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”.