Thursday, 21 April 2016

The Slime Kings

Right down the congress floor the gross bellied frogs were cocked
On chairs; their loose necks pulsed like sails. Some hopped:
The slap and plop were obscene threats. Some sat
Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting.
I sickened, turned, and ran. The great slime kings
Were gathered there for vengeance...

(with apologies to Seamus Heaney)

If you build it, they will come, as the man said. And they did build it – JK and Niemeyer and Lucio Costa, as well as the thousands of ordinary people, their backs burnt by the Midwestern sun, that history, especially Brazilian history, is so quick to forget.

And almost 60 years later, they – the politicos – came, all through the morning and into the long, blistering afternoon. Slithering on their bellies, many of them – for there were some rough beasts that slouched towards Brasilia last Sunday.

It was one of those days that no one will forget – that when people ask “where were you when it happened?”, you’ll quickly say “not far enough away, that’s for sure.” Watching on TV was like staring into the Medusa’s gaze, though when it comes to politics, most Brazilian hearts have long since turned to stone.

Looking back now it has become something of a blur, and it is hard to remember what was the worst part – the beginning, the middle or the end? Perhaps we can say that it started at rock bottom, then quickly plunged into the depths beyond, into the places where even the rocks are scared to go.

We may start with Eduardo Cunha, for these days everything starts with Eduardo Cunha. All bad suit and bad hair, the Speaker of the Congress and the mastermind behind the impeachment witch trials looks less like what he is – which is the personification of the black, cancerous soul of modern Brazilian politics – and more like an office manager who’s just been told the photocopier has broken down.

But appearances can be deceptive. For Cunha possesses an animal cunning greater than any mere Slough paper company boss. Not so much Frank Underwood as George Smiley – if Smiley was a small, unpleasant boy, that is, loved by no one but his mother and perhaps not even by her, peering down on Brazilian society as though it was an injured wasp he was frying through a magnifying glass.

Look, mother, look! See how its wings twitch! What pain it must be in!

Yes, Eduardo, says mother, wearily.

But little boys cannot stay little boys forever. They grow up, and Cunha has grown up too, becoming the political equivalent of Frederick from The Collector. No middle-class art student imprisoned in Eduardo’s basement though – instead there is the semi-lifeless hulk of Brazilian democracy, wheezing its final breaths.

Listen, mother, listen! Can you hear its fingernails scratching at the floorboards? It must be nearly dead!

Yes, Eduardo, says mother, wearily.

Cunha took a back seat role this Sunday, quietly getting on with his appointed duty, which is to oversee the culling of a president who until today has been charged only with crimes rather less serious than his own or those of dozens of his fellow congress-dwellers. Largely, it goes without saying, for personal political gain, and to save his own waxy skin. Such is the way of the world – at least this part of it.

That left the way open for the aforementioned rough beasts, and the Great and the Good of Brazilian politics did not disappoint. They came draped in flags – Brazil for those who think impeachment is just a top notch idea altogether, red for those who consider it a subtle, or not so subtle, coup. There were other proud folk dressed in the colours of the states they represented (the word is used loosely), or even wearing headbands.

Some wore Brazil football shirts, because after all, deciding the future of a country of 200 million people is pretty much like going to watch a match in the pub with your mates. They carried posters and banners to remind themselves which way to vote. One chap even had a confetti launcher. Another rough beast is also a clown – a real clown – which is about as succinct a criticism of Brazilian politics as you can get. All together they looked a bit like a troupe of drunken wandering minstrels who’d lost their lutes.

And then they began to speak. First there was another so-called debate, where party leaders (there are 457 of them) each had ten minutes to try and convince everyone else to vote their way, which is a bit like watching two groups of football supporters chanting bile at each other and expecting one group to stop and say “Hang on, you’re right! You are the best, and we are shit! I’m supporting your team from now on!”

But that was only a cheeky little aperitif compared to the main dish of the day – the impeachment vote itself. Up they trouped, one by one, to the lectern, these brave sons and daughters of Order and Progress, and they gave us their votes. They shouted, most of them, and screamed, just to show how much they really care. Some of them went dangerously red in the face, though no one died. Correction – it’s possible someone did, and no one has yet noticed.
But what did they care so passionately about? Not the business at hand, clearly, which was whether President Dilma Rousseff is guilty of the crime of carrying out pedaladas fiscais – financial chicanery in the run-up to the 2014 presidential elections, using money from public banks to mask the true state of the country’s finances and subsequently gain an electoral advantage.

Impeaching a president for such a crime, according to Juca Kfouri, one of Brazil’s clearest-minded thinkers on much more than football, is like sending a player off for taking a foul throw.

Another correction – one congressman, at least that I can remember, did seem to have some idea of why he was actually there in the first place, and mentioned the pedaladas. A shocked silence fell upon the nation. On the congress floor there may have been boos for the killjoy. For the rest of us, hearing the words was like seeing a shooting star blazing across the night sky – a moment of rare beauty, gone in a flash. And then it was back to the bullshit.

