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The Economist’s recent Brazil report started a huge debate that in Brazil at least centered on criticism of both the report’s style (the flashy cover) and its substance (impeccable reporting and reasoned analysis that dared to suggest Brazil is far from perfect).
The magazine asked “Has Brazil Blown It?”and over 14 pages wrote about where Brazil is doing things right (agriculture, social policy) and where it is doing things wrong (education, infrastructure, politics).
I’ve lived in Brazil for more than a decade, and written about it for dozens of magazines and newspapers and I long ago realized that if you write 10 nice things about Brazil and one not-so-nice thing Brazilians and Brazil-lovers will seize on the not-so-nice thing and presume you hate their country.
It’s a sign of Brazil’s immaturity and lack of engagement with the wider world as well as an indication of how passionately people (including expat residents) feel about the place.
For far too many Brazilians and Brazil-lovers, pointing out that there’s too much corruption, or red tape, or that the judicial system only works for the rich, or that the banks are nothing short of thieves means you hate Brazil.
Because in Brazil, if you criticize something it means you’re against it.
I think the opposite is true.
Here’s my question for all those who think there’s a conspiracy against Brazil:
Who loves Brazil more? A corrupt Congressman who siphons off money that should be going to schools and hospitals? A young businessman whose drink driving kills an old age pensioner out walking her dog? A banker charging interest rates of 238% a year?
Or the person who denounces the corrupt Congressman, the young businessman whose drink driving kills and the banking system that allows bankers to rob (and stunt growth and investment) with their criminal bank charges?
To criticize doesn’t mean to hate. Sometimes it means exactly the opposite.
The protesters who took to the streets of Brazil’s biggest cities last night are to be congratulated on a significant victory.
Few people imagined that after the violent police crackdown on Sao Paulo’s protesters last Thursday an even greater number would come out in sympathy just four days later.
But they did just that and across Brazil hundreds of thousands of people, most of them peacefully, expressed their dissatisfaction with the status quo.
Exactly how many people took part in the protests is impossible to know. But estimates suggest 65,000 people took to the streets of Sao Paulo, almost twice that in Rio and smaller, but still considerable, numbers made their presence felt in Belo Horizonte, Salvador, Porto Alegre and dozens of other towns and cities.
The big question is what happens now. The protesters have the wind at their backs, so what will they do? They have called another march (in SP at least) for Tuesday night. Will they call more? Enter in to talks with authorities? As yet no one knows.
A lot of that depends on exactly what they want.
The unrest was originally sparked by a hike in bus fares and many of the protesters come from the Free Fare Movement, a group that wants free public transport for all. That’s an unreal demand. No serious country provides all its citizens with free public transport.
But since then the demonstration has expanded to include broader issues. One major complaint is the cost of hosting the World Cup and the Confederations Cup, the second of which kicked off in six Brazilian cities on Saturday.
One of the challenges facing the movement’s leaders is articulating a message beyond that of, ‘We want better treatment and more rights.’ And until they do that it will struggle to achieve anything concrete.
Anyone who has spent any time in Brazil knows that people are treated abysmally. As I said here last week, Brazilians pay first world taxes and get third world services. No one respects no one. Complaining is futile and the deck is heavily stacked against anyone who raises their voice in anger. (Which is one of the reasons a more generalized outrage hasn’t taken hold until now.)
Brazil deserves great credit for lifting 40 million people out of poverty over the last decade. But ironically, that class of newly enfranchised people might be a cause of the unrest.
- More people can afford to buy cars and hundreds of new cars pour onto the streets of Sao Paulo each day. But the government hasn’t invested in infrastructure like roads or highways and public transport is underfunded and inefficient and an unappealing alternative.
- More people can afford health insurance but the companies selling them not only provide a risible coverage, they fight tooth and nail to stop their clients from getting the treatment they are paying for, sometimes with tragic consequences.
- More people have cable television but just try calling up and complaining about the service or trying to cancel it. The companies sadistically force their clients to jump through online hoops in order to hold them to costly contracts.
- More people have cell phones and Brazilians pay some of the highest rates in the world. But calls frequently cut out, the signal is patchy, and after sales service is a joke.
