Active silence

Rio is done for… Except it’s not

Rocinha, seen on a winter afternoon from the Dois Irmãos mountain

It’s tough to read the lack of noise, after years of great activity. But the silence in Rio, both this blogger’s as well as that of many others, is no hollow space. We’re lost in thought. How did we get here? What are the important questions? What works? What gets you nowhere?

Soldiers patrol the deserted Olympic Boulevard, part of the revitalized Porto Maravilha, on a Monday morning

Raull Santiago is an untiring Complexo do Alemão activist, married and father of four. He helped lead the resistance to the police invasion of private homes in the Complexo, which lasted from January to April of this year. At the surface of facts alone, the situation was clear. The police had no legal right to take over the houses.

Every day we perceive that no situation is black or white. The police claimed the invasion was needed to protect its men and fight heavily armed drug traffickers. To occupy territory.

Despite the invasion’s obvious unconstitutionality, it took months for the police to vacate the homes and for the state Public Defender’s office to indict the commander at the state’s Military Justice Board. A decision is pending.

The revelations seen since the Mensalão congressional scandal broke in 2005 aren’t just about corruption and crooked politics. Like never before, the daylight emanating from investigations and plea bargains also shines on social inequality. The great challenge– maybe an impossible mission– is to figure out where to start righting wrongs, which strand to pull first from the Brazilian tangle. The Alemão police invasion was built on drug traffic, which was built on problematic police and politicians and a long tradition of ignoring housing needs. Which was built on slavery. The lack of health and education are in there somewhere, too.

It’s no coincidence that this year’s FLIP, the Paraty literary festival, focused on racism and the life and work of black author Lima Barreto, who lived in Rio de Janeiro during his short life, from 1881 to 1922.

The skein’s knotted tangle feeds polarization. We seek and we come up with easy solutions. We mistrust everything and everyone. “Either you’re on the side of the police or on the side of the criminals,” is the slogan slowly taking the place of the old “a good criminal is a dead criminal.” In this dichotomy, poorer residents are left in the grey area of collateral damage.

That’s how it was July 31, when the state Prosecutor’s Office held a public hearing on public safety. On the plus side, it was a new approach, a chance for dialogue. But the participants divided neatly into two cheering squads, one for order and one for human rights. Security staff had to keep apart a prosecutor and a member of a group defending favela residents’ rights. Another prosecutor, together with some police officers, presented military schools as a public safety solution.

The Carwash investigation has begun to touch those who used to protect themselves in the justice system’s shadowy reaches. But there are still delays, sudden and morally inexplicable twists. This is tiring, to say the least.

Raull Santiago was happy when he heard the news about the Alemão commander and the end of the house invasions. But the Rio environment is so heavily charged that his broken cell phone spurred a Facebook outburst the other day, titled “Crisis”, in which he wrote of:

“… being favela-born and moving to guarantee the right to life and other rights, ending up being categorized as part of some of these labels, such as “periphery social movements”, the way this stuff takes problems to the tenth power or much more. There are thousands of tiny things. All extreme. All serious. All I can do is think of the Racionais (musical group) singing: ‘Every favela resident is a universe in crisis’. And we truly are. And I don’t even know if some day this will end. I only know we’ll keep on trying to change the game of real life. From the bridge to here, not everyone can take it. And lots of people jump off that bridge.”

A person who has worked with youth for years went beyond Raull’s outburst. The person confided to RioRealblog about having doubts regarding the impact of any attempt to work on social issues. Public policies to address social issues are the main demand of those who reject the violence of  “collateral damage” in relations between society and the police.

Cecília Olliveira, who with her Fogo Cruzado app took on the mission of tracking and quantifying shooting across Rio, confessed dismay in a public exchange of messages with RioRealblog, on Twitter: “We’re tired. Very, very tired. we keep trying… but I can’t see a bright horizon,” she wrote.

On the other side of the equation people might not be jumping off bridges, as Raull mentioned, but they’re throwing in the towel. In line at the book signing yesterday for Mais Forte: Olimpíadas seguras em meio ao caos (Fortis: Safe Olympics in the Midst of Chaos, soon available online in English), a 50-year-old retired military police officer said his elderly mother is the only reason he’s not moving to Portugal. He keeps thinking about a friend, also a retired officer, who’s made the move. The conversation was initiated by a carioca asking if Rio’s problem might not be the cariocas themselves. He lives alone in Rio; his family prefers another city.