Here are a few of the reasons the Great and the Good – unlike the country around them, the vast majority are white and almost all are men – gave for impeaching their president. Some of them I remember myself. Some I have stolen from this helpful lady’s Facebook page. Strap yourself in.

Impeachment in the name of my aunt! Impeachment for my granddaughter’s birthday! Impeachment for my grandson Pedro! Impeachment for the masons of Brazil! Impeachment for the Brazilian doctors! Impeachment for my wife! (several times) Impeachment for the BR 429 highway! Impeachment for my daughter Manuela who will be born soon!  Impeachment for the insurance brokers! Impeachment for the peace of Jerusalem! Impeachment for the military dictatorship of 1964! Impeachment so we do not become red like Venezuela and North Korea! Impeachment for my grandson Luca, who is a child! Impeachment for the homeless people who sleep in the streets, are born in the streets, and die in the streets! Impeachment for Leilane, my love, and for Lorenzo, our son!

Impeachment for you, mum! (also several times)

A more complete list can be found here.

And oh how they roared and blustered! And oh how the baying chorus around them – like the pitchfork wielding villagers advancing on Frankenstein’s Castle, except wearing suits and a lot jowlier – jeered and crowed and hooted and laughed and joked, all having a whale of a time it seemed, all blindly, astonishingly unaware (or just uncaring) of what it actually means to be an elected representative, and, seemingly, of what it means to be a grown-up.

But the best, or worst, was still to come. The evening’s lowlight came when Jair Bolsonaro, who once said he’d rather have a dead son than a gay son and told a congresswoman that he wouldn’t rape her because she wasn’t not worth it, dedicated his vote to Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, the man who ran Brazil’s main torture and interrogation centre during the military dictatorship – where Rousseff herself was tortured. “The Terror of Dilma,” Bolsonaro added, with a final smirking flourish.

If watching the whole charade was like being at an all-you-can-eat steakhouse rodizio, when you gorge on long after the meat sweats have started oozing from your skin, then Bolsonaro was the evening’s wafer thin mint – the tiny morsel that made your guts explode and splatter all over the TV screen.

By that time the confetti launcher had been fired, and the floor was covered in brightly-coloured scraps of paper. They might have even have glittered for a while, a little like stars perhaps, on a different day.

We will never know – for the Great and the Good howled and harrumphed and beat their chests and pushed and shoved each other and jumped up and down, all over the little bits of coloured paper, pounding them into the carpet.

Remember those ordinary people from the beginning? No? Don’t worry. Neither does anyone else.

Fun fact: according to BBC Brasil, the word "shame" was mentioned 270,000 times on Twitter on Sunday night. "Looks like the 7-1 isn't Brazil's biggest embarrassment anymore," tweeted one #SadFace.

On and on it went. By eight o’clock I had begun to gnaw through the flesh of my right arm, by nine o’clock it was chewed down to the stump. I watched on. By nine or ten o’clock it looked like it was all over, with the pro-impeachment side running amok. I watched on.

By eight minutes past eleven it was all over, and most of the Great and the Good were screaming and bellowing in triumph. They sang the Brazilian national anthem. The man who cast the decisive vote (a shady customer himself, natch –  the majority of the rough beasts currently face legal charges of their own) wept and thanked God for the honour. They chanted “Bye-bye, Darlin’" at Rousseff, who by this stage we can only hope was tucked up in bed watching Game of Thrones reruns.

I watched on.

Afterwards, some people were celebrating in the streets, and some of them were weeping too, as though they too had won a famous victory. What reason they had to be cheerful I could not imagine.

(Artwork - title unknown (by me at least, help welcomed), by the late Recife artist Wellington Virgolino. It shows Michel Temer selling out Dilma, I think, with the former wearing a Náutico shirt and the latter a Santa Cruz top).

Monday, 23 June 2014

World Cup Hiatus

This blog will enter hibernation for the next month or so, however World Cup related waffling can be found on the sites of Sports IllustratedFusion Soccer, ESPN and others.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Inside The Organizadas

In a dimly lit concrete bunker on a deserted side street, not far from the Arruda soccer stadium in the Brazilian city of Recife, Paulo Cesar Cunha is holding his cell phone over his head and talking quickly. "When I leave the stadium, I hold my phone like this," he says, his eyes glinting. "I see the police watching me, and I say come on, hit me if you want. I'm filming you. And I won't put it down until I get to my car. It's how I defend myself."
It is a clammy, rainy Friday night in early May. Cunha, tall, heavily muscled and thirtysomething, wears a baseball cap, gold chain and baggy clothes, which gives him the look of a pissed-off b-boy. He is the president of Inferno Coral, a torcida organizada, which is the Brazilian term for an organized fan club, or, depending on your point of view, dangerous gang of lower-class hooligans. The Inferno are fans of Santa Cruz, the best supported soccer club in Recife, the state capital of Pernambuco and one of Brazil's 12 World Cup host venues. The U.S. national team will play Germany here on June 26th, but Paulo will not be at the game. "The World Cup isn't for me, or him, or him," he says, about his friends and fellow Inferno Coral senior leaders (known as "directors"). "It's for the middle classes and the tourists. And they're using it to squeeze us out."

