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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.

riodejaneiro_aerea_arenamaracana-135768The legendary Maracana stadium was modernised at a cost of more than 1 billion reais and now boasts room for 78,838 fans.

A massive press area was set up for the Confederations Cup and thousands of journalists covered the FIFA-organised final between Spain and Brazil in June

But now that the running of the stadium has been turned over to Rio authorities they are unable to find room to house the few hundred local and international reporters who want to cover the Brazilian Cup Final.

Several foreign correspondents have been refused permission to cover the game. The new Maracana’s press box “isn’t big enough for big matches,” admitted Eraldo Leite, Acerj’s president.

So, the biggest stadium in Rio and the most emblematic of all Brazilian grounds hasn’t built a press box big enough to handle press for big games. That forethought. That’s planning.

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.

The government is spending more than $3 billion on stadiums, some of them obvious white elephants but it hasn’t carried out many of the essential public transportation projects it promised.

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.

Wondering why there's a picture of a caipirinha in a story about Rio's Olympic preparations? Because this is what's on the Rio2016 site. There are no photos of any venues.

Wondering why there’s a picture of a caipirinha in a story about Rio’s Olympic preparations? Because this is what’s on the Rio2016 site. There are no photos of any venues.

The catalyst for my story on 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.

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.”

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’s beaches are in the news today for good and bad reasons.

The Guardian has this slideshow on the country’s top 10 beaches.

But the Huffington Post has a feature on the world’s most dangerous beaches and includes both Rio’s Copacabana and Boa Viagem in Recife on their list. The former because of crime and the latter because of the danger from sharks.

I like Trinidade from the Guardian pick (pictured above) but when I lived in Rio the beach I most liked to go to was Prainha. More for the view from the no frills restaurant overlooking the horseshoe bay than the beach itself. You could sit up there eating fried fish and watching the surfers. Lovely….

Great blog post on The Economist website today about Brazil’s planned $17 billion bullet train.

Brazil has been talking about this for years but plans have yet to get off the drawing board. No one wants to take on the challenge because they don’t think it’s an economically viable project.

The Economist piece takes a while to get to the point, which is this. And I quote:

“Most of Brazil’s roads are unpaved. Some important routes—including some interstate highways—are single-lane and extremely dangerous. Half the population is not connected to the sewage system. There are few (ordinary) commuter or freight rail lines, and they are mostly in very poor condition. Urban mass transport is grossly deficient: São Paulo, a metropolis of nearly 20m souls, has a mere 71km (44 miles) of metro, plus a few overland urban rail lines, which at peak hours are all terrifyingly overcrowded. It is so easy to think of a long list of more worthwhile infrastructure projects in Brazil that it is hard to understand why this one is not dismissed out of hand.”

I’d put it more succinctly:

The plan to spend at least 34 billion reais (and probably much more) on the bullet train is a classic example of Brazil’s delusions of grandeur. Brazil has hardly any rail system and yet wants to build a high speed train link. It has hardly any submarines and yet plans to build a nuclear sub. It has just published plans for its 4G network when its 3G doesn’t work properly.

Brazil should be concentrating on walking before it can run. It has taken laudable steps to reduce inequality but there is so much more to be done to make life liveable for the poorest sectors of society and those should take precedence over Pharaonic projects like a bullet train.

Why is it doing this? Who knows. It wants to be first world. It wants to show off. It wants to show it can. It’s not because it needs it.

So why do it? Not for consumers or passengers. As The Economist suggests, the number of passengers is likely to be half the government’s estimate and prices are likely to be double.

Who benefits? That one’s easier to answer. The same corrupt kleptocrats in the political class and their bosom buddies who run the construction companies.

One of the biggest complaints I hear from ordinary Brazilians is that foreigners associate Brazil with the same old stereotypical images. They blame the foreign press for selling those images abroad.

– Gringos think Brazil is either favelas, beaches or jungle.

– Gringos think all Brazilian women are sex maniacs in tiny bikinis.

