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Volkswagen to pay reparations for dictatorship involvement

Today: Volkswagen reckons with its past. The impeachment of Rio de Janeiro’s governor. A massive merger that will challenge antitrust authorities. And the progression of the coronavirus in the country.

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Volkswagen apologizes for role during dictatorship

German automaker Volkswagen will pay BRL 36 million (USD 6.44 million) in [restricted]reparations and donations to the families of victims of the Brazilian dictatorship — as well as to human rights initiatives. The payments are part of a settlement that will end three criminal investigations into the company’s role in assisting the Department of Social and Political Order (DOPS) — Brazil’s former political police — which kidnapped, tortured, and killed hundreds of people.

  • In a 2017 report led by Volkswagen, historian Christopher Kopper determined that the company’s security crew spied on its staff and told DOPS of any “suspect” activity. Over 100 people were directly impacted by Volkswagen’s relationship with the military. 
  • In 2015, Volkswagen became the first company to negotiate paying compensation for its role during that period. And, according to Mr. Kopper, “the first time that a German company accepts responsibility for human rights violations against its own workers for events that happened after the end of National Socialism.”

Why it matters. According to Brazil’s Truth Commission, created to set the record straight on human rights abuses during the dictatorship (1964-1985), over 80 companies helped turn in their own employees associated with union movements and considered to be “potential subversive agents” — including Ford, Toyota, and Mercedes-Benz.

Memory. The documents dug up by the commission, however, do not provide a complete record of state repression during the dictatorship — nor the full extent of private firms’ involvement. Many documents of the time were burned by the military or have otherwise vanished.

Rio governor’s impeachment moves forward

Rio de Janeiro’s State Congress voted in favor of submitting Governor Wilson Witzel to an impeachment trial. As with previous votes in the process, lawmakers unanimously voted against the politician, who is accused of embezzling funds intended for use in the coronavirus effort.

  • Now, a committee of five lawmakers and five state judges will trial the case. Mr. Witzel’s recent political defeats suggest that the chances of him escaping the ousting are slim to none.

Why it matters. Mr. Witzel’s downfall epitomizes Rio’s political collapse. The state is living in a position of financial calamity and five former governors have been arrested since 2016.

Trivializing impeachment. By definition, impeachments should be exceptional measures but have become part of the political landscape since 2016, when Dilma Rousseff became the second president to be impeached since Brazil’s return to democracy in 1985.

  • Before 2016, only two state governors had faced impeachment proceedings over the last 60 years. After Ms. Rousseff’s ousting, five governors saw themselves in that situation — three in the past few months.
  • According to João Villaverde, a consultant and researcher at Fundação Getulio Vargas, “the political costs of impeachment for lawmakers has disappeared.”

What comes next. Barring a shocking twist, Rio shall continue to be governed by Cláudio Castro, a fervently religious politician who has become close to the Bolsonaro family — and is himself under investigation for corruption.

Merger in car rental sector a regulatory pickle

Localiza and Unidas, the two biggest car rental companies operating in Brazil, announced on Wednesday their intention to merge. If the deal goes through, it would create a massive BRL 48-billion firm with a fleet of over 468,000 vehicles and a footprint in 404 cities, as well as six South American countries. 

  • However, the merger will be a tough sell to antitrust watchdog Cade — as the two companies combine for a 47-percent market share of car rentals and fleet management, which could skew the market in their favor. Analysts say there is little chance of the deal being approved without restrictions.
  • Still, markets received the news positively, with shares of Localiza rising 14 percent, and Unidas stock going up by 17 percent.

Why it matters. The car rental market boomed in Brazil as millions of people sought job opportunities working for logistics apps. But the sector was severely hit by the pandemic. Localiza’s Q2 profits dropped 53 percent, while Unidas’ net recurring profits were nearly wiped out. Together, the companies would be better positioned for a recovery.

8 percent of Brazilians have taken coronavirus tests

According to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics, 17.9 million Brazilians (or 8.5 percent of the total population) had taken a coronavirus test by the end of August. Considering that the country had 3.9 million confirmed infections during the same period, Brazil had a positive rate of approximately 21 percent — one of the highest in the world.

Why it matters. The rate of positive results is a good measure of how adequately countries are testing, as it indicates the level of screening relative to the size of the outbreak. 

Lack of data. As we at The Brazilian Report have pointed out on numerous occasions, Brazil doesn’t test nearly enough people to have an accurate understanding of how the pandemic has progressed in the country.

Deceleration. In seven Brazilian states, the 7-day rolling average of new daily deaths rose by more than 10 percent between September 8 and 22. In 14 states, it decreased by more than 10 percent.

What else you need to know today

  • Diplomacy. Foreign Minister Ernesto Araújo will attend the Senate’s Foreign Affairs Committee to explain the visit of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to the Venezuelan border last week — during which Mr. Pompeo called Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro a “drug trafficker.” The move, just 46 days before the U.S. election, was considered by lawmakers an “affront to Brazil’s diplomatic tradition” of neutrality and good relations with neighboring nations.
  • Trade. The government announced trade deals with Mexico and Paraguay to boost sales of vehicles and auto parts with the two Latin American countries. According to ordinances published on Brazil’s Federal Register, the idea is to progressively reduce tariffs before scrapping them altogether in 2022.
  • Environment. The Federal Prosecution Service has requested that a federal court in Brasília promptly analyze a request to remove Environment Minister Ricardo Salles from office. Signed by 12 federal prosecutors in July, the complaint accuses the minister of “purposely depleting Brazil’s environmental protection structures and policies.” During an April 22 cabinet meeting, Mr. Salles said the government should take advantage of the undivided attention of the press on the Covid-19 pandemic to “run the cattle herd” through the Amazon, “changing all of the rules and simplifying standards.”
  • Inflation. The IPCA-15 price index, a predictor of the official inflation rate, rose 0.45 percent in September — the biggest bump for the month since 2012. Food products were the main culprits, continuing a trend that has been observed for the past few months — and has already worried the government about possible effects on poor populations.[/restricted]

How the U.S. culture wars were exported to Brazil

During the first days of The Brazilian Report’s existence, reporter Ciara Long pointed out how the arguments of Brazil’s gun rights activists were a copied-and-pasted version of the U.S. National Rifle Association’s playbook. “It’s not just an imported logic, but even the posts, the memes,” Ivan Marques, director of NGO Instituto Sou da Paz, said at the time. But if you pay more attention to it, you will see that this phenomenon is not exclusive to the pro-gun movement. Brazil’s left and right are increasingly importing American culture wars — transplanting discussions without much adaptation to a totally different context.

Just last week, President Jair Bolsonaro tried to spark an anti-vaxxer movement, saying “no-one can force anyone to take a Covid-19 vaccine.” The argument that strict vaccination policies are a violation of people’s personal liberties seems to come straight from the U.S. anti-vaccine discussion. It is, as well, completely out of touch with the Brazilian reality — where 88 percent of citizens would take a coronavirus vaccine as soon as it becomes available, according to a recent Ipsos-Mori poll.[restricted]

Anti-vaxxers in the U.S. have become associated with supporters of President Donald Trump, and vaccination policies have become one of the uncountable battlegrounds for culture wars. While Brazil has its own complicated history of resistance to vaccination evidenced in the famous 1904 vaccine revolt in Rio de Janeiro, Mr. Bolsonaro’s words are more evidence of this major ongoing cultural shift in Brazil.

The shameless adoption of U.S. culture wars has become a calling card for the Jair Bolsonaro brand. A few weeks ago, his third-eldest son, Congressman Eduardo Bolsonaro, posted a picture of Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old shooter who gunned down Black Lives Matter protesters in Wisconsin. Mr. Bolsonaro said the shooter was defending his property from “terrorists,” and offered his “total support for young Kyle.”

The youngest Bolsonaro politician son is known for his unchecked love of all things alt-right and Trump (he frequently wears MAGA hats). One time, he praised fast-food chain Popeye’s Chicken (where he briefly worked) — which has gotten many accusations of labor rights violations — for stimulating work ethic in him, a value compromised, in his words, by Brazil’s culture of “samba, caipirinha, and carnival.”

However, the unfiltered import of U.S. culture wars is not exclusive to the Brazilian right. In recent years, many on the left have too become active participants in U.S. culture wars.

A history of U.S. cultural influence in Brazil

Brazil and the U.S. go way back, with the Americans being the first nation to recognize the Brazilian independence. And as foreign policy professor Carlos Gustavo Poggio told the Explaining Brazil Podcast, relations between the Americas’ two largest nations have been traditionally tepid — never too close, but never too distant.

Throughout the 20th century, the U.S. has frequently sought to interfere with Brazil’s internal politics, playing an important role in funding and supporting the 1964 military coup that toppled the left-leaning João Goulart — perceived as hostile to U.S. interests. 

In the post-war world, as Brazilian elites and intellectuals shifted from a francophile sentiment toward a more U.S.-centric perspective, cultural influence from North America is everywhere to be found, from Disney’s Three Caballeros and its iconic malandro parrot Zé Carioca, to Tupac’s influence on São Paulo’s rap scene.

That cultural influence started to intensify already in the 1930s, as both the U.S. and Brazilian governments sought to promote cultural exchanges between both countries. In 1936, then-U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt traveled to Rio de Janeiro to promote his “Good Neighbor” policy of non-interventionism and economic alliances in Latin America’s largest country. He remarked to those assembled — including then-Brazilian leader Getulio Vargas: 

“You have done much to help us in the United States in many ways in the past. We, I think, have done a little to help you, and may I suggest that you, with this great domain of many millions of square miles, of which such a large proportion is still open to human occupation, can learn much from the mistakes we have made in the United States.”

Years later, Brazil was the sole Latin American nation to send troops to Europe during World War II. According to historian Andre Pagliarini, a lecturer at Dartmouth University who studies the U.S.-Brazil relationship, “World War II gave Brazilians a definitive sense of their importance in the world, not unlike the feeling after the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Rio Olympics.” 

Many middle-class Brazilians in the 1950s became convinced that U.S. culture was a sign of progress and should be emulated in Brazil, as opposed to Brazilian culture — associated with backwardness, but this met with significant resistance. 

Anti-Americanism or hostility to U.S. cultural and political imperialism is another age-old Brazilian tradition: from Army lieutenant revolts in the 1930s to fiery left nationalists like former Rio de Janeiro Governor Leonel Brizola. Hostility to U.S. cultural influence in Brazil was more or less a foundational value of the Brazilian left, despite the quest for steady bonds with the U.S. becoming a near-permanent feature of Brazilian foreign policy.

Historically, the Americanization of Brazil did not happen passively, as historian Antonio Pedro Tota argues in his book “The Seduction of Brazil.” 

“There was an interaction between U.S. and Brazilian culture. The ‘culture shock’ created by the strong presence of the U.S. communications media did not destroy Brazil’s culture, but most certainly it produced new cultural manifestations. It is useful, but not enough, to draw on the notion of cultural resistance to understand this process.”

For the leftist student movements of the 1960s, U.S. cultural influence was a form of imperialism. Singer Caetano Veloso, for instance, was famously pelted with eggs, fruits, and vegetables during a music festival by radical students hostile to his American-influenced reimagining of Brazilian culture through rock music.

These days, it would be hard to imagine radical students attacking musicians and culture figures for selling out Brazilian culture to the Americans. Last month, Columbia University historian Lilia Schwarz found herself under widespread attack for penning a critique of Beyoncé’s latest album “Black is King” in newspaper Folha de São Paulo.

The recent shift

As The Brazilian Report has covered, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva sought to fashion out a new foreign policy agenda that would see Brazil focus on creating its own set of relationships and networks outside the U.S. 

Brazil sought to become a world power on its own terms, building on alliances with other Latin American countries — along with other developing nations. While Lula’s agenda was hardly unprecedented in Brazilian history (even Brazil’s military dictatorship sought to craft a foreign policy agenda beyond the U.S., even establishing diplomatic ties with Communist China and being the first country to recognize Mozambique and Angola’s independence), it met significant resistance from middle classes.

