the order of the day. Olympic “gigantism” — high-priced five-ring spending sprees on supersized events — reigned supreme. President Bach hyped Rio’s mega-plan at a glitzy gala one year before the Games were to begin: “This will be the biggest urban redevelopment project since the Barcelona 1992 Olympic Games.”

Indeed, Rio organizers plotted a complex path, with four venue pods in different parts of the city and a gaggle of brand-new arenas and structures built exclusively for the Games.

Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes used the Olympics to spur development in Barra da Tijuca, Rio’s relatively affluent western suburb and a kaleidoscopic consumer paradise. Real estate tycoons — many of whom helped fund Paes’ re-election campaign in 2012 — grinned from ear to ear. Brazilian property baron Carlos Carvalho revealed to The Guardian that in Barra he hoped to forge “a city of the elite, of good taste.

For this to happen, Mayor Paes needed to bash down the barriers to profit. This included clearing longstanding communities such as Vila Autodrómo, a favela perched on the edge of the Olympic blueprints where residents have put up a spirited fight that continues today.

After all, as Carvalho saw it, “the new city” in Barra da Tijuca was meant to be “luxury housing, not housing for the poor.” According to one survey, since Rio was handed the Olympics in 2009, some 60,000 favela residents have been displaced due to urban interventions or because they live in supposed “zones of risk.”

But even with a bevy of building barons on their team, Mayor Paes and the Rio 2016 Olympic Organizing Committee struggled to keep construction moving apace. Back in 2014, IOC Vice-President John Coates rattled Rio’s cage when he declared that organizers’ preparations were “the worst I have experienced” and even “worse than Athens” where construction for the 2004 Summer Games ran notoriously behind schedule.

In recent months, however, Rio 2016 appears to have rallied. The venues are only slightly delayed, and the gap appears closeable. Even so, there’s a borderline iron law of Olympic development: the closer the deadline, the higher the costs.

In a cost cutting move, fixed air-conditioning units will not be provided for athletes at the Olympic Village
Fixed air-conditioning units will not be provided for athletes at the Olympic Village

So, what does the IOC’s “Agenda 2020” have to do with Rio 2016? Turns out, not much. To be sure, Agenda 2020 recommendations, if converted into actual toothy reforms, could have benefited the Rio Games by limiting the number of freshly built venues.

But as Rio 2016 was chosen in 2009, its organizers are not bound by Agenda 2020 recommendations. That, however, hasn’t stopped the event’s luminaries from making strategic use of the program’s loose lingo. When in doubt, they trot it out.

For the Rio 2016 Organizing Committee, Agenda 2020 has become a strategic shield used selectively to deflect criticism and to defend its deficiencies. When construction delays forced Rio 2016 officials to consider shifting preliminary water polo matches from the Julio Delamare Aquatic Park to the main Olympic Park’s Maria Lenk Aquatic Center, they claimed this was simply in tune with the Agenda 2020 rationale. A spokesperson said, “One of the pillars of Rio 2016 is to deliver games that are economically sustainable and that is in line with Agenda 2020 framework.”

When the international swimming federation complained that Rio’s Olympic aquatic center was substandard compared to London 2012, the Rio Organizing Committee’s retort was that building a smaller facility simply chimed with Agenda 2020 sustainability principles. Rio 2016 issued a statement asserting, “everyone knows that the goal of Rio is to deliver sustainable Games in accordance with Agenda 2020.”

Then again, forging tactical connections to a phantom document is better than insulting the world’s top athletes. Recently, Rio Organizing Committee President Carlos Nuzman did just that. During an Olympic test-event for BMX racing in October, a brouhaha broke out when participants blasted the track as too dangerous.

Citing safety concerns, athletes banded together and unanimously refused to ride. “We shouldn’t have to race on such sub-standard tracks,” British BMX world champion Liam Phillips posted on social media. Nuzman responded with a glib dismissal. “Whoever wanted to race, should have raced,” he said. “Whoever chose not to race…I think they should look to be in another sport.”

In light of Brazil’s economic woes, Rio 2016 organizers recently announced a 30 percent cutback to the Games’ operating budget. Fernando Meirelles, the Brazilian filmmaker who is overseeing the Olympic opening ceremony, revealed, “Since we joined the project the money has been cut, cut, cut.” He added, “We’re in a crisis and there are better places to put money in Brazil than just the opening ceremony.”

Rio 2016 will also replace a number of sturdier, more permanent structures with tents, the ticketing system will be revamped to cut costs, and the volunteer program will be slimmed. Organizers also recently said that the Olympic Village will not be equipped with fixed air-conditioning units, with athletes being forced to rent portable devices instead.

Rio 2016 Communications Director Mario Andrada told the BBC, “People get upset about luxury and excess, we have to tighten our belts.” But the projects listed by the BBC as on the fiscal chopping block did not include the “luxury and excess” that IOC members have come to expect. Will such cost-trimming apply to the Olympic Brahmins who will jet into Rio, quaff fine wine, and luxuriate in five-star hotels?

The IOC was conspicuously mute about the budget cuts, although it did deliver a statement to Inside the Games that was a blend of the vanilla and telltale: “We will discuss this topic over the next few weeks with the Rio team, as we continue to look at how the implementation of Olympic Agenda 2020 can help Rio to make its Games as economically sustainable as possible.”

The statement was in fact revealing, capturing as it does precisely what is wrong about the idea of over-hyping the IOC’s moves toward reform. While the idea behind the Olympic Agenda 2020 program has potential, the reality is rather more PR masterstroke than genuine change. Another Tupac hologram—and this one is wearing Olympic laurels.

Crime and punishment in Brazil Mon, 26 Oct 2015 15:48:02 +0000
The Curado Prison Complex in Recife is one of Brazil’s most overcrowded jails (Photo: Cesar Muñoz Acebes/Human Rights Watch)

Overcrowded, unsafe, and wracked by sickening levels of violence, Brazil’s prisons were described by a report published last week as a “human rights disaster”. To make matters worse, many inmates have not yet been convicted but must endure months in appalling conditions while they wait for their case to be heard.   

By James Young
Belo Horizonte

If, as Dostoyevsky put it, the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons, then Brazil would appear to be in a sorry state indeed.

Last week the Human Rights Watch NGO released a report entitled “The State Let Evil Take Over” that described the shocking conditions inside the Curado prison complex (previously known as the Anibal Bruno prison) in Recife, the capital of the north-eastern state of Pernambuco, as well as penitentiaries in Itamaracá, about 45 kilometres away.

“During visits to Pernambuco’s prisons in 2015, a researcher from Human Rights Watch entered a windowless cell without beds, in which 37 men slept on sheets on the floor. Another, which had six cement bunks for 60 men, lacked even enough floor space. A tangle of makeshift hammocks made it difficult to cross the room, and one man was sleeping sitting up, tying himself to the bars of the door so that he wouldn’t slump over onto other men. In that cell, the stench of sweat, faeces and mould was overpowering,” said the report, which was accompanied by a disturbing video, available on YouTube.

The study painted a gruelling portrait of overcrowding (Curado, which was built to house around 2,000 prisoners, is home to about 7,000), lack of sanitation, disease, sexual and physical violence, and described how criminal gangs controlled large parts of the institutions.

Perhaps most chillingly of all, Human Rights Watch revealed that a large number of the prisoners were pre-trial detainees – in other words, they had been incarcerated while awaiting trial for the crimes of which they had been accused.

Custody hearings, where the accused appears before a judge soon after being arrested, are, says the report, “required under international law but have not — until recently — been provided to detainees in Pernambuco or most other states in Brazil.” According to the organization, “nearly 60 percent of the nearly 32,000 people held in Pernambuco’s prisons have not been convicted of a crime.

An earlier Human Rights Watch study told how when judges held custody hearings in the state of Maranhão between October 2014 and March 2015, around 60 percent of those arrested were released on the grounds that pre-trial detention was not warranted, compared to 10% when no such hearings took place and judges based their decision solely on police reports. At least in this area there are some signs of progress – Pernambuco began providing custody hearings in August this year.

But that alone is unlikely to save Brazil’s prison system, the horror stories surrounding which are almost too many to mention. There were a reported 62 murders in the Pedrinhas jail in Maranhão in 2013, and in January 2014 a video emerged from the prison showing the decapitated heads and bodies of victims of a gang feud.

There were also reports of the visiting wives, girlfriends and female relatives of prisoners being raped by the leaders of the criminal factions that effectively run large parts of the institution. In May this year the director of the prison, Cláudio Barcelos, was arrested, accused of taking bribes to facilitate escapes.

The tragedy of Pedrinhas could have been foreseen and could be repeated, at any moment, in other prison complexes with the same problems,” said Lucia Nader, of the Brazilian NGO Conectas, in January 2014.

Prison riots, which often end in fatalities, are alarmingly frequent. A 2013 outbreak of gang warfare in Pedrinhas, which has a long history of violent uprisings, ended with nine fatalities, and a riot in January this year in Curado resulted in three deaths.

Earlier this month a rebellion in the Penitenciária de Teófilo Otoni in Minas Gerais left three prisoners dead while fourteen escaped, and another riot in Governador Valadares in the same state in June saw two deaths. The Minas Gerais government says there is a shortfall of 26,000 places in the state’s prison system.

Prison uprisings are alarmingly frequent in Brazil
Prison uprisings are alarmingly frequent in Brazil (Photo: Edmar Melo/JC Imagem)

Nor are precarious safety conditions the sole preserve of the country’s adult prisons. In September five breakouts in the space of eight days from the Fundação CASA young offender institutions in São Paulo saw a total of 117 inmates escape.

And even those outside the prisons cannot take their safety for granted – a few weeks ago 33-year-old Recife resident Ricardo Alves da Silva was brushing his teeth in the garden of his house near the Curado complex when he was shot and killed by a gunshot that came from inside the prison.

According to this Vice article by From Brazil contributor Ben Tavener, Brazil has the world’s fourth-biggest incarcerated population after the United States, China and Russia, with numbers growing by 161 percent from 2000 to 2014 to reach 607,000 prisoners in June last year. At the same time the country’s prison system is designed to hold a maximum of only 376,000.

In such overcrowded conditions, where floor space to sleep on, let alone beds, is often lacking, rehabilitation facilities are usually either limited or non-existent, contributing, along with the pervasive atmosphere of criminality within jails and the social conditions inmates are likely to face upon release, to an estimated recidivism rate of 70%.

Brazil's prisons are both unsafe and unsanitary (Photo: Cesar Muñoz Acebes / Human Rights Watch)
Conditions at this prison in Itamaracá are unsafe and unsanitary (Photo: Cesar Muñoz Acebes/Human Rights Watch)

Yet the crisis in Brazil’s prison system attracts considerably less political and media outrage than might be expected. President Dilma Rousseff discussed the issue during the 2014 presidential debates, saying that she believed Brazil had to change its entire prison strategy, and that rehabilitating prisoners was absolutely essential. In September a law was introduced that makes the provision of high school level education in prisons a legal requirement.

But at the same time, the powerful “Bullet Caucus” in the Brazilian parliament is pushing for a tougher stance on crime, including lowering the age of criminal responsibility from 18 to 16, which, according to an article by Stephanie Nolen in The Globe and Mail, would add an extra 32,000 people to the prison population in its first year.

It is not all bad news for those who find themselves on the wrong side of Brazilian law, however – provided they have the means to extricate themselves from their situation. Last week 28-year-old business administrator Juliana Cristina da Silva knocked down and killed José Airton and Raimundo Barbosa, city workers who had been painting a cycle lane in the Zona Norte region of São Paulo, while almost three times over the legal alcohol limit. She then fled the scene and was only stopped by witnesses 3 km away.

Following a night at a police station she was released on R$15,000 (U$3,850/£2,500) bail the next day, and will now spend the undoubtedly lengthy wait for her trial at liberty. It was the latest in a long, long list of similar cases in Brazil.

The sentencing of drunk driving fatalities is a controversial issue around the world, and there are obviously differences in the legal status of Juliana’s crime (which is considered homicídio culposo, or manslaughter) and the offences committed by, or the charges awaiting, many of the prisoners in jails like Pedrinhas or Curado.

But at the same time, the right to bail and quickly granted provisional freedom of the former, compared with the denial of human rights and barbarous conditions doled out to the latter, provided a jarring reminder of the sense of inequality that often seems to surrounds the Brazilian justice system.

As an article in Carta Capital magazine entitled “Justice is Rich and White” argues, while such a system appears to automatically assume that the lower-class prisoners in the ruined cells of its overcrowded jails are marginais and bandidos (“thugs and criminals”) when denying them pre-trial hearings and even the most basic living standards, a better-off Brazilian such as Juliana is treated rather like “a good girl who made a mistake”.

That, perhaps, should not come as too much of a surprise, for in doing so Brazil’s penal system merely reflects the divisions that run across the country’s society like deep, jagged scars.

River transport in the Amazon – Manaus to Porto Velho by boat Mon, 19 Oct 2015 12:59:25 +0000 IMG_7744
Taking in the sights from the top deck of the “Viera” river boat.

River transport in Brazil’s Amazon region is both an essential means of getting around for locals and an unforgettable experience for travellers. And with a unique sense of river camaraderie, it’s hard to feel lonely. In search of adventure, Sam Cowie took the slow boat from Manaus to Porto Velho.   