You can read the rest of this article on the Rolling Stone website here

Monday, 26 May 2014

A Beer Before Lunch in Recife

May has not been a good month for the World Cup host city of Recife, where the USA national team will play Germany in its final, and possibly decisive, group game on June 26th. Three weeks ago, after the Santa Cruz v Parana Serie B game, three fans linked to the Santa Cruz torcida organizada (organized fan club or hooligan gang, depending on your point of view) Inferno Coral, dropped a toilet from the top deck of the Arruda stadium onto the street below, where it struck and killed a supporter of Santa’s city rivals Sport.

It was the latest in a series of violent incidents involving the organizadas of the city’s three professional clubs, Santa Cruz, Sport and Nautico, and made negative headlines around the world.

Then two weeks ago the city’s military police went on strike, seeking a salty 50% wage increase. Large parts of Recife descended into lawlessness, with widespread looting in the suburbs and a total of 27 murders in 48 hours. The Brazilian government sent in the army to restore calm, and soon there were tanks and armored cars patrolling the streets. The strike has now been called off, and some kind of peace has returned to the city.

“I told my friends back home it was like the O.K. Corral,” says Stacey De Melo, a 33-year-old English teacher from New Bedford, Massachusetts, who has lived in Recife for two years. Then she laughs and sheepishly apologizes, explaining that she doesn’t want to give too negative an impression of the city...

This profile of Brazil's greatest city Recife appears on the Sports Illustrated website here

Rocky Road To Brazil - Poverty, Creator Of Superstars

It was during the 2006 World Cup that Thierry Henry managed to offend 190 million Brazilians with a single sentence.

“When I was a kid I wanted to play football all day, but my dad told me I had to study first,” he said. “In Brazil they play football from eight in the morning to six o’clock at night.” The insinuation was that ill-disciplined Brazilian kids play football instead of going to school.

The reaction in Brazil, needless to say, was not warm. “He’s a great player,” said Juninho Pernambucano, “but he shouldn’t get involved in political issues. Brazilian children suffer a lot. In 80% of cases, they aren’t in a financial position to go to school. Even their parents didn’t go. Brazilians would love to have the health and education system that they have in France...”

This article on poverty and Brazilian football appeared in yesterday's The Independent on Sunday here. The picture is shamelessly stolen from Who Ate All The Pies - I hope they don't mind. 

Friday, 9 May 2014

No Room For Brazil's Best Cinema

The fear of urban violence is never far away in O Som Ao Redor (Neighboring Sounds), a chilling drama about the paranoia that lurks behind the security cameras and towering walls of the apartment buildings of Brazil’s middle classes. But for the film’s director Kleber Mendonça Filho, the threat that the monolithic Globo TV network and its film production wing Globo Films represent to Brazilian cinema is just as sinister. 

“They put incredible amounts of money into making and marketing their films,” Mendonça Filho told the Folha de São Paulo newspaper last year. He was talking about insipid Globo comedy blockbusters such as De Pernas Pro Ar (which translates as “Head Over Heels”), which dominate the domestic market, squeezing the screen space available for independent films. “If my neighbor filmed his Sunday afternoon barbecue and released it with the backing of Globo, 200,000 people would go and see it in the opening weekend...”

This piece on the struggles of Brazilian independent cinema appeared on the Folha de São Paulo "From Brazil" blog here. The picture is a shot from O Som Ao Redor

Monday, 5 May 2014

In Brazilian Soccer, Racist Behavior Is Nothing New

In a week where Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling paid a suitably heavy price for the spouting of racist bile, the issue of race and racial abuse was also hitting the headlines a few thousand miles to the south in Brazil.

The remarkable moment when Brazilian full-back Dani Alves peeled and ate a banana thrown by a supporter during the Spanish league game between Villarreal v Barcelona, and the Neymar backed “We Are All Monkeys” campaign that followed, put the question of racism in Brazilian football, and by extension Brazilian society, under the microscope.

Initial responses to the Alves incident in the Brazilian media seemed, ironically enough, inspired by that not so distant cousin of racism, jingoism. “This country has a thousand problems. But there is something that we can teach you – and it’s not just football,” trumpeted an article on the website of Globo, the country’s biggest broadcaster.

Brazil is “incapable, or almost always incapable, of accepting intolerance,” continued the piece, which featured an alternating white on black, black on white typeface and was illustrated with pictures of bunches of bananas.  The message was clear – as far as Brazil, with its long history of miscegenation, is concerned, racial abuse of black soccer players is a foreign disease...

You can read this essay on race and racism in Brazilian football and society on the Sports Illustrated website here. The painting is Independência by Emiliano Di Cavalcanti (1969).