If you walk today through Complexo do Alemão—an enormous Rio de Janeiro shantytown, or favela, that was once the frequent scene of gun battles—you can see the changes. Last Christmas eve, the Brazilian Symphony performed a classical music concert in the community that, until recently, was so dangerous that police were afraid to enter it. People in the neighborhood, many of whom had never been to a concert before, were delighted.
To reach the neighborhood, you can now take the newly-installed cable car that resembles a gondola at an Alpine ski resort. Not only does it spare you the long climb in hot December weather—it offers a terrific view high above the 3.5 square kilometer neighborhood where 69,000 people live. The glass window reveals a giant and densely populated favela composed of poor houses unevenly distributed along narrow streets and small corridors. It is a unique and complex human map of haphazard paths and supply lines for water, electricity and gas.
The new cable car—which cost the Brazilian public $105 million—is part of the Brazilian federal government’s Programa de Aceleração do Crescimento (Growth Acceleration Program—PAC), a huge urbanization project that has taken place in Rio’s poor communities. The cable car was constructed to make Complexo do Alemão more accessible. “The lift is a blessing for the ones who live at the top of the community. Now we feel free,” said Teresinha Maria de Oliveira, a washerwoman who has lived in the favela for decades.
The government has also focused on housing, public health and sanitation, and improvements in these areas are clearly seen by anyone who visits Complexo do Alemão. Recently constructed apartment buildings, schools and health centers have changed the image of a place that for 30 years had been a living hell. But violence and fear are still powerful memories for most residents.
“We never knew when the conflicts would start,” remembered Mrs. Oliveira about the era when armed drug dealers dominated the neighborhood. “My sons couldn’t study. It was too dangerous to take them to school during the shootings between police and gangs,” she said.
“The love ran out. It’s going to turn into Turkey here,” chanted thousands of protestors as they moved down Rio Branco Avenue in Rio de Janeiro on Thursday evening, closing the downtown’s main thoroughfare to traffic as three police helicopters swam overhead.
When Rio’s protestors returned home from Rio’s State Legislative Assembly after one arrest near Central Station, it was to televised images of violence between police and protestors in São Paulo, where tear gas and rubber bullets were fired into a larger crowd and over 230 people were arrested.
Protests occurred in seven capital cities across Brazil yesterday in response to a ten-cent increase in bus and subway fares. However, such protests have been occurring around the country for several months now. In Porto Alegre in April, protests over the fare increase eventually led to its cancellation. Protesters say that the fare hike, a routine item in Brazilian bus company contracts, has become a tipping point for citizens bearing the cost of Brazil’s public improvements before seeing the benefit.
“If the quality of bus service was improving in Rio, this would make sense, but the buses are overcrowded, they run infrequently and they are unsafe,” said Natane Santos, 25, a law student at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.
Students made up a healthy portion of the Rio protestors, although there were also participants from different social movements in the city and the occasional political flag. “People are protesting the bigger vision of what’s going on,” Santos continued. “I’m glad to be hearing people chanting tonight, ‘We’re over the World Cup; we want more money for health and education.’”
In recent months, Brazil has been portrayed increasingly as a beacon of support for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) individuals in Latin America. It received international praise after the Conselho Nacional de Justiça (National Council of Justice—CNJ) released a decision ordering the legalization of same-sex marriage across the country. Soon after, it garnered worldwide attention when it hosted the 17th LGBT pride parade in São Paulo, widely considered to be the world’s largest.
Yet in striking similarity to Carnaval, lavish pride celebrations in Brazil have come to mask a far deeper and more complex history of violence and oppression.
In a milestone event that garnered far less media attention than those mentioned above, LGBTI activists gathered last month with a group of progressive lawmakers at the 10th National LGBT Seminar to discuss their most pressing needs. Their main concerns included increasing rates of violence and a rise in “fundamentalism and religious intolerance” that has begun to seriously threaten their already limited rights.
Specifically, they have come under attack following the election of Federal Deputy Pastor Marco Feliciano (Partido Social Cristão-São Paulo) to preside over the Chamber of Deputies’ Comissão de Direitos Humanos e Minorias (Committee on Human Rights and Minorities—CDHM). A staunchly anti-gay social conservative, Feliciano has made inflammatory statements, including a claim that “AIDS is the gay cancer,” and that Afro-Brazilians are cursed by their ethnic heritage.
After a busy two days in Rio de Janeiro, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden departed yesterday afternoon for Brasília, where he meets today with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and Vice President Michel Temer. While Biden’s visit partly touched on issues of public security—he toured the Santa Marta favela, the first community in Rio to have an Unidade de Polícia Pacificadora (Police Pacification Unit—UPP) installed—his chief objective was to press for expanded bilateral trade and investment ties.
