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Celebrities, either through talent or opportunity or luck, or a mixture of all three, live charmed lives doing what they love and getting paid huge sums of money for it.

Dira Paes, drink driver

Society fawns over them and many people, especially the young, look up to them as idols.

Brazilian soap opera actress Dira Paes (right) is one of them. Romario is another. Mano Menezes, the manager of Brazil, is another. Actress Carolina Ferraz is another. Singer Djavan is another. Former Flamengo and Inter Milan player Adriano is another. And there are plenty more.

What do they all have in common apart from the fact they are very rich and hugely admired? They all refused to take breathalyser tests when stopped by police.

Paes was the latest and like most of these jokers she swore she wasn’t drunk. She complained that Brazil has a zero tolerance for people who drink and drive.

More than 40,000 people died in traffic accidents in Brazil last year. Between 40 percent and 75 percent of those deaths are alcohol related.

Are those statistics not clear enough?

Is it too much to ask that cosseted celebrities like Paes and Menezes and Adriano set an example?

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At least 28 of the 47 shopping centres in Sao Paulo are operating illegally because they do not have the proper permits to function, according to an investigation published on the front page of the Folha de S. Paulo newspaper today.

Some were built where or when they shouldn’t have been by construction companies, others did not get the proper documentation and permissions before opening and others don’t have the required number of parking spaces.

This news comes just days after it was revealed there are 45 obstacles along the flight path to Sao Paulo’s Congonhas airport, one of the busiest in Brazil. The obstacles range from buildings that are too high, to trees, to a hospital and – surprise, surprise – two shopping centres.

The point here is this: If we can’t rely on the state or the city to enforce laws designed to protect us – and in the case of the airport save lives – then who can we rely on? Why were these buildings allowed to be built?

And now that we know they are illegal why haven’t they been closed down?

I wrote this story in Time magazine in February about a building in Rio that collapsed, killing several people inside. It was reported that authorities had looked the other way while granting building or work permits on the building and I said this in my story, prompting Mayor Eduardo Paes to publicly criticize me (as I reported in this post).

There’s a clear connection between not following the proper building procedures and tragedies like the one in Rio.

Don’t people who pay bribes and the officials who take them or overlook the law get that?

 

 

It’s been 17 years, almost to the day, since I last wrote for Reuters.

When I left Port-au-Prince in February 1995 to go to Mexico City I cut my ties with the news agency and moved on.

Today I saw my name under the Reuters logo again, this time from Brazil. I will be writing about sports, and particularly football, in the months and I hope years to come.

My first piece today was about Ricardo Teixeira, a man I’ve written about many times before. The lead promises more news on the CBF president very soon.

The president of the Brazilian Football Confederation and the man charged with organising the 2014 World Cup was reportedly close to resigning on Wednesday after a local newspaper implicated him in another corruption scandal.

Ricardo Teixeira, who has headed the CBF for 22 years, could step down as early as Thursday, O Globo newspaper reported.

The news came on the day another newspaper, Folha de S.Paulo, reported that a company linked to the football boss overcharged the organisers of a November 2008 friendly match between Brazil and Portugal in Brazil’s capital, Brasilia.

For more on Ricardo Teixeira see this earlier post.

 

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.

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.

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.

One of the biggest differences between working in Mexico and Brazil has come in my relationship with local journalists.

In Mexico, I had very little contact with the reporters at Mexican papers and they were universally unhelpful when I sought them out to ask for contacts. So I was very pleasantly surprised when I got to Brazil and local reporters opened their contact books for me.

One of my first stories involved tracking down a Brazilian political campaign manager. I had no idea where to find him and so called Folha de S. Paulo. The reporter there, whom I didn’t know, couldn’t have been more helpful. He even gave me the subject’s home and mobile numbers.

For that reason I always try and help out local reporters when they need a quote or a photo of a foreign correspondent.

It happens quite often and has become more and more frequent recently, I think because I am in São Paulo, which is more cosmopolitan than Rio. (I was rarely asked to help out by O Globo.)

Last last year, I was featured in Folha’s Sunday magazine along with three colleagues from the foreign press corps (where we mostly complained about how expensive Sao Paulo is).

But my most recent experience was with January’s Gol inflight magazine. The magazine interviewed five foreigners living in SP and asked them what they most like doing in the city (click on the pdf above right to see the entire page).

