Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for March, 2008

China’s Charm Offensive

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 31st March, 2008

chinesischer_nationalcircus2.jpgThis weekend, the Chinese National Circus gave a free performance for schoolkids in Fortaleza — lots of fairies and fantasies and fans, to make everyone go ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’. This was in fact just one stop on a major sweep of the Circus right through Latin America, as China takes its charm offensive deep into areas where previously the People’s Republic has made little impact. This is, of course, tied in with the Beijing Olympics. Soon, Latin America, along with Africa, Asia and other parts of the world, will also be awash with the sickly-sweet mascots of the Beijing Games. Cartoon animals and fish (even a Tibetan goat), all designed to show us how cuddly the Chinese are.

Tell that to the monks and other demonstrators who have been rounded up in Lhasa and other Tibetan communities, or to the Uighurs who are in prison for campaigning for greater rights for Muslims in Western China. There is much that is admirable in the People’s Republic, and the economic strides that the government has made are astonishing. But just as South Korea after its economic spurt had to let democratic and human rights bloom, so must China. This year, 2008, should be a milestone in China’s evolution. Not just because it can showcase to the world the degree to which it has advanced in less than 60 years, but also by loosening up — to trust the very people in whose name the Communist Party rules.

Liberals in the European Parliament (ALDE), under their British leader, Graham Watson, MEP, have been in the forefront of highlighting human rights issues in China. This is not an anti-Chinese approach, as the authorities in Beijing sometimes make out (especially when the Dalai Lama is involved), but actually pro-Chinese. Like other Liberals, I want to see China shoulder the full role in the world that it should, and indeed is beginning, to play. But Europe must have a criticial as well as constructive engagement with China, as indeed it should do with all of the BRICs, including Brazil. After all, in principle our goal is the same: the betrement of the human condition.


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Child Labour

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 30th March, 2008

Figures published today show that there are over 120,000 children aged betwen five and thirteen working in the Brazilian state of Ceará. That’s about 8 percent of kids in that age group. The situation in nearby Maranhãu is even worse. Most of the children are labouring unpaid in the agricultural sector, though quite a lot of girls are in domestic service, working for well below the official minimum wage or just for their keep. Echoes of Britain a century ago. This means, of course, that many children are missing out on education, or are only getting the most basic instruction. This creates a vicious circle, in that the uneducated have little chance in later life of getting a proper job and their own children are likely to be put out to work.

The government is well aware of the problem and understands that the only way to overcome it is by raising overall living standards and eliminating poverty, which is a huge challenge. But they are also trying to tackle the specific problem of child prostitution. According to Brazilian law, the age of sexual consent (of either orientation) is 18 — well above that of most European countries. But the reality is quite different. Quite apart from the sexual experimentation of teenagers, the hand-to-mouth existence of many families here in the north-east means that many youngsters — mainly but not exclusively girls — get caught up in the sex trade, catering to both local and foreign clients. Occasionally this leads to legal action. Two Brazilian men are currently in jail charged with enticing a series of girls as young as 11 into sexual relations in the town of Juazeiro do Norte in the south of Ceará. But such cases are just the tip of the iceberg, with paedophiles from Europe and North America drawn like bees to the honey on offer.

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Mosquito Alert!

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 29th March, 2008

mosquito.gifInsect repellent is flying off the shelves of supermarkets across the state of Ceará. There’s been an alarming rise in the number of cases of dengue fever here, now more than four thousand. The fact that this potentially fatal mosquito-borne virus has already claimed victims down in Rio de Janeiro has made the international news. But few abroad know or particularly care about what happens in this remote corner of Brazil. Children are particularly vulnerable, but there are also many feeble malnourished poor people here, who eke out a living begging or sifting through rubbish bins. The first time I came to Ceará, during the military dictatorship, people were literally dying of starvation duiring a drought in the interior. But the government of the period refused to make the disaster public, as it thought that would hurt the country’s image abroad. Moreover, in the eyes of many middle class Brazilians in Rio, São Paulo and other southern cities, still today the dispossessed of the north-east are almost like another species.