- More people have banks accounts but banks charge abusive interest rates – 237 % a year for credit cards – and they sneak additional charges onto bills, and treat customers more like waling wallets than valued customers.
- Education is a joke. A tragic joke.
In short, there are lots of reasons why Brazilians should be angry.
The other big question is how politicians will deal with the crisis. What possible answers can they provide? Not only are they discredited, they cannot hope to provide quick solutions to resolve long-standing infrastructure issues.
They are in bed with the multinationals and conglomerates whose consistent mistreatment of and disdain for their customers is a complaint I hear every single day from Brazilians.
It is hard to see how they can provide quick and satisfactory answers to the questions above.
And last but not least, Are Brazilians going to see this through to the end?
Brazil is not a politicised society nor one where memories are long or protests lasting. In neighbouring Argentina, hundreds of thousands of people take to the streets to protest graft and they do it again and again and again.
Brazil’s media will play up the violence and they will play up the fear. If political parties try to hijack the movement it will lose its credibility. The middle class must get involved and stay involved.
If Brazilians really want to see change they will need stamina and resolve. They may have to shout themselves hoarse over and over and over again. If this is really going to turn into something lasting then Monday night is not the end. It is only the beginning.
One colleague called me a misanthrope the other day. Another often refers to me as Mr Angry. A Scottish pal in Rio calls me Begbie (after the notoriously angry character in Trainspotting).
They all mean it in jest (I hope!) and I usually take it with a pinch of salt and a laugh.
But there’s a lot to be angry about these days and I don’t just mean big banks destroying the livelihoods of millions just to make a few more pennies, or the spinelessness of politicians who have allowed them to get away with it.
Case in point today in Brazil, where Bradley Brooks from the Associated Press just published this sensational story about how big car makers in Brazil are routinely churning out vehicles that fail the same safety tests they wouldn’t dare fail in the developed world.
Unsafe cars, coupled with the South American nation’s often dangerous driving conditions, have resulted in a Brazilian death rate from passenger car accidents that is nearly four times that of the United States.
The culprits are the cars themselves, produced with weaker welds, scant safety features and inferior materials compared to similar models manufactured for U.S. and European consumers, say experts and engineers inside the industry. Four of Brazil’s five bestselling cars failed their independent crash tests.
Manufacturers earn a 10 percent profit on Brazilian-made cars, compared with 3 percent in the U.S. and a global average of 5 percent, according to IHS Automotive, an industry consulting firm.
Only next year will laws require frontal air bags and antilock braking systems on all cars, safety features that have been standard in industrial countries for years. The country will also have new impact regulations on paper, at least; Brazilian regulators don’t have their own crash-test facility to verify automakers’ claims about vehicle performance, nor are there independent labs in the country.
In short, Brazil’s car makers are cutting corners and costing countless lives because it is cheaper to make poor quality cars than it is to spend more and make the cars as safe as they would in the US or Europe. And the government is quite happy to let them.
This in a nation where cars cost three times what they cost elsewhere.
Seriously, the question isn’t why am I angry. The question is: Why isn’t everyone?
The catalyst for my story on Time.com today was the closure of Rio’s 2016 Olympic games stadium because it is in danger of collapse.
The Joao Havelange stadium was inaugurated just six years ago but was so poorly done it is already in an advanced state of disrepair.
My editors at Time made tweaks to my story on the grounds it was too opinionated.
What I wanted to say loud and clear, and have been saying in conversation for years, is this: The people who ran Rio’s 2007 Pan American Games and who are organising the next Olympics are guilty of either deceit or bad planning or both.
For the Pan Ams they promised the city of Rio 54km of new metro, a light railway line and a new highway.
They did none of it.
The games were at least six times over budget and the justification was that the venues and facilities were expensive because they were of Olympic standard.
They are not.
The track and field stadium is in danger of collapse. The aquatics park is not big enough to be used for the Olympics and a new one must be built. The brand new cycle track can’t be used because it is not good enough. The Maracana is undergoing its third reform since 2000 at a total cost exceeding 1 billion reais.
Rio’s Pan Am experience is more about how not to prepare for a major sporting event than how to.
It is nothing short of scandalous that the organizers are being given a second chance.
I am often asked, What do think the World Cup will be like in Brazil in 2014?
