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The United States decided this week to put a black female abolitionist on their new $20 bill, replacing Andrew Jackson, the seventh president who was accused of keeping slaves.

The decision to honour Harriet Tubman got me thinking about Brazil and who we look up to here – or down to, as we flip through bank notes.

Brazil has in the past been much more egalitarian than the US, putting more women and more minorities (including indigenous people) on their notes. Over the years, composers and scientists, novelists and poets have been among those adorning the country’s paper money. (See this great slideshow for more.)

Brazil hasn’t had real people on its bank notes since 1994 when it introduced the real as its seventh currency in 27 years.

The Central Bank didn’t know how long the currency would last and so rather than subject historical figures to a short and ignominious stint in people’s pockets, they put generic Greek God like figures on the 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, 50 and 100 real notes.

The Brazilian currency is robust and shows no signs of going the same way as the cruzado, the cruzado novo, the rei, the conto, the cruzeiro or the cruzeiro real., the currencies that preceded them.

So is it time to start honouring real Brazilians again on bank notes? Maybe now, in the midst of a financial crisis, is not the best time to implement such a costly change. But it’s time to at least begin a debate on the issue.

Off the top of my head, I suggest André Rebouças, Pelé, Ayrton Senna, Joaquim Nabuco, Orlando Villas Boas and Tom Jobim as possible new honorees. Suggestions?






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.

The 1994 World Cup was strange for many reasons. It was the first without Scotland for 20 years. (Seems strange nowadays, but true back then.) And I was living in Haiti. (Which was strange. Period.)

Living in Haiti was always exciting but it was never easy. Normally we got about eight hours of electricity a day, from around midnight to 8am.

For the months leading up to the World Cup they rationed electricity even further. The Haitian military ruled the country and they knew you couldn’t mess with the World Cup. They wanted to make sure all the games would be on live. If they weren’t, they knew all hell could break loose.

hotel-oloffsonIn the weeks and months before the tournament kicked off we got three or four hours of electricity a week, and you never knew when that would be.

I usually knew when the electricity was back by the sound of the fridge motor starting up, or the overhead fan whirling. My roommate and I had bought a car battery and that recharged enough to give us juice to keep our computers running and the odd bit of music if we were lucky. (Bonnie Raitt’s Luck Of The Draw was the album I most recall playing on my old boom box.)

The World Cup, when it started, was like nothing I’d ever experienced. Haitians love football and they usually support Brazil, Argentina and the Africa sides. (More than 90 % of Haitians are black.)

When Brazil won, thousands of people took to the streets to celebrate. The military government had banned any large gatherings but they turned a blind eye to this one. People shot their guns in the air to celebrate. The brave ones held their hands in the air, fingers splayed in the No. 5. That was ostensibly for Brazil’s 5th World Cup win. But it was also a show of support for Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the deposed president who was No. 5 on the ballot papers four years previously.

With a US invasion looming – American troops would arrive two months later – I wasn’t paying full attention to the football. After all, Scotland weren’t there so there was no one to cheer for and neither were England so there was no one to cheer against.

But I do remember one sunny Sunday sitting on the balcony of the famous Oloffson hotel (pictured above), the hotel made famous in Graham Greene’s novel The Comedians. I was having lunch with the Venezuelan ambassador and all of a sudden a big roar erupted from the favelas aroundabout. She was freaked (unexpected noise usually meant violence in Haiti) but I knew it was football.

This had just happened:

I went to see a few games of football in Haiti but the standard was pretty low, and I was used to watching Hibs. So when I think of Haitian football, I think of the 1974 World Cup and Emanuel Sanon.

It’s the celebrations that get me every time.

Brazil is known as the country of football.

But it’s not, at least not according to this interesting study of attendances by Brazil’s Pluri sports consultancy.

An average of 14,897 people go to watch first division matches in Brazil. That puts Brazil in 13th place on the world table, behind countries like the United States, Japan and China.

Germany is first, with an average attendance of 45,083; England is second with 34,604 and Spain is third with 28,400.  More people went to see games in the English and German second divisions than the Brasileirao.

The reasons are varied and have to do with the high ticket prices charged in Brazil, run-down facilities and insecurity in and around stadiums, and the large number of games shown on television.

The top 14 is here. (Country followed by total fans and average attendance)
1 Germany      13,795,286      45,083
2 England      13,149,676      34,604
3 Spain      10,791,927      28,400
4 México      3,877,500      25,343
5 Italy      8,330,161      21,921
6 USA      2,935,882      18,700
7 The Netherlands      5,954,191      19,458
8 France      7,167,940      18,863
9 England (Second Division)      9,969,699      17,899
10 China      4,242,026      17,675
11 Germany (Second Division)      5,266,941      17,212
12 Japan      2,204,074      16,572
13 Brazil      5,660,987       14,897
14 Scotland      3,163,154      13,873



Brazil and the US signed a defence deal yesterday.