By Sam Cowie

Spending four days on a boat slowly chugging its way down the Amazon is probably not for everyone. For some, sharing a relatively small space with 100 strangers – a fair few of whom are young children – in humid heat, with only two bathrooms, set meals, limited electricity and zero privacy would be a nightmare.

For many Amazonians, however, long distance river transport is unavoidable, as much of the region is unreachable by road and air travel is often prohibitively expensive. Around 14 million passengers used Amazon river transport in 2012, many travelling distances of up to 1600km. Thirty per cent of them earned between R$450 and R$720 a month.

Personally, I found lying in a hammock with no internet and little more to do than read a book or stare at the scenery rolling by an extremely pleasant break from Brazil’s wonderful, but at times stuffy and hectic, metropolises.

After being on assignment in Manaus one of my few ways out of the city without catching a plane was to take a boat to Porto Velho in neighbouring Rondônia, which has the dubious honour of being Brazil’s most deforested state. A highway connecting the two cities was built in 1973 by the then military government, but fell into disrepair shortly afterwards. Today all that remains is a dirt road.

Young woman in a hammock shortly after breakfast. The boat holds about 100 people – including the crew – in hammock spaces, four “camarote” cabins and with others sleeping on the top deck

A four day ticket to Porto Velho, including drinking water and three meals a day, costs R$200 (U$52), about three times cheaper than the one hour plane flight. I arrived at the boat a few hours before we set sail and, finding few remaining spaces, set up my hammock in a corner next to a cheerful 70-year-old Afro-Brazilian woman, travelling to Porto Velho to collect her older sister who had fallen ill while visiting relatives.

Sometime after sunset the engine roared to life and, with the sky lit up by lightning from a dry tropical storm, we made way our way down the Rio Negro towards the Amazon, passing flaming gas refineries and the bright lights of the famous Manaus free trade zone.

Lights on the boat go out around 10pm, perhaps because the day begins at 6am when the crew, a surly bunch of few words and even fewer smiles, serve up sickeningly sweet coffee and buttery crackers for breakfast. The lunches and dinners are, perhaps surprisingly, tasty and satisfying, roughly equivalent to what you’d expect to find at a decent worker’s restaurant in down São Paulo or Rio.

Along the journey the boat passes families fishing and washing their clothes in the water
Along the journey the boat passes families fishing and washing their clothes in the water

The landscape is green and lush, and towering trees and muddy banks slide by as the boat slowly makes its way down river, passing small villages, hut-sized Evangelical churches, herds of horned Amazon buffalo, and fishermen waving from rickety canoes as they pull in their catch.

It doesn’t take long to make friends and very quickly I met a bunch of good-natured, larger than life characters. One of my favourites was “Repeteco”, an 80-year-old forró (traditional folk music from the north east of Brazil) composer from Pernambuco travelling to Porto Velho with 800 copies of his latest CD to sell. Under the circumstances, I could hardly refuse to buy one.

As the days drift by, living with people in such close quarters allows me to witness first-hand the famous, if somewhat cliched, “Brazilian warmth” that one hears so much about. Almost everyone is open, friendly and generous – sharing things like fruit and sweets – as well as respectful of what minuscule privacy their fellow passengers have.

Afternoon coffee on deck
Afternoon coffee on deck

Alongside the Brazilians there was a relatively large contingent of passengers from other Latin American nations on board, including an Ecuadorian juggler, a Paraguayan missionary and Felipe, a 26-year-old Venezuelan history teacher, who was leaving home to start a new life in Uruguay. There were also groups of backpackers from Mexico and Peru. The only other “authentic” gringo on board was Giles, a Canadian in his late sixties who was on a long distance motorcycle trip.

Further down river, the landscape becomes more arid, the brown banks turn golden and there are more sightings – or rather blink and you miss it glimpses – of leaping river dolphins and alligators.

While the largely unvarying scenery is not perhaps truly breathtaking, there is something about the sheer degree of isolation, combined with the relentless flow of the river, that carries the mind to a place far removed from city life. As I sit and stare and at the passing villages, I try to figure out what it would be like to live in the region, a feeling summed up nicely in this article in The New York Times.

Passengers exchanging stories on deck after dark
Passengers exchanging stories on deck after dark

At night, the top deck fills up with people, some enjoying an evening beer as the forró and brega (cheesy Brazilian pop) music pumps from a loudspeaker. Most nights I play cards with a pair of factory workers from the Manaus free trade zone.

Among the other passengers was Kelly, 21, who was taking a two month holiday with her young daughter to see an aunt in Minas Gerais. Gilberto, 34, meanwhile, lived in Manaus in free lodgings provided by the soft drink factory where he worked, and was returning home to Porto Velho for a three week holiday, something he did every three months.

Each night the lone TV showed novelas, Brazil club football or DVD films. Most passengers though, were content to simply sit on plastic stools, talking and gazing out into the darkness or up at the piercingly bright stars.

“It’s as if you could reach out and grab one,” said Claudio, a carioca in his mid-forties, who was sleeping in a tent on the top deck, on his way home after a cycling tour of South America. He had caught dengue fever in Colombia and now, with no money and too sick to cycle back, had to present his medical certificate at the council offices of each town we stopped in to have his transport paid.

A young mother and her children in a crowded hammock
A young mother and her children in a crowded hammock

Word spread that the boat would be docking for three hours at Humaitá, where we would have the option of disembarking and taking a two hour drive to Porto Velho, or staying on the boat for another twenty four hours until we reached our final destination. Due to previous commitments rather than any frustrations with the trip, I decided to take the first option.

To say there was a party on the final night would be a considerable overstatement, but there were more people than usual out on the top deck, and something of a “grand finale” atmosphere. Some of the passengers even seemed to have dressed up for the occasion.

I sat with a pair of cable TV technicians who were traveling between cities looking for work. As we chatted they sipped on cachaça mixed with Fanta and played pagode (another type of Brazilian pop music) tracks on their cell phones. Eventually, exhausted, I crept downstairs to negotiate the dark maze of hammocks before falling into my own bed, the engine throbbing loudly in the background.

A sense of river camaraderie fills the boat
A sense of river camaraderie fills the boat

We finally arrived in Humaitá at 3am on Saturday morning, where I bid farewell to my newfound friends. The sense of river camaraderie wasn’t over yet, however, as I jumped in a taxi to Porto Velho – shared, of course, with a group of my fellow passengers.

Fear, loathing and vigilantes on Rio’s beaches Wed, 30 Sep 2015 15:30:43 +0000 15269276
“Crime mobs” can be a frequent occurrence on Rio’s crowded summer beaches (Photo from January 2015)

A weekend of mob robberies on Rio’s beaches saw some Zona Sul residents attempt to take the law into their own hands. But the “crime mobs”, the vigilantes, and the social divisions that underpin them are nothing new, as James Young explains. 

By James Young
Belo Horizonte

Despite the start of the summer season and the giant Rock in Rio music festival drawing flocks of foreign and domestic tourists to Rio de Janeiro, the beaches of the Cidade Maravilhosa were reportedly quieter than usual this weekend.

Perhaps it was because of the overcast weather. More likely and more troublingly, however, it was due to the events of the weekend before. Then, images of gangs of shirtless young men, swarming across the sands of Ipanema, Arpoador and Copacabana, stealing cell phones, cameras, jewellery and wallets, were beamed across the country. In total 61 people, many of whom were minors, were apprehended.

Following the chaos, the police brought forward the start of its Operação Verão (“Operation Summer”) stop and search operation for buses coming in from the periferia (Rio’s distant, working class suburbs) with over a thousand police officers and social workers manning 17 check points on the main access routes to the beach neighbourhoods this weekend.

With many of those involved in the robberies below the age of legal responsibility, the authorities are keen to stress the social care aspect of their operation. “What the police were trying to do was related to the vulnerability of the individuals. If a minor leaves home, 30 or 40 km from the beach, dressed in just his bathing suit, with no bus fare or money for food or drink, then this person, in my humble opinion, is in a situation of risk,” Rio de Janeiro Security Secretary José Mariano Beltrame told Brazilian TV.

Nonetheless, the idea of stopping and searching thousands of largely poor, generally dark-skinned Cariocas from the Zona Norte suburbs as they attempted to access the more affluent tourist areas of Zona Sul was a troubling reminder of the financial and social abyss that separates Brazil’s haves and have nots.

Some, including Eufrasia Souza, Coordinator for the Defence of the Rights of Children and Adolescents of Rio’s Public Defender Service, have criticised the idea of detaining people who have committed no apparent crime, and talked of a “social apartheid“.

While an expanded welfare system, economic and social development and an increased minimum wage mean much progress has been made towards greater equality in Brazil in recent years, Rio’s beach wars seemed like an echo of the problems and prejudices of the past.

Os Pobres Vão Á Praia (“The Poor Go to the Beach”), a documentary broadcast on the TV Manchete (“Headline TV”) channel in the 1990s, showed the unvarnished reality of what it was like to make the long journey from Rio’s poor outer suburbs to the beaches of Zona Sul – complete with often rowdy passengers surfing on top, or climbing in through the windows, of heaving buses.

More compelling viewing than the discomfort of the journey (accompanied by the song Nós Vamos Invadir Sua Praia (“We’re Going to Invade Your Beach”) by the band Ultraje a Rigor), however, is the reaction of the better-heeled Brazilians in the documentary.

“They’re uneducated, you can’t take people out of…the swamp and take them to Copacabana. I can’t be around people who have no education…You have to charge entry…you can’t put someone well-dressed from Ipanema, someone educated…and put them in the middle of people who aren’t educated, who are rude, who are going to eat farofa and chicken…you’d die of disgust, it’s horrible,” says one appalled young woman. “It’s horrific that they’re from my country…they’re not Brazilians, they’re a sub-race,” she continues, as the words scenes of explicit prejudice flash on the screen.

The Poor Go to the Beach was reposted on YouTube on 27th September, a few days after the beaches of Rio had been invaded once again, albeit at times in a more criminal, violent fashion. “You can see that nothing has changed in Rio. We made programmes about arrastões (“crime mobs”), the war between the classes, all these phenomena, the battle against the drugs trade, police corruption. Some people think that all this started today, but it’s been like this for dozens of years and the documentary shows that,” said Nelson Hoineff, the director of the Documento Especial series, of which the programme was part.

Copacabana residents attack a bus carrying passengers from the outer suburbs

But the arrastões were perhaps not even the most troubling story of Rio’s violent weekend. That came later in the afternoon, when reports emerged of groups of men, mainly from Zona Sul gyms and combat/martial arts clubs, forming vigilante gangs and going off in search of the enemy – namely young men or boys from the poorer suburbs.

“We’re looking for kids in cheap flip-flops, who look like they haven’t got R$1 in their pockets,” said one of the vigilantes. “It’s obvious that they’re here to steal,” said another, Antônio, a shop worker from Copacabana. “If they want terror, we’ll give them terror. It’s self-defence.” On at least one bus, passengers were forced to smash a window to escape the justiceiros (“vigilantes” in English – interestingly, the word vigilante in Portuguese usually means security guard).

Such vigilante action has becoming alarmingly common in Brazil in recent years – or else it has always been there, but has simply become more visible in the smartphone and internet era. In February last year a 15-year-old boy was beaten, stripped naked and chained to a post in the Flamengo neighbourhood of Rio, while 29-year-old Cledenilson Pereira da Silva, suspected of robbing a local bar, was also stripped naked and tied to a lamppost before being beaten to death in São Luis in the northern state of Maranhão in July this year. Similar incidents have been registered in other parts of the country, from the state of Espirito Santo, adjacent to Rio de Janeiro, to Piauí in the north-east.

Such actions reflect many of the issues that trouble Brazilian society – the fear that one may become a victim of crime, in a country where there are over 50,000 murders a year; the loathing of criminals and, by association, the social groups from which it is assumed they come; and the sense of both impotence and rage that stems from the inability of the police or government to do anything about the problem.

The culture of justiceiros has sparked much debate. “It’s shocking to see a scene as deplorable as this in 2014. It’s barbaric. If he’s a criminal, arrest him,” said Rio resident Yvonne Bezerra de Mello, who found the boy chained to the lamppost in Flamengo last year.

Many have taken a different stance, however, including Rachel Sheherazade, the anchor of the “SBT Brasil” news programme on one of Brazil’s biggest TV networks. “This counter-attack is what I call the collective self-defence of a society without a government, against a state of violence without limit. And for the human rights defenders who took pity on the little thief chained to the post, I launch a campaign: do yourself and Brazil a favour – adopt a criminal.” The comments sections of articles about such cases, meanwhile, are inevitably filled with Bandido bom é bandido morto style messages – “the only good bandit is a dead bandit”.

Rio’s beach justiceiros, meanwhile, are nothing new. “S”, a 45-year-old Copacabana resident and former Brazilian jiu-jitsu fighter, described the situation in the 1990s to Vice Brazil. “If there was an arrastão, we’d retaliate, and obviously we’d kick their asses, because the kids from the periferia couldn’t handle a team of 20 or 30 trained fighters. But we weren’t vigilantes. It was self-defence.” The name for such fighters at the time, according to Vice, was “pit-boy”.

The economic divisions, fear and loathing of social classes other than one’s own, “crime mobs” and vigilantes that underpin and surround Rio’s beach violence, then, are nothing new. While Brazil has made some progress towards a more equal society in recent years, it seems there is still a long way to go.