Mr. Pagliarini told The Brazilian Report: “For many Brazilians, the Workers’ Party administrations forced a decision on the county: ‘Are we going to be more like the U.S. or less like the U.S.?’ More Washington-like in how we allocate resources or more like Moscow or Venezuela or Beijing. I know this borders on caricature, but I do think a whole lot of people believe in this dilemma. Like, ‘what is so wrong with the U.S.? Why did the Workers’ Party’s foreign policy seemingly go out of its way to thumb its nose at Washington?’ Things are obviously more complex than that but I think this distilled a sense of frustrated potential among millions of Brazilians. We might not actually be the U.S., but we could be much closer.”

But what does it mean to be more like the U.S.?

For the historian, many Brazilians imagine being more like the U.S. as “valuing hard work and not expecting handouts, no government-provided basic services nor free college for rich private school kids.” This was evident in Mr. Bolsonaro’s 2018 election campaign, which attacked public services with the Reaganite rhetoric that the state is the problem, rather than a means to a solution. 

The idea of Brazilian meritocracy is deeply tied to ideas of what a normal advanced country should be like, and people turn for inspiration to the U.S. — a country with no labor protections, paid holidays, and the weakest welfare state in the developed world. 

Mr. Bolsonaro’s guru Olavo de Carvalho resides in rural Virginia and frequently makes reference to the U.S.’s “unique political values” as superior, or to “Brazilian stupidity and cultural backwardness.” As I have previously argued in The Brazilian Report, the new Brazilian right seeks credibility through fanboy-like association with leading conservative figures in the U.S. like former Trump advisor Steve Bannon.

“In practice, the result is that many Brazilians across the political spectrum see a strict kind of caste system in Brazil which, for opposing reasons, they want to see loosened. They see the U.S. free market as a source of dynamism — or social media discourse and activism as a source of dynamism. France is frowned upon as being just as sclerotic as Brazil — at least in the minds of Brazilian conservatives. That’s no model for the kind of change they want to see,” Mr. Pagliarini says.

U.S. dominance has brought about a remarkable shift among Brazilian intellectuals, who no longer look to Paris for inspiration, but to North America.

This is in part a reflection of the sheer financial dominance of U.S. higher education through soft power programs that lures high-potential students (evaluated for their leadership capacity) to American universities, where their perception of America and its policies will be shaped. Notable Fulbright Scholarship program alumni include Brazil’s former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, and the country’s first female Supreme Court justice, Ellen Gracie. U.S. influence is evident across Latin America, leaders like Chile’s Sebastián Piñera or Colombian former President Juan Manuel Santos also stand out.

But the fact is that many of these ideas about the U.S. don’t hold up to scrutiny but it’s what many Brazilians think the U.S. is. So those on the right and to an extent on the left who look to US for models are in a way chasing a product that has decades of marketing behind it but isn’t actually what they think it is. The U.S. is in many ways all-too-similar to Brazil, in that it is defined by racial strife, inequality, lack of state capacity and a demagogic and corrupt political class.

The new Americanization of Brazil

What is happening now is different to previous iterations of the Americanization of Brazil. Rather than receiving cultural movements such as funk or rock and then refashioning in a distinctively Brazilian way, Brazilians seek to participate directly in U.S. culture wars and pop culture as a form of self-identification. 

The result is that Brazilians are fighting U.S. fights against other Brazilians. 

Brazilians seek to craft an identity as more American than their fellow countryman as a way of signaling their own social status or cultural capital from slang to fashion sense to consumption, for instance, one of the markers of being middle class in Brazil became an obligatory trip to Disneyland in Florida or closer-to-home dining out at an Outback steak house or enjoying a Jack Daniels while wearing a Metallica t-shirt.

As Mr. Pagliarini puts it, “the Americanization we see happening today is in some ways more sophisticated because it’s not just average Brazilians seeing ads for Coca-Cola and aspiring to be that, but it is also more shallow in a lot of ways. There isn’t a broad reordering of Brazilian society imbued in how the Bolsonaro children see the U.S., I think. It’s more about finding validation for reactionary Brazilian common sense in an idea of the U.S.” 

Social media is key to this shift. 

You are now able to engage, follow and interact in real time with cultural movements and figures anywhere in the world regardless of where you are geographically located. You can stream Beyonce’s new album simultaneously with millions of Americans fans for instance or consume Fox News as much as any ageing provincial bigot in the exurbs of a medium-sized U.S. city.

There has never been a more pro-U.S. president than Jair Bolsonaro, he has tied his political fortunes to the U.S. in an unprecedented fashion, putting U.S. foreign interests above those of Brazil. He even went as far as prostrating himself in front of Mr. Trump to say “I love you.” To which Mr. Trump reportedly answered: “Nice seeing you.”

Shopping mall tycoon Luciano Hang, who is accused of illegally funding Mr. Bolsonaro’s disinformation network, has made his mall brand distinctive through the almost indescribably tacky plastic Statue of Liberty replica that visually pollutes the scenery in front of his shopping centers.

For those on the left seeking inspiration after a series of historic defeats, the Black Live Matter Movement seems an obvious source, given that it is tackling racist policing in a country where law enforcement seems to be even more racist and brutal than in the U.S. 

However, only a relatively small layer of Brazilians can truly learn and interpret the signs, symbols and language of U.S. cultural politics, which then in turn becomes a market of social status and political insight in Brazil. 

The truth is as I remarked earlier is that in many ways U.S. society is as broken and unequal as Brazil, social mobility is a thing of the past and nobody seems to be offering a real way out of its mess. Perhaps the real lesson for Brazil is that the U.S. is almost as dysfunctional and doesn’t offer too much hope in terms of possible solutions to Brazil’s crisis — given the fact that only the U.S. has recorded more deaths from Covid-19 than Brazil.[/restricted]


Explaining Brazil #121: The end of an era in Colombia

This week’s episode, The Al Capone of Colombia, was supported by AMEC, the Brazilian Association of Investors in Capital Markets. AMEC brings together around 60 institutional investors from Brazil and abroad — which have a combined portfolio of over USD 130 billion.

It also had the support of, a platform that offers a SEO Mastery course which will make your company’s website the top-ranked in your field, in no time at all. 

Arguably the most powerful politician in Colombia, former President Álvaro Uribe has faced countless accusations of human rights violations and links to paramilitary groups. But just like Chicago gangster Al Capone was nailed for tax evasion, Uribe’s downfall might actually come from a case involving fraud and witness tampering — which led to the country’s Supreme Court placing him under house arrest earlier this month.

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On this episode:

  • Sebastián Ronderos is a Ph.D. student in Ideology and Discourse Analysis at the University of Essex. He holds a master’s degree in Peace and Conflict Studies from the University of Granada, further specializing in Conflict Resolution at the Pontifical Xavierian University, in Sociology at the School of Sociology and Politics of São Paulo, and in Comparative Politics at the University of Lisbon. He studied Politics at the University of the Andes.

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Africa not even an afterthought for Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil

Citing his “political, moral and historical obligation,” Brazil’s former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva visited five Southern African countries in November 2004. The trip was seen as a token of how important South-South relations would be for the Lula administration. “Brazilian society was built on the work, the sweat, and the blood of Africans,” said Lula, in a reference to the 4 million-plus slaves shipped from Africa to Brazil between the 16th and 18th centuries.

That rapprochement sparked trade between Brazil and the continent to unprecedented levels — from just USD 6 billion in 2003 to USD 28 billion in 2011. 

Brazil served as inspiration for many Africans, not only for its culture and football achievements, but for its success in ending hunger, tackling inequality, and reducing poverty. However, this did not last. Brazil’s interest in Africa waned after Lula left office, though his successor Dilma Rousseff pardoned almost USD 900 million in debts of 12 African nations with Brazil. After her impeachment, however, Africa became less than an afterthought for the country.[restricted]

After taking over from the ousted Ms. Rousseff, President Michel Temer tried to close 11 of Brazil’s 37 embassies in Africa. And his Foreign Minister José Serra famously failed to name all the BRICS member states, forgetting South Africa. 

Since President Jair Bolsonaro came to power, the role of Africa in Brazil’s diplomacy has dwindled even further. However, this is not exactly unprecedented. For the 60 years or so after the abolition of slavery, Brazil essentially had no relations with Africa, despite having the largest afro-descendent population in the world.

A history of distancing

To this day, African influence on Brazil is present in its food, language, music, and culture. Notwithstanding, Africa is often reduced to stereotypes of underdeveloped failed states run by corrupt autocrats. In recent years, there has been an increase in xenophobia against new African immigrants, as seen in the new Netflix movie “Shine Your Eyes” — about the Nigerian community in downtown São Paulo.

Mr. Bolsonaro, for instance, has expressed openly racist sentiments in regards to the continent. Take this remark from a 2018 interview: “What debt of slavery? I never enslaved anyone in my life … Look, if you really look at history, the Portuguese didn’t even step foot in Africa. The blacks themselves turned over the slaves.” This captures the combination of historical ignorance and present bigotry that the president and many in his base embrace.

As Amy Niang pointed out in 2018, “Mr. Bolsonaro assuages the fears of a middle class that feels it has lost privilege. He also confirms their aversion to Brazil’s internal “others” — namely black Brazilians and various Indian communities. In fact, he promises to keep privileged spaces of university education, residential suburbs and commercial spaces free from poor people.”

Given Mr. Bolsonaro’s views on the continent — and the fact that his foreign policy seems reducible to mimicking whatever U.S. President Donald Trump does next — it is no surprise that his administration has neglected its relations with Africa. But, as Mathias Alencastro, a researcher at the Brazilian Center of Analysis and Planning, points out, he is far from being the first Brazilian leader to do so. “Brazil has no coherent strategy for Africa, but this is not the exception, it is the rule. This government has no coherent strategy for anything,” he told The Brazilian Report.

The irony is that even the military dictatorship that Mr. Bolsonaro idealizes was concerned with expanding Brazilian soft power abroad rather than indulging every ideological bugbear of the U.S. right.

Lula in 2010, next to Tanzanian President Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete. Photo: Ricardo Stuckert/PR
Lula in 2010, next to Tanzanian President Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete. Photo: Ricardo Stuckert/PR

A brief history of Brazil-Africa relations

While the military government that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985 was a loyal ally of the U.S., it still had a vision of Brazil as an independent power. This included an expanded role for Brazil in Africa, particularly in Portuguese-speaking countries of the continent. Brazil, for instance, was the first country to recognize Angolan and Mozambican independence; and while it would be a stretch to say it played a major role in the anti-apartheid movement, it did condemn apartheid South Africa.

Skipping ahead a few decades, as Brazil emerged as an increasingly confident world power during the Lula years, with Africa increasingly becoming an important part of the country’s foreign policy and economic strategy. 

Along with the increased focus on cultural exchanges, Lula sought to promote Brazilian business interests and investment across the continent. As Mr. Alencastro points out, “Brazil was seeking to expand its influence with a state partnership with its largest companies, drawing on mechanisms established since the 1970s’ export-driven growth model.” 

When Lula visited African countries, he would fly with his business allies. While some of these activities — especially the promotion of Brazilian construction giant Oderbrecht’s interests in Angola — involved corruption both in Brazil and Angola, these moves should not be viewed solely as opportunistic partnerships driving foreign policy. Rather, they were expressions of the Workers Party’s developmental model, which involved the promotion of Brazilian capital abroad and the expansion of the country’s presence in new regions, even in places where it lacked diplomatic infrastructure.

Brazilian agribusiness also sought to increase exports to African countries. For instance, the country moved to occupy 8th position in terms of main exporters to Africa, though it has since dropped to 11th. However, Lula’s charismatic leadership did not translate to organized government policy and Brazil’s influence in Africa began to decline under Ms. Rousseff.

Meanwhile, Brazilian businesses were not the only actors expanding their interest in Africa. 

Other non-state actors — in particular Evangelical churches — adopted an Africa-centered expansion strategy. Brazilian churches can now be found across the continent and have been reaping the financial and political benefits along with their U.S. counterparts. This is shown by the increasing adoption of typical evangelical political positions on gay rights, abortion, and school curriculums by a number of African governments, in countries such as Uganda and Tanzania. 

Their expansion has brought about a backlash, a point to which I will return.

