July 24, 2015
On this day in 1783, one of Latin America’s most significant figures, Simón Bolívar, was born in Caracas. While many in the region will celebrate the occasion, today also marks the anniversary of a more chilling episode in Latin American history. Shortly after midnight on July 24, 1993, nine hooded men, including several off-duty police officers, opened fire on a group of homeless youth sleeping on the steps of Rio de Janeiro’s historic Candelária church. Eight young people between the ages of 11 and 20 were killed in what came to be known as the Candelária Massacre.
Although the incident gained international attention, the Brazilian government at the time did little to stem the tide of extrajudicial killings in the country. Only three of the officers involved in the incident were charged with any crime.
Today, despite attempts at reform, the frequency of police related killings in Brazil can be jarring. Deaths at the hands of law enforcement average around 2,000 annually. State violence in the country disproportionately affects Afro-Brazilians and the urban poor, as evidenced in the pacificação (pacification) process of Rio’s favelas throughout last year’s World Cup.
Atila Roque, director of Amnesty International Brazil, said on the massacre's 20th anniversary in 2013, “Our police still have blood on their hands, and are allowed to act with impunity as extra-judicial killings remain rife in Brazil’s major cities.”
State violence may be more pronounced in Brazil than elsewhere in the region, but citizen insecurity continues to pose a challenge throughout Latin America in part due to negative perceptions of police. According to a 2013 Brookings Institution report, “only 7.5% of the Latin American population express[ed] a lot of confidence in the police.” In the United States, too, confrontations between police and residents in predominantly black communities have left many questioning whether police departments are effectively serving the citizens they are tasked to protect.
Despite the challenges, governments in the region are trying to address the issue. Efforts to cooperate in professionalizing police forces and offering technical assistance to prosecutors, investigators and judges are underway. But more needs to be done, and until criminal justice reforms are effectively implemented, the legacy of the Candelária massacre will remain unsettled.
July 16, 2015
Boom CHA-CHA, de boom CHA-CHA, the sound of funk carioca can be heard reverberating loudly throughout Brazil. Unapologetic, brazen and controversial, the music’s percussion-heavy sound forms the backdrop to life in the favelas. But while the genre is sometimes written off as lewd or “cheap,” funk carioca often reflects the harsh reality of life in Brazil’s marginalized communities.
That reality was brought into focus on Wednesday with the release of a groundbreaking report on child marriage in Brazil by Plan International, Brazil's Federal University of Pará and Instituto Promundo. According to the report, Brazil ranks fourth in the number of girls living with or married to a partner by age 15, and child marriage is “very normalized and accepted” in the country.
As with many social norms, the acceptance of relations with underage girls is reflected in funk music, particularly a newly popular sub-genre called funk putaria (literally "fornication/prostitution funk"). Novinhas, slang for attractive, specifically teenage girls, are often the focus of funk putaria songs. One example from MC R1 begins "novinha você tá na minha mira (novinha, I've got my eye on you)." Most funk songs about these novinhas are written by older men (MC R1 is 29).
But while funk artists continue to make music that refers to young girls and reinforces the norm of youth marriage, an emerging feminist movement has sought to reclaim funk carioca as its own. An increasing number of funkeiras (female MCs) have taken language traditionally used pejoratively to describe women (such as puta, or whore) and instead started using it to describe themselves and confront gender biases. Amy Richards and Jennifer Baumgardner, feminists and co-founders of Soapbox Inc., explain that "for years, these words have been used against women. Now, by singing these songs themselves, the funk artists demonstrate that they are in control."
Whether these new artists can have an impact on the prevalence of underage relationships in the favelas remains to be seen. But one way or another, as a platform for highlighting the social issues facing Brazil today, funk carioca deserves a listen.
July 8, 2015
On Monday, Brazil introduced new rules aimed at curbing the country’s unusually high rate of caesarean sections. The rules will require doctors to inform women about the risks of C-sections and ask them to sign a consent form prior to the procedure. Doctors will also have to sign a form justifying the C-section.
This is not the first time that the Brazilian government has sought to decrease the country’s high caesarean birth rates. For years, Brazil’s federal government has been promoting the benefits of natural childbirth through various programs and legislation. A 2005 law even guarantees women the right to give birth naturally if they so choose, though it is not usually respected.
Yet Brazil is not alone in the region in dealing with high levels of caesarean births. In fact, the Western Hemisphere has the highest rate of C-section operations in the world. The World Health Organization claims that the ideal rate for caesarean sections is between 10 and 15 percent. The rate in the Americas was about 38 percent last year, with particularly high rates in Brazil, Mexico, the United States, Argentina, and the Dominican Republic.