– Gringos think everyone here spends their days playing football, dancing samba or lying on the beach.

I hardly need stress that those are grotesque cliches.

But it’s not the foreign press that perpetuate those stereotypes. It’s Brazilians themselves. In fact, Brazil makes a point of selling those images overseas.

The best example of that came in the Olympic closing ceremony, where Brazil was represented, and not unfairly, by a samba-ing bin man and dancing indians. The background was the promenade at Copacabana beach. Pele appeared.

I tweeted this at the time:

Nunca mais quero ouvir Brasileiro reclamando que gringo acha que Brazil ‘e so samba e carnaval e indio…

and got a huge response from Brazilians who seemed to agree.

(The tweet says: “I never again want to hear Brazilians complaining that gringos think Brazil is all about samba and carnival and indians.”)

Further cliches abound in a song released this week to celebrate Rio de Janeiro taking the Olympic mantle from London.

The song is called Os Deuses do Olimpo Visitam o Rio de Janeiro, or The Olympic Gods Visit Rio de Janeiro. It features many of the city’s best known musicians and some of its most famous personalities. (Although curiously, there are no sportsmen or women involved.)

The video is great, with amazing pictures of the city.

The problem is that it’s full of the same old cliches Brazilians say they hate. Samba. Favelas. Beaches. Christ the Redeemer. Football.

They chorus is even that tiresome phrase: Rio de Janeiro continua lindo, or Rio de Janeiro is still beautiful.

The point I want to make here is not that these cliches are untrue. Like all cliches, they have their roots in reality.

The point is that Brazilians can’t have it all ways. You either come up with some new ways to sell the city and the country or you accept that people are going to associate Brazil with samba, beaches, scantily clad dancers and kids playing football in favelas.

Personally, I think the strategy makes total sense. I don’t see the problem with concentrating on your strengths.

Rio’s favelas are iconic. The country’s football players are the best in the world. The beaches are beautiful. Samba and carnival are both spectacular and seductive. Christ and Sugarloaf are unbeatable postcard images. And who doesn’t find Brazilian women charming and attractive?

Enjoy these things, they are what make Brazil so unique.

Just relax and let the world will enjoy them too. And don’t blame me if gringos can’t see past them.

I’ve never been a huge fan of naming things after famous people and certainly not after politicians. (And don’t get me started on naming rights.)

In football, there are so few folks that are above reproach these days that to name a stadium or a stand after a player or a manager is inviting trouble.

Which makes you wonder why the Rio de Janeiro authorities even considered naming their Pan American Games stadium (seen in this picturesque snap below) after João Havelange, the former head of the CBF and FIFA and a member of the International Olympic Committee. All three institutions have long had a reputation of being rotten to the core.

Well, back in 2007 they did and it was appropriate in at least one respect. The João Havelange Olympic Stadium was supposed to cost 30 million reais and ended up costing 380 million. And even then it wasn’t built to high enough standards for FIFA to even consider using it as a venue in the 2014 World Cup.

So far, so FIFA and CBF and IOC.

Now, a week after Swiss prosecutors revealed that Havelange took bribes, there is a small but growing movement to change the stadium’s name.

I wrote about the movement here in this Reuters piece.

Some people want to change the name of the stadium to Nilton Santos, the former Botafogo and Brazil full back, or João Saldanha, the former Brazil manager.

I am against them naming it after someone else for the reasons argued above. You’re always going to find someone opposed, even if there’s no suggestion Nilton Santos or João Saldanha has skeletons in his cupboard.

Most Cariocas already call the stadium the Engenhão, after the neighbourhood where it’s located. Why not just formalise that? The Engenhão stadium sounds good to me. And it avoids any controversy.

Typically, the Rio organising committee hasn’t commented on the affair. But they can’t be happy at the thought of the 2016 Olympic Games being held at a stadium named after a man the world knows is corrupt.

You have to think it’s only a matter of time before they make a subtle change. They’d be wise to do it sooner rather than later.

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