Biden’s message to Brazil: the world is rapidly liberalizing trade and opening markets, and it’s time to keep up. On Wednesday, he urged Brazilians to “resist the urge in difficult economic times for protectionism.”
U.S. companies complain that Brazil has set up excessive trade barriers, a complicated tax system, local content requirements that give preference to Brazilian industry, and inadequate intellectual property rights. But Brazilians counter that U.S. monetary policy makes Brazilian products more expensive overseas, and that U.S. subsidies to its own farming sector limit competition from Brazil’s strong agricultural economy.
Despite the disagreements, Americans and Brazilians can point to plenty of successful collaborations. Brazilian aerospace conglomerate Embraer won a U.S. Air Force contract for 20 aircraft, officially authorized in March, and is cooperating with U.S.-based Boeing to develop the KC-390 military jet. Boeing, for its part, is a finalist for a 36-aircraft, $4 billion contract by the Brazilian Air Force.
Meanwhile, Brazil’s vast pre-salt reserves, coupled with the United States’ own discovery and extraction of shale gas, make the two energy powerhouses natural partners. Brazil’s auction this month of 142 oil blocks—the first licensing in five years—brought in $1.4 billion from various buyers, including U.S. firms ExxonMobil and Chevron. The Brazilian government is even moving up the first auction date of the pre-salt reserves to October to cope with the demand.
The National Council of Justice of Brazil, headed by Supreme Court Chief Justice Joaquim Barbosa, ruled yesterday that government licensing offices cannot deny homosexual couples marriage licenses. The ruling is expected to accelerate a law legalizing same-sex marriage in the Brazilian Congress.
Basing their decision on the Supreme Court’s 2011 ruling that recognizes same-sex civil unions and guarantees homosexual and heterosexual couples the same rights under the constitution, the council ruling bars notary publics from denying marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The ruling also calls for government licensing offices to convert a civil union into a marriage if requested by the couple. While 14 of Brazil’s 27 states have already legalized same-sex marriage, national legislation has failed to pass the Brazilian Congress, which has a strong religious faction.
Barbosa rejected the notion that a congressional decision was necessary to begin issuing marriage licenses. "Are we going to require the approval of a new law by the Congress to put into effect the decision that was already taken by the Supreme Court? It makes no sense," he said on Tuesday, adding that the high court’s decision should be followed by the lower courts as it “is binding." A challenge of the council’s decision by the Supreme Court is not likely.
Should Congress act and pass legislation regarding same-sex marriage this year, Brazil would follow Argentina and Uruguay and become the third Latin American country to legalize gay marriage.
Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro marked the end of his three-day trip through Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil yesterday with a meeting in Brasilia with President Dilma Rousseff to highlight Venezuela’s strategic alliance with Brazil.
Maduro traveled to Mercosur member countries for his first trip post-presidential election in an effort to consolidate bilateral ties. In Uruguay, his first stop, the Venezuelan president met with President José Mujica, as well as former Uruguayan President Tabaré Vázquez, and pledged a “permanent” supply of petroleum. He continued on to Argentina, where he signed 11 bilateral agreements with President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and gave a public address at a soccer stadium where he invoked the legacies of deceased Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez as well as deceased Argentine President Nestor Kirchner.
In Brazil, his final stop, Maduro received a firm endorsement from President Rousseff. The two leaders announced that Brazilian construction and engineering conglomerate Odebrecht will construct a 1.5-million-tonne-a-year urea plant in Venezuela. Venezuela is the second largest market, after Argentina, for Brazilian manufactured goods.
The international trip also carries domestic implications. Eduardo Viola, International Relations professor from Universidad de Brasilia said that “with this trip to Mercosur member countries whose leaders have demonstrated support, Maduro seeks to legitimize his situation, highly questionable in his country, not only because of the tight electoral results questioned by the opposition but also because of the grave economic and public safety conditions which are bleak.”
While an audit of Venezuelan election results began this week, nearly every nation in the region has accepted Maduro's presidency.
Roberto Azevêdo, Brazil’s current ambassador to the World Trade Organization (WTO), will succeed Pascal Lamy as the director-general of the organization on September 1, 2013, becoming the first Latin American to head the WTO since its creation in 1995. A formal announcement is expected today.
Azevêdo claimed the spot over Herminio Blanco, Mexico’s former Trade Minister and chief negotiator for the North America Free-Trade Agreement, in the final round of the six-month selection process which began in December. While Blanco had the support of the influential members such as the European Union, a majority of the WTO’s 159 member-states voted in favor of the Brazilian. Some analysts believe that Brazil’s active role in protecting the interests of developing countries during global trade negotiations contributed to Azevêdo’s popularity.