Meanwhile, federal troops arrived here; last Saturday they carried out a totally new kind of operation, blocking the access to some North Zone favelas for a day. The idea was to reduce cargo theft (which this year has mushroomed) and drug traffic. The results weren’t a huge success, but they caused only two deaths. Unlike as was done with pacification (discredited for at least a year), security officials say they have no intent to occupy favelas or to even stay long in once spot. “We don’t want to merely inhibit organized crime. We want to undo it, destroy it, cut off its ability to function,” said Defense Minister Raul Jungmann.

It would be nice if this happened. But few cariocas have shown confidence in the military or support for the new strategy. They’re worn out and indignant. They are soul searching.

About Rio real

American journalist, writer, editor who's lived in Rio de Janeiro for 20 years.
This entry was posted in Brazil, Transformation of Rio de Janeiro / Transformação do Rio de Janeiro and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Active silence

  1. curmudgeon says:

    Julia, I have a question for you and for your readers:
    Is there a direct relationship between the geometrically increasing number of cargo thefts and the geometrically increasing number of camelôs on the streets of Rio?
    I am tempted to think that most camelôs sell goods that, euphemistically, “fell off the back of a truck” but perhaps that’s not accurate.

  2. Rio real says:

    For sure there are more goods to sell but there are also more people who need to sell them, people who have lost income because of the economic downturn. It’s amazing to ride the BRT (also some buses and the metro) and see people going through selling Apple phone chargers for five reais.

  3. Pingback: Some articles I found interesting this morning | Adam Isacson

  4. Christopher J Ballantyne says:

    Really good synthesis in your mosaic, Julia. It’s been worth the wait. I can see that you are going to be very very busy reporting this. I am grateful.

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  6. shotw2arrows says:

    Thanks, Julia, for reporting the good work of activists like Raull Santiago, his successes, and frustrations. I don’t go to the favelas; I should. It’s vital to know what is happening there.
    But I was energized more by the article you referenced with the phrase “lack of noise”: , by Sergio Abranches. I read this article with a mounting feeling of rage and dismay. It expressed exactly my thoughts and feelings. I freely paraphrase some points from the article:

    President Temer, an unelected president, has a 5% approval rating – the lowest of any major national leader. The Attorney General of Brazil has charged him with serious crimes of corruption. The evidence against him – audio, video, numerous witnesses – appears compelling. His support should be dissipating.
    Yet he has been able to maintain control of Congress. He manipulates voting so that laws are passed that benefit those specific interests that support him. He has used his power to make appointments and grant concessions in an improper and possibly illegitimate manner. This has enabled him to win enough votes in the Lower House to avoid going to trial on the corruption charges.
    The people are not satisfied or confident about the future. 87% do not trust Temer. The consumer expectations index is 8.9 points below the historical average. Fear of unemployment is 15.7 points above the historical average. People are outraged by corruption, support Lava Jato and similar operations. They are incensed by statements by the Justice Minister who said he lacks resources so will have to be selective in his investigations.
    Clearly, this is an administration opposed by most of the people but, for some reason, supported by a majority in Congress. Why then is the public doing nothing to express its discontent?
    In unemployment surveys, “hopelessness” describes the state of mind of a job-seeker who has heard over and over the stock response “we have no openings”, so stops looking for work. Discouraged, he’s given up. I think one can describe our present state of private indignation that fails to lead to public protest as “political discouragement”. Today, we live in a situation where despair paralyzes and generates the feeling that nothing can be done to change the picture.

    Abranches is probably right about why the public seems to be doing nothing. They are tired, fatalistic, feel the situation is hopeless. But WHY did we get to this dismal point?

    Because the wheels of democracy have broken. So long as that is true, there is no use marching in the streets. Marching started as the result of a ten centavo increase in bus fares. The marches eventually brought down Dilma. Did that solve the problem? No, because the wheels of government are still broken. So long as that is true, the destiny of Brazil will be decided by backroom deals brokered by wheeler-dealer politicians, far from public scrutiny.

    What do I mean by “the wheels of democracy are broken”? Democracy is supposed to work like this: candidates run for office by touting their capabilities and saying what they would do if elected. The people choose the winner of the election. If the winning candidate does well, the people will re-elect him; otherwise, they will vote someone else into office.

