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On the same day the United States Senate reported on the horrific deeds performed by its agents – torture and rape first on a scandalous list – a Brazilian deputy stood up in Congress and gave a speech.

Jair Bolsonaro is a popular right-wing demagogue who wants a return to the days of Brazil’s military dictatorship.

Wednesday is World Human Rights Day but Bolsonaro doesn’t think much of human rights, or any other rights for that matter. He had a message for the country’s Human Rights Secretary, Maria de Rosario.

“I said I wouldn’t even rape you,” he said in reference to comments he said he made a few days ago, “because you don’t deserve it.”

No one can argue that Bolsonaro’s words came a surprise. He said exactly the same thing in 2003. “I won’t rape you because you don’t deserve to be raped,” he told her in the hallways of Brazil’s Congress, before pushing her away from him when she complained.

Members of Congress have parliamentary immunity in Brazil and can say what they like without fear of prosecution. Bolsonaro has already said his kids grew up in an educated family and so have no chance of being gay or of dating blacks.

He is a hateful man who perhaps more than any other person exemplifies the backward side of Brazil that is still a huge and tragically worrying presence in this great nation.

Brazil’s problem however, is not just people like Bolsonaro. It’s the macho culture where such comments are laughed off. It’s the political system that turns a blind eye to such vicious attacks.

Most of all it’s that not enough ordinary people care. His comments will cause little more than a ripple outside the chattering classes.

The only way Brazil will rid itself of misogynist, homophobic and racist figures like Bolsonaro is by isolating them and ridiculing them. For future generations, only education will work, but that’s too late for the 59-year old Bolsonaro.

Frighteningly, it is already too late for many of the country’s voters.

In October, Jair Bolsonaro was reelected to a sixth successive term in Rio de Janeiro. He got 464,572 votes, more than 100,000 more than any other Congressional candidate in the state.

7WWHiJ1u_400x400In all the years I’ve been reporting from Brazil there is one subject I regularly tried to avoid writing about.

That subject is politics and the reason is simple: Who gets elected president in Brazil doesn’t matter that much and for that reason Brazilian politics is rarely interesting to outsiders.

Brazil is the world’s seventh biggest economy but it is relatively unimportant when it comes to geo-political matters. No one in Beijing or Washington or Berlin believes their world will change – much less THE world – if Aecio beats Dilma or vice versa. Brazil is more important than outsiders think, but less important that Brazilians want to believe.

There are a lot more journalists and wannabes in Brazil now than there were 12 years ago and that means there is a lot more coverage and a lot more bias.

In addition, elections can be interesting because of the personalities involved and this ballot provoked an unusual amount of interest because of Eduardo Campos’ tragic death, the rise and fall of Marina Silva, and the last-minute comeback by Aecio Neves.

But like most of the elections this century, it doesn’t really matter who wins because both candidates have remarkably similar policies. They both promise continuity, albeit with very different styles. (This BBC guide explains how little difference there really is between the two parties.)

The economy will keep stuttering along – faster if Aecio wins, slower if Dilma does – and inequality will continue to fall – faster if Dilma wins, slower if Aecio does. Public security is largely a state issue, and the big changes necessary in education have to come at state and municipal level. Neither candidate can hope to end endemic corruption and although foreign policy might change slightly who really cares?

The key issues facing Brazil – a modernisation of the justice, health and education systems, along with lower taxes, less corruption, a much-needed reduction in violence and a massive increase in infrastructure spending – are the same ones as one or even two generations ago.

Those changes are not going to happen under the current dysfunctional system in which 28 parties in Congress force laborious negotiations on every little issue.

What Brazil needs is a bold overhaul of its political system and more public participation.

And there’s nothing that a new president can do about that.

dilma4Brazilians voted for a new president on Sunday night, with Dilma Rousseff coming out top in the first round ahead of Aecio Neves and Marina Silva.

Dilma took 42 % and will face Aecio, who got 34 %, in a run off on Oct. 26. (See all results here.)

It was a depressing moment for me, with voters opting for Dilma, in spite of the fact that during her administration the economy has slowed, she’s done nothing to make Brazil more open or more attractive to the outside world, and the incredible changes brought about by her predecessor have slowed noticeably.

Not that voters had much option. Aecio is distant and relatively unknown outside his heartlands of Minas and Rio and he heads a party that has been stagnant for years in terms of leadership and ideas.