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In Memoriam Shusha Guppy

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 28th March, 2008

The Persian writer, singer and composer Shamsi ‘Shusha’ Guppy, who has died of cancer, was a remarkable creature in many ways. The daughter of a Grand Ayatollah in Tehran — and possibly directly descended from the Prophet Mohammed himself — she was urbane, open-minded and often wily. When one of her sons, Darius (one of Boris Johnson’s loucher chums) was sent to prison for fraud, she defended him like a lioness with her cubs, though she did not excuse his misdemeanour. Shusha was as small as the Queen, and just as determined, and at times could indeed be quite regal. At others, she was modesty itself — just one of her many contradictions.

Precociously brilliant, she discovered Paris´ Left Bank in its post-War heyday, later moving on to London, ending up perfectly trilingual. She made a mark as a singer of both Persian and Western songs, though I for one valued her books above all: personal, idiosyncratic and insightful. She had been a figure on the British literary scene for many years before our paths crossed directly, as members of English PEN´s Writers in Prison Committee. Last autumn, the two of us were sent by PEN to Cairo, not just to attend a seminar on writers in Egypt (at the British Council), but also to find out more about the situation regarding freedom of expression there and the particular case of the imprisoned blogger, Abdel Kareem Nabil Suleiman. She alarmed me before we set off by informing me that she intended to be my ‘little sister’ in Egypt, who would follow me around. In the event, it wasn’t quite as bad as that, as she was rather good in discussions at gatherings of people, though she had done no homework in preparation. Her lack of drive at the time surprised me, but the reason became all too evident soon after she returned (ahead of me) to England, and cancer was diagnosed.

One memory still makes me smile. She had a habit of asking men such as myself who had no obvious woman in tow whether they were married. In my case, after I replied ‘no’, she then asked me how old I was. I told her (57) and cheekily added, ‘how about you?’ As I expected, the first response I got was that it was not gallant for a man to ask a woman such a question. But a couple of hours later, she came up to me and said, ‘Well, you mustn’t tell anyone, but I’ll soon be 62.’ At the time, I thought it takes style to knock five years off one’s age — but real chutzpah to knock off ten, which is what I suspected, and what indeed proved to be the case, when her excellent and affectionate obituary by Roger Scruton appeared earlier this week in the Guardian.


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McCain, Brazil and the G8

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 27th March, 2008

hp_flags.jpgJohn McCain, the US Republican presidential hopeful,  has made the Brazilians happy by suggesting that Brazil, along with India, should be admitted to an enlarged G8 — the club of the world´s leading economies. This is actually the lead international story in today´s O Diário do Nordeste, Fortaleza´s best daily newspaper. It makes a lot of sense, given the rise of the BRICs, about which I have blogged before. But other parts of McCain’s foreign affairs manifesto are much more disconcerting. In particular, McCain has urged that Russia should be excluded from the G8, because of its Cold War-like recent behavious. Apart from the fact that such a movce would never be agreed to by the other leading industrial nations, it is an inflammatory and irresponsible suggestion. We´ve had eight years of one reckless Republican nutter in the White House. The last thing the world needs is another.

The sad thing is, the months of protracted bitching between the Clinton and Obama camps have given the Republicans something of a free ride. Which means that unless the Democrats get their act together soon, a McCain win is distinctly on the cards. In which case, God help America, and God help the world.

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Chavez and Mercosur

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 26th March, 2008

hugo-chavez.jpgThe Venezuelan President, Hugo Chavez, has been here in North East Brazil for a couple of days, glad-handing the locals. He took many people by surprise by declaring that Venezuela is now almost a member of Mercosur (Mercosul in Portuguese), the main Latin American regional organisation. Formal membership will depend on the agreement of the core of four countries: Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, of which only Argentina and Uruguay have so far said ‘yes’. Chavez hopes his presence in Brazil might unruffle feathers. In May last year, when the Brazilian Congress criticised his closure of the main Venezuelan opposition TV channel, he accused it of being subservient to the interests of the United States. He always did know how to win friends and influence people (though I confess I laughed when Ken Livingstone flew out to visit him and got stranded in Cuba instead, as Chavez said he was too busy to receive the Mayor of London).

In principle, Mercosur could be another EU in the making,  though it has a long way to go before it gets its act together. As I reported in a radio despatch from Montevideo a while back, the Mercosur headquarters there is a hive of inactivity. Rivalries betwen member states are still pretty strong, not to mention those between the five other associate members: Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru.  But Latin American businessmen, as well as some politicians, realise that regionalisation is a prerequisite for success in a globalised world, and a united South American bloc would be a formidable entity.