Brazil’s political crisis explained Fri, 18 Sep 2015 18:19:52 +0000 Dilma Photo
Brazil president Dilma Rousseff is under attack from all sides.

While much has been made of Brazil’s economic downturn, a toxic political climate is equally responsible for the current woes of President Dilma Rousseff and her government. Mauricio Savarese looks at the complex backdrop to the crisis.

By Mauricio Savarese
São Paulo

There is no easy explanation as to why, just under a year after being reelected by a narrow margin, President Dilma Rousseff runs the risk of not completing her term in office. It took respected consultancy firm Eurasia months, for example, to weigh up all the factors and raise the chances of her resigning or being impeached from 30% to 40%. But one thing is easy to predict: whatever the outcome, the current climate of polarization is here for a while – perhaps even until after the next elections.

Although opposition militants argue that Rousseff has only herself to blame for her troubles, pro-government forces place the blame on kingmaker party the PMDB, and defeated PSDB presidential candidate Aécio Neves. Leftist groups continue to defend Rousseff’s mandate but oppose her fiscal policies. While it is difficult to know where the saga will end, there are clear reasons behind Brazil’s political crisis.

The aggressive, toxic campaigns waged by both candidates in last year’s elections are as good a place to start as any. Rousseff came close to defeat against Neves, who himself only made it to the second round run-off on the final straight – environmentalist Marina Silva had been running second in the polls until then. And the contest was only so tight in the first place because of a sluggish economy and the emergence of a new wave of scandals involving key members of the government. In 2013 most bets had been on Rousseff’s reelection.

After a narrow defeat, Neves barely recognized his opponent’s victory in his concession speech. Such a tight margin, the closest in Brazilian history, had two immediate effects: a smaller mandate for the winner and more sore loser griping from the other side. Impeachment talk emerged right after Rousseff was proclaimed the victor, and today it often feels as though the election never ended.

After a leftist-sounding campaign, the president turned her attention to the financial markets in a manner that shocked many of her voters. After much indecision, she picked American-trained Bradesco Bank economist Joaquim Levy to be her Finance Minister, and appointed a number of other conservative ministers, some of whom would have been more comfortable in a Neves cabinet. Before the end of the year she had managed to lose touch with her base, while at the same time failing to win over her adversaries.

Since then the crisis has all been about the government’s controversial ally, the PMDB. The centrist party, which has itself been associated with scandal more than a few times in the past, was never 100% on Rousseff’s side, and today it would be a push to argue that even 50% of its deputies and senators are still with the president. During the campaign some of the party’s key figures were already placing their bets on Neves, and the division has remained even after the president’s victory. Opposition forces were strong enough to elect her main PMDB adversary, congressman Eduardo Cunha, to the role of Speaker of the Lower House until February 2017.

Rousseff believed that her decisions would restore the credibility she had lost in her first term thanks to growing spending and the use of backpedaling, a form of delaying repayments to lenders who had provided money to pay for welfare programs, making the country’s books appear more robust than was actually the case – a breach of fiscal responsibility laws say the opposition, but common accounting practice according to the government.

But in fact those unpopular steps, which contradicted profoundly with the tone of Rousseff’s campaign, were eating away at her popularity. The Lower House, led by Cunha, began to think of ways to put further pressure on an already unpopular president.

Political foes such as Eduardo Cunha have made Rousseff's life a misery
Political foes such as Eduardo Cunha (second from left) have made Rousseff’s life a misery

The lack of enthusiasm for the new administration had been evident since January 1st, when Rousseff’s somewhat flat inauguration was attended by less than 5,000 people – around 10 times fewer than at the start of her first term. Rousseff picked a number of ministers that patently had few qualifications for their positions, solely to maintain the support of their parties in Congress. Cunha’s election as speaker may have been the first sign that the strategy had failed, but others have followed.

Despite being involved in multiple scandals, including the Petrobras investigation, Cunha is a wily strategist. With the speakership he had the power to define the Lower House voting schedule, and to choose which congressional inquiries would move forward. This latter power includes what is described as “an atomic bomb” in Brasilia: in other words, whether or not to allow an impeachment process against the president to progress.

When Rousseff’s popularity sunk to single digits, all the opposition, which had been repeatedly stirring up protests against the president, needed was a motive to seek impeachment, and in Cunha they had found a willing ally.

Three possibilities have now emerged. One is to find a direct link between the president and the Petrobras scandal, while another option is for the Superior Electoral Court to strip both her and Vice-President Michel Temer of their positions because of the use of supposedly illegal funds in their election campaign. The third potential outcome, meanwhile, is to accuse Rousseff of breaking fiscal responsibility laws in the form of the aforementioned backpedaling.

All these three possibilities remain in play, but none are conclusive. If proven, they would also result in different outcomes: in the first and the third cases, Temer would take over from Rousseff, although rumors have suggested the vice-president himself may be implicated in the Petrobras scandal – something he has already denied.

If both Rousseff and Temer go, runner-up Neves would take over, with even those in opposition recognizing that such a decision by the Superior Electoral Court would not necessarily give them the legitimacy they would need to govern. Since the restoration of democracy in Brazil in 1985, impeachment charges have been brought only against President Fernando Collor de Mello, in 1992, when he was directly linked to corruption scandals that had emerged during his term, showing the difference between the two cases.

Rousseff has relied on a number of factors to keep her job. The first is her turbulent yet enduring relationship with former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the main power behind the Worker’s Party. She also hopes to maintain her alliance with the president of the Senate, Renan Calheiros, who could also yet be implicated in the Petrobras scandal. The third is the pragmatism of many business leaders, who think impeachment would represent a major setback for a young democracy.

Further complicating matters is that in the event that impeachment proceedings are instigated in the Lower House, Rousseff may decide to take her case to the Supreme Court. Unlike congressmen, Brazilian supreme court justices have little interest in the polls and nor are they yet much concerned with the investigations of the Petrobras scandal. It appears impossible to tell what the outcome of such an action might be. Brazil is not for beginners, as the songwriter Tom Jobim once memorably said – and the complexities of the current political crisis show that his words are as true now as ever.

Brazil welcomes refugees with open arms Fri, 11 Sep 2015 16:29:34 +0000 Syrian refugees learn Portuguese at the Guarulhos Islamic Society
Syrian refugees learn Portuguese at the Guarulhos Islamic Society

Brazil president Dilma Rousseff declared last week that the country would welcome refugees “with open arms” and talked of the important role immigration has played in Brazilian history. But can such optimism survive the tensions that surround the issue? 

By James Young
Belo Horizonte

Surrounded by a withering economic crisis, the billowing Petrobras corruption scandal, a kick-in-the-teeth credit rating downgrade, and even the looming spectre of potential impeachment, Brazil president Dilma Rousseff must have been delighted to be able to send a positive message this week.

“Even in moments of difficulty and crisis, like we’re going through now, we have to welcome refugees with open arms,” she said in a message delivered via social media on Monday, Brazilian Independence Day. “I want to use today to reiterate the willingness of the government to receive those who, expelled from their homelands, want to come here and live, work and contribute to the prosperity and peace of Brazil,” she continued.

Citing the image of the lifeless body of Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy who was found washed up on a Turkish beach, Rousseff also said that the world was facing a “humanitarian tragedy”.

Official figures say that Brazil is currently home to 2,077 Syrian refugees, representing 25% of the total number of refugees in the country and more, according to a BBC Brazil report, than the USA and a number of European countries have taken in. The number of refugees in Brazil has doubled in the last four years, rising from 4,218 in 2011 to 8,400 today.

The total has been boosted by a government policy to relax entry requirements for Syrian immigrants for “humanitarian reasons”, with those arriving in Brazil no longer needing to provide evidence of employment or means of financial support. In the coming weeks CONARE, the National Committee for Refugees, intends to extend such special conditions, which have been in place since 2013, for a further period.

One city that has taken in refugees is Belo Horizonte, Brazil’s third biggest urban area behind Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, where, according to local consulate figures, 78 Syrians have arrived this year.

“Today I’m working as a security guard…but I’m happy. The Brazilians have welcomed us with open arms,” Alaa Kassab, a lawyer in his home city of Homs, told the Globo network. Belo Horizonte has been receiving Syrian refugees since 2012, mostly as a result of the work of Father George Rateb Massis of the Sagrado Coração de Jesus church, a Syrian himself, who has lived in Brazil for 15 years.

“They come from the airport with a Brazilian visa. Thank God the government isn’t denying them that. The job market is very limited for them. Even though they are all university graduates, doctors and engineers, the opportunities are very basic,” Massis told Globo.

This latest wave of arrivals is the most recent chapter in Brazil’s long history of immigration, which began with colonisation by the Portuguese, and the forced transport of an estimated 4.9 million African slaves to the country between the 16th and 19th centuries.

Immigration in the modern sense of the word arrived in the 1820s in the form of large numbers of German migrants, unsettled by political and social upheaval at home and drawn by the lure of a new world in the south Atlantic, filled with vast, untapped areas of verdant farmland. The south of Brazil, where most of them settled, with its mountains and chilly temperatures, would not even have seemed all that far from home. The growth of the coffee industry subsequently created further demand for manpower, propelling more Europeans towards Brazil.

According to the Museu da Imigração in São Paulo, around 5.5 million immigrants arrived in Brazil between 1870 and 1953, from countries such as Italy, Portugal, Spain, Germany, Japan, and Poland. The influences of these arrivals can be felt today, from the stories of the Ukrainian born, naturalised Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector and the Germanic architecture found in parts of states such as Espirito Santo, Santa Catarina, Paraná and Rio Grande do Sul, to the Italian restaurants of the Bixiga neighbourhood in São Paulo and their Japanese counterparts in nearby Liberdade.

Arab immigration to Brazil, mostly from Lebanon and Syria, began in the late 19th century, with sources estimating that around 140,000 people moved from the Middle East to the country between 1880 and 1969. While there are conflicting opinions about the number of Brazilians of Arab descent today – a 1998 survey by the IBGE research unit found that Arab-Brazilians make up 0.48% of the population, or around one million people, while other sources put the number closer to ten million – there is no doubting the profound influence Arab immigration has had on Brazil.

Comida Arabe restaurants and snack bars selling kibbehs (quibes/kibes) and sfihas (esfihas) are a staple in every Brazilian town and city, with the vast Habib’s chain one of the country’s biggest fast food networks. And many high-profile Brazilians – such as vice-president Michel Temer, whose family originally came from northern Lebanon, renowned author Milton Hatoum, TV presenter Sabrina Sato and actress Juliana Paes – are of Arab descent.

The welcome extended by Brazil towards refugees has not been without its critics, however, with some less globally-minded locals keen to point out the difficulty the country often faces in providing jobs, education and social care for its own citizens, let alone foreigners. “Before opening its arms to refugees, we should look after our own “refugees”, who have to live with violence and poverty,” commented one reader of the Folha de São Paulo coverage of Rousseff’s speech.

Tensions have risen too over the numbers of Haitian migrants in Brazil, with an argument breaking out between the governments of the entry point state of Acre in the north of the country, which lacks the infrastructure to deal with the volume of arrivals, and São Paulo, where the immigrants frequently end up.

And the kind of hostility and resentment that often surrounds the subject of migrants and refugees in the countries of the EU reared its ugly head a few weeks ago with the shooting of six Haitians by a man with a pellet gun in the centre of São Paulo, with the shooter reported to have shouted “you stole our jobs” after pulling the trigger.

“We Brazilians are a nation formed by people from a wide variety of origins, who today live in peace,” said Rousseff, when describing the country’s current stance on the refugee issue. With such tensions likely to grow as more and more immigrants arrive in the country, however, it is to be hoped that Brazil’s arms will remain open to refugees for as long as possible.

TV from the dark ages shines spotlight on Brazil’s race debate Thu, 13 Aug 2015 19:50:59 +0000 The Pânico TV show character "The African" shocked viewers

Recent high-profile examples of prejudice have stirred up the complex race debate in Brazil, a country that has in the past claimed to be built on foundations of racial democracy. 

By James Young

Belo Horizonte

From the glorious colonial architecture of Ouro Preto in the hills of Minas Gerais to the exquisite Teatro Amazonas in Manaus, Brazil is justifiably proud of the evidence of its rich history and culture. But a recent trip back into another kind of past – the blackface tradition of US theatre, or some of the darkest moments of 1970s UK TV, for example – has left more than a few Brazilians feeling squeamish.

Most famous for its scantily clad Panicat dancers, the puerile Pânico Na Band comedy show is not known for scaling intellectual heights. In recent weeks, however, it has plumbed new depths with the introduction of a character known only as The African, played by “blacked-up” white actor Eduardo Sterblitch, who speaks only in grunts and shrieks and acts in what the show’s creators presumably believe constitutes typical “African” behaviour – scratching at all parts of his body, tearing at plants and leaves and performing a dance of thanks for the judges of a cooking contest.

The show caused outrage among some Brazilians, with the National Black Slavery Truth Commission, an initiative of the Brazilian Bar Association, stating that the character was a “racial affront” which contributed to the “perpetuation of the effects and vestiges of slavery.”

Sterblich has since apologised for his performance, while Pânico has said that it intends to remove the character from the show, before rather spoiling the gesture by offering up the dubious defence that the program makes fun of “Mexicans, Chinese and Arabs” as well.