Marina was a change candidate, but is riven with contradictions and allows religion to play way too much of a role in her political life.

Most disappointing of all was the fact that the June 2013 protests, where millions took to the streets to demand lower bus fares, better public services and less corruption, were, as I’ve been saying for a year, nothing more than a few days of fun and frolics.

Those demands were forgotten completely and Brazilians were happy to elect the same old tired, questionable, right-wing, anti-progressive candidates who oppose abortion, gay marriage, police reform and other basic issues that are absolutely necessary if Brazil is to become a modern society.

As the results came in, I riffed on twitter with the following 10 unbelievable things I was seeing.

1 – SP reelect Geraldo Alckmin resoundingly after brutal police crack downs and as drought approaches.

2 – Failed mayor Cesar Maia comes second in Rio Senate election.

3 – Rio put Crivella in gubernatorial run off against Pezao. The candidates were bad, but Crivella!?

4 – 41 % of Brazilians still vote for Dilma as growth falls, inflation rises and there’s absolutely no sign things will change in new term.

5 – A third of Brazilians see the PSDB – a party that has gone 8 years with no new leaders and no new ideas – as a viable alternative.

6 – It is frightening that in a major 21st century democracy all of the leading candidates are anti-abortion.

7 – A woman who consults God before making policy decisions may help decide who is Brazil’s next president. Now, that’s worrying.

8 – SP is one of Brazil’s most educated states. The 3 most voted deputies are a former TV salesman, a clown and an outspoken anti-gay pastor.

9 – Many people thought the June protests were a harbinger of a new Brazil. They were nothing more than a big fight/party over bus fares.

10 – And the most unbelievable thing to me about Brazilian elections is…..People take religious leaders seriously.

Bonus 11 – Rio de Janeiro, the “coolest” state, voted as No.1 deputy Jairo Bolsonaro, an unapologetic, right-wing, anti-gay misanthrope. Sigh

My twitter: @adowniebrazil

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.

The Economist Brazil covers from 2009 and 2013

The Economist Brazil covers from 2009 and 2013

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.

A Brazilian Congressman was found guilty of embezzlement and organized crime earlier this year and sentenced to 13 years in jail, thus becoming the first parliamentarian in almost three decades to be imprisoned while holding elected office.

Last night, his colleagues in the Chamber of Deputies voted that Natan Donadon should not lose his parliamentary perks.

Brazil’s hated political class could not have sent a clearer message to their citizens.

Your protests against corruption, abuse of power and impunity were a waste of time. Their vote last night said, “We don’t care what you think.” It screamed, “Business as usual.”

The mass protests that shook Brazil in June lasted just a few weeks and only a hard core have continued protesting in the weeks and months since. (I explain some of the reasons here.)

But if Brazilians really want change, then this is the time to act. It is at moments like this they must make their voices heard. They must tell their politicians that such decisions are unacceptable.

Impunity is the grease that oils the wheels of corruption. It is time to take to the streets again and say, once again, Enough is Enough.

Brazil is not a country where people protest. It is not a country of revolutionaries.

As Mauricio Savarese explains in this clear and didactive blog, Brazilians abhor violence and they avoid it all costs. If your cause embraces violence then you’ve lost. The only way to win in Brazil – and that means by getting the larger public behind you – is through peaceful protest and negotiation.

That’s one of the reasons the reaction to last Thursday’s protest and police violence in Sao Paulo are so interesting.

Lots of people are asking whether this wave of protests can really be over a 20 centavo rise in bus fares. (20 centavos is about 10 cents or 7 pence.)

Phillip Vianna in this CNN blog says “it is the uprising of the most intellectualized portion of society.” Marcelo Rubens Paiva in today’s Estado de Sao Paulo says the protests are “a collective revolt against the state that treats individuals as a nuisance, the enemy.” And the RioReal blog suggests that “the twenty centavos could represent a tipping point in Rio’s general panorama, as citizens wake up to authoritarian government and a longtime lack of dialogue.”

I’d love them to be right. Rubens Paiva’s definition of how the state treats its citizens is certainly spot on.

Brazilians pay first world taxes and get third world services in return. Their politicians represent big interests and treat voters with little more than contempt. Corruption is ingrained, a part of the country’s culture and fabric.

No one protests. No one gets angry. Anti-corruption demonstrations rarely unite more than a few thousand people. (Clicking a button on facebook doesn’t count as anger, or protest.)

