Musings and reflections on daily news and events in Rio de Janeiro

What is a Golden Shower? March 11, 2019

AUDIO broadcast on RTÉ Radio One World Report, March 10th 2019 (audio at 21:16)


The new year has finally begun in Brazil, as people begrudgingly put away their Carnaval costumes for another year.  Many here would be happy to forget the first few months of the year, as the economy stubbornly refuses to lift out of it’s worst ever recession, and a succession of seemingly avoidable tragedies darken the front pages of daily newspapers.

On January 25th, a tidal wave of toxic mud, enough to fill five thousand Olympic swimming pools, cascaded over the town of Brumadinho in Minas Gerais, wiping out everything in its path.  186 people died, and more than 100 people are still missing, presumed dead.  Newspaper reports last week said the mining company was warned last year that the tailings dam was not safe.

It’s not the first time something like this has happened.  Just three years ago, a dam burst in Mariana, in the same state of Minas Gerais.  19 were killed, and the toxic waste polluted everything in 600 km journey to the Atlantic Ocean.  Promises were made, safety procedures would be doubled up. They said something like this wouldn’t happen again.   But, it did. 

A fortnight later, seven died in torrential rains in Rio de Janeiro, and locals awoke to the news that ten young footballers had perished in a fire overnight.  The Flamengo Football Club trainees were sleeping in their bunks when an apparent short in an air conditioning unit caused the fire.  Only three made it out alive.   Prior to the fire, official complaints had been made regarding the standard of lodgings for teenagers at Brazil’s wealthiest and most popular football club.  

And then came the news that 13 young men were killed in a single police operation in a favela community in Rio’s city centre neighbourhood of Santa Teresa.  Police say they intervened as rival gangs waged territorial warfare.  But, residents say police entered a house where ten traffickers were hiding, confiscated their weapons, and subsequently executed all of them, shooting them at close range.  

One thousand gun battles were recorded around Rio in the month of January, it’s almost seen as normal here.  Residents access accounts like “Cross Fire” and “Where is there a shoot out” on Twitter to calculate their route to work on a daily basis.

The bloodiness of the police operation in Santa Teresa was unusual, even for Brazilian standards, but maybe not that surprising.  Governer Wilson Witzel won his seat last year following a campaign in which he promised to take a heavy hand to criminals.  Witzel took to Twitter to congratulate what he called a “legitimate action” by police, to defend “good citizens”, and said rigorous police actions would continue. 

Many in society welcome this hard-line approach to policing, repeating the mantra, “a good trafficker is a dead trafficker.”  Human rights is a dirty word here, and anyone who mentions them is clearly a communist. 

Jair Bolsonaro, the newly minted Brazilian President, would probably be quite happy to put the past few months behind him too.  After an intensive electoral campaign last year, in which he vowed to do away with endemic corruption in this continental sized country, Bolsonaro and his politician sons have been mired in controversy since January. 

His political party, PSL, are said to have run several dummy candidates in last year’s election, allegedly claiming electoral funding without actually running any kind of campaign, netting extremely low numbers on election day.  

Minister for Justice, Sergio Moro, who previously presided over the Carwash anti-graft tribunal that jailed former President Lula, knocking him out of the presidency race last year, presented his programme to congress in recent weeks.  It includes immunity for police who kill in the line of duty, and takes a much softer line on political corruption than was expected based on Bolsonaro’s campaign promises.

He did keep his promise though, to relax rules regarding the ownership of firearms.  “Good citizens” should have the right to protect themselves and their property, he said, defending a bill that reverses many aspects of a disarmament bill in effect since 2004.   

At last week’s Carnaval celebrations, Brazilian party-goers were very clear in their dissatisfaction with their new president.  At block parties on every street corner during the long weekend of hedonism, thousands dressed in politically motivated costumes with hand-made ATM machines on their heads, or dressed in orange to represent dummy candidates.   