    Is that the way things work in Brazil? We have only to look at what Abranches described above. The Lower House of Congress did not do what the public wanted the Lower House to do. Every member of the Lower House is up for re-election next year. They should be trembling in their boots. But they are not. Why?

    Because the wheels of government are broken. Crooks are not voted out of office. We have the spectacle of a vast, geographically blessed nation of fundamentally hard-working souls represented by a President with multiple evidence-based charges of corruption against him and a Congress that votes to not even investigate those charges.

    If impunity is the rule for the demigods of Brazil, every Brazilian citizen should be afraid. If the people suffer wrong, where can they stretch forth their hands? If justice is not done at the highest levels, how can the individual Brazilian be sure that justice will be done for her? Then why should she obey the law? A bacterial infection that enters at one point of the body spreads to many organs.
    To repair the wheels of democracy, citizens must stop re-electing politicians who do not represent their interests. At a recent forum sponsored by the American Society, that Julia moderated, I asked,” Why do Brazilians continue to re-elect crooks?” Before we discuss the answers, let me say a few words about a law intended to address just this issue.

    The Ficha limpa, or “clean slate” law, passed in 2010. law states that
    …a candidate who has been impeached, resigned to avoid impeachment, or convicted by a decision of a collective body (with more than one judge) is ineligible for eight years, even if there is still the possibility of appeals.
    (It is very important to note that this law was proposed as a public initiative, signed by 1.3 million Brazilians. SO MUCH FOR THE IDEA THAT INDIVIDUAL BRAZILIANS CAN’T DO ANYTHING ABOUT POLITICS. More on this later.)

    Since its enactment, the law has survived many legal challenges that you can read about at
    It seems to be functioning as intended. A very good law, but one asks why it was necessary to pass such a law. Why did the public re-elect those who had been convicted of corruption?

    In any case, the law provides no remedy to the vote by the Lower House to let Temer off. Deputies broke no law by voting as they did, even though they clearly subverted the general principle of equal justice for all. They must not think it will cost them their seat in Congress. (A seat they surely want to keep because it partially shields them from the prosecution that threatens many of them.)

    In the discussion mentioned above, panelists and attendees suggested several reasons why Brazilians tend to vote in this seemingly inexplicable manner. One person noted that in many elections ALL the candidates seem to be crooks. Only thing to do is vote for the least crooked.
    There must be some truth to this. In 2010 a professional clown (not a figurative clown like so many deputies) was elected to Congress. His name is Tiririca and he won more than 1.3 million votes, more than any other candidate for Congress and nearly twice as a much as the second most voted-for candidate. You can read about it here:

    (I recommend this article – funny, and lacerating to the conscience of erring congressmen, if any have a conscience. “Laughing through the tears.”)

    Now what can we say about those 1.3 million+ who voted for Tiririca? Did it occur to them that voting is the lifeblood of democracy, that is was vital to the future of Brazil to vote for a candidate dedicated to their interests? Certainly, this occurred to some of them BUT THEY JUST COULDN’T FIND A BETTER CANDIDATE TO VOTE FOR.

    Another response to the question, “Why do Brazilians vote for known crooks?” was that many Brazilians think the public funds are one thing, private funds (their own, for instance) are something else. They know that politicians are putting money in personal accounts and using money to run campaigns. But that’s not the public’s money – that’s money of other politicians or businessmen or financiers.

    A good many low-income Brazilians, because of their low incomes, do not have to file personal income taxes. They have never filed them and would not even know how to file them. They often don’t have to pay a real estate tax. It’s unfortunate that they don’t realize that they pay a sales tax on everything they buy. Or that businesses, which do pay taxes, pass on the cost to consumers, including low-income consumers. It’s natural that such voters are not very upset about public theft. (The government has been in no hurry to inform the public know about the tax system.)

    Someone else pointed out that many Brazilians have differ ideas about class than North Americans. They may rationally subscribe to the idea that all citizens are equal before the law. But they don’t instinctively FEEL that way. They divide the Brazilian world into US and THEM. US is themselves, their family, friends, and associates, and all the other common, ordinary citizens. THEM is a fabulous world of demigods and semi-royalty, to whom they owe respect – the political/social elite.
    I emphasize that this is only a shadowy FEELING – an unconscious hangover from the past, but that past lasted 500 years. Think of the Royal Family in Great Britain. Everyone knows that the Queen is, legally, just another citizen. If she went on a shoplifting spree, she is liable to be charged and bought to justice like a commoner.