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A Ponte Metálica

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 25th March, 2008

ponte_dos_ingleses_b.jpgOne of the most unusual distinctive features of Fortaleza is the pier that juts out from the old port just a short stroll from where I’m staying — commonly known as ‘a ponte metálica’. From the air, it looks like something that belongs in Bournemouth, which is not surprising as it was built by the British, and its formal name is the Ponte dos Ingleses. Though Britain formally colonised only two parts of continental Latin America (Guyana and British Honduras, now Belize), its engineers had a huge impact across the continent, especially in transport systems. There was far more trade between Britain and South America a hundred years ago than there is now.

In the evening, the pier here is a favourite gathering place for teenage lovers, scores of them sitting or standing entwined for hours. But the last few days, the scene has taken on a different character. Storms over the North Atlantic have led to unusually high tides and big waves; as I sit working at my computer, I can hear the sea pounding as it crashes over the breakwater. The waves have been so large that they have been shooting up through the wooden planks of the pier, dousing everyone nearby, to the delight of young boys who squeal with laughter every time anyone gets drenched.

The nearby shore-front has also been inundated, as well as the simple houses there. Far from looking tragic, the inhabitants for the main part are treating this as a great joke, brushing and mopping out the water each time the sea sends more back in. Concrete floors are more resistant than Britain’s fitted carpets, of course, and plastic furniture floats, unlike three piece suites.

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Brazil, Land of Tomorrow?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 24th March, 2008

Brazilians have a favourite running joke, namely ‘Brazil is the country of tomorrow — and always will be!’ This mixture of cynicism and resignation was for a long time understandable, as government after government promised to deliver a better life, while all that happened was a continuation of social injustice and rampant inflation. However, some things have improved in recent years, not least since President ‘Lula’ took over, and although prices continue to rise, the national currency, the real, has held its own on the exchange markets. There are still several serious structural problems and unemployment/underemployment are endemic. But there is a very lively informal economy, which enables many millions to survive. And in certain areas of appropriate technology, the country has become a pace-setter.

Of course, the fact that most of Brazil has a terrific climate helps. I always used to feel particularly sorry for impoversihed Russians after the collapse of the Soviet Union, as they had to survive bitter winters. At least here on the Brazilian coast there is the beach and a great sense of community, though life in the interior can be pretty grim.

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Praia de Iracema

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 23rd March, 2008

When I first came to Fortaleza nearly 30 years ago, Iracema was on the very edge of the city — a place people came to enjoy the beach at the weekend. But now the city has engulfed it, spreading several miles along the coast, to the port of Mucuripe. Luxury tower-blocks and hotels stretch several streets back from the shore, though a small kernel of traditional houses with their red tiled roofs (including the one where I always stay) remain.

The number of European tourists is growing, as there are now daily flights to Fortaleza from Lisbon, but the vast majority of visitors are from São Paulo and other southern cities. These southerners are half as big again as the locals, and 10 times as rich; this really is a country of divides. On one visit here, I made a radio documentary about the Catholic Church’s response to the poverty that is still the lot of a majority of Brazilians. Of course, the same is true in the other BRICs (i.e. Russia, India and China) and one of the things I am working on now, both as an academic and as a journalist, is how to narrow the gap in these emerging states as the economy grows. 


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Keep Every Scrap of Paper!

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 20th March, 2008

Being totally freelance, I’ve long been trained by my accountant to keep every receipt or scrap of paper relating to finance — quite a challenge in some of the places I go to, not to mention the headache of drawing up the quarterly accounts in which half a dozen different currencies tend to appear. But this week I’m really glad I do hoard everything. I was recently in Ras Al Khaimah (one of the more obscure United Arab Emirates, from which I did a ‘From Our Own Correspondent’) and tried to wtihdraw some money from an Emirates Bank cashpoint in the Manar Mall. When I tried with my debit card, the transcation was declined. So I then tried with my credit card, and the same thing happened. Fortunately I ddn’t throw the ‘transaction declined’ slips away, because when my recent statements arrived, I discovered that both amounts had in fact been debited from my accounts. NatWest is on to the case, though they say it might take six weeks to resolve. At least be have the hard evidence! So, the morale of the tale is: beware of magic money machines. And be sure to hang on to every scrap of paper until you know it is safe to throw it away!

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