It is the latest in a string of recent racism-linked episodes in the media or involving well-known Brazilians. Last month the black presenter of the weather segment on the Globo TV network’s nightly news program, Maria Júlia Coutinho, was abused with a string of racist comments on the show’s Facebook page.

This week Flamengo boss Cristóvão Borges claimed that some of the deluge of criticism he has received during his career “has a racial connotation…I was even called the Mourinho of the Pelourinho”, a reference to Chelsea boss Jose and the historic district of Borges’ home city of Salvador, Brazil’s most African-influenced city, the name of which is taken from the Portuguese word for a slave-era whipping post.

Like the “monkey” chants aimed at the black goalkeeper Aranha during last year’s Copa do Brasil tie between Grêmio and Santos, the incidents have brought the issue of racism in Brazil to the fore, and provided further evidence of the myth of the theory of democracia racial – the idea that the country, with its complex racial mix of indigenous peoples, European colonizers, African slaves, and later large-scale immigration from countries such as Japan, Italy and Germany, would somehow magically avoid the racial conflicts seen in other nations.   

The high-profile examples above rather give the lie to such a notion, as does the sheer weight of statistics describing the different realities of life for Brazil’s racial groups. A 2014 study by the Brazilian Public Security Forum found that the murder rate among young black Brazilians in 2012 was 70.8%, compared to 27.8% among their white equivalents.

“There are more than 30,000 young people with this profile (black) murdered every year. It’s as though a full plane crashes every day,” said Atilia Roque, director of Amnesty International in Brazil, on the launch of the “Keep Black Youth Alive” campaign to bring attention to the issue. Another report last year found that black or brown-skinned Brazilians earn slightly over half the average salary of white workers.

Thousands of Haitian immigrants have added to Brazil's complex racial issues
Thousands of Haitian immigrants have added to Brazil’s complex racial issues

 Yet despite Brazil’s great racial divide, visibly obvious everywhere from expensive restaurants to public hospitals, or etched on the faces of the manual workers queueing in early morning bus lines, the race debate is largely played out at low volume here. “If I went after everybody who called me black, I would have sued the whole world,” Pelé said earlier this year, when advising Aranha that “indifference” was the best form of defence against the racists, while the expression “Brazil is not a racist country” is commonly heard.

Part of that is down to the difficulties of racial classification in a country where there has been intermingling between different ethnic groups for so long. A recent survey found that 53% of Brazilians described themselves as “black” or “brown”, but the numbers of people declaring themselves as negro, branco or pardo (brown skinned or mixed race) can vary considerably from one study to another, based on the current cultural and social mood.

The concept that one’s racial identity can be flexible was summed up neatly by the footballer-turned-senator Romario when talking about Neymar. “I’m black,” he said, “If (he) doesn’t consider himself black, then he’s not. It’s up to him.” And a 1980 survey by the historian Clovis Moura identified 136 types of racial classification that Brazilians use to describe themselves, including “milky coffee”, “dirty white” and “cinnamon.”

At the same time, black consciousness in Brazil has grown in recent years through the activities of social groups and initiatives such as Dia Nacional da Consciência Negra, or National Black Consciousness Day.  “I became black – it was a process…but the fact that I had to “learn” to be black is terrible,” the actress Jana Guinond has said of her eventual decision to describe herself as negra.  

Episodes like that of “The African” and the affronts suffered by Cristóvão Borges and Maria Júlia Coutinho raise another issue in Brazil’s race debate – the local habit of using racially based slang terms such as Negão (“Big Black”), or Pretinha (“Little Black Girl”) or Japa (“Japanese-Brazilian”) to describe people.

Brazilians are fond of saying that such terms are mostly affectionate, not intended to be offensive, and used for physical description only. Subconsciously or otherwise, however, such language is surely built on stereotypes, and it seems unthinkable that such terms would be used in countries where the racial discussion is more sensitive.

And Brazilians may now have another area of potential racial conflict with which to deal. The shooting of six Haitian immigrants by a man with a pellet gun in the centre of São Paulo two weeks ago was notable for the fact that the shooter was reported to have shouted “you stole our jobs” after pulling the trigger.

Some estimates say over 50,000 Haitians have moved to Brazil since 2012, and the shooting felt like an unsettling echo of the resentment and xenophobia that surrounds immigration, often from Africa or Eastern Europe, into the wealthier countries of the EU, particularly when such countries are experiencing the kind of economic recession that Brazil is undergoing today.

If such unpleasant incidents have an upside, however, it is that from racist TV characters and football fans to anti-immigrant feeling, the race debate in Brazil seems slowly to be getting louder – and perhaps not before time.

As politicians fight in Brasília, reality bites in the periferia Thu, 30 Jul 2015 14:53:16 +0000 Jordao 1

Once a symbol of growth and rising confidence, the sprawling suburbs outside Brazil’s urban centers are feeling the pinch as the economy nosedives. And there are few places in the country where it is so obvious how out of touch the bickering politicians in Brasilia are with the realities of daily life.

By James Young
Belo Horizonte

Aside from the humdrum backdrop of harrowing, everyday tragedy, three subjects have dominated the headlines in Brazil in recent months – the enormous Petrobras corruption scandal, the country’s economic downturn, and the political game of thrones being played out on a seemingly infinite loop in the capital of Brasilia.

The narratives inevitably intertwine – as Brazil’s very own Frank Underwood, the speaker of the country’s lower house, Eduardo Cunha, wages war on Dilma Rousseff’s struggling government, the Petrobras investigation appears certain to involve many leading political figures, including now Cunha himself, while the acrid climate of squabbling and corruption, coupled with Rousseff’s toxic approval ratings, torpedoes any attempts to keep a seemingly sinking ship afloat.

Observing such events unfold from afar, however, lends a detached, surreal air to proceedings, like watching an episode of House of Cards with the actors replaced by Rousseff, Cunha, former presidential candidate Aécio Neves and the rest. It is often hard to reconcile the self-serving manoeuvres of such hardened players of the jogo do poder (“the power game”) with the tough reality of life in Brazil’s working class bairros.

One such hard-knock neighbourhood is Jordão, tucked behind the airport in the southern periferia of Recife, and home to around 20,000 people. Divided between the municipal authorities of Recife and neighbouring Jaboatão dos Guararapes, Jordão suffers from the familiar problems of many of Brazil’s lower class neighbourhoods, particularly in the nordeste – an unreliable public transport system, low quality housing, limited accessibility to healthcare and schools, an intermittent electricity and water supply, poor sewerage, and high levels of urban violence.

Meanwhile residents do their best to fill the gaps in the services supplied by the government or city council. Ten years ago sisters Raquel and Rozeli Santos opened the Educandário Amara Maurício primary school in a tiny three room building, as neither Recife nor Jaboatão provided a public school for young children in the immediate area. “For years an up and coming local politician financially supported us,” Raquel told me, “making sure that local people knew all about his generosity. Once he was elected, the donations stopped.”

Jordao 2
Politicians like Eduardo Cunha (seated) often seem more interested in petty personal rivalries and climbing the ladder of power than the problems of ordinary Brazilians.

A new building has been constructed with eight classrooms, big enough for 300 children, and now the school survives (barely) on monthly fees of around U$27 per pupil, not enough to pay the ten teachers, all of whom are from the bairro, much more than the minimum monthly wage of U$240. When I visited the school just over a year ago, the yard was filled with jagged bricks left over from the building work, and there was nowhere for the children to play.

Jordão is often affected by water shortages and power cuts. “Some months the electricity is off for a few hours nearly every day,” said Jessica Santos, Rozeli’s daughter, at the time a teacher at the school.

“It feels like we’re forgotten,” said Raquel. “Recife forgets about us and Jaboatão forgets about us.” Drug addiction is a major problem in the neighbourhood, as is lawlessness. “They killed a young boy a few weeks ago,” Raquel said. “He hit someone’s motorbike, just a scrape. Someone pulled out a gun and shot him.” It is not a rare occurrence. Stories such as those of Klébson Gomes da Costa, the ten year old boy hit by a stray bullet during a shootout between police and traficantes (drug dealers) in May 2013, or Taísa Priscila Rodrigues da Cruz, a 20-year-old drug user who was shot and killed a few months later, are common.

In recent years residents of neighbourhoods such as Jordão have seen considerable improvements in quality of life, due to Brazil’s expanded Bolsa Familia welfare system, an increased minimum salary, and overall economic growth. Two years ago I sat in a scruffy bar and watched what seemed like half the bairro make its way to that essential staple of middle class Brazilian life, a plush new gym. It looked like better times lay ahead.

But now the government is introducing austerity measures and the growth has gone into reverse. According to research institute IBGE, the national unemployment rate last month was 6.9%, the highest June rate since 2010. The same study put the jobless level in Recife at 8.8%, although other surveys are even more negative – the Diario de Pernambuco, the oldest newspaper in South America still in circulation, stated that 12.9% of Recife’s workforce was unemployed in March.

Part of this statistic is Edilson Alves da Silva, a 36-year-old mechanic and factory worker. Edilson lives with his wife Elma and her daughter in a typically cramped Jordão house, with an imposing metal front door protecting a small bedroom, living room and kitchen. Another bedroom has been fashioned from a lean-to by the front entrance, and a tiny bathroom takes up one corner of the kitchen.

For the last eight years Edilson was part of the production line in a factory that makes the tin-foil plates used to hold quentinhas – the take-away lunches that are so popular in Brazil. His and Elma’s salary put the family firmly in the heart of the country’s swelling “new” middle class – Classe C and D, one of the groups that has suffered most during Brazil’s economic troubles.

Last October, just as campaigning in Brazil’s presidential elections entered its final straight, Edilson was made redundant, along with a number of his colleagues. “I think the company saw that the crisis was on the way,” he says. “When I lost my job I thought I’d find another one easily, but it hasn’t turned out that way. I’ve had around 20 interviews, but every time there’s a line of people like me looking for work.”

After working all his life, Edilson says it is difficult to get used to being unemployed. “It’s hard to survive, but at least my wife is working. My redundancy money was gone after three months – I wish the crisis had ended so quickly. Prices keep going up (some reports have put inflation at 8.47% over the last 12 months, but the price of many goods has increased at a considerably faster rate) which means what little money we have doesn’t go far.”

Edilson says he sees the results of Brazil’s economic woes everywhere he goes in Jordão. “There are lots of people standing around in the street, doing nothing, at 10 o’clock in the morning. They’re tired of going out every day delivering their CVs, having interviews, and not getting hired.”

Like many of his countrymen, he is scathing of the politicians’ attempts to solve Brazil’s problems, and their apparently greater interest in the jogo do poder.

“My hopes for the future are in the hands of the vultures in Brasilia,” he says. “The business leaders and politicians are supposed to have the influence and knowledge to find a way out of the situation. Those down below don’t have that option. All we can do is sit and wait.”

Brazil’s special forces wage uphill battle against Amazon destroyers Fri, 10 Jul 2015 18:12:37 +0000 A view from the IBAMA helicopter shows how deforestation takes more and more of the jungle away. (Vincent Bevins / Los Angeles Times)
A view from the IBAMA helicopter shows how deforestation takes more and more of the jungle away

This article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times. Click here to see the story.

By Vincent Bevins
Novo Progresso, Brazil

Carrying guns and wearing jungle fatigues, the three men don’t look like scientists as they push their way through the thick foliage of the Amazon.

They’re trying to reach a clearing they’ve seen on satellite images. When they finally get there, they discover that the largest trees have been uprooted by a tractor. The ground has been seeded with grass to create a pasture for cattle.

Rodrigo Numeriano, 31, finds a piece of a fruit peel, puts it up to his nose and sniffs.

“Someone was just here,” he says.

They’ve found the clues. Now comes the hard part: determining who is causing the damage and who plans to profit.

Each day, Numeriano and other agents from the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources, or IBAMA, fan out across this vast country in 4×4 trucks and helicopters. Part detectives, part environmental special forces, they’re on the hunt for the ranchers and farmers who illegally destroy almost 2,000 square miles of Brazilian rain forest a year.

An officer of the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources questions a man found living near a recent deforestation site.
An officer of the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources questions a man found living near a recent deforestation site.

Not only can it take weeks and prove fruitless to try to find out who has paid an intermediary to deforest, but the fines the agents impose also can go unpaid or become mired in legal proceedings.

Sometimes, the workers disappear into the forest as they hear the agents approach. Sometimes the workers open fire, as they did nearby on an IBAMA helicopter in April. And in this particularly lawless part of Brazil, those who speak with the agents can be silenced violently, forever.

Despite their commitment, the enforcers of Brazil’s environmental law are not winning the war. Government data show that after years of improvement, deforestation rates stopped decreasing in 2012. The country entered recession last year, and farming is one of the few sectors that keep the economy going.

“These people are causing incalculable environmental damage,” Olavo Perin Galvao, 33, says as he navigates labyrinthine pathways toward an illegal clearing and gold extraction site. “But we’re leaving our families, and coming out here, exposing ourselves to the elements and to risk, and the destruction continues.”

His team stops when it spots the footprint of a jaguar, or some other large jungle cat. The imprints of its claws are sunk into a mud road created recently by the forest clearers.

“We don’t need new laws,” he says. “We just need the laws we have to be properly enforced.”