Brazilian business also does not enjoy a particularly clean reputation in Africa — with mining giant Vale taking significant flak for its involvement in alleged human rights abuses in Mozambique.

The Bolsonaro effect on Africa

Mr. Bolsonaro’s first planned diplomatic mission to Africa was scheduled for March 2020, but the pandemic has postponed the trip indefinitely. Meanwhile, Vice President Hamilton Mourão has been designated as the official interlocutor for African governments — giving a more diplomatic face to a government widely reviled across the globe. But Mr. Mourão, like Mr. Bolsonaro, has also expressed anti-African bigotry in the past. He attacked Lula’s Workers’ Party for associating itself with “dirtbag scum” (African) countries. 

Brazil’s Africa policy became associated with Lula, and as a result was seen as just another error of the Workers’ Party government that needed to be dismantled.

Brazil has also shifted its focus away from South-South exchanges. The current administration has uncritically supported the U.S., hoping to reap some sort of rewards for this “special relationship.” That could come in the form of membership to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a Brazilian obsession since 2016.

While none of the BRICS countries have covered themselves in glory in recent years, Brazil has become the least enthusiastic and perhaps most-widely hated nation of the group, though there is stiff competition. Brazil is now known more for its president’s Covid-19 denialism, racism, and environmental mismanagement than for any innovative social policy or its vibrant culture.

The neo-charismatic Evangelical Universal Church of the Kingdom of God has been in the headlines recently after the Angolan government expelled Brazilians from its operations for alleged abuse of power and funds. The government launched a reform commission into the church and ruled that Brazilians may no longer hold any leadership positions. 

Mr. Bolsonaro tried to intervene on behalf of his ally and head of the church, Edir Marcedo — also known as “the Billionaire Bishop.” Other political allies also attempted to wade into the dispute, claiming the Angolan government was waging a xenophobic campaign against Brazilians. 

Angola is a key part of the Evangelical churches’ expansion strategy and as a result, they have been trying to use all of their political influence to save their interests in the country, albeit with little success.

As Brazil moves even further towards pariah status, it no longer inspires the developing world. Instead, it serves as either a cautionary tale of the effects of an empowered far-right — or a new punchline to sarcastic jokes of “at least we are not … Brazil.”[/restricted]


Numbers of the week: Aug. 8, 2020

This is Brazil by the Numbers, a weekly digest of the most interesting figures tucked inside the latest news about Brazil. A selection of numbers that help explain what is going on in Brazil. This week’s topics: Brazil’s coronavirus death toll, racism in numbers, potential economic relief, Caetano Veloso turns 78, fake currency on the streets, another chapter of the job apocalypse, Bolsonaro’s Covid-19 cabinet, and improved industrial sector results.

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Almost 100,000 coronavirus deaths

Brazil is very close to reaching[restricted] 100,000 total Covid-19 deaths, though still 60,000 away from the total tally in the U.S., still the country with most losses. During the week, President Jair Bolsonaro tweeted his condolences to the over 150 victims in the explosions in Beirut, capital of Lebanon. However, the coronavirus kills almost ten times more people in a single day in Brazil. Yet, Mr. Bolsonaro is still dismissive of the crisis. Discussing the rising death toll, he said “let’s get on with our lives and find a way out of this.”

8 in every 10 

Racism is institutionalized in Brazil and the numbers don’t lie. A study by the Rio de Janeiro Public Defender’s Office showed that 80 percent of people arrested in flagrante declared themselves as black or multiracial. The researchers worked with a sample of 23,497 people between 2017 to 2019. Also, those who self-declared as black or multiracial have more difficulty getting parole — 27 percent, compared with 30 percent among white people. Skin color also changes the treatment of police officers: 40 percent of black or multiracial people complained of receiving aggressions during their arrest, while 34 percent of white people reported such heavy-handed treatment. 

-5.66-percent GDP drop

According to the Central Bank, Brazil’s economy seems to be slowly recovering from the adverse effects caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, with GDP projections improving to an expected market contraction of 5.66 percent in 2020. This assessment marks the fifth week in a row of improved GDP forecasts by the Central Bank, which projected a GDP drop as low as 6.5 percent in mid-June. Last week, the Central Bank tipped Brazilian GDP to fall 5.77 percent by the end of the year.

Fake BRL 200 bills

On social media, people shared the image of a BRL 200 bill found in the city of Madureira, Rio de Janeiro state. It went viral for a simple reason: the new banknote has not been released yet by the Brazilian Central Bank, which plans to phase in the new currency by the end of the month. On Twitter, the institution’s official account warned people about the fake cash: “Citizens should not accept any banknotes of this value.”

9 million jobs lost since March

According to the first full quarterly poll during the Covid-19 pandemic by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), 8.9 million Brazilians lost their jobs between April and June. The figure represents a 12.2-percent increase in relation to the January-March quarter, which saw the first ripple effects of the pandemic on the job market. Now, the total figure of Brazilians of working age who are not in employment skyrocketed by 15.6 percent in comparison to the previous quarter, totaling 77.8 million Brazilians or 37.13 percent of the population — the highest figure ever recorded.

9 coronavirus cases in Bolsonaro’s cabinet

Jorge Oliveira, the president’s Secretary-General, has tested positive for the coronavirus — becoming the eighth member of Jair Bolsonaro’s 23-person cabinet to do so. In just over a month, the number of people working at the presidential palace who contracted Covid-19 jumped 65 percent, with 70 of the 178 cases being confirmed over the past 30 days — besides the president himself and First Lady Michelle Bolsonaro.

Industry production grows 8.9 percent, but continues 12 percent below pre-pandemic rates

In June, Brazilian industry production continued its gradual recovery after reaching the lowest point on record in April due to the pandemic. The general index rose by 8.9 percent compared to May — the second increase in a row — but it is still around 12 percent below February levels. The numbers were released by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE).

78 years old

The Brazilian music world celebrates the 78h birthday of Caetano Veloso, one of the most iconic and talented musicians in the country’s history. Known for being one of the voices of the MPB Brazilian pop movement and part of the Tropicália cultural wave in the 1960s, he gifted the world with a series of iconic albums, such as “Caetano Veloso” (1968), “Transa” (1972), and “Outras Palavras” (1985). During the military dictatorship in Brazil, from 1964 to 1985, Caetano was persecuted and arrested. During an interview on TV channel Rede Globo, he celebrated that the documentary “Narciso em Férias,” which recalls his political imprisonment, was selected for the 77th Venice Film Festival. [/restricted]

Brazil Weekly

High-profile cases on the Supreme Court docket

This week, we’re covering the eventful return from vacation of Brazil’s Supreme Court. And the worst month of the year for politicians is just starting.

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Brazilian courts back from vacation with explosive cases ahead

The Brazilian Justice system resumes its activities today, as its July recess comes to an end. And many high-profile cases will now be heard before the Supreme Court and the Superior Court of Justice — Brazil’s two highest judicial bodies.[restricted]

Why it matters. Upcoming trials have the potential to trigger several crises for the government, directly concerning President Jair Bolsonaro, his family, and his allies. Here are some of the cases:

  • Meddling with the Feds. The investigation into whether Mr. Bolsonaro illegally tried to tamper with federal probes continues — and the Supreme Court will rule on whether or not he must testify. That could spark a new rift between the Executive and Judiciary branches — a rocky relationship that had calmed in recent weeks.
  • Fake news. The probe on the use of illegal underground fake news rings continues at full throttle (more below), and investigators are zeroing in on the president’s inner circle.
  • Money laundering. The Superior Court of Justice will decide on whether or not Fabrício Queiroz — a key figure in a money-laundering investigation against Senator Flávio Bolsonaro — shall return to prison or remain on house arrest. The case’s rapporteur has denied 97 percent of habeas corpus requests. Plus, the Supreme Court will decide if the president’s son can enjoy legal prerogatives given to elected officials in special circumstances, or if the case should go to lower courts.
  • Car Wash. The Supreme Court will decide on the disqualification of Sergio Moro in the Operation Car Wash cases he judged. After it was revealed that the former judge quarterbacked prosecutors — which he must not do — former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva asked that his corruption convictions be voided, as Mr. Moro was the presiding judge on his case.

Changes ahead. In September, the Supreme Court will have a new chief justice, Luiz Fux. The change is part of the court’s rotation system, and happens every two years. Mr. Fux is expected to be much less friendly to Mr. Bolsonaro than the incumbent Dias Toffoli has been. Moreover, while Justice Toffoli is considered an anti-Car Wash judge, Justice Fux is the opposite.

  • On November 1, Justice Celso de Mello will turn 75 and thus reach compulsory retirement. He will be replaced by a justice chosen by President Bolsonaro.

A “mad-dog” month for a mad-dog year commences

According to the folklore of Brazilian politics, August is a particularly dreadful month. It is nicknamed the “Month of the Mad Dog” because, apparently, Brazil’s climate in the middle of the year causes female dogs to be in heat, thus driving male dogs crazy. While there are many modern examples of political turbulence in the month, the ‘curse’ is believed to date back to colonial times. August was traditionally the month where 15th and 16th century explorers would leave European shores to find new lands abroad, risky endeavors that many never returned from.

Why it matters. In Brazilian politics, the Month of the Mad Dog has thrown up a surprising number of twists and turns for decades now. And it’s not like 2020 hasn’t hit Brazil and the world hard enough in its first seven months.

History. Call it a coincidence, but August does have a bad track record:

  • 1954. On August 24, under pressure to resign and fearing a coup d’état, then-President Getulio Vargas killed himself in the presidential palace with a gunshot to his chest.
  • 1961. On August 25, Jânio Quadros decided to resign from the presidency after just a few months in office — a failed self-coup. Mr. Quadros hoped that Congress and voters would not let him step down, and give him extra powers to govern. It didn’t work and sparked an institutional crisis that culminated in the 1964 military coup.
  • 1969. Field Marshal Artur da Costa e Silva, the second president of the dictatorship, became incapacitated by a stroke on August 31. The Armed Forces’ so-called “hard-line” prevented civilian Vice President Pedro Aleixo from taking office, giving power to a junta of the heads of the three military forces instead. Four months later, the government passes the infamous AI-5 — the harshest piece of legislation of the dictatorship period, inaugurating Brazil’s so-called “Years of Lead.”
  • 1976. Juscelino Kubistchek, the former president known for having created the capital city Brasília, died in a August 22 car crash. Many believe he was in fact assassinated by the military government, after two other high-profile opponents of the regime died in suspicious circumstances that same year.
  • 1992. Cornered by scandals, Fernando Collor — the first democratically elected president after the dictatorship — asked voters to take to the streets on August 16, wearing yellow and green in support of him. They wore black instead, demanding his ousting and triggering an impeachment process.
  • 2014. Presidential candidate Eduardo Campos died in an August 13 plane crash.
  • 2016. After being suspended from office by the House in May, Dilma Rousseff was finally removed by the Senate early on August 31. The entire process was a highly controversial, divisive affair, with Brazilians split between those who said Ms. Rousseff’s strategy to mask public deficits just before her re-election campaign was undemocratic (which it was), and those saying that Congress removed her on jumped-up charges as a pretext to install a right-wing coalition in power (which also was true).

Bolsonaro. In his first August as president, Jair Bolsonaro faced a global image crisis sparked by the increase in Amazon fires. However, he made it to September reasonably unscathed. Now, with the end of the government’s coronavirus emergency salary looming, will he be able to do that again?


IRB Brasil RE, Latin America’s biggest reinsurance group, has informed markets of the postponement of its Q2 earnings report, from August 14 to 28. The company has had a terrible 2020, with accusations of doctoring profitability reports and lying to the market — which led to comparisons with the 1990s Enron scandal — and a 92-percent drop in net profits in Q1 2020. Since the beginning of the year, IRB Brasil RE’s stock dropped 78 percent.

The coronavirus becomes more lethal in Brazil

According to the Health Ministry’s official figures, July was the deadliest month since the coronavirus arrived in Brazil, late in February. At least 32,912 Brazilians died last month, taking the total tally to over 94,000. However, due to underreporting, the real figures are probably much higher. Still, coronavirus deaths in Brazil over the last month alone outnumbered the entire death tolls for several countries that have been badly hit by the pandemic, such as France (30,135), Spain (28,445), or Russia (14,128). Experts say only mass testing will reduce death rates in Brazil.

