Saturday, January 28, 2017

Brazil is not for beginners

The phrase is attributed to bossa nova singer and composer Tom Jobim. It implies that the country is not only soccer, samba and beaches which his famous song A Garota de Ipanema (The Girl From Ipanema) is about. Brazil is intrigues, dramas and also fascination.

In Brazil, the year started with a real carnage, a drug related carnage in several of the country’s hellish jails. Some 100 inmates may have lost their lives in atrocious conditions. Scores of headless bodies were dumped over the prison walls and body parts are still to be collected. Riots are common in overcrowded jails, but this year they spread out of control and were particularly gruesome. As long as gang wars take place within prison walls, Brazilians are not very concerned: a dead gang member is better than a live one, goes the saying. Gang factions are fighting over supply and territory.

Corruption and neglect have resulted in the government’s loss of control in several jails which are de facto run by the gangs themselves. They recruit members among the new comers, and run their business from the relative tranquility of their cells. Petty delinquents commonly wait for their trials in jail; conscripted into gangs, expandable, many die before having their day in court. Brazilians are certainly ashamed, but there is no sympathy for the reason that 15 policemen have been killed by gangs since the beginning of the year in Rio. I am honestly shocked by the situation, but since the government is powerless to regain full control, I think some drug use should be decriminalized.

If 2016 was the year of the zica virus, 2017 may be the year of yellow fever. So far, 32 people and scores of monkeys have died in the state of Minas Gerais. Again, the culprit is Aedes aegypti, a multi-task mosquito which spreads nuisances such as dengue, chikungunya and zica. Aedes is an old resident of Brazil; originally from Africa it came on board the ships bringing slaves in the 16th century. Fortunately, a vaccine exists against yellow fever and recent research indicates that it is good for ever with no need for a booster every 10 years. Carnival revelers should not worry, as long as Aedes does not get out of control, the World Health Organization will not issue a travel warning to Brazil.

One thing is sure, no one will be bitten by mosquitoes sitting in the Maracanā stadium because it is locked up. The iconic soccer stadium has fallen in a state of abandonment, “the broken legacy of the World Cup and the Olympic Games”[1]. Maracanā is the collateral victim of a tug of war between the bankrupt state of Rio de Janeiro and the management company embroiled in the Petrobras corruption scandal.

This year carnival revelers won’t be able to enjoy the chic B&Bs and trendy restaurants which had cropped up in Rio’s hillside favelas. With gang wars resuming in previously pacified favelas, business crumbled and several have closed down. This year again, the hedonistic carnival season will be less than exuberant as the recession lingers.

The once seventh-richest-man in the world (2012, Forbes), Elke Batista is now an Interpol fugitive. After losing his multibillion-dollar fortune, he is wanted for allegedly paying US$ 16 million in bribes to the jailed former governor of Rio de Janeiro. According to several tabloids, Batista has taken residence in a Trump Tower apartment in Manhattan.
Happier times: Elke Batista and Sergio Cabral, former governor of Rio

In spite of the gloomy situation, it is fascinating to watch Brazilian reveling; as the Guardian newspaper wrote[2] “austerity does not come naturally to Brazilians.” Brazil has become a cliché. In the 30s, Viennese-born novelist Stephen Zweig described Brazil as the land of the future; naysayers think it always will be. In the 60s, a grumpy General de Gaulle claimed that Brazil was not a serious country. Brazilians do not care as they believe the local proverb that God is Brazilian. For me, Brazil is the land of soap opera, spirited with farfetched twist and turns and happy endings.

[1] The Sun. January 10, 2017.
[2] January 12, 2012.