My stock answer goes something like this:
“Visitors will have a great time. It is a dream come true for any real football fan to see the World Cup in Brazil and they will be made very welcome by Brazilians. In addition to the games themselves, they can enjoy beaches, music, nightlife, the lot. But when they all go home, the average Brazilian won’t have a lot to show for it. Authorities are not adding the public transportation links they promised, airports will still be a mess and communications will still be deficient. And we’ll still be paying way over the odds for everything.”
I wrote a long piece for Reuters that came out today about public transportation and how cities and states all over Brazil are breaking their initial promises to provide trams, express bus lanes, highways and metro lines in time for the World Cup.
The story says that,
Although exact numbers are still changing, at least a dozen of the 49 original projects have changed completely and won’t be ready by the time the tournament kicks off off on June 12, 2014.
Five cities – Brasilia, Fortaleza, Manaus, Salvador and Sao Paulo – won’t have the promised tram lines, express lanes for buses or metro links ready, according to Brazil’s Federal Audits Court.
“The much discussed social legacy looks like it won’t get off the drawing board,” Romario, a former World Cup winner who is now a lawmaker in Brazil’s Congress, wrote last month in a newspaper column. “Almost all the transport projects are behind schedule, some have been put back and will be opened only after the World Cup and others have been cancelled altogether.”
This is one of the big tragedies of the 2014 World Cup.
The second is that more people aren’t demanding that those responsible for the broken promises be held accountable.
I almost went to a balada this weekend but instead arrived home early having went through one of those small but telling experiences that reinforce my belief Brazil is still a long way from ever fulfilling its true potential.
I arrived at the door to the Trackers club around 1 am with half a dozen friends, both foreign and Brazilian. Voodoo Hop, an otherwise admirable group that seeks to rejuvenate the city centre by running clubs and cultural events in abandoned buildings, were organising another of their successful club nights.
After waiting half an hour to edge up the queue and get in the door, we discovered that there was another queue inside the building to get into the actual club.
My friends – most of whom were a good deal younger than me – took it in their stride. I was outraged. After another 10 minutes waiting in the second queue that snaked up two flights of stairs, I left.
Brazil has problems with lots of things that won’t change overnight. Corruption, antiquated infrastructure, a putrid political system, and the obscene amount of power leveraged by multinationals and construction companies are all ingrained in the culture and will only improve with government intervention or massive pressure from society, neither of which looks like happening any time soon.
But the stupid invention of bureaucracy for simple tasks like getting in a night club is easy to resolve. One queue, fine. Two queues, pointless and self-defeating.
The big worry I have here – and this is the part that reinforce my belief Brazil is still a long way from fulfilling its potential – is that I was the only one who saw anything wrong with this.
Not only were the organizers of this young and hip nightclub happy to carry on with the same old bureaucratic and non-sensical rules imposed on them by an older generation. (If there’s a good reason from this, I’d be happy to hear it, VoodooHop…)
What was worse was that the young kids waiting in line accepted it as normal. There was no outrage at being made to stand passively in two different queues, much less being made to stand passively in two different queues for the right to hand over a 30 real entry fee.
Instead, anyone who complained was “uptight”, “stressed out” or “whining.”
I voted with my feet. Unless more people do the same, the bureaucracy and BS is never going away.
If you knew the escalators at Rio’s international airport needed replacing then when would you choose to rip them out?
Would you look for a quiet time in order to cause the least inconvenience to passengers or would you do it right in the middle of carnival, the time of the year when the airport is busiest?
No prizes for guessing that officials in Rio have scheduled to replace 10 of the airport’s escalators the week of carnival, when half a million people are expected to come through the building.
(I am not making this up. See details in this morning’s Folha de S. Paulo newspaper.)
This struck me as too ridiculous to be true so I called Infraero – the body that runs the Galeao airport – and they confirmed the Folha story. Fourteen of the 58 escalators have already been replaced and they are replacing 10 more right now.
Why not wait a couple of weeks and do it after the carnival rush is over, I asked.
We are following the established timetable, the Infraero official replied.
Portuguese speakers might like this link, to O Globo columnist Artur Xexeo’s December column entitled: “The Worst Airport in the World.”