Looking ahead

  • Taxes. President Jair Bolsonaro said on Sunday that he has authorized Economy Minister Paulo Guedes to go ahead with his proposal to create a new tax on financial transactions — something the president has spoken out against several times in the past. Mr. Bolsonaro added that the new levy would have to replace a tax that is already in place — most likely payroll tax — but the idea is not popular among members of Congress … and even less so among voters.
  • Interest rates. The Central Bank’s Monetary Policy Committee will establish Brazil’s new benchmark interest rate on Wednesday. Due to a lower-than-expected inflation rate, analysts expect yet another cut — from 2.25 to just 2 percent a year, which would be another all-time low. Markets will be holding out for the meeting’s minutes to be published, which will indicate if more cuts are on the horizon.
  • Telecoms. Oi Telecom’s agreement for exclusive talks with Highline over the sale of the former’s mobile telephony infrastructure expires today. The latter — controlled by global investment fund Digital Colony — must top the BRL 16.5-billion bid made by a consortium of the top three telecom companies in Brazil — Vivo, TIM, and Claro. Highline, however, isn’t inclined to do so and is expected to drop out of the bidding.
  • Trade. Members of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee will investigate allegations that the country’s ambassador to Brasília, Todd Chapman, is framing trade policies with Brazil in a partisan manner in order to help Donald Trump’s re-election campaign. Mr. Chapman is lobbying for Brazil to lift tariffs on U.S. ethanol, reportedly arguing that it would give Mr. Trump an important trade win, which would bode well with voters. Per a media report, Mr. Chapman “highlighted the importance of Mr. Trump’s re-election for the Jair Bolsonaro administration.” Last week, the ambassador warned that if Brazil doesn’t ban China’s Huawei from its 5G grid, it would face “consequences.” These pressures come as a Gallup study shows that approval of U.S. leadership in Latin America is on par with sentiment in favor of Germany, China, and Russia.

In case you missed it

  • Social media. Facebook said on Saturday it has enforced a worldwide block on certain accounts connected to President Jair Bolsonaro staffers — flagged by the Supreme Court as illegal spreaders of false information with political purposes. On Friday, Justice Alexandre de Moraes penalized the social media company after it only blocked the accounts for IP addresses located in Brazil, dishing out a BRL 1.92 million (USD 367,000) fine. Facebook said it will appeal the decision, which, in its opinion, goes outside of “the limits of [Brazilian courts’ jurisdiction].” Freedom of speech advocates warn that the court’s crackdown on ‘fake news’ opens a dangerous precedent for censorship of unwanted content.
  • Energy. On Saturday, state-owned power company Eletrobras announced plans to invest BRL 6 billion per year until 2035 to expand its electricity generation and transmission. That amount could double if the government is successful in privatizing Eletrobras, reported the company, in a securities filing.
  • Infrastructure. Privatizing Eletrobras will be hard, however. In 2020, of the government’s 16 priority infrastructure projects, only one passed in Congress: the new legal framework for basic sanitation. The rest stalled, in part because of emergency votes on coronavirus-related matters, but also because Congress’ new remote work routine has halted progress of issue-based committees.
  • Banking. André Brandão, head of global banking and markets for the Americas at HSBC in the country, has reportedly accepted an invitation to become the new chief executive officer at state-controlled lender Banco do Brasil. Incumbent Rubem Novaes announced his resignation a week and a half ago.
  • Aviation. Latam Airlines, the top aviation group in Latin America, announced it will fire “at least” 2,700 workers in a statement — and opened a voluntary redundancy program on Friday. With 43,000 employees worldwide, Latam has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in the U.S., and hopes to restructure USD 18 billion in debt. The aviation industry has been ravaged by the coronavirus — which makes the announcement of a new airline in Brazil, Nella, owned by a Panama-based group, all the more puzzling. Reporter Renato Alves told that story.
  • Spying. Justice Minister André Mendonça has faced heat after a report revealed that his department created a secret dossier with information about almost 600 civil servants and law enforcement agents monitored for being self-declared “anti-fascists.” Days later, a presidential decree enhanced the powers of the Brazilian Intelligence Agency (Abin).[/restricted]

The rise and fall of Brazil’s social democrats

Six years after the start of Operation Car Wash, the anti-corruption task force is zeroing in on historic figures of the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB). In recent weeks, Senator José Serra and Geraldo Alckmin — both former presidential candidates — have faced multiple corruption allegations. Federal prosecutors indicted Mr. Serra for money laundering — accusing him and his daughter of moving millions of embezzled money to hidden offshore accounts. Days later, Mr. Alckmin was accused of receiving at least BRL 10 million from the Odebrecht construction group.

While Messrs. Serra and Alckmin don’t enjoy nearly the same level of political influence and prestige they once did, they have a rich political history, combining for almost two decades at the helm of the state government of São Paulo — Brazil’s wealthiest state — and four presidential bids, with three runner-up finishes. They represent a time when the PSDB still bore a relation with the social democratic values it carries in its name, when it stood for something beyond power-grabbing and rent-seeking, for which it has now become known.[restricted]

As Brazil lurches from crisis to crisis under President Jair Bolsonaro, it is worth reflecting on what happened to the PSDB and how this relates to the weakening of the country’s democracy. The collapse of its legitimacy has been a key factor in driving radicalization and polarization in Brazil — for which the party can only blame itself.

After winning or coming second in six successive presidential elections, the PSDB managed a measly 4.76 percent of the vote in the 2018 election, with the notoriously dull and milquetoast Geraldo Alckmin as the candidate. The party had lost its once firm hold on its middle-class base to the insurgent extremist candidacy of Jair Bolsonaro.

The origins of the Brazilian Social Democracy Party

The PSDB is rooted in the opposition to Brazil’s military dictatorship, which governed the country from 1964 to 1985. During this period, only two political parties could legally exist — the Brazilian Democratic Movement (MDB), the ‘official opposition’ party, and the Alliance for National Renewal (Arena), the party of the dictatorship. 

At the height of the military regime, it became clear that the MDB was a powerless shell of a party. As was the joke at the time, Arena was the party of ‘yes,’ and the MDB was the party of ‘yes, sir.’

By the mid-1970s, however, the regime loosened its political grip and the MDB began mounting a credible opposition. It became a sort of Noah’s Ark for any politician not aligned with the generals. This created a party with leaders from all different types of ideological backgrounds and convictions — from the feudal oligarchs of the Northeast to liberals, old-school conservatives, socialists, and communists. 

It rebranded itself the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB) in 1979, just as a new groundswell of movements against the dictatorship emerged, which increasingly found their political expression through the PMDB. The most successful of these causes was the Diretas Já (Direct Elections Now) campaign in 1984, demanding direct presidential elections in the country and eventually leading to the end of military rule in 1985.

When José Sarney took office as Brazil’s first civilian president after decades of military rule, the PMDB began giving birth to several spin-offs with varying ideologies. On the left, entire sections joined the rapidly growing Workers’ Party and Democratic Labor Party (PDT). And one group — made up largely of São Paulo-based politicians and intellectuals sharing a common vision — came together to form the PSDB.

While the Workers’ Party was born out of a militant labor movement, the PSDB was conceived as a party of the elite, with several extremely influential and successful politicians among its ranks, such as André Franco Montoro and Mário Covas, both of whom served as governors of São Paulo. Its political base was in Brazil’s richest and most middle-class state — which the party has ruled without interruption since 1995.

The early PSDB can be compared to Britain’s tradition of Fabian socialism, which saw the path towards social transformation as being led by an enlightened elite rather than the self-organization of the working class or a revolution. Hence, the PSDB’s political inspirations at the time were the socialist parties of figures such as French President François Mitterrand, rather than the USSR and Cuba — or even Chile’s Salvador Allende. 

It saw itself as a vanguard that would lead the nation towards modernist social democracy.

The Brazilian Real — and PSDB’s rise to power

The 1989 presidential race marked the first time the Brazilian population would choose their head of state in 29 years — and there was no lack of suitors. A total of 22 candidates squared off, with PSDB’s Mário Covas earning a mere 11 percent of the vote — mostly from voters in São Paulo. Four years later, however, the party would win the presidency in a landslide first-round victory — with PSDB candidate Fernando Henrique Cardoso finishing over 30 percentage points ahead of the runner up.

The massive win was made possible by the creation of the Brazilian Real — the new currency originating in July 1994, just months before the election. The new economic plan relied on two pillars: aggressively cutting the public deficit and pegging the Real to the U.S. Dollar. Inflation rates went from 48 percent in June to 1 percent in September of that year. People’s purchasing power increased — with many middle-class families being able to afford imported goods or international trips for the first time ever.

Mr. Cardoso, who was the Finance Minister at the time, became the face of the Brazilian Real and the improving economic scenario gave him an easy path to victory.

The PSDB era in power 

The PSDB that came to power in 1994 was already vastly different to the one that was conceived in the 1980s. It followed a global movement of social democratic parties towards the right — and Mr. Cardoso enthusiastically took up the “third way”: free market-driven modernization and the Washington Consensus. He strove to become the Brazilian answer to UK Prime Minister Tony Blair or U.S. President Bill Clinton.

The PSDB still had room for some state intervention, but development and modernization would be driven by the market rather than the developmentalism that Mr. Cardoso made a name in academia by critiquing. The party still had a social program, however, and it would introduce modernizing reforms through privatizations and opening up Brazil to the international market. But it would invest in infrastructure, education, and public healthcare.

It was under Mr. Cardoso’s auspices that Brazil developed what would become arguably the world’s biggest public Aids program. The administration took on two big foreign drugmakers, threatening to break the patents on their HIV drugs and getting them to cut their prices.

However, the roots of the party’s degeneration can be found in the party’s first term.

Mr. Cardoso chose to wager the political capital he had accumulated — in large part a legacy of the success of the Real — on amending Brazil’s Constitution to allow him to run for a second term. His bid was successful, but in doing so he and his party embraced the dark side of Brazilian politics. They aligned themselves to the most backward and venal forces in the country and indulged in no small amount of skulduggery in pursuit of constitutional change.

Moreover, there was no particularly good reason for him to seek a second term. There was no shortage of potential candidates among the ranks of his party. And while he insisted that the campaign emerged from the spontaneous desire of Congress to change the rules, he initiated this process and, perhaps his party along with the country as a whole, paid the moral and financial price for it.

When he finally left office, he had gone from a man who had won two elections without the need for a runoff, to a president with a rejection rate bigger than his support. 

However, his presidency still marked a historic moment for the country, as he was the first Brazilian president to peacefully hand over power since Juscelino Kubitshek in 1960. 

In 2002, as the country longed for change, then-Health Minister José Serra failed to beat the left-wing candidate Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a result that would repeat itself three more times. The Workers’ Party in first — and the PSDB as the runner up.

The social democrats, however, became the official respectable center-right opposition party rather than the modernist social democratic project it began its life as. But by 2014, it was well set on its journey towards the current mess it finds itself in. Corruption accusations and scandals were commonplace in the party, particularly in their fiefdom of São Paulo state.

Giving social democracy a bad name

The PSDB is now a pale shadow of its former glories, with no real political project beyond power and rent-seeking.  The 2018 elections saw it reduced to the standing of a regional party, only truly relevant in São Paulo. 

Its leading figure, São Paulo Governor João Doria, is the antithesis of what the party originally stood for. Mr. Doria is a narcissistic figure prone to changing his beliefs according to his convenience

He embraced the far-right to fuel his political ambitions and won a tight gubernatorial race on Jair Bolsonaro’s coattails — promoting a “Bolsodoria” platform to gobble up the anti-Workers’ Party vote in the state. The Brazilian Report showed on many occasions that, despite his current status as a mortal enemy of the president, he has more or less a similar agenda of authoritarian state repression and fiscal extreme libertarianism.

The process through which the PSDB sought to grant Mr. Cardoso a second term saw the moral transformation of the party, it transformed it into another faction of Brazil’s rent-seeking political class, but this itself is not enough to explain its current moribund status.