Brazilians can’t be bothered taking to the streets because they know that unless the protests gain nationwide scope they will be ignored. And they know that won’t happen because most people don’t see the point. It’s a vicious circle. “Why bother demanding change; nothing changes so why bother.”

But there’s an awful lot of wishful thinking going on in some of the analysis. It is way too early to say last week’s protests mark a turning point. They could very easily peter out. If there is more violence then support will erode and the protesters will be marginalised.

Is this the start of something? Are Brazilians waking up? Have they finally decided enough is enough?

I certainly hope so and I do think it is inevitable, sooner or later. As incomes grow, people will start demanding better treatment.

When enough Brazilians can make the trip to Miami and see they can buy a white tshirt in GAP for $8 dollars, rather than pay $30 for the same inferior quality garment in Sao Paulo and Rio they might be shaken into action. Last week’s protests might be the first sign of that.

But I am not convinced that moment has arrived.

A lot will depend on the character of the next week’s protests. If they are hijacked by the same extremists, who often glob onto anything anti- then they will fail. The middle class will take fright and abandon them. And without middle class lending their voice en masse they are doomed.

If they can get lots of people out on the streets, from all sectors of society, and if they can demonstrate peacefully, even in the face of police provocation, then they might be on to something and the optimistic predictions of a paradigm shift might be realised.

Next week is going to be very interesting.

I am not the only one disgusted by the antics of Brazil’s – and not just Brazil’s – politicians. (As I said here last month.)

But sometimes even I am staggered by their disregard for public opinion, basic decency and common sense.

Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies today elected an evangelical pastor as president of its Human Rights and Minorities Commission.

Electing a religious fanatic to such a sensitive position would be bad enough.

But this particular religious fanatic is also a racist and a homophobe. (And here he is in a sinister video browbeating churchgoers into donating money to his Assembleia de Deus church.)

Marco Feliciano not only insulted blacks on his twitter feed last year, he also said that homosexuality led to hate and crime and defended the “curing” of gay people.

Everyone has the right to their opinion, no matter how insane it might be.

But electing a racist and homophone head of the Human Rights and Minorities Commission? It would be funny if it were not so predictably tragic.

The Brazilian Senate just elected Renan Calheiros as its president, thus making him the third highest ranking politician in the country after the president and vice president.

Calheiros resigned this post in 2007 in order to avoid impeachment after he was accused of using money from a lobby group to pay alimony to a former girlfriend and of using false documents while lying about the scandal.

He currently faces fresh charges, with the country’s top prosecutor accusing him of bribery and using false documents to justify illegal payments he was receiving.

The Senate chose to ignore those accusations – and his dubious past – and this afternoon elected him by a margin of 56 votes to 18.

Innocent until proven guilty is a fundamental principle of democratic societies and Calheiros has the right to defend himself and to run for office.

But if they had rejected his bid for the presidency, Senators would have sent out a positive sign that ethics and morals are important factors when choosing those who will lead the nation.

Instead, they gave Brazilians one more reason to loathe their politicians.

When asked to name their most corrupt institutions last year, Brazilians put ‘Political Parties’ and ‘Parliament and Legislature’ together in a tie for first place. (See the full study here, by Transparency International.)

The election of Calheiros is a perfect example of why.

The reformed Maracana stadium in Rio, where the 2014 World Cup final will be held

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.

I’ve written about this in a long Reuters piece that is now online.

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?

If a picture is worth a 1000 words then a whole political biography can be rewritten by the photo on the  left.

Specifically, the biography of Lula and the Workers’ Party.

Their decision to join forces with Paulo Maluf is incomprehensible for a party that was once an oasis of ethics in Brazil’s political desert.

See Folha’s report on the alliance here and Estado de S. Paulo’s piece here. (Both in Portuguese.)

Maluf, the former SP mayor who is the personification of Brazil’s nefarious politics, boasts he has never been convicted of a crime but that is more down to Brazil’s political and judicial system than anything else. He cannot leave the country because he is wanted by Interpol for money laundering and other crimes.

Ask any Brazilian to name a corrupt politician and the chances are they will answer: “Paulo Maluf.”

The PT’s decision to form an alliance with him is the most graphic illustration of how the the party and its leader have give up any pretense to uphold ethics or ideology.

That’s heart-breakingly sad. For decades, the PT boasted that when and if it took power it would do things differently.

It hasn’t. And the alliance with Maluf is a sad confirmation of its demise.

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