Azevêdo, who first joined the Permanent Mission of Brazil to the WTO in 1997, will face several challenges as director-general. He will be responsible for reviving the Doha round of talks, which were officially launched in 2001, and maintaining the organization’s relevance as regional and bilateral trade agreements grow in scope. Azevêdo will head his first biennial meeting in Bali, Indonesia this December.
It’s not hard to imagine what was behind Brazilian Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota’s announcement yesterday that Brazil will hire 6,000 Cuban doctors to work in rural parts of Brazil.
As the situation in Venezuela continues to teeter in uncertainty, the Brazilian government has thrown the Cuban government another lifeline. Doing so provides a cushion for a sinking Castro regime that has been kept afloat by the roughly 100,000 barrels of oil per day that Venezuela has sent to Cuba since 2005.
In return, the Cuban government has provided over 30,000 doctors, sports trainers, and advisors at terms very favorable to Cuba. (You think U.S. healthcare costs are high? Imagine the cost of Cuban doctors. Assuming 30,000 of them at $100 per barrel of oil, those guys are worth the equivalent of $333 per day!) The artificially-inflated cost of doctors aside, it’s the sports trainers and advisors that are the concern. I must confess, I have no idea what a Cuban sports trainer is (though I assume he would look something like this.) In reality, they likely provide a service very similar to the advisors: the political counseling, intelligence and military training, propaganda dissemination, and intelligence gathering that has been key to the chavista government’s ability to consolidate its power.
For those advisors, President of Venezuela Nicolás Maduro’s unexpected poor showing in the election presents a zero-sum game. If they cannot shore up the anointed heir of former President Chávez, they may very well lose their lifeline. For that reason, many have speculated that the Cubans are working overtime to help President Maduro. (Though, quite frankly, Maduro’s recent vitriolic attacks on the opposition and the United States seem more like those of a wounded animal than an expression of the subtle, strategic advice one would expect from seasoned intelligence agents.)
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro embarked today on a three-day tour of Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, all members of Mercosur (The Common Market of the South). Following Paraguay’s suspension from the free-trade group, Venezuela joined Mercosur last year and will assume the bloc’s temporary presidency for the first time on June 28 during a summit in Montevideo.
During a ceremony on Sunday to commemorate the two-month anniversary of the death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, Maduro announced that he would visit the other Mercosur countries to “continue bringing forward a perfect equation of financial, energy, cultural and political integration.”
In Uruguay, Maduro will meet with Uruguayan President José Mujica, as well as former Uruguayan President Tabaré Vázquez, union leaders and the electrical transformer company Urutransfor. Members of the Uruguayan opposition have criticized Maduro’s visit as “tactless and inconvenient” because of the current political tensions that exist in Venezuela. Later this week, Maduro will meet Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in Buenos Aires and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff in Brasilia to discuss the next steps for the regional bloc.
In an incident that may have escaped notice internationally, three taxi drivers were shot to death recently in Santana do Livramento, a small Brazilian town on the border with Rivera, Uruguay. The incident deeply frightened many in the region and drew heightened attention when, just 48 hours later, three more drivers were shot in Porto Alegre—a southern Brazilian city about 300 miles from the border.
Santana do Livramento and Rivera are both known for their tranquility, as well as the easy walk across the border with little risk of being stopped by authorities. The police quickly denied a connection to organized crime—a claim confirmed when 21-year-old Lucas Barcelos Silva, a disgruntled former member of the Brazilian army with a criminal record, confessed to all six killings, claiming that he was angry about his unemployment. In 2010, he was dismissed from the Brazilian Army due to “lack of discipline and erratic behavior,” and has several robberies on his record.
Although the homicides were unrelated to organized crime, they renewed concerns about border control in Brazil and Uruguay. According to the Civil Police of Rio Grande do Sul, Silva used a .22 pistol—a semi-automatic weapon banned in Brazil since 1997 that is common in Uruguay and Argentina. Silva testified that the pistol came from a 15-year-old friend in Santana do Livramento, who likely acquired it in Uruguay or Argentina and smuggled it across the border.
A lack of border security personnel makes Brazil’s approximately 10,625 miles of border especially porous to drug and weapons smuggling and human trafficking. The Brazilian Federal Police employs only 900 agents to monitor its border with eight countries. By comparison, the United States employs approximately 21,400 border patrol agents to control its 1,969-mile border with Mexico and 5,525-mile border with Canada. Making matters worse is the fact that officers on the Brazil-Uruguay border often pass over locals in searches to avoid holding up commuter traffic.