Regardless of the Workers’ Party’s errors in power, anti-left sentiment has become an almost religious sentiment that set millions on the journey towards the far-right. It radicalized the PSDB base to the point where the party’s stolid center-right leaders were “too moderate” and were even accused of communism. Mr. Bolsonaro, for instance, famously wished death on Mr. Cardoso back in 1999.

The second part of the party’s fall from grace was the failed candidacy of Aécio Neves, a venal playboy scion of one of Brazil’s oldest political dynasties. In 2014, Mr. Neves lost a closely fought election to the Workers’ Party’s candidate Dilma Rousseff in a brutal contest accompanied by accusations of corruption and misdeeds on both sides.

However, Mr. Neves refused to accept the election results, declaring them fraudulent — against the wishes of many of the leading lights of his own party. The result was that the official opposition party’s leader at the time refused to accept the result of a democratic election, challenging the very legitimacy of Brazilian democracy, as corruption scandals, mass protests, and economic crisis threw the country into chaos. 

With this move, the PSDB, the first party to peacefully surrender power in Brazil’s new democracy, opened a pandora’s box of mistrust and polarization, eventually consuming the party on the wild ride toward Mr. Bolsonaro’s presidency. These forces have helped produce the unfolding Covid-19 tragedy in Brazil, as the virus rages through a country governed almost unopposed by President Jair Bolsonaro.[/restricted]

Latin America

Brazilian court order to dig up dark chapter of Paraguay’s past

For 35 years, Alfredo Stroessner was the most powerful man in Paraguay. His government, between 1954 and 1989, was marked by relentless repression, state-sponsored murder, widespread corruption, and even rumors of a pedophile ring working under his auspices. Mr. Stroessner also turned his country into a safe haven for exiled Nazis, being a late-in-life home Dr. Josef Mengele, nicknamed the “Angel of Death” due to his experiments on children in Auschwitz. He would eventually drown on a Brazilian beach in 1979.

However, decades after Mr. Stroessner’s ouster, the dictator’s figure still haunts Paraguay — and a decision by a Brazilian court means that this past literally refuses to stay buried.[restricted]

After being pushed out of the presidency, Mr. Stroessner sought refuge in Brazil — where he lived until expiring in 2006 due to complications following a hernia operation, at 93 years old. He left an estate rumored at over USD 20 million, including properties such as a house in a luxurious neighborhood in Brasília, a ranch outside of Belo Horizonte, and six secret bank accounts in Switzerland. Until today, that estate is being fought over in courts — and a Brasília judge has recently ordered the dictator’s body be exhumed to carry out a DNA test and determine whether one Paraguayan man is entitled to a piece of the pie, as he claims to be the dictator’s son.

The process is sealed, but sources told The Brazilian Report that family judge Daniel Machado accepted a request by Paraguayan-born Enrique Alfredo Fleitas, who claims to be one of the three children fathered by Mr. Stroessner with one of his mistresses, Michele Fleitas — once dubbed Paraguay’s Brigitte Bardot. The alleged relationship started back in the 1970s and continued until his death, in a Brasília hospital.

In his ruling, the judge said there is no reason not to comply with the request for exhumation, as the dictator’s only remaining heir, 74-year-old Graciela Concepción Stroessner Mora, agreed with the measure. Judge Machado has requested that Brasília’s Campo da Esperança Cemetery inform the precise location of Mr. Stroessner’s grave for the procedure to be carried out.

Stroessner and Michele Fleitas
Stroessner and Michele Fleitas

Praised by Bolsonaro … 

Last year, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro created discomfort during a meeting with President Mario Abdo Benítez, of Paraguay, for praising the infamous dictator. Speaking about the bi-national hydroelectric power plant Itaipu, Mr. Bolsonaro called Mr. Stroessner “a man of vision, a statesman who knew perfectly well that his country could only progress with energy.”

… condemned by history

A member of the most reactionary wing of the Colorado Party, Alfredo Stroessner took power in 1954 and led an era marked by a cult of personality. His birthday, November 3, was celebrated for decades as fecha feliz — the “happy date.” But his 35 years in office were anything but happy for Paraguayans.

Alfredo Stroessner’s reign of terror was marked by constant state of emergency and a brutal regime poorly disguised as a democracy. There were elections, parliament, and an opposition (at least in name), but the regime enforced severe censorship, arbitrary arrests, and state-sponsored terrorism. Elections were rigged, with the dictator never receiving less than 90 percent of votes in eight races.

Moreover, he was complicit to the Armed Forces’ involvement in drug trafficking and smuggling — which he called a price to pay to “sustain peace.”

He continues to be under investigation for human rights violations by the country’s Justice Ministry’s Department of Historic Memory and Reparation. According to a truth commission, his government was responsible for disappearing and killing at least 459 people, while another 18,722 were tortured and 19,862 were arrested for political reasons.[/restricted]


Brazil’s greatest footballing tragedy a testament to structural racism

When one thinks of Brazil’s biggest sporting tragedies, the mind immediately wanders to the 2014 World Cup semifinals, when the national football team was destroyed by champions-in-waiting Germany, seven goals to one, in front of their home fans. However, the defeat pales in comparison to the significance of a loss suffered 70 years ago today, when Brazil saw the World Cup trophy slip through its fingers in front of almost 200,000 fans in Rio de Janeiro.

The “Maracanazo” of 1950 — when Brazil lost 2-1 to Uruguay and saw their tiny neighbors from the south crowned world champions at their expense — became a source of huge national shame, with the widespread excitement around the national football team giving way to defeatism and even self-hatred. In fact, the fallout even took on racial overtones, as the press and fans turned on Brazil’s three black players, creating certain prejudices that persist in the national game until today.

The bigger they come, the harder they fall

The importance of Brazil’s loss in the 1950 World Cup was magnified by the fact that the team were the absolute favorites to win the trophy. The traditional European footballing powers were still in a period of reconstruction after World War II, while reigning champions Italy had seen the spine of their team perish in the Superga air disaster of 1949. Brazil were hosting the tournament and they already seemed to have one hand on the cup.

Brazil strolled through the tournament, qualifying for the final stage and needing a simple draw in the final match against Uruguay to win their first-ever world championship. The certainty of victory was such that the press was already hailing Brazil world champions on the morning of the game, and Rio de Janeiro Mayor Ângelo Mendes de Moraes gave an extremely confident speech to the team before kick-off.

“You Brazilians, who I consider as winners of the tournament … Who in less than two hours will be acclaimed as champions by millions of your compatriots … You have no equal in this hemisphere, you are superior to any opponent, you who I already address as conquerors.”

The gods of football, however, had something else in mind. Though Brazil controlled the majority of the game, taking a 1-0 lead, they gradually started to relax and allowed openings for their Uruguayan visitors. With 66 minutes on the clock, the unthinkable happened: Uruguayan winger Alcides Ghiggia tore down the right flank and cut the ball across goal for center-forward Juan Alberto Schiaffino to shoot high into the net. 1-1.

The Maracanã stadium, with 200,000 supporters in attendance, went completely silent, so much so the cheers of the 11 Uruguayan players could be heard high up in the stands. With the scores level, Brazil would still be crowned champions, but the potential of failure fell on the stadium like a ton of bricks.

Brazil’s players suffered a collective collapse under the pressure, not too dissimilar from what was seen in the 7-1 drubbing against Germany in 2014. And on 79 minutes, it happened again. Ghiggia broke down the right side once again, and just as he was about to repeat the exact same play as the first goal, cutting it back to Schiaffino, he angled his body and shot for goal himself, and it crept into the near corner of the net. The last 11 minutes of play were met with a deafening silence.

football world up 1950
Scoreboard shows Uruguay winning 2-1 to a flabbergasted crowd. Photo: Public Archive

The fallout for Brazilian football

Brazilian journalist Paulo Perdigão, in his wonderfully obsessive book Anatomy of a Defeat in which he pieced together radio commentary to come up with a comprehensive autopsy of the 1950 loss to Uruguay, described the match as “a Greek tragedy in the Third World (…) it was a Waterloo in the tropics, and its history our Götterdämmerung”.

The optimism and pride that had radiated among Brazilians during the tournament had disappeared, and in its place came defeatism and self-hatred. Brazil looked up to the Uruguayan team — in particular their commanding captain Obdúlio Varela — as archetypal human beings: admirable men with integrity and mental strength, able to win under pressure and against all odds. Meanwhile, they saw their own team, and the Brazilian population as a whole, as no more than spineless dogs, forever bullied and bossed around, ultimately unable to rise to any challenge.

Brazilian fans laid the blame for the 1950 defeat on the doorsteps of three of their starting lineup. The first was Flamengo’s left-back Bigode. An accomplished defender, known for his strength and flying tackles, his reputation would change forever during the first half of the match against Uruguay. At the beginning of the game, he stayed close to right-winger Ghiggia, stepping on his toes and trying to unsettle the quick attacker. Concerned his teammate was being intimidated by his Brazilian marker, Uruguay captain Obdúlio Varela told Ghiggia off, demanding he stand up for himself.

From that moment, Ghiggia appeared to play with more confidence and the tactical battle between him and Bigode would prove critical to the outcome of the match. However, it was an incident some minutes later that would seal Bigode’s fate with the Brazilian public.

After reinstating Ghiggia’s confidence, Obdúlio Varela turned his attentions to Bigode. During open play, the Uruguayan violently grabbed Bigode by the neck and some accounts say he sneaked a sly punch on the Brazilian’s chin. Bigode, wary of punishment and putting his team in serious trouble by leaving them with 10 men, chose not to retaliate. To the 200,000 fans in the Maracanã, Bigode’s refusal to react came across as cowardice. He appeared as nothing more than a subservient dog kicked by his master, the imposing Varela. While Varela was revered for his authority and virility, it was in Bigode that the Brazilian saw himself – and for that they hated him.

The second culprit was Brazil’s goalkeeper, Moacir Barbosa. An excellent player in his time, Barbosa came into the final after a stellar World Cup. In Brazil’s draw against Switzerland he made a heroic last-minute save, touching a shot from Hans-Peter Friedländer on to the post to save them from defeat. In the following match against Yugoslavia, he made a number of critical interventions, allowing Brazil to progress to the final stage.

It was beyond doubt, however, that Barbosa was partially at fault for Uruguay’s winning goal on July 16, 1950. Having expected Ghiggia to cross the ball to Schiaffino, his positioning was poor and gave the Uruguayan winger reason to believe he could score by himself. Barbosa was caught off guard by Ghiggia’s shot on goal and though he managed to get down to meet the ball, he could only fumble it into his own net.

Considering he was one of Brazil’s greatest goalkeepers and an idol at his club side Vasco da Gama, Barbosa was perhaps treated the harshest out of the Maracanazo’s “guilty trio,” as his career became defined by his second-half performance in that fateful match. In 1994, he told reporters: “the maximum prison sentence in Brazil is 30 years. I’ve been paying 44 years for a crime I didn’t commit.”

The third of the accused was not blamed right away, but while journalists and fans went after Bigode and Barbosa, the players and coach blamed center-back Juvenal. He was Bigode’s defensive partner at Flamengo, and his crime in 1950 was poor covering and defensive positioning. Bigode, his teammate for club and country, was brutally clear about who was at fault: “We lost the match because Juvenal screwed up. At the second goal he should have been covering me but he just stood still, doing who knows what.”

There were rumours that Juvenal’s preparation for the match had been less than satisfactory, having had a fight with coach Flávio Costa the night before. The story goes that Juvenal had asked to leave the team hotel the day before the game to visit his sick mother, but instead went out drinking, was caught, and brought back to the hotel still inebriated. It is speculated that he was confronted by Costa and the two argued, ending with the coach striking his defender across the face. Costa acknowledged the incident at the time, quoted as saying he “punished Juvenal, like a father would to his son,” but denied it years later. Brazil’s only other center-back was injured, so, disagreement or not, Flávio Costa was forced to play Juvenal against Uruguay.

In the decades after the Maracanazo, players on both sides would organize reunions where they would reminisce about the match. Juvenal was one of the few who refused any invitations, unable to forgive being thrown under the bus by his team-mates.

