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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.)

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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.

I can’t think of a company that has so comprehensively betrayed its starting ethos as Gol Airlines.

Before starting Gol in 2001, Constantino de Oliveira Jr. visited low cost, low fare airlines around the world to see how they worked.

He then came home to Brazil and set up a similar model by, he told me in 2005, “taking a bit of Southwest, a bit of Ryanair, a bit of JetBlue, and Easyjet and tropicalizing them for the Brazilian market.”

De Oliveira Jr.’s preparation paid off handsomely.  Gol took on established carriers Varig and Tam and won. Varig went bankrupt – in part because of the cheap competition provided by Gol – and Tam is now neck and neck in market share with the erstwhile upstart.

But Gol, rather than continue with its progressive policy, betrayed itself and its customers by becoming the new Varig. As soon as it could, it hiked fares and abandoned any pretensions to offering customers a cheap and quality alternative to the so-called legacy carriers.

Online right now, it is selling flights from Rio de Janeiro to Sao Paulo for a minimum of 727 reais, one way. (Prices are for tomorrow’s flights.)

That is more than twice the cheapest flight available tomorrow from Edinburgh to London on British Airways (which is incidentally a shorter distance).

Gol last year bought Webjet, a startup low cost, low fare airline, and took over some of its routes.

Now we find out it is charging three times what Webjet charged for the same trips (see more in this Portuguese language story from today’s Folha de S. Paulo).

Gol’s aim is clearly to wipe out any such carriers so it can continue with its price gauging. Its resposne to the Folha story was that it is not breaking any laws.

Maybe not, but de Oliveira Jr. (who, by the way, heads one of the poorest press operations I’ve ever come across) should be ashamed.

Here’s a great example of how breaking news can change the whole focus of a story.

This piece in the Christian Science Monitor about the collapse of three buildings in Rio de Janeiro was supposed to be about Brazil’s housing deficit and the shoddy workmanship that left residents of new houses with damp walls, cracked floor tiles and unpaved roads. All just months after they moved in to their new homes.

Earlier this month I went to Ribeirão Preto and Franca in rural São Paulo state to talk to residents who were justly aggrieved at the construction company’s refusal to make their houses more liveable.

To quote Raquel Rolnik, a well-known architect who studies the issue.

“In terms of construction and design, the logic is one of ‘do it as cheaply as possible’ so the quality is always questionable. They think it is for the poor so it doesn’t have to be decent. The consequences for the people who live there are terrible.”

In reporting this story, I had made a passing reference to poor practices in the construction industry, writing:

Even at the highest levels, Brazil’s infrastructure projects are routinely late, poorly built, or over budget, or all three.

Stadiums for the World Cup were slow to get started and public transport, particularly airports, are so behind schedule that even soccer stars turned politicians like Pele and Romario are predicting chaos.

New metro lines open only during off peak hours because they not prepared to take the strain, craters appear in new motorways within weeks of the ribbon being cut and cracks run down the walls of brand new, multi-million dollar buildings just days after they are inaugurated.

But now, the Rio de Janeiro disaster is the news and the Monitor used that to start off a broader piece about construction, infrastructure projects, and Brazil’s preparedness to host the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics.

(Here is a link to pics of the disaster.)

My reporting from Franca and Ribeirão Preto got pushed further down the story.

That is unfortunate, as I wanted those stories to be heard loud and clear.

But there’s no holding back the news.

Cover of Monte Reel's book

I just finished reading “The Last of the Tribe,” Monte Reel’s fantastic book about the lone member of an indian tribe struggling to avoid encroaching white settlers in the western Amazon.

The book reads like a mystery, a travelogue and a short history of Brazil’s chequered indigenous ‘conquests’ all rolled into one.

It tells the story of how Funai, the country’s National Indigenous Foundation, tried to contact the man when they thought he was in danger. The group believed the indian – known as the Indian of the Hole because of the mysterious holes he dug inside his jungle huts – belonged to a larger tribe who were killed off by invaders.

It’s a great and easy read and packed not just with anecdotes about isolated indians and jungle life, but also about the constant conflict between the indigenous natives and the Brazilians of European descent who quite frankly think they’re savages who are holding the country back.

I’d thoroughly recommend it to anyone who is interested in knowing more about Brazil’s isolated indians.