    The Royal Family is a pretend-act but it is tradition, and tradition is very real, at least to those who feel it in their nerve endings. It probably exists in some form all over the world. I would say about half white Americans believe the blacks are somehow inferior – in what way they could not put into words, because this is not a thought-out belief.

    This feeling of class differences is to related to the practice of patronage. In the past, Brazilians in the “lower” classes sought out patrons in the ‘upper” classes. The modern equivalent is voting for a patron, even if they patron has broken laws.

    Someone pointed out that Brazilians “personalize” human relationships, even extending personal relationships to legal, business, and political relationships. Your friend broke a law; you don’t hold him legally accountable because he is your friend. Again, this is a world-wide tendency; an ambitious executive in the US tries to form as many “personal” relationships as he can. He has a file containing the nickname of each “friend”, the names of his wife and children, their birthdays, etc. He “makes friends and influences people”. But Brazilians take this a step further, even to the point of having sincere emotions!

    All the explanations of Brazilian voting behavior I have listed have involve culture and custom, not laws or institutions. Laws and institutions should be discussed but I will leave that to another essay. If you buy into my contention that a major factor in the political crisis ultimately goes back to voting habits and that these are largely cultural, then what is to be done? How can you change culture?
    When the US invaded Afghanistan in 2001, apparently with success, it was generally agreed (in the US) that the Afghan laws placing females in an inferior position would have to be abolished. And many have been.

    But alas, the position of women was only partly based on laws. Part of it was cultural. At last report, though the US may have troops in Afghanistan for another 16 years, the US will not insist that Afghan women have equal rights. Cultural change through law and legal compulsion tends to be cultural mutilation. Culture DOES change but ideally this happens through a natural process, one we don’t yet clearly understand. It took 100+ years for women to gain the right to vote in the US.
    But though at present, MANY Brazilians have a culture-based tendency to elect miscreants to office, many Brazilians do NOT have this tendency. Otherwise, we would not have 1.3+ million Brazilians signing the ficha limpa petition mentioned above.

    I argue for a grass-roots movement (or movements) to work against this and other unfortunate cultural-based tendencies.

    I make a specific proposal to such a movement:
    Make a list of all the deputies in the Lower House who voted to not hold Temer accountable to the charges Attorney General Janot brought against him. Janot proposes bringing additional charges against Temer. Another 2/3 majority vote will be required in the Lower House to make Temer accountable to these charges.
    Notify each deputy that he is under the eye of the public when he votes. Remind him of his duty to uphold the rule of law. Note the names of all deputies who voted in favor of Temer in the last votes. Summarize and refute the arguments they made.
    I will not here run through the arguments made in the previous vote or compare them with the arguments made in the vote to impeach Dilma. I would urge, however, there are only two relevant questions: One, are the offenses cited by Janot serious enough to warrant a trial; two, are there sufficient reasons to suspect the Temer committed those offenses. (We will have to study Janot’s presentation, once it is made, to answer these questions.)

    Make it clear to deputies that if they don’t hold Temer accountable, the movement WILL make deputies accountable in the next election.
    It would be well for the movement to compile information about all allegations of criminal activities of deputies, and inform each deputy of the allegations made against him. That is: let THEM know that WE know.

    I think my proposal has the virtues of the ficha limpa petition. It deals with an identifiable, specific, important reality. If it is successful, it will encourage future efforts. It will show us that all is not hopeless. We have some influence on our lives and I think a good influence.

    There are so many similar things that grass-roots movements could do. I briefly suggest only one.
    I mentioned above that Brazilians may not be very well informed about tax collection. Possibly they lack information in other areas. They know well about corruption in Brazil – it would be almost impossible to NOT know. But do they believe that this is the norm all over the world? If so, this would of course heighten the feeling of hopelessness and impotence. Grass-roots movements should spread the truth that, though corruption is a serious problem in North American, it is minuscule compared to Brazil.

    Many citizens are enraged about violence in their communities. They should be informed of ways to express this rage besides burning tires, setting fire to buses, or marching in protest.
    What are those ways? Of course, voting is one. Democracy is premised on the concept of the informed vote by all the people. We have discussed the challenges Brazilians face in voting. But voting for Tiririca is not the answer. Grass-roots movements could describe how to mount a petition.

    I could spend pages listing matters that Brazilians need to learn about (indeed, I should be better informed about most of them myself). I hope the above examples illustrate the general idea.