Out of the three accused, Barbosa was the only one ever to play for Brazil again, playing once against Ecuador in 1953. Bigode and Juvenal, regulars before 1950, would never get anywhere near the national side.

One important fact connects Bigode, , and Juvenal: they were the 1950 Brazil team’s three black players. As one of the last countries to outlaw slavery in 1888, Brazilian society in the 1940s and 1950s was still heavily divided and racist sentiments remained prevalent. Many of the same people that gave birth to Brazil’s “stray dog complex” with their self-hatred and feelings of inferiority believed that their defeat came as a result of Brazil’s deep racial mixture, claiming the Brazilian had turned into some sort of impure sub-race.

This was made all the more vicious by the fact Bigode, Barbosa, and Juvenal were defenders, positions of confidence. Over the years, Brazil has been blessed with tons of wonderful black and multiracial players, but less so in defensive positions, and almost never as goalkeepers. The progression of this racist idea was that black players might well be technically gifted and creative, but they could not be trusted.

It is ironic, then, that the player Brazil’s “stray dogs” looked up to after 1950, the mentally strong and commanding Obdúlio Varela, was himself multiracial. His father was a white Spanish immigrant and his mother, Juana, was a black laundry worker.

Excerpts of this article were adapted from A to Zico: an Encyclopedia of Brazilian Football, co-authored by Euan Marshall and Mauricio Savarese.


Hydroxychloroquine defender suspended for anti-semitic comments

São Paulo’s flagship Israelite Albert Einstein Hospital has suspended Doctor Nise Yamaguchi after being accused of making anti-semitic comments during an interview with the government’s official TV channel.

Ms. Yamaguchi supports using controversial antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine on coronavirus patients. Earlier this year, she was briefly considered for the Health Minister position, occupied on an interim basis by Army General Eduardo Pazuello (who has no medical background) for over two months.

In the interview in question, Ms. Yamaguchi warned views about how the fear of coronavirus may be more dangerous than the virus. At some point, she compared the pandemic to the Holocaust. “Fear is harmful to everything. First, it paralyzes you. It makes you easy to manipulate. Anyone. Do you think that a few Nazi soldiers would be able to control that the hungry Jewish herd if they did not subject them to that daily humiliation?”

The hospital called the anti-semitic statement “unusual” and has opened an investigation before making further decisions.

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When Brazil played in North Korea … sort of

From atop the Arch of Triumph, a monument of much pride for North Korea, one of the officials who guided me around my ten-day stay in the most closed-off country in the world directed my attention to the grand stadium directly in front, for two reasons:

“In this stadium, our Eternal President made his first speech after liberating the Korean people from Japanese imperialists. Oh, and it was also there that Brazil played against our national football team. You must have heard about that match. It was very good. I was there.”

It was September 2017. I had entered North Korea (officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) with government permission for a visit that would result in a series of articles and my third book, The Hermit Kingdom. Among the conditions to receive a visa for North Korea was agreeing to the permanent surveillance of three guides and relinquishing any control over my choice of hotel, dates of stay, and my itinerary. Everything was orchestrated so that I would only see and register exactly what the North Korean regime allowed me to see.[restricted]

Put simply, the plan was to show all of the positives of the country so that I could relay this to the ‘outside world.’ 

This state propaganda tour included a trip to the Arch of Triumph and the 50,000-seater Kim Il-sung Stadium, the second-largest arena in capital city Pyongyang. It was there that, at least according to North Koreans, the national football team played Brazil in a 2009 friendly match, in preparation for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. In what was considered a major coup for the government, they had managed to attract the legendary Brazilian national side to Pyongyang — or, at least, so they thought.

Football in North Korea

Built in 1926, the Kim Il-sung Stadium hosted North Korea’s major football matches up until the 1950s, until it was destroyed by U.S. bombs in the Korean War. But, as the arena was a symbol of the “revolution,” it was completely rebuilt after the war and reopened in 1969, under the name Moranbong Stadium. After another renovation in 1982, making the facilities more modern, it was renamed the Kim Il-Sung Stadium, stage of the supposed historic match between the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and Brazil. 

The day before my visit to the Arch of Triumph, the stadium hosted a key Asian Cup qualifying match between North Korea and Lebanon, which ended in a 2-2 draw. I was able to watch the game on North Korean state television, which had not broadcasted the match live. The cameras showed an impeccable green pitch and stands packed with red-shirted fans. The home support was very disciplined, not carrying any flags or banners, and they did not leave their seats at any point, nor did they jeer the opponents.

The only noise from the crowd were loud and united shouts of “ooh!” every time the home side constructed a threatening attack, and applause for impressive plays or North Korean goals. When Lebanon had the ball, the stadium descended into complete silence. I had asked to watch the game live, in the stadium, but my guides said it was impossible, as it wasn’t on my schedule.

And it was here, in the Kim Il-sung Stadium, that North Korea played the fabled friendly against Brazil. But it wasn’t quite the Brazilian national team — North Korea’s opponents on that day were actually Atlético Sorocaba, a small pro side playing in the second division São Paulo state championships.

The arrival of ‘Brazil’

sorocaba in pyongyang
Atlético Sorocaba players in Pyongyang. Photo: Author provided/Waldir Cipriani

This odd sporting event in the world’s most closed-off country was actually orchestrated by Sun Myung Moon, the Korean religious leader best known as Reverend Moon, who founded the Church of Unification in the 1950s. The church was particularly prominent in Brazil, especially in the 1990s, when Reverend Moon bought more than 80,000 hectares of land in the interior of Mato Grosso do Sul state, taking hundreds of followers with him. He then expanded his business, buying car factories, broadcasters, and investing significant sums of money into two football teams: Clube Esportivo Nova Esperança (CENE, from the reverend’s ranch in Mato Grosso do Sul), and Atlético Sorocaba.

Flown over to Pyongyang, Atlético Sorocaba’s delegation went through the same situation I did eight years later. Upon arrival, all players and staff had their phones and passports confiscated, before being whisked off to a monument in tribute of Kim Il-Sung, where a club representative left flowers, and players paid homage. In the days that followed, every move that the delegation made was under the watchful eye of government-appointed bodyguards, and they visited many of the same sites I would be taken to in 2017.

With the country having failed to qualify for a World Cup in 44 years, the North Korean fans were ecstatic to see their country’s first match against Brazil — expecting to see the five-time world champions, home of legends such as Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, and Pelé. Amid the buzz, 80,000 fans squeezed into the stadium, with another 30,000 milling around outside, watching the match on a large screen, none the wiser that their opponents were a tiny club team who weren’t even big enough to play in Brazil’s national league.

The big match

brazil north korea line ups
“Brazil” and North Korea lineups. Photo: Author provided/Waldir Cipriani

The Brazilian players, speaking about the match afterward, were surprised by the behavior of the fans — the same shouts of “ooh!” when the home side attacked, and the complete silence whenever “Brazil” had possession. The game ended in a 0-0 draw, and upon returning to Sorocaba, the players and staff claimed they avoided winning out of fear of punishment from the North Korean regime.

“It was a difficult game. Our delegation was only 30 people, it was just us against an entire country, and we had no idea what was going on, or what could happen. The atmosphere in the game was tense,” said Atlético Sorocaba’s starting goalkeeper, Klayton Scudeler. “But when you get on the pitch, you forget it, you want to win. I think the result was good for both sides.

The manager of the Brazilian side, Edu Marangon, explained how the home fans may have been tricked into thinking they were playing the Brazilian national side. “The scoreboard had us down as Brazil. Atlético Sorocaba’s colors are red and yellow, but as North Korea play in red, we wore a yellow strip, and they thought we were the Brazilian national team,” he said, in an interview with news website UOL. The locals were so convinced that a crowd followed the Atlético Sorocaba team bus to the stadium, greeting the middling São Paulo side with chants of “Brazil! Brazil!”

There was some suspicion that this whole “mix up” was premeditated by the North Korean government. The following year, in South Africa, the real Brazilian national team faced North Korea in their opening group match of the World Cup. Brazil won 2-1, a result celebrated by Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un and his advisors.

Atlético Sorocaba’s Asian odyssey didn’t end there, however, and the club ended up making another four trips to North Korea, before the team folded in 2016, four years after Reverend Moon’s death, which spelled the end of his sizable investments in the provincial side.[/restricted]

Guide to Brazil

São Paulo’s forgotten rebellion

Today, July 9, is traditionally a public holiday in the state of São Paulo, commemorating the 1932 Constitutionalist Revolution, eventually quelled by President Getúlio Vargas. However, São Paulo’s history of battles and skirmishes goes beyond 1932. One particular uprising, that of 1924, has largely flown under the radar in the state’s history.

Cannons, trenches, bombings, roughly 5,000 injured and hundreds of deaths — not a scenario one would usually associate with Brazil. This was the setting for an entire month in São Paulo in the 1920s, as the country’s most important economic center saw itself caught up in a military uprising as social changes brought the region to boiling point. With time, the damages were covered up and along with them the story of the worst conflict in Latin America’s biggest city.[restricted]

“Oh well, that’s because of a curse. It’s the revolution doomed to be forgotten for 100 years,” jokes Celso Luiz Pinho, author of ‘São Paulo – 1924,’ a book about the uprising of rebellious army members that tore the city apart for almost a month in July of 1924. While the grim forecast of an army commander passed on to Mr. Pinho is now an anecdote, it actually remains accurate. While the 1932 uprising is celebrated with the highest monument in the city — an obelisk built to hold the remains of fallen soldiers — and a public holiday, the events of 1924 are barely discussed by Brazilian historians, not to mention the population.

For Ilka Stern Cohen, author of ‘Bombas sobre São Paulo – A revolução de 2014,’ “memory is made out of choices that make sense or not. The events of 1924 do not make sense to São Paulo’s narratives. It all happened in the city by chance, local politicians were not involved. Of course it was important, it changed the lives of those who were besieged for more than 20 days, but it disappeared because it does not serve any interest,” she told The Brazilian Report.

Though it seems lost in time, this failed coup actually sheds light on ever-present questions in Brazilians politics: the need for social reforms and the involvement of the army in everyday politics.

A powder keg in São Paulo

While the uprising itself started on July 5, its causes go far back. The 1920s were a period of social change in Brazil, with the first steps of urbanization and industrialization taking place in its coastal cities. Amid the changes, the political system known in Brazil as “the Old Republic” — marred by rigged elections, low public participation in politics, and a rotation of rural elites in power — slowly started to crack.

One of these cracks showed up in the armed forces, in a movement referred to by the textbooks as tenentismo, or Lieutenantism. The lower ranks of the Army — an institution seen as almost unbreakable in modern-day Brazil — were keen on social changes. “I explain 1924 as an attempt to re-establish the ideals of the 1889 Republic. It is a moment when the political model is questioned”, says Ms. Stern Cohen.

Two years before, 18 soldiers had shown their dissatisfaction in Rio de Janeiro, when they tried to take over the Copacabana Fort, being besieged by the federal government forces and dying on the beach.

As an attempt to dissipate the movement, explains Mr. Pinho, some of those involved were deployed to far-away provinces, such as Mato Grosso do Sul and the countryside of São Paulo. Indeed, they were far from the federal capital of Rio de Janeiro, but not from each other. There, they were able to spread their ideas and gather support. Unaware of the situation, the city of São Paulo lay in between the rebels and their goal: to overthrow then-president Artur Bernardes in Rio de Janeiro.

The heat of the battle

The uprising began on the second anniversary of the attempted coup in Copacabana. The rebels, commanded by general Isidoro Dias Lopes, took over the 4th Cavalry Battalion in Santana, to the north of São Paulo, as reported by newspaper O Estado de S.Paulo. From there, they took the military airport of Campo de Marte and bombed the official government palace, which was located in São Paulo’s city center.

The conflict was brutal, with the rebels firing cannons and being targeted by aerial bombing in response. Trenches were dug all over town. Civilian areas such as the working-class neighborhoods of Mooca and Brás were targeted; the Liceu Coração de Jesus school, which was close to the palace, was hit by three bombs.