Speaking of which, Peruvian cocaine traffickers seeking to carve new routes into Brazil through land set aside for an isolated tribe called the Xinane recently forced Funai explorers from their jungle base. (As I write about here today in the Christian Science Monitor.)

The traffickers ransacked the base and Brazilian federal police were flown in to retake control.

But there’s still no sign of the indians. The hope is that they sought refuge deeper into the forest, and that they weren’t killed. But right now there’s no knowing.

São Paulo’s city council has just voted to make the third Sunday in December “Heterosexual Pride Day.”

I ask you, don’t these people have better things to do with their time?

It’s not as if the city doesn’t have more pressing issues to deal with. As I note in my Christian Science Monitor piece:

The biggest metropolis in the southern hemisphere with more than 20 million people, São Paulo suffers from chronic air and noise pollution, has some of the world’s most notorious traffic jams, and is “home” to thousands of street people who roam the often freezing city center.

It has inadequate rail, metro, and road links; faces devastating floods each year due to the lack of investment in infrastructure; and is in danger of missing out on the 2014 World Cupbecause its preparations are so far behind schedule.

Oh, and 260 gays, transvestites and lesbians were killed last year in Brazil, 23 of them in São Paulo. That’s more than twice the number killed in 2007.

No one has yet been killed for being straight.

Rio de Janeiro knows it must modernise and prepare for the Olympics in 2016.

It has started well but it’s a mammoth task. Politicians abandoned the city for decades and there was very little investment in infrastructure.

A perfect example is the city’s sewer system. Not only can it not cope with the heavy rains that fall each year, the electric cables running underground are now causing manhole covers to blow out.

 

The idea of a city beseiged by flying bits of metal sounds comical but it is a serious issue. More than 60 have exploded since last year, and many people have been hurt, by shattered glass, blasts of fire or hot air, and by the flying iron saucers themselves.

Here’s the start of my piece in the Christian Science Monitor:

Another day in Rio de Janeiro. Another manhole cover exploding into the sky, flattening cars, breaking windows, sending people scampering for safety.

Yes, while Rio de Janeiro is a city that instinctively draws people to gaze into the distance at the beach, the statue of Christ on Corcovad hill, and the curves of Sugarloaf mountain, it is also now a city where people glance to the ground, suspiciously eyeing those heavy iron manhole covers, wondering if that one there in front of them might be the next one to blow.

The Paraty Literary Festival gets going today and is expected to bring tens of thousands of visitors from all over Brazil to the tiny colonial port town halfway between Rio and São Paulo.

In the eight short years since it began, Flip, as it is universally known, has established itself as one of the best book festivals in the world, as I reported here in the Christian Science Monitor in 2004.

I went to Flip for the first four years because it was a place where literate and like-minded people could get together and take a break from the more hedonistic and shallow culture of Rio de Janeiro, where I lived.

I had some great times, interviewing Salman Rushdie, Chico Buarque and Margaret Atwood, and attending the open discussions with literary heavyweights like Ian McEwan and Gay Talese.

Flip back then was so small and intimate that the authors felt at ease out on the streets. I remember bumping into Christopher Hitchens in a cyber café and chatting to Hanif Kureshi, who was seated next to me at a bar.

It’s all changed now. Flip has, for me at least, become a victim of its own so success.

The phenomenal ability of organizer Liz Calder to attract big names during those first few years, when Flip was a veritable Who’s Who of contemporary writers, has inevitably meant that the quality of attendees today is not as high.

Pousadas triple their prices and the streets are filled with tourists out for a weekend away (and hopefully get their picture taken with someone famous) rather than people who are truly interested in books.

As I pointed out in my Monitor piece:

“(Brazil) is a country in which almost half of (all) adults own fewer than 10 books, according to the Brazilian Chamber of Books. Outside the private parties and book launches, literate environments are hard to come by in a country where soccer stars and musicians are much more revered than wordsmiths. Although Brazil boasts the world’s eighth-largest publishing industry, the market is limited because 38 percent of Brazilians are functionally illiterate and many of those who can read cannot afford to spend on a book what it costs to feed a family for week.”

I wish Flip continued success and a great time for anyone heading down to the coast this weekend.

Among those starring in this year’s festival are James Ellroy, David Byrne, and Péter Esterházy.

More details here at the official Flip web site.