Their taunting roars, telling the newbie President where to go, could be heard all over the country.  They seem to have hit a chord. Bolsonaro responded by posting a sexually explicit scene from a party in Sao Paulo, on his Twitter feed, saying he wanted to expose the truth of Carnaval to society.  

It didn’t go down well, and many of his followers were upset at their president publishing porn on social media.  At the block parties, revellers appeared the following day with even more creative costumes.  The anti-Bolsonaro roars only got louder.

He took to Facebook on Thursday evening to speak to the population, in what will now be a weekly dispatch. He said his mandate is to undo lots of what has been done in Brazil in the past 20 years.  For now, he struggles to get congressional support to reform Brazil’s mammoth pensions spend, which he says will prevent Brazil from turning into “another Greece”. 




Brazilian politicians clash over Venezuelan refugees September 6, 2018

Filed under: Uncategorized — rioflections @ 10:06 am
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RTE Radio One World Report, Sunday September 2nd 2018 (audio at 23:25mins)
Last week, Brazilian Senate leader Romero Juca announced his resignation due to differences of opinion regarding the refugee issue. Juca said Brazil’s responsibility to protect its federal states for the well being and security of the population supersedes any international interests.  
He wants the Federal government to temporarily close the border between Brazil and Venezuela, and impose quotas for the number of migrants that can pass into the state of Roraima, and the creation of a so-called humanitarian corridor, to transfer refugees to other Brazilian states. 
Days later, after sanctioning the deployment of additional security forces on the border, President Temer said he was considering a limit of up to 200 people a day, greatly reducing the current level of around 800 crossing the border on a daily basis.  It’s thought that around 130,000 Venezuelan refugees have entered Brazil since the outset of the humanitarian crisis in the neighbouring nation.  A large proportion of these have entered Roraima, Brazil’s least populous state.  
The Senator’s resignation came in the wake of violent attacks on Venezuelan refugees in Roraima in recent weeks.   After an alleged attack by four Venezuelans that hospitalised a local shopkeeper, groups of Brazilians began setting fire to clothes and tents belonging to refugees, armed with sticks and stones, while chanting the Brazilian national anthem.   Twelve hundred Venezuelans crossed back into their own country immediately after the attacks. 
Media reports in recent months blaming Venezuelans for bringing measles into Brazil haven’t helped public perception of the tens of thousands that cross the border.  However, medical experts say that while many refugees are not vaccinated against measles, it is a 20 year Federal spending freeze in Brazil’s health service that has stunted nationwide vaccination programmes. 
Senator Juca is not the only dissenting voice, and other local politicians are said to have purposely blocked refugee access to basic services in the north of Brazil, publicly labelling fleeing Venezuelans as an enemy of the Brazilian people.  Things aren’t much better nationally, as Brazil prepares for its most uncertain Presidential election since becoming a democracy in the 1980s, after decades of military rule.
Far right ex military man Jair Bolsonaro, labelled refugees to Brazil as the scum of the earth three years ago.  Bolsonaro, who to this day praises the torturous regime during Brazil’s military dictatorship, has been labelled a ‘tropical Hitler’ by another Presidential candidate, Ciro Gomes. If elected, Bolsonaro promises laws to allow all Brazilians to carry fire-arms to protect themselves. 
He is vociferously anti gay marriage, anti abortion and says racial quotas that allow university access for black Brazilians should be abolished.  He says women should not receive equal pay to men in the same role and has suggested that a nationwide military intervention is the solution to Brazil’s current security crisis. 
Brazilian society is highly polarised as the October election looms.  Disillusioned with politics and politicians in general in the wake of a massive corruption scandal that has seen dozens jailed, Brazilians are worried about security as violence levels surge across the country’s major cities.
With robberies, kidnappings, and shootings in areas that were once considered safe, and an economic crisis that refuses to subside, Brazilians are desperate.  Many say a hardline President is what the south American giant needs most, while others say they’ll flee Brazil if Bolsonaro becomes President. 
For World Report, this is Sarah O’Sullivan in Rio de Janeiro.