“[Federal government forces] bombed São Paulo and whether due to lack of technical knowledge or by a will to end the confrontation as soon as possible, they were not very fond of buildings, houses. There was broad destruction”, said historian Boris Fausto, in the Netflix documentary series Guerras do Brasil.

A quick fight was also the goal of the rebels, says Mr. Pinho. “They wanted a blitz. In little time, they occupied strategic spots, but did not have outside support. It was easy to see, after 20 days, that it wouldn’t work. Planning is beautiful on paper, but when it came to reality, they were not prepared.”

In her book, Ms. Stern Cohen explains some episodes of misfortune and bad planning that worked against the rebels, such as an informant that tipped off military commanders loyal to the government, who managed to organize a resistance and arrest some of the main leaders of the rebellion: brothers Joaquim and Juarez Távora.

But dragging the conflict on for so long took a heavy toll on civilians. Caught up in the conflict, they couldn’t tell rebels from loyalists, as both wore the same uniforms. Amid the besieged state, thousands fled to the countryside and the city’s supply chain largely dried up. Left to their own devices, the population tried to organize the city and mediate the conflict. But those efforts were not enough to avoid massive losses. Sources diverge in terms of deaths; official counts speak of 503 casualties, but historians put that number closer to 800. Regardless, the uprising of 1924 remains, to this day, the biggest armed conflict in the city of São Paulo’s history.

A symptom, not the cause

The rebellion itself did not have popular support in the streets, as Ms. Stern recalls, but the causes supported by the rebels were not strange to Brazilians. “It happened at a time of overall dissatisfaction. You had strikes, police repression … There was no one in the streets, but you can tell, by looking at the newspaper editorials, that there was some sort of sympathy [toward the uprising] as they were pointing to a new direction for the country,” she said.

The lieutenants did not know, but while they fled to the countryside after losing the unplanned battle for São Paulo, military uprisings in their support took place in Amazonas, Mato Grosso, and Sergipe, according to Fundação Getúlio Vargas.

Even though their claims were vague — and included ousting an elected president by the threat of violence — other demands made by the uprising find echoes in modern Brazil, such as improved education, cutting illiteracy, fair elections, and an end to corruption. Mr. Pinho recalls that, in the end, lieutenants were no longer a rank in the military, it was a name for all of those who supported their cause, whether they were members of the military or not.[/restricted]

Brazil Weekly

River transfer is Bolsonaro’s ploy to gain support in Northeast

Jair Bolsonaro kicks off his strategy to gain support in the Northeast with a water infrastructure project. The new behavior of Brazilian investors. And just how important is the coronavirus stipend for families.

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Bolsonaro uses water diplomacy to gain support in Northeast

President Jair Bolsonaro has inaugurated a stretch of the São Francisco river transfer project, [restricted]in the northeastern state of Ceará. Friday’s event kicked off a project to increase the government’s popularity in the region, where Mr. Bolsonaro has his lowest approval ratings in the entire country. Eyeing the 2022 re-election bid, the government plans to launch several development actions in the poor semi-arid region.

Infrastructure. The project to transfer the São Francisco River is the biggest hydric infrastructure project in Brazilian history. With 13 aqueducts, nine pumping stations, 27 reservoirs, and 270 kilometers of high-tension transmission lines, it plans to divert 1.4 percent of the river’s water to supply municipalities that have historically struggled with droughts.

History. The project was initially conceived by Emperor Dom Pedro II in the mid-1800s, but construction only started 150 years later, during the government of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Last week, Mr. Bolsonaro became the fourth president to inaugurate a stretch of the project in the hopes of claiming ownership for its completion. His predecessors Michel Temer and Dilma Rousseff did the same.

  • The transfer is one of Brazil’s many hyperbolic projects that seem to never end. Other examples are the Trans-Amazonian Highway, which started in the 1970s, and the Trans-Northeastern Railroad, in the 1980s.

Why it matters. If properly functioning, the river transfer will provide water security to 12 million people (more than the entire population of Portugal). The project is even more important if we consider that extreme climate events are becoming more and more frequent. Between 2012 and 2017, the semi-arid region faced the worst drought ever recorded in Brazil.

Northeast in the political chess. The Northeast remains a stronghold for the Workers’ Party — it is the only region in which Mr. Bolsonaro did not win in the 2018 election, and where he still faces his highest rejection rates. With almost 40 million voters, the Northeast can never be ignored by politicians. 

  • The president has dismissed the region on a few occasions, but his new congressional bedfellows, the so-called Big Center, want him to develop a foothold in the area in order to galvanize a highly conservative electorate that could flip to their side.
  • The coronavirus emergency salary is expected to boost the president’s stock among lower-income voters — and no Brazilian region is poorer than the Northeast.
São Francisco River transfer project
Development for the Northeast. Chart: Marcelo Anache/TBR

Brazilian funds increasingly eager to invest abroad

A study by consultancy Economatica showed that Brazilian funds’ investments in international assets have reached historic highs. As of May, BRL 278.5 billion were invested abroad, a staggering 90-percent growth since the end of 2019. Now, this type of investment accounts for 5.6 percent of portfolios. Meanwhile, variable income assets, such as stocks, represent 8.5 percent of local funds’ investments.

Why it matters. Brazilian portfolios tend to be less diversified and overly exposed to fixed-income dynamics, especially for investors relying on government bonds. With Brazil’s benchmark interest rate at historic lows, the investment market in the country is shifting fast.

BDRs. Economatica also points out an increase in the investments in Brazilian Depositary Receipts — a tool used by local investors to buy stocks of U.S. companies in Brazil — has reached all-time highs, with almost BRL 4 billion invested. 

  • This type of investment, however, is not for everyone. Only so-called “qualified investors” — that is, those with at least BRL 1 million in financial equity — can deal in BDRs.

Exposure. For Marco Harbich, a strategist at Terra Investimentos, it makes sense to pursue diversification while the so-called “risk premium” in Brazil is small, due to the country’s benchmark interest rate falling to its lowest level in history.

  • “These are ways to protect a portfolio with assets that are not related to Brazil. And you have the chance of enjoying a strong economy, as the recovery seems faster abroad than it looks here. Also, there is the fiscal side, which is very committed in Brazil,” he told The Brazilian Report.

— with Natália Scalzaretto


With the sanitation bill approved by Congress, investment bank BTG Pactual lists water and waste management company Sabesp as its top pick in the sector, due to its higher probability of privatization. If that does happen, analysts project Sabesp share prices jumping from the current level of BRL 56.30 to as high as BRL 94. Investors should bear two things in mind: the São Paulo government has to choose a privatization model — and there is a long way ahead before the new regulatory framework is fully implemented.

Natália Scalzaretto

How important is the coronavirus emergency salary?

President Jair Bolsonaro announced that the coronavirus emergency salary may be extended to three extra installments. Each payment, however, will be lower than the current BRL 600 (USD 110) with the current plan being to pay BRL 500 in the first month, lowered to BRL 400 and 300 in the subsequent stipends. The benefit has been pivotal to preventing an even deeper crisis, with over one-third of the Brazilian adult population receiving the payments. In some states, over half of the population aged over 18 depends on that money.

Looking ahead

  • Elections. Last week, the Senate passed a constitutional amendment changing the dates of the 2020 municipal elections, from October 4 and 25 to November 15 and 29. The matter now must be approved by the House, where there is little consensus on the change. Pressured by incumbent mayors, parties of the so-called Big Center in Congress have opposed the new calendar. To gather support, House Speaker Rodrigo Maia has proposed increasing money transfers from the federal government to municipalities. It will take 308 of 513 seats to change the election date.
  • Truce? Cornered by multiple investigations reaching members of his inner circle, President Jair Bolsonaro has charged his top political advisors with initiating conversations with Supreme Court justices and lowering tensions between the branches of government. The question is how long will this truce last — in the past, similar efforts did not last more than a few days. Perhaps the probes against his eldest son — or against his online supporters — will force a change of heart.
  • Coronavirus. It has been a month since states began reopening their economies, and the results are not encouraging. The infection curve saw steep bumps in the Northeast and Southeast regions. The epidemic is also advancing in the South — where cases and deaths have doubled over the month of June. In Brasília, the biggest public hospital has 100 percent of ventilators in use — and its director said in a leaked audio message that there are no longer available beds in most of the capital’s health units. Meanwhile, the city of São Paulo could reopen bars and restaurants as early as next week.

In case you missed it

  • Commodities. CME Group, the parent company of the Chicago Board of Trade, has celebrated a partnership with B3 — which controls São Paulo’s stock exchange — to develop risk management products for Brazilian companies on the domestic and global market. They will launch futures on Brazilian soybeans in Q3, pending regulatory approvals. The expanded deal includes the extension of the existing B3 cross-listed mini-soybean futures and options contracts, and will allow the companies to evaluate potential products related to South American soybeans and similar commodities.
  • Sanitation. After years of waiting, Congress has finally passed a new regulatory framework for sanitation services — which will allow private players to fight on an equal footing with public companies. The government expects BRL 700 billion in new investments in the near future and hopes the sector will help kickstart the economy. 
  • Justice. A Rio appeals court granted “parliamentary immunity” to Senator Flávio Bolsonaro in the investigation into alleged money-laundering operations carried out within his office, during his stint as a Rio state lawmaker. In practical terms, the case now leaves the trial courts and moves up to an appellate court, where it will be conducted by the politically-appointed State Prosecutor General. While the decision can be struck down by higher courts, it gives Mr. Bolsonaro more time to plan a defense or stall the case even more.
  • Cabinet. President Jair Bolsonaro announced Carlos Alberto Decotelli, the former head of Brazil’s National Fund for Education Development, as his new Education Minister. But his latest cabinet appointment didn’t come without its dose of controversy: on Twitter, Mr. Bolsonaro mentioned Mr. Decotelli held a Ph.D. from the University of Rosario (Argentina), which was denied by the institution’s dean — also on Twitter. Mr. Decotelli, however, is just the latest in a long line of Brazilian public officials who have lied about their résumés.[/restricted]

Listen to our special podcast series on the 1970 World Cup

In celebration of the 50th anniversary of Brazil’s triumph at the 1970 World Cup, The Brazilian Report has put together a special three-part podcast series on the historic tournament. In each episode, with the help of experts Tim Vickery and Andrew Downie, editor Euan Marshall takes us through different aspects of the Mexico World Cup, going on and off the pitch to analyze the competition’s historic significance for Brazil and the rest of the world.

In episode 1, we tell the story of João Saldanha, Brazil’s coach before the tournament and a card-carrying communist under a brutal military dictatorship. Rumor has it that Saldanha was sacked for his political beliefs, but we analyze the facts behind his turbulent time in charge of the national team. Then, we look at how the military did influence Brazil’s World Cup win, and it might not be where you expect.

In episode 2, we explore an often overlooked facet of the 1970 World Cup. Pelé was the hero of the tournament and winning the trophy cemented his place as the greatest player ever to play the game. However, just months before the cup, Brazilians were debating whether the King of Football was even good enough to make it into the national team squad.

In episode 3, we turn our attention to the grand finale between Brazil and Italy, and take apart some long-held misconceptions about the two teams, and the decisive match itself. Then, to round off the series, we look at the legacy of the 1970 World Cup, framing its importance to the history of the sport in Brazil and worldwide.

Support this podcast →Support this podcast →

Special: The Greatest Tournament in History

We left off our tale of the 1970 World Cup with Brazil beating England, the reigning world champions. It was a stunning game of football and it also represented a passing of the baton — Brazil were the new kings-in-waiting.

But they still had plenty to do. In the knockout stage, they had to get past Peru and Uruguay, before facing Italy in the grand finale in Mexico City. 

But however fabled that game may be, largely thanks to Brazil’s historic fourth goal and the post-match celebrations. It’s not exactly a classic match. The first-half is tight, but the second 45 minutes provide no contest whatsoever: Italy are dead on their feet, and Brazil look like Barcelona playing against an over 50s pub team.

In this final episode of our series, we look back at the legend of that final, and then try and frame the legacy of the 1970 World Cup, both in Brazil and abroad.

