Thoughts on the Brazil Protests, from an Ex-Gringo Paulista

Demonstrators Stage Largest Street Protests In Two Decades

      This ain’t no Carnival. People pissed! Image source: AP

Right now, Brazil convulses with the heady combination of indignation and optimism that characterizes popular movements. The People – that vast and oft-evoked abstraction made up of millions of students and truck drivers and dental hygienists and single mothers and retirees and first graders – have gotten so fed up with the economic and political oppression that has always plagued Brazil, Latin America as a whole, and, at many times in its history, the United States, that they’ve taken to the streets to voice their exasperation with the greed, corruption, official acts of violence, and woefully poor quality-of-life that have hampered the upward mobility of most Brazilians in the face of unprecedented “national prosperity” and vanity projects like the World Cup and the Olympics.

What that means, exactly, remains to be seen. Moneyed and political interests are too entrenched in the business of making money at all costs to really engage in the necessary paradigm shift even if they wanted to. And I’m just cynical enough to believe that nothing lasting is going to happen; after all, a columnist from Brazil’s largest daily reflected the general cluelessness of those in power: “From paradise, we have slipped…into limbo.”

Paradise for whom?

No, there will be no New Deal-style governmental investment in infrastructure, no nationwide jobs program, no major overhaul of the educational and health care systems. There’s too much unfettered greed infecting the country’s economical and political elite for that to ever happen. It’s a refrain in heavy rotation: “Brazil never moved away from the slave plantation.”

I have friends who were injured by police during last week’s protest in my beloved São Paulo. I have friends who live in the areas most heavily affected by teargas and rubber bullets in the center of the city. Some of the clashes between protesters and the police occurred on the street where I last lived not a full two years ago, where I last walked not a full two months ago, and where I spent several years becoming part of the city’s social fabric, another brown face popping in and out of lunch counters and convenience stores, hopping the bus to work during the week or home from the club on the weekend. That was my street and my neighborhood and my people and my city. It’s unnerving to know that I could just as easily have been shot with a rubber bullet outside my door or teargassed on my way home from work as any of my friends, neighbors, or coworkers.

It’s easy to change the channel when you have no direct connection to the events on the screen, but it’s something else when you are linked to the places and people being affected by strife. When the air clears, I’m still not sure what will have changed in terms of corruption, accountability, state-sanctioned violence, or quality-of-life. But I know that neither the powers that be, the media, nor Brazilians themselves will continue to blindly brush off indignities and injustices with a tudo bom (It’s all good) and an evocation of Brazil’s trademark deflectors: sun, sex, and soccer.

Maybe that refusal to accept indignities and injustices is the necessary spark. Hell, it only took 9 cents to finally piss enough people off. And that’s just my 2 cents.


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An Olympic Task for Rio

Sugarloaf Mountain, from my window seat - July 2007

I am stoked that Rio de Janeiro was named host city for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games by the IOC last week. Being the first time the games will be hosted in South America, the second in Latin America, and the third in the Southern Hemisphere is a huge cause for celebration in Brazil, Latin America, and developing nations worldwide. The physical setting could not be any more ludicrously breathtaking: undulating mountains dipping effortlessly into the sea underneath the outstretched embrace of Cristo Redentor. Besides that obvious talking point, the selection is a nod to both Brazil’s constant striving for modernity and its seemingly limitless potential. On those counts, I am exceedingly glad for my spiritual home, Brazil.

But I think my beloved Brazil might be in over her head. I was in Rio during the Pan-American Games held there in 2007 as an attempt to prove the city’s readiness for the larger event it has successfully pursued. The infrastructure still creaked, underpaid police stretched thin in an attempt to secure the Games and still provide protection to a city of eight million restless souls. Street crime is indeed rampant, and not even the unflappable Fly Brother, he of a thousand ethnicities, has escaped being accosted in Copacabana. With persistent social disparities, profound bureaucratic corruption, and an unfortunate propensity (like most Latin American nations) to go about things half-assed, my fear is that Rio won’t be able to overcome enough of these hurdles in time to avoid worldwide embarrassment. I sincerely hope this doesn’t happen, but this reality posits not-so-slight trepidation among many people who love the people and culture and cosmic entity that is Brazil, myself included. All we can do is root for the Marvelous City in her race to Olympic glory and hope that some of her esoteric magic manifests in the physical forms of infrastructure and logistics by 2016.

Check out this promotional video made to sell the city for the Pan in 2007. You’ll be trying to book tickets next week. It’s one of my favorites.

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