“It´s very worrisome that almost four out of every 10 births in the region are by C-section," said Suzanne Serruya, director of the Latin American Center for Perinatology, Women, and Reproductive Health of the Pan American Health Organization. "Doctors, midwives, obstetric nurses, those responsible for health policies, mothers and fathers, and society as a whole should work together to reduce this number and use caesarean sections only when it´s needed for medical reasons."
June 10, 2015
On Tuesday, the Brazilian government unveiled a 198.4 billion reais ($64 billion) infrastructure plan aimed at restoring economic growth through private investments in the country’s depleted roads, rail and ports. “The increase of investments in the Brazilian economy must be done by the private sector,” said Brazilian Planning Minister Nelson Barbosa. “There is a huge demand for better infrastructure in Brazil.”
Battered by high inflation, rising unemployment and a corruption scandal at state oil company Petrobras, Brazil is on the brink of a recession that is expected to be the worst in 25 years. During a ceremony to announce the spending plan on Tuesday, President Dilma Rousseff said the government plans to use market-friendly procedures to calculate the return rate on projects such as roads, where concessions will go to bidders that offer the lowest toll rate.
The government also aims to reduce its role in infrastructure projects, as the planned concessions will feature reduced subsidized funding from the Banco Nacional de Desenvolvimento Econômico e Social (National Social and Economic Development Bank—BNDES).
“Our model of concessions will guarantee that consumers get quality services at fair prices and companies get an adequate return on their investments,” said Rousseff during the ceremony. The concessions include about 2, 715 miles of highways, expansion of existing freight railways and even a railway linking the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific Ocean via Peru. Repairing the roads will allow Brazil to get its commodities like soy beans to the market.
June 4, 2015
At a secondhand bookstore in Brazil, I recently found an old copy of Graham Greene’s novella-turned-screenplay “The Third Man." Set in the shadowy streets and sewers of post-World War II Vienna, a police investigation reveals that the leader of a crime ring has faked his death to evade police. A coffin is exhumed, a body is found missing, and an iconic sewer chase scene ensues for Orson Welles in the 1949 noir film.
I could have opened up a local newspaper to read a similar tale unfolding.
A suspected ringleader in Brazil’s largest corruption investigation was recently alleged to have faked his death in 2010 to escape prosecution, and on May 20, a congressional committee ordered for his coffin in the city of Londrina, in southern Brazil, to be dug up and for a DNA test to be conducted on the corpse. Former congressman José Janene was thought to have died in a hospital of heart disease in 2010, but now rumors swirled that he was living in Central America with a $185 million Luxembourg bank account.
Digging up corpses could be a sign that Brazil’s corruption investigators will leave no stone (or gravestone) unturned, or that the unfolding scandal at Petróleo Brasileiro S.A. (Petrobras) has devolved into a witch-hunt. In either case, the development showed the extent to which officials need to distance themselves from a scandal that has cost Petrobras at least 6.2 billion reais ($2.1 billion) in graft-related losses, implicated dozens of major domestic and multinational firms, and pushed President Dilma Rousseff’s popularity to record lows.
May 29, 2015
The U.S. Justice Department accused more than a dozen people this week of being involved in a massive FIFA corruption scandal that spanned more than two decades. Several high-level officials were arrested in a luxury Zurich hotel Wednesday, including former Confederação Brasileira de Futebol (Brazilian Football Confederation—CBF) President José Maria Marin.
“Our investigation revealed that what should be an expression of international sportsmanship was used as a vehicle in a broader scheme to line executives’ pockets with bribes,” U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said during a press conference Wednesday in New York. “These individuals and organizations engaged in bribery to decide who would televise games; where the games would be held; and who would run the organization overseeing organized soccer worldwide.”
Marin, who led the jogo bonito’s governing body from March 2012 to April 2015, is facing charges of corruption, racketeering and bribery. According to the indictment, Marin split an $110 million kickback with four others in order to help Uruguayan company Datisa secure global distribution rights for next month’s Copa América and the four future editions of the tournament, including the special centennial cup to be held in the U.S. next year. He also allegedly requested bribe payments from Brazilian sports marketing firm Traffic for distribution rights of the country’s Copa do Brasil.
Others arrested Wednesday were accused of taking bribes to influence the winning bids of the 2010 South Africa World Cup, 2018 Russia World Cup and 2022 Qatar World Cup, with the latter’s selection facing scrutiny for its poor human rights record. Most of these transactions were done using U.S. bank accounts, which triggered the alarm of American authorities in the FBI, IRS and DOJ.