Hacking has been in the news recently, with hackers, or crackers, as they supposedly call themselves, taking down a number of Brazilian sites last week, including many run by the federal government.

(See my blog in today’s Christian Science Monitor.)

Adding an extra spice to the issue was a report in yesterday’s Folha de S. Paulo newspaper saying a 21-year old hacker accessed hundreds of Dilma Rousseff’s emails while she was campaigning to become president.

That led the country’s Science and Technology Minister to try and co-opt Brazilian hackers.

Aloizio Mercadante called on hackers to join his ministry’s programmers today and help them solve internal bugs. He dubbed July 1 Hackers Day.

Nice try. But it ain’t going to work.

If Mercadante really wants to get a message across (and this goes for government and private enterprise alike) he could start by concentrating on the basics.

His ministry’s own site didn’t mention his much reported call to hackers.

I just wrote a piece in the Christian Science Monitor about who Brazil, and the developed world, would like to see as the new head of the International Monetary Fund.

My main interview was with Oliver Stuenkel, an assistant professor in International Affairs at the Fundação Getúlio Vargas, a leading Brazilian business school (visit his blog here).

The piece was short and there wasn’t a lot of space for analysis but Stuenkel’s points were so interesting that I’m going to reproduce a few more of them here.

Stuenkel, who is half German and half American but lives in Brazil, made two main observations. One was that while the emerging nations talk a lot about a new world order there are still national rivalries at play and those rivalries, along with a lack of organisation, is a hinderance to any consensus candidate from the developing world.

“There is a lot of tension between the BRICs and it is an illusion to say they can get together and pick a candidate amongst themselves as they are rivals. This episode shows the limitations of the alliance that Brazil is seeking to develop with India and China in the emerging world. It would have been a beautiful moment to say this is our BRIC candidate.”

When asked why Brazil hasn’t thrown its weight behind Mexican candidate Augustín Carstens, Stuenkel said:

“Mexico is a potential rival. (Brazil) is thinking, Mexico didn’t support us when we wanted to get a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. There is national interest and at the same time let’s make the world order more democratic. The whole emerging power rhetoric crumbles when push comes to shove.”

Stuenkel also pointed out that their inability to produce a convincing name puts pressure on the emerging powers to come up with a consensus candidate when the World Bank elects a new head next year.

“The emerging powers are going to scramble like crazy to get a non-American head for the World Bank. They need to get their act together because the established powers are a lot better organised. The task for the emerging powers is to agree on a candidate for next year.”

Sometimes it is hard to believe that Brazil really wants to advance.

I’ve written a lot, and repeatedly lauded, the economic progress and the reduction of inequality that marked the Lula years, such as in this Time piece and in this feature for the KPMG magazine.

But then I see reports like this one in today’s Folha and wonder whether Brazil’s development will remain purely financial.

The report is about how drink driving is still an serious issue on federal motorways because loopholes allow establishments, including service stations, to sell alcohol at the side of the road.

The story says that 93 percent of the shops alongside federal highways are in urban (or municipal) areas and so exempt from the federal legislation.

The idea that you can seriously hope to reduce road accidents while allowing establishments to sell alcohol at petrol stations beggars belief.

I wrote about the government’s well-intentioned but somewhat half-hearted attempt to tighten laws on alcohol sales in this Christian Science Monitor piece in 2008.

The Health Minister at the time said that alcohol is a factor in more than half of all accidents on federal highways. Alcohol-related accidents cost the country more than $6 billion dollars a year in lost production, car damage, and health costs, the ministry said.

In my story, I noted:

“Supporters of the ban note that 62 lawmakers, or 1 in 10, had their election campaigns financed by makers of beer, wine, or cachaça (a distilled alcoholic beverage made from sugar cane), according to the Congresso em Foco website.”

The sad and outrageous fact here is when the law was proposed several associations, such as the Brazilian Association of Bars and Restaurants, went to court in order to maintain the right sell alcohol to drivers.

Two big retail store chains, Walmart and Carrefour, won injunctions against the ban. The ban passed but in this watered-down state.

The idea of putting a common good before profit is still rare in Brazil and as companies exercise more and more power and the government fails to support regulatory agencies that shows no signs of changing.

The actions of those two multi-billion dollar firms, as well as of the local associations, would be scandalous if it weren’t so tragic.

They put making money ahead of saving lives.

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