Listen to episode 1 and episode 2

Listen and subscribe to our podcast from your mobile device:

Spotify | Apple Podcasts | YouTube | Google Podcasts | Deezer

On this episode:

  • Tim Vickery is a freelance English football journalist, who has lived in Brazil since 1994. He is the South American football correspondent for BBC Sport, contributing to the corporation’s output online, on TV and radio. Vickery frequently writes for World Soccer, ESPN and Sports Illustrated and he is also an analyst on SporTV’s main morning program, Redação SporTV.
  • Andrew Downie is a Scottish journalist and the author of “Doctor Socrates: Footballer, Philosopher, Legend.” His latest work, an oral history of the 1970 World Cup entitled “The Greatest Show on Earth,” is available for pre-order now. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Economist, The Guardian, GQ, Reuters, and Esquire, among others.

This special series is made by

  • Euan Marshall, script and interviews. Euan is a journalist and translator who has lived in São Paulo, Brazil since 2011. Specializing in Brazilian soccer, politics and the connection between the two, his work has been published in The Telegraph, Al Jazeera, The Independent, among others.
  • Gustavo Ribeiro, sound engineering. Gustavo is editor in chief of The Brazilian Report. He has extensive experience covering Brazilian politics. His work has been featured across Brazilian and French media outlets, including Veja, Época, Folha de S.Paulo, Médiapart, and Radio France Internationale.

Do you have a suggestion for our next Explaining Brazil podcast? Drop us a line at

Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

Support this coverage →Support this podcast →

Special: How the King of Football got his crown

Edson Arantes do Nascimento is one of the most famous individuals in the world, but he’s not known for the name on his birth certificate. People from all corners of the Earth — even if they don’t follow football or know nothing about Brazil — will instantly recognize the name Pelé. He’s the greatest player in the history of football, and the 1970 World Cup in Mexico is seen as his finest hour, when he led Brazil to its third world title.

However, what the tributes to the 1970 World Cup often overlook is the fact that just months before the tournament began, Brazilians were debating whether Pelé was even good enough to play for the national team. And Pelé himself had vowed never to play at another World Cup, believing that the tournament itself was cursed.

In today’s second part of a three-part special Explaining Brazil series on the 1970 World Cup, we’re going to look at just how the King of Football got his crown, from early retirement to undisputed soccer legend.

Listen to episode 1

Listen and subscribe to our podcast from your mobile device:

Spotify | Apple Podcasts | YouTube | Google Podcasts | Deezer

On this episode:

  • Tim Vickery is a freelance English football journalist, who has lived in Brazil since 1994. He is the South American football correspondent for BBC Sport, contributing to the corporation’s output online, on TV and radio. Vickery frequently writes for World Soccer, ESPN and Sports Illustrated and he is also an analyst on SporTV’s main morning program, Redação SporTV.
  • Andrew Downie is a Scottish journalist and the author of “Doctor Socrates: Footballer, Philosopher, Legend.” His latest work, an oral history of the 1970 World Cup entitled “The Greatest Show on Earth,” is available for pre-order now. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Economist, The Guardian, GQ, Reuters, and Esquire, among others.

This special series is made by

  • Euan Marshall, script and interviews. Euan is a journalist and translator who has lived in São Paulo, Brazil since 2011. Specializing in Brazilian soccer, politics and the connection between the two, his work has been published in The Telegraph, Al Jazeera, The Independent, among others.
  • Gustavo Ribeiro, sound engineering. Gustavo is editor in chief of The Brazilian Report. He has extensive experience covering Brazilian politics. His work has been featured across Brazilian and French media outlets, including Veja, Época, Folha de S.Paulo, Médiapart, and Radio France Internationale.

Do you have a suggestion for our next Explaining Brazil podcast? Drop us a line at

Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

Support this coverage →Support this podcast →

How Brazil became the Land of Football

Fifty years ago, in the summer of 1970, the greatest national football team of all time won the World Cup in Mexico. Far from being merely an impressive win on the soccer pitch, Brazil’s victory in 1970 changed how we think about and watch football, and it changed Brazil. The country came into the tournament as a talented developing nation, with two World Cups under its belt already, but by the end of 1970, Brazil was known around the world as the Land of Football.

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On this episode:

  • Tim Vickery is a freelance English football journalist, who has lived in Brazil since 1994. He is the South American football correspondent for BBC Sport, contributing to the corporation’s output online, on TV and radio. Vickery frequently writes for World Soccer, ESPN and Sports Illustrated and he is also an analyst on SporTV’s main morning programme, Redação SporTV.
  • Andrew Downie is a Scottish journalist and the author of “Doctor Socrates: Footballer, Philosopher, Legend.” His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Economist, The Guardian, GQ, Reuters, and Esquire, among others.

This special series is made by

  • Euan Marshall, script and interviews. Euan is a journalist and translator who has lived in São Paulo, Brazil since 2011. Specializing in Brazilian soccer, politics, and the connection between the two, his work has been published in The Telegraph, Al Jazeera, The Independent, among others.
  • Gustavo Ribeiro, sound engineering. Gustavo is editor in chief of The Brazilian Report. He has extensive experience covering Brazilian politics. His work has been featured across Brazilian and French media outlets, including Veja, Época, Folha de S.Paulo, Médiapart, and Radio France Internationale.

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Covid-19 is now the deadliest event in recent Brazilian history

This week, Brazil passed the mark of 50,000 coronavirus deaths — to go along with over 1 million infections. Covid-19, described as a “little flu” by President Jair Bolsonaro, has claimed — in just 90 days — more Brazilian lives than any other event in recent Brazilian history. 

The Spanish Flu killed 35,000 Brazilians a century ago. Meanwhile, epidemics such as HIV-AIDS killed 48,000 people in the country. The coronavirus death count has even surpassed that of the War of the Triple Alliance, the bloodiest conflict in Brazilian history — which killed 50,000 Brazilians between 1864 and 1870.

Excluding the horrors of colonization and slavery, whose true death totals we will never accurately know, Covid-19 is now the deadliest single event in Brazilian history.

To further compound this tragedy, nearly all experts say the real numbers of infections and deaths are significantly higher than the official figures due to a lack of testing, and to the fact that several Brazilian states are trying to hide their numbers. Furthermore, the worst-hit cities in the country are reopening for business. 

The sheer extent of this tragedy was avoidable, though. Even if managing such a crisis in a country as vast and unequal as Brazil would be extremely difficult, the Jair Bolsonaro administration did almost everything in its power to make things worse. The president threw out the guidelines set by his own Health Ministry and got rid of two Health Ministers (the department is still being managed on an interim basis by an Army general with no background in medicine). Mr. Bolsonaro also incited revolt against stay-home orders, and promoted unproven drugs as “possible cures.”

Worldwide, Covid-19 has now killed more than 462,000 people and infected over 8.6 million. The crisis, however, still has no end in sight. 

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The world rediscovers Brazil’s most incredible writer

When the late Susannah Hunnewell, publisher of The Paris Review, asked French author Michel Houellebecq how he has the nerve to write some of the things he writes, he replied: “Oh, it’s easy. I just pretend that I’m already dead.” That is the best starting point to discuss one of the most avant-garde books of all time, “The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas,” the 1881 masterpiece published by Brazilian novelist Machado de Assis. In short, it is the autobiography of a dead man. Not an author who wrote before his death. Rather, he died … and then wrote his story.

If you think about it, great literature has always managed to combine escapism while messing with sleeping dogs. Which is why it is good news that, in the middle — or beginning, or end, who knows? — of the coronavirus crisis, English speakers will have a new chance to discover a work that challenges programs, beliefs, illusions, and preconceptions that dictated cultural production not only in Brazil, but around the world, way before postmodernist literature existed. This month, two translations of this masterpiece were released, by Penguin Classics and Liveright.[restricted]

The brochure edition put out by Penguin sold out instantly and, in the U.S., put Machado de Assis atop the “Caribbean and Latin American Literature” category on Amazon. “Not in my most feverish of fever dreams did I imagine this kind of enthusiasm. (Nor did Brás, since he estimates his readership at 5 people, max!),” wrote Flora Thomson-DeVeaux, who translated the book, on Twitter.

Posthumous Memoirs — as Brazilians usually shorten the title — is the no-holds-barred story of a life told from the point of view of a narrator who led an unexceptional life and represented the ordinary petit bourgeois in Rio de Janeiro’s late 19th century. On this note, an earlier edition of the book in English was titled “Epitaph of a Small Winner.” At various points, Brás Cubas breaks the fourth wall by talking directly to the reader about what he, the narrator, sees as flaws in his book, but ultimately decides to keep. 

Living narrators couldn’t come close to this level of self-awareness.

Through his narrator’s eye for detail, Posthumous Memoirs is a thorough and dead-on assessment of a racist, decadent society — and Machado leaves no convention untouched. In one particular chapter, the narrator witnesses a freed slave who once belonged to him whipping his own slave. Cubas at first finds it bothersome, but eventually cracks a laugh. This passage has a subtle jab at elites of the time — slavery would only be abolished years later, in 1888.

And the book is filled with these little details.

As Dave Eggers’ introduction to the Penguin edition claims, Machado was a master of deciphering the jokes of life — or maybe that one big joke called life. This is a book dedicated to “the worm who gnawed on the cold flesh of [Cubas’] corpse.” 

“[It] wouldn’t hurt,” Mr. Eggers writes, “to have a few more [novels] that allow humans — characters, readers, authors even — to laugh. Denying the jokes in life, and the joke of life itself, is too sad.”

Who was Machado de Assis — and why he was so important

Machado de Assis (1839-1908) was no joke at all. A mixed-race man from a poor Rio de Janeiro family, he barely attended public school and it’s unlikely that he ever made it to university. His father was a house painter, the son of freed slaves, and his mother, an Azorean servant of a wealthy household, died when Machado was just nine years old. The father remarried to a poor black woman and died a few years later, meaning Machado grew up orphaned, the grandson of slaves — in a country where the slave trade would be at the center of the economy until he was 50 years old.

It gets worse: Machado was terribly myopic, almost going blind at 40, and he suffered from epilepsy and a stutter. The death of his wife Carolina Novais, in 1904, was the ultimate hardship: depression took hold of Machado, who died four years later.

Despite all the turbulence, Machado somehow managed to learn French, English, German, and Greek. Early in his youth, Machado would display his aptitude for letters by translating Victor Hugo’s “Les travailleurs de la mer” (The Toilers of the Sea) from its original French. 

A voracious reader, he worked in various public departments, and also as a typesetter and journalist from youth onwards, until literature made its call. In 1897, already well known for his newspaper chronicles — he wrote roughly 600 of them and helped popularize the genre in Brazil, still seen today in major newspapers — Machado founded the Brazilian Academy of Letters and became its first chairman. 

His legacy is remarkable in itself, but gains a whole new meaning when you realize that Machado was born just 31 years after the first book was printed in Rio. Between 1500, when the Portuguese first began Brazil’s colonization, to 1808, when the Portuguese Crown fled Napoleon and settled in Rio, printing was illegal in the colony — meaning that the country was unable to develop knowledge for itself for over 300 years.

To date, Machado’s work has been translated into Arabic, Danish, Dutch, and German, among other languages. Renowned critic Harold Bloom called him “a miracle”, and Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade nicknamed him “The Wizard from Cosme Velho,” a reference to Machado’s uncanny literary skills.

Machado de Assis also stood at a delicate ethnic crossroads in Brazil. Completing his life’s work at a time when non-white Brazilians were overtly treated as second-class citizens, a critic once referred to him as a “genuine representative of the mixed Brazilian sub-race.” At the end of his life and in death, however, Machado de Assis’ image underwent a process of whitewashing — sometimes literally. 

Despite photographs and anecdotal evidence proving that the novelist was dark-skinned, he was classified as “white” on his death certificate in 1908. This impression lasted throughout the 20th century — in a 2011 television commercial for public bank Caixa, Machado de Assis was played by a white actor, which was met with ire from black rights groups.

In times such as these, in which racism is still a hot topic, the world needs to read this book more than ever. Not only because it’s wise to listen to the wisdom of our dead, but also because it’s great literature that provides a terrible opportunity for escapism — or does it?[/restricted]