Who killed Marielle? May 14, 2018

Filed under: Uncategorized — rioflections @ 12:52 pm


RTÉ Radio One, World Report, Sunday May 13th 2018 (audio at 18:58m)

On March 14th, Brazilian councilwoman Marielle Franco, and her driver Anderson Gomes were shot at point blank range in downtown Rio de Janeiro. The black, lesbian, and favela-born politician shouted loudly about police brutality in the famous Samba city, specifically focusing on violence against those living on the margins of society, in Rio’s innumerous favela communities.

Forensic examinations suggest their killing was a professional assassination, a paramilitary hit.

But, a key question remains unanswered; who ordered the killing? Could it have been a colleague of hers, from within the council, who wanted to not only quiet her voice, but also to send a strong message to others who might follow in her path? Nearly two months later, authorities seem no closer to answering these questions.

Even with a military intervention installed in Rio since late February, it’s clear that the good guys are not in charge here. When a local drugs chief was shot dead by police recently, his gang members ordered that all commerce shut in the wealthy neighbourhoods of Catete and Glória. No-one disobeys when the gangsters make orders like this, army or no army.

Rio de Janeiro is a wonderful picture postcard city, but with an ugly underbelly. Differences between the rich and poor here are staggeringly blatant. Shoppers leaving the plush Leblon shopping centre, for example, with their Gucchi, and Dolce & Gabbana shopping bags, need only round the corner to be inside one of Rio’s many favela communities.

Favelas can be found in all Brazilian cities, and suffer from decades of neglect from the powers that be. These informal squatter communities began to spring up after the emancipation of slavery in Brazil in 1888, making it the last country in the world to liberate slaves.

From the outset, civil society didn’t really care what these poor people did inside their communities. As long as they arrive on time to work every day, who cares? Over time, vigilante groups that emerged to combat domestic violence in favelas, began to dip into drugs and weapons trades. Ironically, the locking up of political dissidents during Brazil’s military dictatorship, with small time criminals, led to the formation of the drugs cartels as we know them today, as they learned fundamentals of economics and philosophy while locked up together in the island jail on Ilha Grande.

Today, drugs gangs are the de facto law and order in around 55% of Rio’s favelas. Residents abide to their rules and laws, rather than those imposed in the rest of civil society.

Up to 42% of the remaining favelas are ruled by militia gangs, a motley crew of armed citizens that includes off-duty firemen, police and prison staff. They claim to take back control in communities that were once run by drugs gangs. Both residents and business owners of areas under their control are forced to pay protection money, and additional taxes on barrels of gas, cable TV, public transport etc. They even offer votes to local politicians in areas they control, in exchange for payment, and a carte blanche in that area.

Not even two weeks after Marielle’s assassination came the news that 5 boys, aged 16 – 20, had been shot dead, paramilitary style in Maricá, in Rio state. Investigators say the perpetrators may have thought they were up to no good, may have not wanted to see groups of teenager hanging around, or simply, wanted to impose fear into the local community.

When journalists from the local newspaper O Dia moved undercover into a favela to cover the story of militia groups in Rio, ten years ago, they were kidnapped and tortured for seven hours.   The journalists don’t dare to return to Rio since, fearing for their safety.

The public investigation that followed resulted in indictments for 226 people, including several politicians, and police officers. The presiding judge in the tribunal later disclosed deaths threats she had received, and was ultimately killed hours outside her home in Niteroi, just hours after she ordered the imprisonment of two police officers in nearby Sao Gonçalo.

One probably unforeseen result of Marielle’s death is that it has led to a resurgence of debate on the social issues she championed, and a bringing together of disparate social activists, eager that her death not be in vain. On May 2nd, Rio city council opened an extraordinary session to debate seven bills that Marielle had been fighting for before her death; all in defense of those on low income, women, and the local black and LGBT communities.

Will anyone be held to account for Marielle’s execution? Will her death result in any real change here in Rio? Unfortunately, nobody knows.