May 18, 2015
Brazil is up for sale, and bargain-hunters from Sam Zell to Stephen Schwarzman are looking for deals.
If the country’s economy could be spread onto a monopoly board, distressed domestic utilities like Companhia Energética de Minas Gerais S.A. (Cemig) would be selling for a bargain, while infrastructure like airports and railroads would be begging for investment. Meanwhile, any of the dozens of companies implicated in a massive corruption scandal at state-run oil company Petróleo Brasileiro S.A. (Petrobras) might seem impossible to give away amid the ongoing risk of legal liability and financial fallout.
In that context, foreign investors are rolling the dice that Brazil will stage a turnaround. C’mon snake eyes!
It takes a certain type of investor to be drawn to the country right now. The economy is expected to contract more than 1 percent this year. The government is in a state of political paralysis amid calls for President Dilma Rousseff’s resignation and Congress’ refusal to sign off on belt-tightening measures meant to avert a sovereign credit downgrade. Rich Brazilians are fleeing for Miami.
May 8, 2015
A proposed government austerity package may keep Brazil from a credit rating downgrade, but could cost President Dilma Rousseff some of her biggest supporters: the country’s labor unions.
Lawmakers in Brazil’s lower house passed a proposed bill this week that would limit thousands of workers’ access to social security benefits. The MP 665 bill was approved by a narrow 252-227 vote during a heated debate late Wednesday.
Finance Minister Joaquim Levy called the legislative decision a “victory” and said it could potentially lower government spending by 18 billion reais ($5.9 billion) this year.
“It’s a victory for all of society,” Levy told journalists in Brasília on Thursday. “We will meet our objectives so that we can start an agenda that goes beyond the fiscal adjustment.”
Earlier this week, representatives from the Central Única dos Trabalhadores (Unified Workers’ Central—CUT) met with the ruling Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party—PT) congressional leadership and said they were against the bill.
CUT is considered one of the largest unions in the country and one of the PT’s founding groups, and has been a strong supporter of Rousseff and former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s governments.
April 13, 2015
Anti-government protesters once again took to the streets across Brazil on Sunday, this time in smaller numbers, but with the same demands for President Dilma Rousseff to leave office.
This is the second march in less than a month in which Brazilians have spoken out against Rousseff and the ruling Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party—PT). At least 500,000 people gathered in 24 cities throughout the country, chanting slogans like “Out with Dilma” and “Impeachment Now.”
On March 15, nearly two million people participated in one of the largest protests in Brazil’s recent history. Discontent over unpopular austerity measures and a kickback scandal involving state-run oil giant Petrobras and the PT were major catalysts.
“The Workers Party failed Brazil,” Cristiano Jacobs, a Rio de Janeiro businessman, said during the march. “They have left Brazil broke.”
Rousseff is facing historically low approval ratings. In a recent Datafolha poll, 60 percent of Brazilians said they believe she is doing a "bad" or “terrible” job. 2,834 people were interviewed April 9 and 10, with a margin of sampling error of 2 percentage points. The same poll showed that 63 percent of those interviewed support opening the impeachment process against Rousseff.
March 31, 2015
The companies being investigated by Brazil's Federal Public Ministry include large banks such as Santander, as well some of Brazil’s largest public and private enterprises, among them Embraer and the country’s embattled state-run oil giant, Petrobras. The companies are suspected of paying bribes to members of Brazil’s Conselho Administrativo de Recursos Fiscais (Administrative Council of Tax Appeals—CARF), a body within the Finance Ministry that deals with tax disputes, in order to reduce or avoid fines for tax evasion.
The federal investigation, called Operação Zelotes (Operation Zealots), began in 2013 but exploded into the public consciousness last Thursday, when federal police raided CARF headquarters and the offices of several of the companies and individuals believed to be involved in the scheme. While no arrests were made, authorities seized 1.3 million reais in cash (about $400,000), as well as reams of documents. Investigators have shown that the scheme has cost government coffers $1.8 billion, but believe that the real number could be as high as $5.9 billion.
Several companies, including Brasil Foods (BRF) and Marcopolo, have released statements denying any wrongdoing. In a press release, BRF stated that it will “take all measures necessary to protect its interests.” Others have taken a different tack. Federico Paiva, one of the prosecutors leading the investigation, indicated yesterday that several of the companies under investigation have signaled their willingness to enter into a plea bargain. The Federal Public Ministry has reportedly begun to analyze those proposals today.
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