When people ask me what I think the 2014 World Cup will be like I have a set answer that goes something like this:
“I think it will be the greatest World Cup ever because it’s any fan’s dream to see a World Cup in the spiritual home of football. Brazilians will welcome visitors with open arms and there will be sun, fun, samba and caipirinhas galore, in addition to the action on the field. But when the party is over, Brazilians will have a massive hangover and the government won’t have done half of what it said it would do to make the country a better place for all. Infrastructure will still be lacking and we’ll have paid over the odds for what we did get.”
The Brazilian government invited a select group of foreign journalists to Brazil last month to take a sneak peek at preparations in the World and Confederations Cup cities. They have a slightly different perspective from me in that they are more concerned largely with the logistics of covering the tournament.
But it’s still interesting to hear their thoughts.
Here’s Mike Collet, Football editor at Reuters, and Brian Homewood, the former South American sports writer, talking to the UK Football Writers’ Association on how they see covering Brazil in 2014. (See link to page.)
SUNSHINE…SAMBA…BUT BRAZIL 2014 WILL NOT BE EASY
BRAZIL. A country that conjures up images of sunshine, fabulous beaches, carnivals, Pele…the most successful nation in World Cup history, so what better place to stage the 2014 World Cup finals?
Mike Collett, the football editor of Reuters and member of the Football Writers’ Association’s national committee, spent two weeks in Brazil checking out the venues and any possible problems. Brian Homewood was Reuters’ South America football editor for 20 years. Footballwriters.co.uk asked them about the good and bad of Brazil 2014.
Mike, in one sentence, what was your verdict?
MC: It will be a fabulous World Cup, but it will not be easy.
What are the biggest problems?
MC: Travel and the language, the travel first. Brazil is a massive country and to travel around it is fraught with difficulty. We were on an organised FIFA/Government/State Travel Agency tour and we still encountered problems at airports.
Which was the worst?
MC: The airport at Belo Horizonte was particularly chaotic where the Departure Gate changed four times in the hour before the flight, causing general mayhem. We were lucky to be in the hands of the Brazilian travel people. Anyone in the airport that day who did not speak Portuguese could have been left stranded. The travel did work and was generally OK, but it is organised chaos and very stressful. We took nine flights in just over 10 days and every single seat on every plane was taken.
Can’t you drive between the host cities?
BH : Only a very few journeys are drivable. Rio de Janeiro-Sao Paulo is about five hours, other trips of a similar distance would be Sao Paulo-Curitiba, Belo Horizonte-Rio and Recife-Natal. Forget anything else, notably Sao Paulo-Cuiaba which is 24 hours, Rio-Recife which is 60 hours and especially Porto Alegre-Manaus which is 72 hours by coach to Belem and four days on a boat Belem-Manaus.
On the shorter journeys, what are the coaches like?
BH: The buses are quite comfortable, by that I mean no chickens or pigs inside, but there is a small risk of hi-jacking. The usual trick is for a couple of crooks to get on posing as passengers and their colleagues to follow in a car. When the bus reaches the outskirts of the city or somewhere remote, it is forced down a side road, the passengers are robbed at gunpoint and are often locked in the baggage hold. There are no long-distance trains in Brazil.
So what is your advice to football writers and supporters?
BH: Travel is best kept to a minimum. The system struggles to cope even with Brazilian holiday periods so I have no idea how they will manage with a World Cup. Flights are long and expensive. Sao Paulo-Manaus is three-and-a-half hours non-stop, Sao Paulo-Recife is three hours. Some venues such as Cuiaba, Goiania and Natal often have only a few flights a day, all on smaller aircraft so I don’t know what they will do if they suddenly have 10,000 Dutch fans wanting to go travel.
What about flying to Brazil initially?
BH: Where possible, it is best to fly direct to your Brazilian destination rather than going via Rio or Sao Paulo and taking a domestic flight. TAP is the only airline which flies from Europe direct to Brasilia, Belo Horizonte, Fortaleza, Salvador and Recife as far as I know, via Lisbon obviously. I think you can fly to some of these places via Miami although that means facing Homeland Security.
How did you get to Brazil, Mike?