For World Report in Rio de Janeiro, this is Sarah O’Sullivan.



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Carnaval Hangover as Army Takes Over in Rio March 1, 2018

Filed under: Uncategorized — rioflections @ 3:49 pm

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RTÉ World Report, Sunday 25th February 2018

Audio at 17:20 mins

Locals in Rio de Janeiro had barely shaken off the annual Carnaval hangover, when it was announced that the army would be taking over until the end of the year. A presidential decree ordered that armed forces would take control of security of the state, historically blighted by gangs, corruption and street crime.


Images of mass robberies during the five-day Carnaval party are thought to have pre-empted the decree. However, statistics show that incidence of street crime during this year’s Carnaval were lower than in previous years. No one saw this coming, not even the army, who were not consulted in advance.


While all of this was going on, Rio’s mayor, Evangelical bishop Marcelo Crivella was nowhere to be seen. He escaped samba city during the holiday, on what he said was an official trip to Germany to analyse urban security solutions. He later conceded that his trip was personal, when media reports contradicted him.


Critics query the real reason behind this intervention, which was approved by an overwhelming cabinet majority in a late night vote last Monday. Once Federal rule is in place, no changes can be made to the Brazilian Constitution. In other words, the highly controversial pension reform bill that president Temer has spent the last several months trying to push through, cannot be voted on during his current presidency, a title he earned after the impeachment of Dilma Rouseuff two years ago. Many say this new intervention is the part two of that coup. Temer currently enjoys a 5% public approval rating, the lowest of any sitting president in Brazil’s history.


New presidential elections are due in October, and while Temer had previously suggested that he would not run again, now, it seems he’s may have changed his mind. Some suggest military rule in Rio is part of his pre-election campaign to stamp out violence in Brazil.


A week later, it’s still not clear what this intervention will mean. Many locals have rose tinted memories of the last time the military were in charge in Brazil, a time when kids stayed in school, and law and order were guaranteed.


Realities of summary arrests, mass imprisoning, and torture, seem skewed in collective memory, despite the findings of the Brazilian Truth Commission in 2014 which listed mass human rights violations during the dictatorship that ended in 1985, after 21 years of military rule. Impeached President Dilma was just one of the many militants that were tortured under that regime. In fact, last week, army general Eduardo Villas Boas said the army needed a guarantee that there would not be another truth commission. Under a law passed last year, crimes committed by the army may only be tried in a military court, a process that takes years, thereby offering veritable impunity to soldiers on the streets of Rio.


There have been several military operations in Rio in recent years, but statistics do not point to any real crime reduction. Residents in neighbourhoods like Maré, in Rio’s north zone, where a recent army occupation continued for 14 months, said they did not feel any safer with the army at the helm.

Those with most to fear are Rio’s poor, especially those with dark skin. Several guides circulated on social media last week, directing young black men to take extra precautions – always carry your ID and work card, always let people know you are going and when you arrive, always have a charged phone on your person. No one knows what to expect. One resident last week said she hopes that the army doesn’t instill a 9pm curfew across the city like in the 80s.


Rio is not Brazil’s most violent city, there are many in worse situations. But, they don’t hold the same level of glamour, the same international media interest, or the same tourism levels as Rio. Resident’s opinions are divided. The rich applaud loudly. About time, they say, while the poor fear what is to come.


For World Report, this is Sarah O’Sullivan, in Rio de Janeiro.

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Brazil’s House of Cards – Life Imitates Art August 6, 2017

Filed under: Uncategorized — rioflections @ 1:00 pm

World Report, RTÉ, Radio One (Audio at 12:30m)

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Brazilians continue to suffer the worst recession ever seen in the history of this country. To make matters worse, the south American giant is embroiled in a political crisis that seems almost fictional, with recorded conversations and suitcases bulging with cash being passed from executives to politicians in return for political favours.