    Now the question for our imaginary grass-roots movement is how to convey this information to the public. The Internet should be a great tool and it could be the key. We are using it right now.
    One problem is the sea of JUNK on the Net. A babble of voices – lying, sensational, misleading, commercially exploitive, even criminally exploitive. Intelligent, literate young people, some living in favelas, dig past the nonsense on the Net, and they are a great hope for the future. But they don’t number in the millions.

    Newspaper readers do number in the millions, but they are evidently paralyzed by what they read. (Some would say the reporting of the O Globo network is an agent of paralysis.)

    TENS of millions watch TV and are not paralyzed at all by it. In fact, novelas and soccer exalt Brazilians to the heights and depths of passion.

    One government sponsored information source, however, does not stir very deep passion. “Horário propaganda eleitoral gratuito”, “free time for political advertising” is a space reserved by law, within the television and radio programs, for electoral propaganda by the competing candidates, so each can present their government projects.

    Political ads all over the world are false and phony, but this programming tops anything I have seen. It’s like a beer ad in its absence of any intellectual content, but lacks the humor and sexuality of such ads. Jingles dominate along with florid sentimentality. No information is conveyed, no ideas articulated. Yet the clips are required by law; in a sense, taxpayers fund them.

    This we don’t need. There are other government sponsored information programs. TV Câmara, TV Senado, TV Justiça are all worth watching. But I suspect that to the average Brazilian, these are gray men, droning hackneyed lawyer jargon only other lawyers understand. Can’t compete with samba.

    I hope grass-roots movements petition for a new sort of information program. It will be directed to ordinary people, use ordinary language and deal with ordinary concerns. If must not be partisan, though is should address the different way of looking at things inevitable in a nation of 207 million spread over diverse landscapes. To keep viewers interested, the show must have humor and drama!

    For example, dealing with the election of Tiririca, the newscaster could start out with, “Ha, ha Brazilians, full of funny jokes, aren’t you?”. Follow this with clips and earthy comments to demonstrate just how important elections are to the lives of ordinary people.
    Or you could start with a clip of a shoot-out. Announcer: “You are used to seeing this.”
    Clip of a burning bus. “And you used to protest like this.”
    Clip of very respectable Brazilians waiting quietly in line to vote. “But now you protest like this.”

    You need humor and drama but somehow there must be a bridge to a serious human saying serious things to a serious public, expressing, without words: “Your suffering is real; your hardships are real; your sweat is real.”

    Somehow the show must convey factual information in a way that is not boring. You could have a map showing the nations of the world, along with the estimated degree of corruption in each. Announcer points out degree of corruption in Brazil, shows it is similar to that in the other BRICS – Russia, China, India, and South Africa – but much higher than Scandinavian countries. Then the announcer might ask: why? Dramatic footage of underfunded hospitals and police departments should be shown to convey the seriousness of corruption.

    I suppose every one of us will form differing ideas about exactly what we would like to the public to know. I have not addressed the problem of convincing public servants to allow programming that might be prejudicial to their own interests. Yet the ficha limpa law passed.

    At the American Society meeting, Julia asked the panelists to try to imagine that pundits years from now looking back at the crisis Brazil faces at this moment. What would they say were the essential problems and what could have been done to solve them?

    Perhaps they would say the Corruption Era began on April 22, 1500, when Pedro Álvares Cabral landed in what is now northeastern Brazil. The Era started to crumble on Nov 17, 2016, when the former governor of Rio de Janeiro State, Sérgio Cabral, was arrested on corruption charges – the important fact being that Cabral is still doing hard time in jail, unlike the current President of Brazil and one-third of Congress.

    The people can bring justice; the people can make it happen, if they believe they can.

    • Rio real says:

      Hi there, sorry it took me so long to answer! You have a lot of great observations and your proposal is a good one. I think the jury is still out regarding the impact of Lava Jato on politicians. It may be that they actually are quaking in their boots, we just can’t see this. The 2018 elections will tell us much more. And this week, with the 2nd denúncia of Temer going to Congress. Will they have the nerve (and the payoffs) to reject this one, too? Also, I suspect that there is one more reason people aren’t going to the streets: Lava Jato is actually sending quite a few people to jail and there is a good possibility more are on the way… anyway, I hope we all live long enough to see some real change! Thanks for your response to the post.

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