The deal, which this Christian Science Monitor story says is the first between the two nations since 1977, opens the door to more interchange on research and development, logistics support, education and training, as well as making it easier to buy and sell defense products and services.

Although the ramifications of the deal are not yet clear, it behooves Brazil to form closer defence ties with the US.

In doing so, Brazil creates a link with the US that counterbalances some of the wackier things it has been doing in foreign policy field, such as cozying up to Iran and needlessly getting involved in Honduras.

And not only is the US the world’s biggest producer of weapons and armoury, it is also a valuable ally. As Fernando Arbache, a lecturer in anti-terrorism at Brazil’s Naval Headquarters told me in an interview: “With this accord Brazil is aligning itself strategically with the US, like the European nations have done with NATO.”

It’s a sensible bit of pragmatism on Lula’s part.

Following on from my post the other day about the US and Brazil and the topic of sex, I wrote more on the subject today for the Christian Science Monitor’s Global blog.

Everyone loves to read about sex and people’s views on it, right?

Here’s 500 more words on how the two countries are so alike and yet so different. It could really be a book. But this is plenty for now. More on sex another another time.

The Simpsons in Rio in 2002

A documentary about the Simpsons round the world travels aired on Fox Sunday night to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Springfield’s best-known family. (There’s a link to the show here but it’s only accessible from the US.)

I worked helping producer Morgan Spurlock of Super Size Me fame to set up interviews and arrange locations in Rio. His company called me after seeing this piece I wrote in Time magazine about the truth and fiction behind the Simpsons controversial visit to Brazil in 2002.

On that trip, the Simpsons saw monkeys roaming the streets of Rio de Janeiro, Homer was kidnapped and Bart was eaten by a snake. Irony is a foreign language in Brazil and the country went crazy. (More here on Brazilians over sensitivity to criticism.)

Which made writing a piece vindicating some of the more outlandish tales all the more pleasurable. I had been planning to write something on Rio’s natural zoo for years, after repeatedly seeing pictures in the Rio papers of snakes, alligators, spiders and monkeys being rescued from pools and homes and roads. That Simpsons episode gave me the impetus to start gathering string.

Cariocas’ reaction to the episode shocked me and I was heartened to hear those in the know say Bart was not wrong.  As I write in my Time story:

Firefighter Colonel Wanius Amorim remembers the Simpsons every time he catches a monkey in someone’s front room, drags an alligator from a back porch or gingerly lifts a snake from the street. For the commander of a Rio fire station nestled in the middle of the world’s biggest inner-city forest, saving wild animals is all in a day’s work.

“Bart was right,” Amorim says with a smile. “When foreigners say it, we get upset, but here in Rio we see alligators, sloths, snakes and monkeys all the time. To me, it’s something positive, it shows that the city is alive and vibrant, that nature has survived the arrival of 6 or 7 million people.”

I look forward to seeing Spurlock’s documentary soon. I believe he even visits Scotland. A wise man indeed.

The Sean Goldman case reached its denouement on Thursday, when the boy was handed over to his father at the US Consulate in Rio de Janeiro.

I got a lucky scooplet yesterday and was first to report that the case was essentially over. The lawyer for the Brazilian step family called round journalists to announce they would no longer be appealing the Supreme Court decision, and were essentially giving up their claim to the boy.

I must have been at the top of his To Call list and so Time was the first to get the story online (according to my reading of the timings on Google news.)

Sometimes we get lucky, whether it be getting a call first, receiving an important email before anyone else, or just being in the right place at the right time. On those occasions, it doesn’t matter how much leg work you’ve put in (and I only really started on this story last week).

It’s unfair and when you’re not the beneficiary it’s very, very annoying. But as my good old dad always said, It’s better to be lucky than good.

The Wall Street Journal has a piece today on the United States’ waning influence in Latin America. There’s nothing much new in it but there was one particularly interesting quote from Moisés Naím, the editor of Foreign Affairs magazine.

Talking of Lula’s meeting with Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and of Brazil’s role in Honduras, Naím said: “The world was hoping that it would become a responsible global player and stakeholder, but instead Brazil is behaving like an immature developing country with a chip on its shoulder.”

Brazil might have a chip on its shoulder (see my previous post about how Brazilians are thin-skinned). But it cannot be blamed for developing its own foreign policy. What’s more, if the US was smart, it’d be working behind the scenes with Brazil to help engage the Irans and Venezuelas of the world.

As one academic told me last week, “Brazil is perhaps the least disliked nation in the world.” Because of football, samba, and images of sun-kissed beaches and beautiful women, everyone loves Brazil. Brazil can use that influence.

The question that Naím should be asking is, What is Lula saying to the likes of Ahmadinejad and Chavez behind closed doors? And what is Obama telling Lula when they talk on the phone?

As the US gets weaker, it is having more and more trouble making smaller countries fall into line. As Brazil gets stronger, the US should be more diligent in courting it as a credible and helpful ally.

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