Rio de Janeiro, the picture postcard city that hosted the Olympic Games last year, is broke, and heavily in debt. More than two hundred thousand civil servants haven’t been paid in months. Many are forced to queue for hours to receive charitable packs with household staples like rice and beans so they can feed their families.


Tanks are on the streets of Rio once again, with the army deployed to keep the peace here for the fourth time in 12 months, as robberies and violence spiral all over the city. Police, who haven’t been paid in months, don’t have money to put petrol in patrol cars.

To add insult to injury, the Olympic Velodrome caught fire last weekend, causing millions in damage, albeit to a venue that has only been used once since the Olympic cyclists left town last September. A burning flying lattern is thought to have caused the fire last Sunday in the now derelict Olympic park.

Former mayor Eduardo Paes is accused of taking around 15 million reais (more than 4 million euro) worth in bribes in the run up to last years games. He’s not the only one.   Investigators say many of the infrastructural works contracts leading to the World Cup in 2014 and last years Games were won with bulky brown envelopes.

A federal police operation, code-named Lava Jato, or Car Wash, began as a money laundering investigation at oil giant Petrobras, but uncovered what may be the worlds biggest ever graft scheme. Many, who once seemed untouchable in Brazilian society, are now behind bars. Even the President is under investigation.

Congress voted last week to shelve corruption charges against President Michel Temer, at least until next October after elections are held. No-one, not even Temer, expects that he will continue in politics after that. The people never voted for him in the first place, and he has less than 5% popular support.

The attorney general is preparing further charges against the right wing politician who became President after the impeachment of his former running mate leftist Dilma Rousseuff, exactly a year ago.

Under local law, charges made against a sitting politician in Brazil can only be heard by the Supreme Court; when it’s the President, a two thirds Congress majority is needed for any trial to proceed.

The congress vote, broadcast live on primetime TV into sitting rooms all over Brazil last Wednesday, revealed that politicians prefer to keep Temer where he is.

The release of R$13bn (around three and a half billion euro) in Federal funding in the form of clinics, schools, royalties, and other political favours, in recent weeks, is thought to have helped sway some undecided politicians, with new elections looming.

But, the prosecutor will go again, this time Temer will be charged with obstruction of justice, for allegedly trying to buy the silence of Eduardo Cunha, the now jailed former president of the chamber of deputies, who led impeachment proceedings against Dilma. If a two-thirds majority votes to allow a trial to progress, Temer would have to stand aside for 6 months. But, Rodrigo Maia, the next in line for the throne, is under investigation too.

Many Brazilians hope that Dilma’s charismatic predecessor Lula will come back into power next year, bringing back social programmes that Temer’s government systematically slashed. But, the 71-year-old former union leader, widely praised for bringing millions out of poverty during his two-term tenure, was recently sentenced to nine and a half years in prison, for corruption and money laundering. He will appeal, and if successful will likely run for President again.

A taxi driver in Sao Paulo last week said his vote would be for Jaír Bolsonaro, a far right politician who, during the televised impeachment vote last year, paid homage to a military colonel, head of a unit in the 1960s, where then 22 year old political dissident Dilma underwent prolonged sessions of torture.  According to the cabbie, the only solution for Brazil’s current implosion is a return to military rule.

The population feels powerless. Hunger and eviction are the grim realities faced by many, while the political soap opera continues to unfolds every day, more far-fetched than anything script writers could muster. But, people are too jaded, or too afraid of police repression, to take to the streets.

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For World Report, this is Sarah O’Sullivan in Rio de Janeiro.




The Eve of the World Cup (Are we there yet?) June 10, 2014

Filed under: Uncategorized — rioflections @ 7:38 pm

World Report, RTE Radio One

(report at 05:33)


The FIFA football will be kicked into play in just four days time, when Croatia plays host Brazil in the opening game of the World Cup. After months, even years, of speculation and drama, will Brazil pull it off?

Football may be coming home, but Brazilians ain’t feeling it. Four years ago, the country was abuzz, streets were decked out in yellow and green. The nation was giddy with the promise of a whole month of the glorious game. But, here in Brazil, the glory has been replaced with a mix of worry and shame.