Deforestation in Brazil, which is home to more than half of the world’s largest rain forest, happens in stages. First, the biggest trees are cut down and the lumber is sold. Then areas are cleared, by tractor or chain saw. What remains is left to dry and then burned.

These people are causing incalculable environmental damage.- Grass that is planted forms pasture for cows raised for beef. After the land is transformed, enterprising owners can upgrade to more profitable agricultural production, often growing soybeans.

“Unfortunately, for those that don’t care about environmental damage, it makes rational economic sense to deforest,” geographer David Rocha, 33, says as his IBAMA team heads off to track down deforesters. “Agriculture is the only thing keeping Brazil’s economy going.”

Farmers, federal officials and environmentalists all point to two key problems: The government fails to issue new permits for legal activities and also fails to adequately enforce laws against illegal expansion.

A new forestry code, passed in 2012, would let some owners deforest 20% of their land if they preserved the rest sustainably. But unable to act legally, ranchers — some have the right to occupy their land, though not outright ownership, and some have simply stolen it from the state — take their chances, hoping that they can legitimize the operation later.

An IBAMA officer checks a recent deforestation site. By inspecting the tree, he can tell a chainsaw was used.
An IBAMA officer checks a recent deforestation site. By inspecting the tree, he can tell a chainsaw was used.

“People here have stopped believing in the law, if they ever did,” says Manoel Malinski, legal counsel for the municipal region. “Many believe that the moment will come when the world will thank them for what they’ve done.”

Powerful voices in the region dismiss concern about the environmental effects of deforesting.

“We’re plagued by numerous fantasies and by operations that are totally unnecessary,” says Agamenon da Silva Menezes, president of the Union of Rural Producers in Novo Progresso, referring to IBAMA. “People here need to eat. Where will we produce that food? On top of the trees?”

He says he wants landholders to be able to deforest 50% of their land in the Amazon. As for the consequences, he says, “They say it will cause environmental damage. But it’s more fantasy. They don’t have scientific proof for anything.”

Experts point out that much of the food grown in Brazil is produced inefficiently on land already available and is often exported. In addition to long-term concern about climate change, they worry that a water crisis in the Sao Paulo region may have been caused at least in part by diminishing foliage in the Amazon; the jungle’s vegetation, they say, releases a large amount of water into the atmosphere that eventually forms rain clouds.

But that is very far away from this remote region in the south of Para state, which has had one of the country’s highest deforestation rates. This year, federal police arrested influential local businessman Ezequiel Castanha on charges of environmental crimes after an extensive IBAMA investigation.

Speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal from people involved in illegal deforestation, many in the town say that job opportunities have dried up now that Castanha, whom police dubbed “The Deforestation King of the Amazon,” is no longer around to generate income.

“Environmental crime is what sustains those communities,” says Luciano Evaristo, director of environmental protection, in Brasilia, the capital.

“If we had more resources and more agents, that would help us in policing,” he says. “But if the government could move forward the process of legalization, local producers could move to a more sustainable long-term path.”


IBAMA agents arrive at an illegal clearing site.
IBAMA agents arrive at an illegal clearing site.

Six IBAMA agents are packed into a small helicopter, and they pass over vast swaths of what was once forest.

As they approach the top of a misty hill near coordinates gathered recently by satellite, they catch a glimpse of a cow or two wandering below brush. They circle lower and lower, coordinating tight turns through radio headsets that shut out the sound of the blades, and snap photos on cheap smartphones. They touch down in a clearing near a home, to see whether the owner knows anything.

The agents know too well that they must be careful when talking to citizens about deforestation, lest someone sees the exchange.

“A few months ago, we went looking for someone to talk to, and when we got there, unbeknownst to us, he was a man who had secretly tipped us off previously,” says Givanildo de Santos Lima, head of the local IBAMA base.

Soon after, he says, the man was killed. “I believe he was killed because he was talking to us.”

Later, at his computer, he pulls up a news story about the slaying. One of the comments says, “Man, your murderer was shot to death … your murder was avenged brother.”

Environmental crime is what sustains those communities.

Hearing this, the agent is unfazed. “Yes, that’s true. The man who did it was also killed soon after.”

But one man approached today talks, acknowledging that he had heard wood being carried out at night. After listening to him and mapping out pathways from the sky, the team forms a plan.

They walk past a few hundred cloud-white cows, grazing illegally, and into the foliage. They send the chopper off and head up a road, sweating and panting. Some keep their weapons drawn at all times and remain as quiet as possible. But it’s easy to not be heard here because the sounds of birds, insects and other creatures combine into a constant roar.

Then they stop.

“Can you hear that?” Perin Galvao says. “It’s a chain saw.”

But the sound stops, and they continue up the path. It ends in a clearing. It’s the wrong path. They trudge back to the chopper and into town, knowing the clearing will continue for now.

At the end of their day, agents Numeriano and Rocha follow a clue to a locked wooden gate in the forest. They climb over and continue on to a scene of obvious destruction. This time, it’s clear by the height of the grass that it had happened months ago, but there is still an encampment here. A black tarp over crisscrossed trees serves as a tent, and though the hammocks are gone, there are still the remains of a kitchen.

On the table are several high-caliber shotgun cartridges, hot sauce and cachaca, the strong Brazilian spirit.

“It looks like destroying nature can be fun,” Numeriano jokes dryly as he begins to sift through a large box of empty beer cans. He’s looking for a discarded receipt, any kind of clue. It’s no use.

The men begin to tear the wooden structure apart, piece by piece. They form a large pile and pour gasoline over it.

There’s not much more they can do today. They set fire to the illegal encampment and watch it slowly burn.

IBAMA agents, unable to catch the criminals in the act, set fire to an illegal settlement and deforestation base camp.
IBAMA agents, unable to catch the criminals in the act, set fire to an illegal settlement and deforestation base camp.

All photos by Vincent Bevins for the Los Angeles Times

Dilma’s approval rating Tue, 30 Jun 2015 17:35:59 +0000 President Dilma Rousseff’s performance in the polls has been absolutely disastrous recently. At the same time, it is misleading to say, in English, that her “approval rating” is 10%. That is because unlike polls done on American presidents, Brazil’s Datafolha polling system is tripartite.


Respondents are given three options. They can rate the government “good/great,” “regular,” or “bad/terrible.” Well, there are actually four, as you can say you don’t know. But by now (she was elected in 2010), pretty much everyone has an opinion.

Observe that her “good/great” numbers were quite high until 2013 (when protests broke out), and now they are at a pitiful 10%. But the people essentially saying “meh” has not dropped so much. Those two groups add up to 34%, while a whopping 65% actively disapprove of her government.

So her numbers are terrible, just terrible. But it’s not accurate to say that everyone in the country hates her, either.

Brazilian football and (corrupt) politics – a brief history Wed, 24 Jun 2015 21:26:13 +0000 medici

Brazilians’ love for soccer has been exploited by crooks, dictators, and dirty politicians for decades. Above, dictator Emilio Médici celebrates after his country’s 1970 World Cup victory.

By Mauricio Savarese

When former Brazilian soccer boss José Maria Marin was arrested in Switzerland at the end of May, most fans here just knew him as the old guy that stole a medal from a teenage player in 2012. His predecessor, Ricardo Teixeira, was a much more famous figure, famously involved in various corruption scandals. But as the media dug deeper into the 83-year-old Marin’s career, it became clear that the frail man who chaired Brazil’s football confederation (the CBF) during last year’s World Cup was one more example of how politics and football work hand in hand in Brazil.

But it’s been that way for a long time. Let’s take a walk down memory lane.

Rocky start

Brazilian politicians didn’t fall in love with soccer at first sight. Soccer and politics became entwined here just weeks before the 1950 World Cup, as Brazilians took to the streets in protest.

They didn’t demonstrate against high costs in the construction of Maracanã stadium, but small protests before the first World Cup in Brazil did have something in common with protests here in 2013 and 2014. They started against a rise in transportation costs, and then the tournament served to put a spotlight on the demonstrations and the issues they raised, such as economic policy changes undertaken by President Eurico Gaspar Dutra (1946-1951), the man who brought the tournament to Brazil. One year later, former dictator Getulio Vargas would channel that frustration and win a democratic election.

With only 13 participants, the first World Cup in Brazil, seen by many as a test event for the country after World War II (1939-1945) was an organizational success. But the shocking loss to Uruguay in the final was felt as a failure of the country itself. Many politicians decided to stay away from football as a result, with the exception of some that were fans first and public figures second – such as São Paulo mayor Porfirio da Paz, a founder of São Paulo FC.

The rise of Brazilian football, and the rise of Brazil

When Brazil won the 1958 World Cup, however, politicians changed their minds. President Juscelino Kubitschek (1956-1961), a former player at América in Minas Gerais, used the iconic players as a symbol of the modernization of the country – as he also used bossa-nova music and the construction of the new capital, Brasília. Brazilian soccer was moving past the shame of the 1950 loss and the country now actually had high hopes for the future.

That sentiment only grew after a second title was won in Chile, in 1962. But then the military dictatorship came, and took soccer with it.

In the first years of the regime, which began in 1964, it wasn’t clear what would happen with soccer, or indeed with politics.

Brazil had its worst World Cup campaign ever in England 1966, where the country failed to even advance past the group stage. Pelé, the national hero, was injured by Portugal’s constant kicks.

In Brasília, the capital, military leaders couldn’t decide whether they would remain in office. Their excuse for the coup was always that they would free Brazil from alleged communist influence and President João Goulart (1961-1964) and hold new elections, but they were holding on to power. Football club executives were lost: they didn’t know whether to be friends with the generals or hold on to old ties.

The dictatorship takes control of the pitch

Generals sent mixed messages by keeping Congress and a functioning Supreme Court open while also interfering. But when they decided to remain in power definitively and issued the dictatorial decrees of 1968, they also took hold of Brazilian soccer as a propaganda tool.

CBF chairman João Havelange, a cheerleader of military administrations, was watching. Although he named communist journalist João Saldanha as coach Brazil in 1969 (a move to calm the press after a number of bad results), Havelange was dying to please dictator Emilio Médici (1969-1974).

Opportunity knocked. Médici wanted “Fearless João” to take clumsy centerforward Dadá Maravilha to the Mexico World Cup in 1970.

Coach Saldanha wouldn’t have it. “I don’t pick his ministers and he doesn’t pick my players.” As a replacement, Havelange chose Mario Zagallo, a two-time World Cup champion who was present in the 1950 tragedy as a young Army recruit. The dictator Médici, a violent man that the Flamengo crowd loved seeing in the Maracanã every now and then, got even more attention from the CBF – military personnel dominated Brazil’s preparation for the tournament: fitness coaches, junior executives, and travel organizers, were all linked to the Armed Forces.

The dictatorship supported that Seleção, or national team, so much that Brazil’s leftist and liberal militants promised to cheer against it. But those people, unlike Médici, were only human…they ended up cheering anyways. The 1970 team was so fantastic that dictatorship propaganda is now the last thing most Brazilians think of it. Upon their return, friends of the armed forces were all over the players – São Paulo’s appointed mayor Paulo Maluf even gave them Volkswagens.

And Medici remained popular for a while, but the dictators would soon find out that you can’t win a World Cup every day.

White elephants to prop up the military, and the fall

There were two political parties in Brazil’s fake democracy in those days: Arena (the National Renewal Alliance) to support the military and MDB (Brazilian Democratic Movement), which brought together all kinds of opposition parties, from socialists to free-market liberals. They competed for seats in Congress and for a few mayoral positions – but never in large capitals, of course.

Wherever friends of the dictatorship couldn’t gather much popular support, soccer was the solution: a new stadium would pop up and a local team would be included in national tournaments. Many white elephants were inaugurated at the time, such as the Castelão in Fortaleza (1973) and the Mané Garrincha in Brasilia (1974). They would be later renovated to become brand new white elephants for the 2014 World Cup.

It was during the dictatorship that now-disgraced Marin first appears in Brazilian soccer as an executive. Formerly a mediocre player for São Paulo FC, he used a position in the club as a ladder to his political aspirations. In 1975, as a very conservative state congressman in São Paulo, he started a campaign against journalist Vladimir Herzog, a key editor at Cultura, the state-owned TV channel. Weeks later Herzog, was killed by those who tortured him in prison. Herzog’s family holds Marin responsible, among others, for the assassination to this day.

This was the beginning of the end for dictators Ernesto Geisel (1974-1979) and João Figueiredo (1979-1985). Geisel didn’t profit much from soccer, but he did try hard. Brazil was defeated in the 1974 World Cup by Holland and in 1978 by Argentina, then ruled by an even more violent dictatorship. Brazil’s economic miracle was proving to be a farce and the regime decided to inflate soccer’s first division to maintain some of its popularity.

That move would lead stars like Zico, Falcão and Socrates travel to small towns to please crowds. The number of clubs playing in the Brazilian championship from 1975 to 1979 rose year after year: 44, 54, 62, 74 and then an astonishing 94. And though generals stayed in control of the CBF, Brazil without Pelé wasn’t as big of a propaganda machine. When the Seleção became great again, in 1982 already under Figueiredo, it was filled with pro-democratic players and captained by activist Socrates.