MC: I flew from London to Brazil via Miami. The flight times were only two hours apart and this led to huge problems and loss of luggage for three days. Copa flies from Panama City direct to Manaus, Brasilia and Recife which may be a good alternative. They have a code-sharing agreement with KLM which flies to Panama from Amsterdam. Panama City airport is a much better place to change planes than Miami. It’s small, well-organised and you don’t have to go through immigration or collect luggage.
Football writers often do two jobs in a day, such as a press conference and then a match. Will this be a problem?
MC: I think one factor we must minimise for reporters is stress. It can take hours sitting in traffic to reach anywhere in the cities. In terms of a working day at the World Cup, I think it will be impossible for a reporter to do anything other than cover one thing on match day – the match. In my view, it will not be possible for a reporter to, say, cover a press conference in one part of town, and the match in another on the same day.
You said the language will be a problem, Mike. Without being a little Englander, English is the official language of FIFA…
MC: I would advise everyone going to the World Cup to start taking lessons in Brazilian Portuguese. Seriously. If you are out and about, you cannot rely on getting by with just English in your linguistic arsenal. Even when we were in Fortaleza, a Spanish colleague on the tour had some troubles making himself understood. Very few taxi drivers speak English, and generally very few other people do either. Often there is no other lingua franca, as we say in Aldgate.
What about hotels?
MC: The language issue leads me to the hotel situation. We were staying in very good four star hotels near the centres of town and language was again an issue. I stayed in eight hotels in 10 days or so and some common links were obvious. Of course, front desk staff spoke English, but often not that well, and certainly, if any complicated issue arose as it did with a loss of someone’s luggage at one point, the staff had to liaise with our guides to sort out the problem. The hotels where we stayed were fine, two or three were on the beachfront, they did feel safe and secure and this is the priority. But check-ins and check-outs at every hotel seemed to be based on some ancient unworkable greater Brazilian hotel mastercomputer and took forever.
What advice for journalists and supporters about hotels?
I am sure if you are travelling with an organised Football Association or BAC tour you won’t have problems. If you are making any individual or independent plans, do not scrimp pennies on staying in out of the way places that are off the beaten track without WiFi and internet. It will be totally counter-productive and reporters/photographers/engineers/techies will simply not be able to function properly.
Brian, you know Brazil very well, what advice do you have?
BH: A big warning: many websites include hotels which are often in very dodgy areas, especially in Rio de Janeiro. For example, the Sheraton in Rio is opposite a huge favela (shanty town). Locations should be checked very carefully by whoever gets lumbered with this job. City centre hotels should be avoided in Brazil as most city centres are deserted at night and weekends, making them a mugger’s paradise. The best hotels and restaurants tend to be concentrated in outlying, upmarket neighbourhoods. In Rio, these are Flamengo, Copacabana, Ipanema, Leblon and Barra.
Barra’s nice, isn’t it?
BH: Barra is the home of the new rich and has sprung up in the last 30 years. Brazilians think it’s like Miami, perhaps unaware than Miami doesn’t have open sewers all over the place. You can’t really walk around it.
And the better places elsewhere?
BH: In Sao Paulo it’s Itaim and Jardins. In the cases of Recife, Salvador, Natal and Fortaleza, the best hotels are on the beachfront. In motels, rooms are rented by the hour and are often on the main highways into cities, surrounded by shanty towns. Probably don’t need to say any more.
What about car hire?
MC: The Agencies delegates on the tour had a meeting with FIFA and Embratour, the Brazilian State travel agency, who strongly recommended, where possible, for companies to hire cars with drivers. Driving in a Brazilian city such as Sao Paulo or even Salvador is not just like tootling down the High Street to buy a packet of biscuits at Londis. Much of the driving I saw was bonkers, even by London standards.
So a Brazilian SatNav should be on the wish-list?
BH: Not necessarily. It’s very easy to take a wrong turning and end up in a dangerous favela. Car-jackings are a threat on motorways in most cities. It’s inadvisable to stop at red lights in deserted areas in cities at night. GPS systems also happily take you to favelas. Road rage is rampant and traffic disputes are often settled with the use of a gun or knife. Radio taxis are far safer than taxis hailed in the street if you don’t speak the lingo.
We heard horror stories about crime and law and order before South Africa 2010 plus Euro 2012 in Poland and Ukraine. Both tournaments were completed with very few problems in this respect. Will it be a similar story in Brazil?