The Gol reporter vetoed three of my suggestions of cycling, visiting cemeteries, and going to farmers’ markets and instead choose more mainstream ideas such as browsing English-language books at the Livraria da Cultura and visiting the dive bars of rua Augusta.

I’m not a huge fan of seeing my picture in the paper. But I learnt my lesson early. It’s not fair to ask local reporters for help if you won’t help them.

I finally got around to doing a press freedom’s story today that I’ve been meaning to do for a while.

The story can be found here on the Financial Times Beyond Brics blog and is about the Folha de S. Paulo’s lawsuit against two brothers who spoofed it on a web site called Falha de S. Paulo.

Falha means failure in Portuguese and the site attacked Folha for what it believes is the paper’s bias against the Workers’ Party.

I personally don’t think that the Folha is Tucano (that is, supports the opposition PSDB party). I think the paper is against more or less critical of everything and I love it for that.

Brazilian leftists, however, think that to criticise something is to be against something.

I’ve had more than a few frustrating moments in Brazil when locals have accused me of being a right-wing conservative because I’ve criticised Lula or his government.

They are unable to grasp the fact that I might be criticising, say, corruption or the lack of an education policy because I think corruption or the lack of an education policy is not a good thing.

The Falha web site wasn’t brilliant but in a free society people should be allowed to spoof and satirise within obvious limits of abuse.

More importantly, a newspaper like Folha – a paper that has built its considerable reputation on criticising the powers that be – should recognise that and respect it without recurring to censorship.

Under any terms.


Politician: “I swear I am not responsible for starting that internet smear campaign against my rival!”

Subtitle Man: “…I got my friend to start it!!!”

 

 

 

 

 

I’m a cartoonist!

The cartoon above appeared in today’s Folha de S. Paulo and was drawn by one of Brazil’s top cartoonists Adão Iturrusgarai. (Find an English-language version of his web site here.)

The credit, though, is a joint one for both Adão and myself.

I know Adão well from when we both lived in Rio and we still speak regularly even though he is now based in Uruguay.

The character in the cartoon above is Homem Legenda, or, in a rather literal translation, Subtitle Man. The Homem Legenda says what people are really thinking.

Folha, in a stroke of genius, asked Adão to do a cartoon every day in the run up to the presidential elections and he has used that forum to highlight the difference between what politicians say and what they mean, or at least what people think they mean.

My idea for this came from several sources. I remember the damaging Swift Boat campaign against John Kerry in 200x. The Republicans denied responsibility but it was later revealed that a group with links to the party had made the ad.

I’ve also been watching the final series of the West Wing, where similar themes play out.

And of course, it is particularly relevant in the Brazilian context because of the recent smear campaign against Dilma Rousseff. Religious groups accused Dilma of wanting to legalise abortion as late as the ninth month of pregnancy, as well as permit gay marriage and marijuana use.

All that gave me the idea for this cartoon and Adão drew it up and graciously gave me a joint credit.

Here’s Adão talking about how the Homem Legenda came about.

The Brazilian government is monitoring the foreign press and other institutions to see what they are saying about Brazil, according to this story on Folha.com.

Not surprisingly to me, the results show that there are more positive stories about Brazil than negative ones.

It’s fascinating to note that Brazilians, however, tend to think otherwise.

I’ve lost count of the number of people who’ve asked me (sometimes half jokingly) if I as a foreign correspondent am one of the people responsible for Brazil’s poor image overseas.

They have no idea that the Brazil’s image overseas is largely positive. When people think of Brazil they think of happy things, like beaches and football and carnival. Stereotypes, perhaps, but positive ones.

They also, of course, think about those other less agreeable stereotypes of sex and violence.

When someone in Britain, say, or Spain, or the US, is asked, What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Brazil? they mention football because Brazil have historically had the world’s best players, or they mention sex because there are so many Brazilian prostitutes working in Europe.  They mention beaches because Brazil has more than 5000km of coastline and they mention violence because Brazil has one of the highest homicide rates in the world. Stereotypes become stereotypes for a good reason.

What I really don’t get about this venture is why Brazilians care.

It’s emblematic of the country’s lack of confidence. But I think they should be less interested in worrying what people think about them and more interested in resolving the country’s problems.

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