The end of Marin

After his time as a São Paulo legislator that pushed against allegedly communist journalists, Marin took another job he didn’t get a single vote for: he became governor of São Paulo between 1982 and 1983, appointed by the dictatorship, at the same time he was the president of São Paulo’s soccer association. But when Brazil became a democracy again, in 1985, he had no trouble adapting: he spearheaded the Seleção organization for the Mexico World Cup. When Ricardo Teixeira took over the CBF in 1989, he was one of his vice-presidents. In 2012, after his tutor got in trouble with Swiss courts, he rose to the top, since he was the oldest on the job.

In the 13 years he spent as CBF vice-president, in a more and more democratic Brazil, Marin was very discreet; to Brazilian ears he sounded like a politician from the sixties. Yes, he is a man of soccer and politics, but he wasn’t nearly as popular as club officials that got to Congress to get better kickbacks from sponsors, or businessmen that bought clubs to launder money for political campaigns. He was surely no Teixeira, who managed to turn President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva from a critic into a whiskey buddy on lazy Brasília Saturday afternoons.

Marin is one of the survivors that used old political ties to remain connected to soccer — ties that stopped former guerrilla and now President Dilma Rousseff from taking pictures near him. In prison, he must be thinking of all the favors he made to connect his successor and right arm at CBF, new president Marco Polo del Nero, to the main leaders of the opposition, such as defeated presidential hopeful Aécio Neves. Too bad his long experience with Brazilian politics and soccer won’t be of much use with the FBI.

Mauricio Savarese is a freelance journalist based in São Paulo and co-author of A to Zico: an Alphabet of Brazilian Football

Across Brazil by train Thu, 04 Jun 2015 17:43:55 +0000

Tragically, there are only three remaining long-distance passenger trains that can take you across Brazil’s spectacular landscapes. Sam Cowie took a ride from the middle of Minas Gerais to the coast of Espírito Santo.

By Sam Cowie 

Maybe it’s a British thing, but I’ll take a train journey over a plane any day. Passing through the countryside and small towns and cities by train and taking in all the details – landscapes, buildings, and people – means you get to see a different side of a country, a side that might otherwise go unnoticed. A shame then, that Brazil – with its vast natural splendor and quirky regional differences – has such a joke of a train network.

So when I heard about the “Vale Trem” between the state capitals of Minas Gerais and Espirito Santo, which traverses historic coffee, coal and iron regions along the river Rio Doce, I was hooked on the idea. The Vale Trem is one of just three remaining long-distance passenger trains in Brazil and the only train between state capitals.

No other country of similar size and importance lacks trains like Brazil. From the middle of the 20th century, successive governments failed to invest in railroad transport, seeing cars and highways as the future. The military regime put the final nails in the coffin by privatizing and dismantling all but the most profitable lines, and the process continued as democracy returned and economic crisis subsequently unfolded. Today, trains are used almost exclusively for cargo, and only around 1.5 million Brazilians use passenger trains each year, compared to 100 million in the early 1960s.

The Vale Trem – operated by the mining company of the same name – leaves Belo Horizonte at 7.30am each morning and arrives in Vitoria 13 hours later. For weekends it’s wise to buy in advance. I paid R$91 for a seat in the “executive” carriage which turned out to be a bit of a let-down – no cabins, just rows of tacky bright blue seats crammed together, all facing the same way, pretty similar to a budget airline. Flat screens that read “Vale – para um mundo com novos valores,” hang from the walls and freezing air conditioning replaces open windows. No wifi either.

Still, my initial disappointments began to fade once we got rolling. After passing Belo’s downtown malls and favelas on the city’s periphery, we quickly entered Minas’ red earth countryside as the morning sun beamed down. I had to escape the silent, stale and stuffy executive carriage and headed to the restaurant which actually affords much better views. My breakfast of water, coffee and a salgado was R$7. Later in the day I paid R$11 for a plate of roast chicken, rice, beans and salad.

“We don’t serve alcohol,” Carlos, the restaurant waiter, who has worked the train for six years, told me. “We used to, but it was muito bagunca. – (too much trouble) So we had to stop.” Luckily I’d prepared adequately with a bottle of cachaça bought in Belo, though bringing alcohol on board is also officially forbidden.

The first stop, about an hour into the journey was the town of Dois Irmaos. Later we passed the sliding red mud banks of the river Rio Piracicaba before arriving at the city of Nova Era, Brazil’s emerald capital. The train stops at each station for just a few minutes to let passengers on and off. I got talking to a young couple Junho and Anna Beatrice who had been in Belo for a cousin’s birthday. They told me that they’d been using the Vale Trem for years and they found it the most enjoyable way to travel between Belo and Vitoria – as well as the quickest and cheapest.

Soaring through the interior of Minas really hammered home the disappointment of Brazil’s poor train network. The views really are spectacular. The route changes from greenery to scorched earth then back again. There are canyons, dried out lakes, man-made forests and enormous weathered rock faces, interspersed with throwback industrial towns, coal-laden cargo trains, iron works and factories – some in operation, some crumbling and abandoned.

As well as being the best part of the train for taking in the scenery the restaurant is also the most social area and the only place you can get a proper long-distance train trip experience. People sit facing each other, talking loudly and laughing, taking selfies, butting into strangers conversations and passing joint commentary on the changing landscape. It’s a nice reminder that you’re in Brazil, which could be forgotten if you remained cooped up in the dull executive carriage.

The route along the river Rio Doce on the approach to the city Aimorés, which lies on the border of Espirito Santos state, made for some of the best scenery as the sun was going down. Rio Doce winds along the foot of several large mountains, one of which, we were informed by a young snack vendor who wanted to practice his English, was called “Pao de Queijo.” “Rio has Pão de Açúcar, we have Pão de Queijo,” he said.

Once it gets dark and the views are gone, there’s not much going on. The restaurant closed and I was sent back to the executive carriage. Green uniformed Vale workers, who seemed to be everywhere, checked tickets about once an hour, which after a while became rather tedious. We arrived in Vitoria at 20.30h.

With roads becoming increasingly congested, the railway debate in Brazil has recently come back to the surface. Brazil still has the world’s tenth largest rail network and 21 new lines are planned by 2020, one of which is Goiânia and Brasília. I’m sure I’m not alone in hoping that these projects come off sooner rather than later and I look forward to seeing more of Brazil by train.

Brazil’s two other remaining passenger lines are Curitiba to Paranaguá in the South and the Estrada de Ferro (also operated by Vale), which travels between Carajás Parauapebas in Para and São Luis Maranhao in the North East.

Despite the disappointing executive carriage and the lack of booze and wifi, the Vale Trem was highly enjoyable, and is even better in a group. Just don’t forget that bottle of cachaça.

It’s a dog’s life in Brazil Thu, 28 May 2015 19:00:57 +0000 dog1

Brazil’s love for its animals is the stuff of literary legend. But its current relationship with suffering of its huge stray population, as well as its pets,  is much more complicated, and often heart-breaking.

By James Young
Belo Horizonte

“There was only one condition stated in the will and that was that the heir, Rubião, keep the poor dog, Quincas Borba, whose master had given him his own name because of the great love that he bore him…He was to deny him nothing that might be for his good; he was to see that he did not run away, and he was to protect him from sickness, theft and death, which persons of evil intent might seek to inflict upon him. In short, he was to treat him as if he were not a dog, but a human being” – Quincas Borba (or Philosopher or Dog? in its English title) by Machado de Assis.

Unfortunately things do not end well in Machado de Assis’s novel for either Quincas Borba the philosopher, who “turns up his toes” at the beginning of the book, or Quincas Borba the dog, who “fell sick, whimpered endlessly, and ran about in frenzied search of his master” before being “found dead in the street” at its end.

The fate of Quincas Borba the dog will strike a chord with many of Brazil’s canine population. While exact numbers are hard to pin down, estimates suggest that there are hundreds of thousands of stray dogs in the country, with one report even suggesting there may be as many as 30 million abandoned dogs and cats. And until recently, the treatment of such animals by local councils could be far from humane.

“Until seven years ago or so, the city council would round up the stray dogs that it found and kill them in gas chambers. It took 15 minutes for the dogs to die,” says Cristiano Mendes, director of the Sexta-Feira (“Friday”) NGO in Brazil’s third biggest city, Belo Horizonte, where the council estimates there are around 30,000 stray cats and dogs. “But things have improved. Now they check if a dog has Leishmaniasis. If it does, it will have to be put down, though at least it’s done by lethal injection now. If it’s healthy, it’s neutered, vaccinated and given to the “Adopt a Friend” fair so it can find a new home.”

Mendes’ group organizes the “Adopt a Friend” fairs, an example of the dozens of similar animal adoption events that have sprung up in Brazilian cities in recent years. The NGO also works with local schools to teach children how to look after their pets.

“We started out by trying to fund homes for as many stray dogs as we could,” he says. “But we soon realized it was an impossible task. We had to tackle the problem at its roots. We discovered that most stray dogs come from poorer neighbourhoods, where people are reluctant to have their dogs neutered, because they think it’s too expensive, or the dog will suffer. Also, Brazil is a very macho, male-dominated society. Some people think there’s something wrong with getting their dog neutered. But then the puppies arrive, and they don’t want them.” In fact, Belo Horizonte city council, like others in Brazil, offers a free cat and dog neutering service.

As well as the risk of being abandoned in the street, another danger Brazil’s canine population faces is that of cruelty and maltreatment at home. “I’ve heard of cases where people have poisoned or beaten their pets, or even poured hot oil on them,” says Mendes. “It’s part of our consumer culture – the dog is an object, it’s mine and I can do what I want to it.” The situation may soon improve, with a new law recently being passed by Congress protecting the rights of cats and dogs, and imposing prison sentences, rather than fines, as penalties. Anyone who unlawfully kills a cat or a dog will face between one and three years in prison.

“It’s been proven that people who beat animals are more likely to harm people. There is a correlation,” said the author of the bill, Congressman Ricardo Tripoli, referring to studies such as this, from the animal protection organization PETA.


Dogs play an important part in the language and culture of Brazil, from the aforementioned Quincas Borba, to Baleia, the much-loved dog that appears in Graciliano Ramos’s tale of hardship in the north-eastern sertão (“drylands”), Vidas Secas (“Barren Lives” to use its English title). And an auburn Basset hound makes an appearance in the story “Temptation” by the Ukrainian born, naturalized Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector.

The most famous Brazil-–dogs connection, however, was penned by the dramatist and sportswriter Nelson Rodrigues, who coined the phrase “complexo de vira-lata” to describe the country’s voluntary inferiority complex on a global scale. Although “vira-lata” literally means “knock over the can or bin”, a reference to a street dog searching for food, the expression is translated both as “stray dog complex” and “mongrel complex”.

The latter, however, is perhaps closer to Rodrigues’ meaning, given the links between such an inferiority complex and the historical (and crack-pot) fears of some sections of Brazilian society that their country’s failings were caused by the miscegenation which has so shaped its modern profile. “Centuries of indiscriminate couplings had produced a people of bastard voluptuaries. If the positivists and the social Darwinists were right, and the founders of the republic of Brazil were convinced they were, Brazil was doomed to underdevelopment because so many Brazilians were inferior material,” writes Peter Robb in his book on Brazilian history and culture, Death In Brazil.

Rodrigues used the phrase to describe the feeling of desolation that followed the deciding game of the 1950 World Cup, when Brazil, the hot favourite, was humbled at the Maracanã by Uruguay. “By complexo de vira-lata, I mean the inferiority complex which Brazil adopts when faced with the rest of the world,” he explained.

The complexo de vira-lata also provides a useful tool for explaining some of the prejudices that underpin modern Brazilian society, where many people turn their noses up at owning mongrels and instead pay thousands of reais for pedigree Pekingeses or Shih Tzus. Such was the prevalence of the latter breed at the recent anti-government rallies in Belo Horizonte, populated largely by better-off Brazilians, that it was tempting to tag the demonstrations with the moniker “the Shih Tzu Spring”. The country’s poorer neighbourhoods, meanwhile, are largely populated by vira-latas.

“We tell the children that prejudice against vira-latas is just another form of racism,” says Mendes, talking about the educational visits his group makes to public schools in Belo Horizonte. Although his project is growing, it still faces challenges. “Lots of people still don’t see animal welfare as important. It’s a common argument in the developing world. They say “there are people starving in Brazil, why should we worry about dogs?” I tell them they should worry about both,” he says.

Culture in Rio takes a hit as Daros quickly exits Fri, 22 May 2015 20:26:13 +0000 Obra-do-Vik

Directors of the beautiful Casa Daros art space stunned Rio when they announced it would shut its doors just two years after opening. Does this forebode a dark period for cultural projects as the city is pounded by recession and scandal?

By Nathan Walters
Rio de Janeiro

A tragedy has struck Rio de Janeiro, and unfortunately, it seems to be part of a larger pattern. Botafogo’s exquisite Casa Daros art space will close this December after only two years of exhibitions, despite the fact that tens of millions were spent refurbishing the neoclassical mansion. The directors blame high maintenance costs and say the decision is irrevocable, but some are still hoping for a change of heart or for some deep-pocketed investors to step up.

More than a few observers are questioning the Zurich-based Daros Collection’s real motives for closing. Some are whispering about real estate speculation, without proof for their suspicions. A few have used the closure as a starting point to discuss high labor costs, but this can’t be fully explanatory. These are a headache for any business owner in Brazil.

Across the board, low turnout, high costs, and a local economy hit especially hard by the Petrobras scandal paint a grim picture for the future of private art institutions in Rio.