BH: The thing about crime is, it can be very variable. Rio has become much safer and a lot of what is written about bus hold-ups and the dangers of withdrawing cash from ATM machines may no longer apply. When I was there in November, people were talking about the improvements and were also wondering where all the crooks had been sent as you simply don’t see them any longer. On the other hand, Sao Paulo seems really nasty at the moment. Policing is the responsibility of the state governments, not the federal government or municipalities, and safety varies wildly depending on who is in power. If Rio were to elect a new governor with different policies next time around, it could deteriorate again very quickly.
How are the stadiums coming along?
MC: We saw six stadiums on our tour at Rio, Fortaleza, Salvador, Recife, Brasilia and Belo Horizonte and while all were in various states of readiness, the press areas and planned press areas seemed to be first class. They were very spacious and when they are kitted out, they will meet the highest international standards. The press boxes all seemed a little high, but roomy and will also have, FIFA assured us, free WiFi/internet.
The Confederations Cup, which Brazil are hosting this summer, will be an interesting dry run…
MC: The warm-up tournament is being treated very seriously by everyone. FIFA are continually monitoring the stadium building to ensure everything is ready by March for the Confederations Cup in June. While the LOC’s [local organising committees] say everything will be ready, I have my doubts about Rio and Brasilia. However, the Confed Cup can serve as an excellent precursor for us as well and, granted, it is not the most important tournament in world soccer, it is very important for us as a logistical run-through.
Almost a year ago I write a piece for Time magazine about how poor construction and Rio’s lack of oversight may have contributed to the tragic collapse of a building in the old centre that killed several people.
Mayor Eduardo Paes sarcastically attacked me for suggesting such things and local newspaper O Globo defended the city against outside criticism. (See my blog here.)
Well, today O Globo has a front page story about how the city’s buses can’t use the brand new bus lanes built for the Olympics because they are falling apart. (See O Globo’s picture below. Link to the story is here, in Portuguese.)
The BRT bus lanes were completed in the middle of last year and are one of Rio’s main public transport projects ahead of the 2016 Olympics.
Experts quoted in the story blame poor construction for the potholes and said it was probably done cheaply to save money, even though the costs of maintenance are much higher once completed.
It’s infuriating, not to say scandalous, that public money is so repeatedly wasted in this way.
As I wrote in the Christian Science Monitor last year, there is
“ongoing concern about construction and infrastructure in South America’s biggest nation – and the world’s sixth-biggest economy. Even at the highest levels, Brazil’s infrastructure projects are routinely late, poorly built or over budget, or all three.”
With the World Cup just 17 months away and host cities rushing to get stadiums and infrastructure projects completed those warnings are more and more salient.
Brazil won the right to host the 2014 World Cup five years ago yesterday.
Since that decision was made, Brazil’s politicians have repeatedly assured us the tournament would be organised efficiently, transparently and with a minimum of cost to the taxpayer.
“The event will have total transparency,” said President Lula. “We are going to put on an unforgettable World Cup. That’s the commitment. You can hold us to it.”
“Public money isn’t going to be used for the World Cup,” said Ricardo Teixeira, the former head of the CBF.
“There won’t be one cent of public money used to build stadiums,” said then Sports Minister Orlando Silva.
We can now see that none of it was true.
- The vast majority of the money being used is taxpayer’s money.
- Transport projects, the ones that would lave the biggest legacy for Brazilians, and especially the less well off, are being scaled back.
- At least four of the 12 stadiums are destined to be white elephants, according to the government’s own Accounting Court.
- The main beneficiaries so far are construction companies, who not coincidentally are among the biggest contributors to Brazil’s politicians.
The piece focuses on the promised transparency and how authorities have failed to provide reliable, up-to-date, and clear information on spending.
Gil Castello Branco, the secretary general of Contas Abertas, a non-profit group that monitors public expenditures, summed it up thus:
Officials boasted that tracking spending would be “so easy that any citizen could sit on his sofa and see where the money was being spent.”
“But it doesn’t matter if you’re on the sofa, in the kitchen, or at the office, no one knows how much this is costing,” he added.
“The information we get is incomplete, contradictory and late. And frequently misleading.”
So, Lula, Teixeira, Orlando Silva. We’re holding you to that commitment. What now?