When foreign fans arrive to the opening match on Thursday, they may wonder why so many live in abject poverty, in homes made from sticks and black bags, why there is such a heavy security presence, and why goods and services cost more than they do back home.

It’s been a chaotic few months round here, with endless public service strikes, violence, vandalism, and vigilantism, not to mention escalating inflation, and a massive property bubble.
President Dilma is worried, not about visitor’s safety, but their perception of safety, she says. The army are on standby to man the major cities, alongside the military police, civil police, federal police, municipal guards… The list goes on.

Here in Sao Paulo, more than two thousand families are squatting on a hill beside the brand-new Itaquara stadium, where the opening match will play. They want the state government to buy the land to build social housing for them. They hope to embarrassing officials into complying with their plan. So far, government hasn’t budged, neither to buy the land, nor to clear them off it. Similar occupations in other cities led to violent removals in the past few months.

Homeless movements have been leading ongoing street protests in Sao Paulo recently. Since last June, when the protests exploded all over Brazil during the FIFA Confederations Cup, every type of social movements has taken their woes to the streets. Demands are mixed, from wage increases to dignified housing, from an end to political corruption to the de-militarisation of police. A governmental over-spend on football stadia, while health and education suffer, is a common refrain.

But, many are tiring of the endless stream of protests. Just last week, a group of Paulista academics published a joint statement – yeah, you’ve got a right to protest, they said. But, do it on your own time. Our commute is long enough already.

Images of native Indian tribes fighting police were published worldwide, while many here wondered why this sector of society should be allowed to carry weapons, and why they seem immune from the same rules and laws as other Brazilians.

The football is spread over twelve Brazilian cities, hundreds of miles apart, so air travel is imperative. All in hand, Brazil is ready, insists team Dilma. But, when heavy rains fell in Brasilia last Tuesday night, the newly built airport was submerged in water. Seemingly, someone forgot to put the roof on.

Scenes were like something from the keystone cops in Tancredo Neves, the international airport in Minas Gerais, as builders, painters and plasterers, frantically wove scaffolding through crowds of commuters and their suitcases. Ground-staff looked ready to cry, as they tried to scream over the sound of jack-hammers.

“Imagina na Copa” chuckled one of the ground staff at the international airport in Curitiba last Wednesday, when it emerged that my five hour journey to Fortaleza would now take twice the time. A fog chokes it, and other airports, every morning at this time of year. Imagining the Copa, I asked whether airline staff could speak English.

She began to hoot. “No, they gave us these little cards with a few phrases on them. Imagine us bent over the little cards trying to explain these delays to foreigners,” she chortled giddily, adding that around three people in the airport can speak English.

“I’m ashamed of my government,” said another commuter stuck in the fog. “Wait until you see the opening ceremony on TV, when Dilma makes her speech. They’ll pump out fake applause, so it looks like we’re all excited. Mark my words.”

Indeed, team Dilma has been on a frantic PR crusade. Worried that the nation isn’t buying in, the government has launched a major television and newspaper ad campaign. Airport billboards remind Brazilians that we’re ready to welcome the world. Full page newspaper ads show that any spend on football stadia dwarves the governmental spend on education and health. A ten year education plan was published on Tuesday.

Many Brazilians are optimistic. A Facebook event, scheduled for the opening match, is called “Find yourself a Gringo husband”, and has thousands of confirmed attendees.
How Brazil handles the crowds is one thing, but how they get on in the football is another. While many say they want nothing to do with the cup, they will still find it hard to miss a match. If Brazil wins and raises the cup in July, Dilma will retain her seat in elections later this year, and life will return to its crazy version of normal, at least until the Olympics Games roll round in two years time.

If they lose, well, all hell could break loose.

For World Report, this is Sarah O’Sullivan, in Sao Paulo. “


Lynn lawyers claim death risk May 6, 2014

Filed under: Uncategorized — rioflections @ 11:54 am