The city has witnessed an encouraging expansion of cultural spaces in recent years, and Casa Daros was one of the best. A beautifully refurbished 19th-century structure, a former Catholic school for orphaned girls, would house large-scale contemporary works from Brazilian heavyweights like Vik Muniz, Ernesto Neto, and Luiz Zerbini.

Daros has one of the most impressive collections of Latin American artists, and exhibitions were as fun as they were thought-provoking. The museum seemed to always be comfortably uncrowded, but it was also common to see Botafogo’s hipsters scoping a Cildo Meireles installation alongside school kids.

As with the some of the other museums that have opened recently, such as Museu de Arte do Rio (MAR), Casa Daros had a strong educational agenda and sought to enhance access to contemporary art. The loss of high-quality cultural programs could compound problems that the loss of oil revenues – Rio’s main industry is petroleum, whose company Petrobras is mired in a multi-billion dollar scandal – poses for education funding in Brazil, and Rio in particular.

The project got off to a rocky start and refurbishing work proved to be more challenging than initially planned. The Daros institute sought to refurbish the space to its original splendor, and went through a painstaking process, sourcing original materials and plans. The result was magnificent.

Problems with construction work didn’t seem to deter Daros, and in a lemonade-from-lemons-gesture Muniz created the Nossa Senhora das Graças photo(pictured above), based on the seal that adorns Casa Daros’ façade, from the trash leftover from renovation.

But much here is troubling. How is it possible that a presumably highly organized group like the Daros Collection planned so poorly? Or did something else happen behind the scenes? Have costs jumped so much higher than forecasted?

The wave that Brazil had been riding for ten years has come to an end, yes, but is it really this bad? Or was the grim reality of the country’s current state not considered when the company was shelling out millions to refurbish the 12,000 square meter space?

“Times are tough now, but we Brazilians, who have seen worse times, look for creative ways to respond to the changes,” says Rio-based curator Bat Zavareze. “I don’t understand the response from Casa Daros. It’s not the apocalypse. But is a real pity because it’s a very important cultural and education space.”

The curator for the avant-garde Multiplicidade music festival, Zavareze says he is working in a much different climate than a few years ago but still finds a way to make it work. Other emerging Rio-based artists say they have seen a slowdown in the frequency of government-sponsored events, but continue to work more or less as they have in the past.

The hysteria surrounding Brazil a few years ago has been replaced by the re-emergence of old problems. Staggering corruption, violence, and economic problems have re-appeared, and that is making more than a few foreign individuals and companies nervous.

The idea that the Olympics would be followed by a great exodus of foreigners always seemed more of a joke than a reality, but a completely different outlook on Brazil’s future is prompting some to consider a real exit.

Who’s who in the battle for Brazil? Thu, 16 Apr 2015 19:41:30 +0000 whoswho

Why do ‘pro-government’ protesters battle cops, while pro-impeachment protesters hug them? Which team are these guys on, again? A guide to the current crisis

Vincent Bevins
São Paulo

I just spent a month away from Brazil, which served to remind me of just how inscrutable the struggles currently rocking this country are to foreign observers. They may know that things are not as rosy as they were a few years ago, or that “the government” has messed up or is in trouble. But the contours of the battles are extremely blurry.

For example. Last week, protesters clashed violently with police outside Congress in Brasília during a demonstration against a new legislative project (pictured above). A few days later, on Sunday, a much larger group of protesters, some of whom smiled and posed for selfies with heavily armed cops, cheerfully filled streets around the country,

It is indicative of the topsy-turvy world that crisis-ridden Brazil has entered that the bloody demonstrators battling cops were the ‘pro-government’ protesters, while the cheerful, carnavalesque crowds were calling for the president to be impeachment and her party to be demolished.

That’s because “the government” is not just one government these days, and a number of players (some even less scrupulous than the others) are currently engaged in a fight for its future.

So who are they? What do they want? What are their chances?

The government, part 1 (executive)

President Dilma Rousseff, of the left-leaning Workers’ Party (PT), was re-elected in October and began her second term in January.

The PT has controlled the Presidency since Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva took over in 2003. By any global standard, Lula’s time in power was good for Brazil. Buoyed by high prices for its commodities, the economy surged forward, and moderate social programs helped roughly 40 million people rise from poverty into the “new middle class.” He left office with record levels of support.

Dilma, former left-wing guerrilla and Lula’s hand-picked successor, took over in 2011 and enjoyed widespread support for a while. But the commodity boom ended and the economy slowed down amid mistakes made by Dilma’s government. Then the June 2013 protests happened, and so did the World Cup, which only turned out pretty well in contrast to the mess it was expected to be, and because Brazilians were polite enough to keep their rage about wasteful spending to themselves while the foreign fans were here.

By the 2014 election, Dilma had lost much of the goodwill Lula had bestowed to her. She barely beat out opponent Aécio Neves (PSDB) by frantically appealing to the working poor and middle-class leftists, denying many of the economic problems the country faced and promising what we all knew she couldn’t deliver in the short term.

She won, promptly installed a Finance Minister that her core supporters (and probably she herself) consider ‘neoliberal,’ who embarked on a series of painful adjustments as the dire economic straits Brazil finds itself in became exceedingly obvious. For the first time since 2003, regular people’s lives not only stopped improving, but in some cases, began to get worse. And all the while, since the middle of last year, it slowly emerged that the Federal Police have built a credible case that the state-run oil company, Petrobras, funneled billions of dollars to huge construction companies, who then passed some of the bribes on to political parties.

The government, part 2 (legislative)

If Brazil were a monarchy, that would be it. Rousseff would be “the government.” But Brazil is a loose federal republic with a staggering 28 parties active in its two legislative houses, and 26 state governors who each control their own police forces.

Much of Lula’s success was attributable to his ability to cobble together an unlikely coalition of parties and economic actors and thus keep the party going. This group has included right-wing parties, major figures Lula used to bitterly oppose, one president already impeached for corruption, and big parties who may not believe in much, other than the spoils of power.

Maintaining this kind of a coalition is a lot easier if you have Lula’s charisma and political capital. It’s even easier if you have so much money flowing in that you can make everyone in the country richer at the same time.

Dilma has none of this at the moment, and it’s all falling apart.

Amidst the chaos and political weakness of the first few months of Dilma’s second term, the PT lost control of Congress. The “catch-all, pork loving” PMDB has gained control of the Presidency of both houses and is openly rebelling against Dilma. Eduardo Cunha, an evangelical Christian, has been especially combative. Contributors to this blog have made it pretty clear who these guys are. It is not only that have they taken advantage of Dilma’s weakness. They are also reportedly furious that both of their Congressional leaders, Renan Calheiros and Cunha, have been named in the investigation into the Petrobras corruption scandal.

Recently, they have been pushing a bill that allows for more companies to treat employees as contractors. The PT hates this law, and so do the left-wing and union protesters that marched against it last week in Brasília. That’s who battled cops in Brasília last week, decked out in red. They support “the government” (Dilma) against right-wing threats, but despise Cunha and company.

Many people want Neves and the PSDB in power. Many, but less than before, want Dilma’s PT to hold on and thrive. But few people will tell you they love these guys.


The protesters, 2015 edition (green and yellow)

On Sunday, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets around the country to denounce Dilma and call for her impeachment. This was less than they mustered a month earlier, but this group and its demands are not going away.

These protesters want Dilma gone, now, and mostly hate the PT passionately. A small minority call outright for military intervention. Anecdotally speaking, these people have not felt represented by the PT government in years, and their anger has exploded further since the October election. Studies suggest they are wealthier and whiter than average Brazilians, and that they are most likely to take their cues from Brazil’s most right-wing major publication.

According to this study, they also hold some strange beliefs. A majority said they think the PT “wants to impose a communist regime in Brazil.” The Economist recently called them a “Tropical tea party.” They are usually law and order voters, which explains why some of them embrace the police that terrify many poor Brazilians and traditional protest groups.

But it is not enough to just wave one’s hands, and say that Brazil has always had a small but powerful right-wing section of the elite, that they never liked the PT anyways and hold views that many English-language readers would find bizarre. That may describe some of the core demonstrators who are actually in the streets. But it’s also important to recognize why they’ve been able to step into the spotlight now, and that many regular people are sympathetic to their broader demands.

Another recent poll made very difficult reading for the PT. Datafolha reported that 63% of respondents support an impeachment process against President Rousseff. And 3/4 of respondents said they supported the recent protests around the country.

This must include many people that voted for her. And it’s not hard to see what explains this swing. Things have gotten worse.

Social movements, unions, and the left (protesters in red)

But it’s not just the rich, white, and conservative that are upset. Many of the core supporters of the PT project had hoped that Dilma would follow up on her left-wing campaign with a shift to the left. She did not. They were doubly mortified to see the country fall into the hands of her former conservative allies in Congress, who have been eager to push an agenda they consider homophobic and a serious threat to labor rights.

In much smaller numbers, they took to the streets yesterday, alongside fast food workers, to protest this new direction. These guys come from the traditional left, and have traditionally clashed with police at times.

And while they bitterly oppose the other group of protesters, accusing them of being golpistas, they are also an outgrowth of real discontent with the status quo. They would argue that to tackle the very real popularity problems the Datafolha survey revealed, the PT should return to its left-wing roots.

It’s also notable that Brazilians, perhaps fed up with the system in general, have been quite eager to support all kinds of protests recently. In 2013, a remarkable 89% supported the protests started by an anarchist-leaning student group after they exploded into wider demands for better public services and an end to corruption.

Who will triumph? (pure speculation)

Marxists and free-market liberals alike sometimes make the mistake of thinking that if things just get bad enough, a solution they like will appear. The radical left looks to 1917, and liberals look to 1989, as evidence of this. But what happens more often is that things just sort of muddle along, in a dispiriting and crappy way, with no easy way out.

While admitting that anything could happen, I’ll venture three possibilities for the next few years. The first is that the political and legal circumstances change, and Dilma is actually impeached. For now, this seems unlikely, but it is possible. In any case, it would only be a victory for the yellow-green protesters in that it would be a blow to the PT. Their preferred representatives would be extremely unlikely to take over. Another possibility is that the PT manages to retake control of the situation, getting the economy back on track and moving into a position in Congress where it can satisfy some of its core supporters. This road looks very difficult from here.

But more likely, in my opinion, is that Dilma will remain weak for the near future, with Minister Levy managing to do enough with the economy to avert disaster, but unable to unleash the country’s full potential, while a rudderless Congress is taken in a new and sometimes strange direction.

Not very exciting, I know. But those are the battle lines for now.

Brazil’s upper middle class returns to public life Tue, 31 Mar 2015 18:11:28 +0000 Photo1

For years, crime, classism and old habits have kept Brazil’s well-to-do away from the messy reality of the country’s streets. But the World Cup, and now, anger at the government, have brought them back onto the scene.

By James Young

“Go downtown?* Are you crazy! It’s far too dangerous!” (*Or “Go to the football” or “Take the bus”).

The refrain, usually uttered by upper middle class Brazilians, is familiar to many foreigners coming to live in the country. Worried by eye-popping murder rates (according to WHO figures, there were over 64,000 homicides in Brazil in 2012) and alarmed at the thought of a naïve gringo or gringa ending up in a darkened alley, such over-protectiveness on the part of the locals was arguably understandable.

Yet an additional subtext lay behind such fears. For years, driven indoors by the levels of violence of the society that surrounds them, Brazil’s upper classes have hidden from public life, seeking refuge in gated communities and behind the high walls of luxury apartment buildings, in shopping malls and expensive restaurants. The result was that with some exceptions (the beaches of Leblon or Ipanema, or the metro system of São Paulo, for example) the country’s public spaces – the streets, public transport networks, football stadiums, even large parts of the carnaval celebrations of a number of cities, became the near-exclusive redoubt of less well-off Brazilians.

Now, however, things may be changing. Brazil’s upper social classes appear to be stirring.

The long-established polarization of Brazilian society came to the fore recently amidst the toxic atmosphere that surrounded the presidential elections, notably in the form of frustrated PSDB supporters attacking PT voters for being “ill-informed” and dependent on welfare programs such as bolsa familia. Although the fault lines were in fact blurred, many chose to see the contest between Dilma Rousseff and Aecio Neves as a straight poor Brazil vs. rich Brazil battle.

But as this blog explored previously, Brazil’s class divisions are more complex, not helped by the bewildering array of definitions and terms used to describe social class. According to figures released by the government’s Strategic Matters Department in 2012, the country can be divided into eight social classes – three of which are described as poor or vulnerable, three of which are defined as middle class, and two of which are upper class.

Such definitions reflect the rise of Brazil’s so-called nova classe media (“new middle class”), who, according to the government, earn between R$291 (currently U$90) and R$1019 (U$317) per capita a month and represent over 50% of the population, their numbers boosted by those moving out of poverty as a result of (now stalled) economic growth, an increased minimum wage and social benefit programs.

In recent years the nova classe media has been touted as Brazil’s rising demographic and economic star. The newfound spending power of its members boosted the economy, and suddenly Brazil’s new middle classes were everywhere – from the country’s airports (traditionally another upper class fortresses) to its TV screens. Brazil’s novelas (soap operas) had always been dominated by characters drawn from the wealthy of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, with the occasional token storyline given over to poorer Brazilians, and usually played for laughs. That changed in 2012 with Avenida Brasil, described by many as a “Classe C novela”.

At the same time, much of the nova classe media is far from any middle class that northern European or North American readers would recognize. A family of four in the middle of the government’s scale would have an income of around R$2,600 (U$850) per month, perhaps enough to buy a flat screen TV, smart phone or small car on a lengthy purchase plan, but hardly sufficient to move into an upmarket part of town. Plenty of Classe C (another term used for the nova classe media) neighborhoods in the periferias of Brazil’s major cities, particularly in the nordeste of the country, are unsafe, lack basic sanitation services and have unpaved roads.

Photo 2

Now, it seems, it’s again time for Brazil’s upper classes to grab the spotlight, and the coming out party of the classes altas was last summer’s World Cup. Whereas Brazil’s run-down football stadiums had previously been seen by many better off Brazilians as dangerous no-go areas, ruled over by the notorious torcidas organizadas (there have been at least 234 football related deaths in Brazil in the last 25 years), the expensive tickets and safe, comfortable World Cup arenas, meant that the Copa, in terms of Brazilian fans at least, became a very upper middle class affair. Throughout the tournament the stadium jumbotron TV screens showed images of shiny-toothed, wealthy looking fans beaming into the cameras, and a Datafolha survey of the crowd during Brazil’s 7-1 humiliation against Germany found that 90% were from Brazil’s upper classes, and only 9% were Classe C.

And then there is carnaval. While the profile of foliões (“revelers”) varies from city to city (“carnaval has always been about the people in the street and the rich on their verandas” MPB legend Gilberto Gil has said of the festivities in Salvador), two of the most notable developments of recent carnaval celebrations have been the popularity of blocos da rua (“street parties”) in São Paulo, particularly in the upper middle class neighborhood of Vila Madalena, and the growth of the festival in Belo Horizonte. For years the main carnaval in Brazil’s third biggest city took place in a grotty outer suburb, but this year over a million people celebrated across the city, with many blocos attracting crowds of wealthier Brazilians.

Brazil’s largest upper class explosion came just two weeks ago, however, when anywhere from a few hundred thousand to 1.7 million (estimates vary wildly) people took to the streets to protest against political corruption and president Dilma Rousseff’s government. There had been similarly large scale demonstrations during the Confederations Cup in 2013, but the profile of the crowd then (young and middle class), was markedly different to those that took to the streets this month.

At the protest in Belo Horizonte’s leafy Praça Liberdade, for example, the vast majority of the 25,000 or so demonstrators seemed to be drawn from the city’s upper social classes. Most were wearing Brazil football shirts and sunglasses, and chatted happily as they waved placards calling for the impeachment of Rousseff. There were plenty of family groups, and several residents of the expensive apartment buildings nearby had brought their Pekingeses or Shih-Tzus along for a walk. Afterwards, the bars and restaurants of the entertainment district of Savassi were filled with people tucking into hearty lunches after a tough morning’s protesting. As at least one site has noted, it was sometimes hard to tell if it was a political protest or a World Cup match. Meanwhile a survey of the 100,000-strong demonstration in the southern city of Porto Alegre found that over 70% of the crowd earned more than six times the minimum monthly wage.

At the same time, the surprisingly large scale of events means that disparagingly classifying the protests as solely the raging of Brazil’s burguês (“bourgeois”) or elite branca (“white elite”) is unlikely to tell the whole story – frustration with the country’s governing classes runs far deeper than that.

The debate over the return of Brazil’s upper classes to the streets and football stadiums, like the rise in visibility of Classe C before it, has once more brought to the surface the simmering class tensions that underlie the country’s society. Class boundaries in Brazil may be blurring, but its social divisions, and the fear and loathing that surrounds them, are as marked as ever.

Brazil protests in 2015 – very different from June 2013 Wed, 04 Mar 2015 21:45:00 +0000 Protestos Agua

Brazilians are back on the streets protesting, denouncing water shortages, budget cuts, and price rises – but in a more politically divided nation, the mood this time round is very different.

By James Young

Brazil may never have talked as much about protests as it has over the last two years. First, there were the huge street demonstrations that spread like wildfire in June 2013. Everyone knows the story by now – a brutish response from the military police poured petrol onto anti-bus fare hike demonstrations in São Paulo, and soon it felt like the whole country (or at least the young and the middle-class portions of it) was on the streets, with thousands marching in the direction of Confederations Cup matches at the Mineirão or the Maracanã. They were complaining about, well, everything – a vague amalgam of political corruption, FIFA and the World Cup, Marco Feliciano, terrible bus services, terrible hospitals, and terrible schools. Meanwhile the world’s TV cameras, here for the football, gaped – would there be a World Cup? Was Brazil falling apart?

Yes and no were the answers to those questions – in what felt like a very Brazilian moment, not much came of the Tropical Spring at all, the mood of ferment and change dwindling listlessly into shrugs, apathy and getting on with life. Dilma Rousseff’s government hummed and hawed about political reform and promised massive investment in public transport, but there has been little sign of either. What was left of the protests turned ugly, the violence of the black blocs achieving nothing apart from driving ordinary demonstrators indoors, and the World Cup passed (generally) without a hitch – the festive atmosphere, sprightly football and heightened security presence distracting people from that silly business of political protests.

Now, it seems, protesting may be back in vogue, although recent events have little in common with the 2013 demonstrations. Last Thursday around 10,000 people took part in a Homeless Workers Movement (MTST) rally demonstrating against water rationing (pictured above), while a similar number marched in Curitiba the day before in support of striking teachers. Thousands of unhappy truck drivers have blocked highways across the country, bringing Brazil’s already shaky road network to a grinding halt. Perhaps most ominous of all, a nationwide rally calling for the impeachment of president Dilma has been scheduled for this month, with over a million people confirming their presence via social media (though the number that shows up is rarely nearly as high).

These protests, with the exception of the potential impeachment rally, are more localized and more specific in their demands than the 2013 marches. And yet Brazil’s problems remain the same, or worse, now – Marco Feliciano has been replaced by Jair “I wouldn’t rape you because you’re not worth it” Bolsonaro as the pantomime moral villain of Brazil’s capering political classes, there are water shortages in São Paulo and a gaggle of other cities (even if not all will admit it), the economy has tanked, inflation is rising, the scale of the Petrobras corruption scandal grows more mindboggling by the day, and president Dilma seems to have no idea what to do about any of it.

Why, then, did bus fare hikes get people onto the streets in their hundreds of thousands, but water rationing protests remain a more minority affair? There are some obvious reasons, such as the lack of a sparkplug moment similar to when the police shot a number of Folha de São Paulo journalists at one 2013 rally, putting public opinion firmly on the side of the protestors, or the absence now of both convenient rallying points (the Confederations Cup games) and the encouraging gaze of the international media.


But perhaps just as importantly, the mood in Brazil feels different now. For all the anger, aimed both at FIFA and Brazil’s political classes, that surrounded the 2013 protests, there was also a sense of optimism and community, as hundreds of thousands of Brazilians discovered, with some surprise, that they were all angry about the same things and if they all got together and complained about them at the same time, some good may come of it (though ultimately, it didn’t).

That shared anger and enthusiasm may have gone now, the bitterness that surrounded last year’s elections creating a polarized political environment, with the words and actions of supporters on both sides of the PT v PSDB split becoming increasingly rabid. “In 2013 it was the left that was on the streets…this year it’s going to be the right protesting, demanding impeachment of Dilma and a stop to corruption,” said Luiz Eduardo Oliveira, an anti-PT activist attacked by supporters of the party while demonstrating in Rio de Janeiro last week.

Carnaval has come and gone. As 400,000 Argentinians took to the rain-lashed streets of Buenos Aires in the so-called “March of Silence” to protest against the Kirchner government and call for justice in the case of the death of public prosecutor Alberto Nisman, Brazilians danced and frolicked in the sunshine, some wearing satirical masks of political figures. Such frivolity perhaps recalled the phrase “Brazil is not a serious country”, often attributed to Charles de Gaulle, but in fact spoken by the Brazilian diplomat Carlos Alves de Souza Filho.

And yet Brazil has long mixed its traditional themes of music and carnaval with political protest. In 1992, as the Fernando Collor government descended into an abyss of corruption, the caras pintadas (“painted faces”) took to the streets to demand his removal from office.

“In Recife, I heard a dull roar come floating up from the Avenida Conde de Boa Vista and in through the open windows of my apartment. To thrilling rapid-beaten drums, a hundred thousand young people were marching toward the centre of the city, faces painted in Brazilian green, blue and yellow. They were the painted faces and Recife’s contribution to the upsurge…an indescribable gaiety rose into the air…All around Brazil giant bald bespectacled PC (Farias, Collor’s partner in crime) dolls were being paraded down the streets, and dolls of Fernando and Rosane in convict garb. There was music and dancing and rhythmic chanted slogans,” writes Peter Robb in his book on Brazilian history and culture, A Death In Brazil.

Irrespective of whether the subject is impeachment, water shortages, or striking teachers or truck drivers, it remains to be seen whether Brazil will be able to summon the same sense of unity, and political fervour, again.

São Paulo’s water crisis, set to music Fri, 27 Feb 2015 20:04:44 +0000

You have probably heard that we are living through a difficult water crisis in São Paulo. Longtime From Brazil contributor Claire Rigby wrote an excellent story about it in the Guardian. Then, for reasons which we do not entirely understand but certainly cannot take issue with, Will Butler from the Arcade Fire wrote a song inspired by Claire’s story.

Follow this link to the Guardian to see what he said about São Paulo.

Eduardo Cunha and Brazil’s backwards Congress Sat, 14 Feb 2015 15:34:16 +0000 cunha

For Brazilians that voted for President Dilma, hoping that her campaign messages of social progress and left-wing struggle would translate to reality, the rise of Eduardo Cunha (pictured above, center) is a nightmare.

The new President of Brazil’s lower legislative house is a dedicated homophobe as well as a classic Brasília dealmaker – with all the messiness that involves – facing numerous corruption charges.

By Anna Jean Kaiser

Eduardo Cunha’s election was a huge shock to President Dilma, and a huge disappointment for anyone on the side of LGBTQ rights in Brazil. But even though he represents Evangelical Christians and is to the right of the ruling Workers’ Party, he is not the kind of figure that is celebrated by Brazilian conservatives, either.

It’s widely believed that he won his spot as President of Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies (Brazil, like the US, has two legislative houses, and the Chamber passes laws alongside the Senate) not because of widespread popular support, but by promising favors and deals to other politicians in the manner that his PMDB party is famous for. His critics say he is, first and foremost, a political businessman, buying and selling influence and favors.

But that didn’t stop him from getting right to work on the reactionary side of Brazil’s human rights and culture wars. He started off with a bang, demanding that Congress look into creating a “Heterosexual Rights Day.”

Brazil is a contradictory country when it comes to social issues and LGBTQ rights. The executive branch and Workers’ Party are center-left, while Congress, elected semi-indirectly in a complicated process, moved even further to the right in last year’s elections. In Rio, Cunha can be elected alongside representatives like Jean Wyllys (PSOL-RJ), an openly gay former reality TV star, who is now one of the most eloquent defenders of gay rights in Brazil.

The resulting laws are also conflicting. Where else in the world can you get a free sex change operation under the public health system, but abortion is illegal? Dilma said she would support an anti-homophobia law during the campaign. But despite Brazil’s progress toward marriage equality and LGBTQ rights and widespread dissatisfaction with corruption in the government, Cunha is able to hold one of the most powerful seats in Brasília, because he can convince the other members of Congress to give it to him.

Brazil’s Congressional leaders are not, and cannot, be selected in the way that they are in countries with a smaller number of established parties. Since there are 28 (!) parties now active in Brazil’s Congress, any leader can theoretically be elected in a secret ballot. And Cunha won.

Cunha is an outspoken homophobe and is against the legalization of abortion. He refers to homosexuals as “heterophobes.” His twitter account warns Evangelicals to defend themselves from “attacks” from gays, “abortistas” (pro-choice activists), and “maconheiros” (marijuana legalization activists, or more literally, “stoners“).

When a Brazilian novela aired the nation’s first ever televised gay kiss, Cunha took to Twitter:

“I must express my repulsion at the gay kiss on TV. Soon there are going to be gay sex scenes on TV.”

As the author of the most proposals for rigid abortion legislation, he represents a serious threat to women’s reproductive rights. In 2013, when Congress approved a proposal to regulate the care of rape victims in the Unified Health System (SUS) [Lei 12.845/13], Cunha wrote proposal PL 6033/13 that would overturn the law, citing that it “stimulated the practice of abortion in the country.”

And of course, Cunha is linked to several multi-million dollar corruption scandals. While he was president of the Rio State Housing Company in 1999, he was accused of fraud for irregular contracts and for favoring a friend’s construction company. He stepped down after only 6 months in the position. While being investigated, his lawyer was accused of falsifying documents in an attempt to cover up his crimes.

Cunha is currently being investigated in “the Petrolão,” arguably the largest corruption scandal in Brazilian history. A money delivery man in the scheme cited Cunha as one of the bribe recipients.

Liberals, activists and anti-corruption fighters all over Brazil are deeply worried. This was a blow they did not see coming. It’s hard to argue that the relatively moderate Aécio Neves could have ever posed the kind of threat to the progressive left that Cunha does. But Evangelicals have surged over the last 30 years, and Congress here is famously self-serving. They better wish Dilma good luck