Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘Brazil’

Stefan Zweig on My Mind

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 16th August, 2017

Stefan ZweigI’ve been thinking a lot about the 1930s recently, what with the rise of xenophobia and intolerance on both sides of the Atlantic and the current supremacy of Donald Trump and the Brexiteers. Surely things must get better, one imagines, yet the lessons of between the two World Wars suggests not necessarily. What should one do if things continue to deteriorate from a liberal perspective? One solution would be to make permanent my Brazilian bolt-hole, where I have spent the past month and increasing amounts of time over the past 30 years. But would that be escapism? The same dilemma confronted the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, many of whose books I read when I lived in Belgium in the 1970s. He was first blessed with enormous success until damned and driven away by the Nazis, because of his Jewish heritage. After gaining British citizenship, he eventually moved to Brazil, where he committed suicide, together with his second wife, in 1942, on hearing news of the fall of Singapore. Some of his erstwhile friends criticised his flight to safety in South America as well as his pacifism, while others lamented the loss of a good and prolific writer and biographer, if not always a great one. I visited the Zweig’s house in Petrópolis, outside Rio de Janeiro, some years ago and thought what an idyllic place for a writer it was in many ways. But Stefan Zweig could not bear the thought that the world was doomed to be controlled by fascists and the like. Alas, he therefore missed the redemptive defeat of Hitler, Mussolini and Imperial Japan. So perhaps even if I do decide to settle in Brazil some time in the not too distant future I shouldn’t let hope die.

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Poverty and Violence

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 12th August, 2017

Brazil shooting smallThe local newspaper in Fortaleza is full of stories of gang warfare in the less salubrious parts of the city: fatalities, injuries and fights. The fact that many criminals in Brazil have access to guns contributes to the death rate. A friend of ours had his car hijacked at gunpoint the other night and many Fortaleza residents live in gated high-rise developments with security guards at the entrance 24 hours a day. But most of the victims of violent crime are not the wealthier members of society but rather the poor and especially the young; the victims and the perpetrators often resemble each other. One thing that unites many of them is a sense of hopelessness. Unemployment and especially under-employment rates are high and even middle-class families are finding it hard to make ends meet. Many food prices in our local supermarket here are higher than in the UK, yet most people’s incomes are nowhere near European levels. Lots of young men just hang around in the hope of getting odd jobs, such as guarding parked cars for a tip. Other young people take to drugs or prostitution, which form part of the criminal underworld, though underworld is perhaps the wrong word to describe it as it is so visible.

TemerPoverty and despair undoubtedly contribute to the level of violence that is endemic in so many Brazilian cities, especially at night. But there is something else which is significant and is mentioned to me again and again by people of all social classes: a seething resentment against politicians and others at the very top of Brazilian society who cream off billions of reais through corruption. President Temer avoided being sent to trial the other day, as a vote in parliament to commit him failed to reach the necessary two-thirds majority. But everyone thinks the whole political establishment is rotten, irrespective of party. The difference between the crooks at the top and the petty criminals at street-level is that the top people don’t shoot each other, but buy each other’s favours instead.

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Gentrification Isn’t Always Bad

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 6th August, 2017

IMG_2663When we first started frequenting Praia de Iracema over 30 years ago, it was an arty suburb of Fortaleza, with low-rise buildings that gave it an attractive air, accentuated by the crystal blue waves that broke along the beach behind the houses. Subsequently, the city grew five-fold, population-wise, and the empty dunes that began only a few hundred metres along the shore were soon tamed and scores of hotels and gated apartment blocks were built facing them, all the way to the port at Mucuripe. Praia de Iracema itself was overshadowed by its glitzier new neighbour and became a haunt for druggies and drop-outs. Some of the old properties were knocked down and replaced with car parks by people who saw a way of making a few bucks. But in recent years, the trend has gone in the other direction, as the area has been gentrified by middle-class couples and families who, like us, have restored old properties, fought to keep conservation area status and backed the local authority’s excellent initiative to construct a wide promenade all the way along the beach from a big stone breakwater to the Ponte Ingles — a miniature pier in cast iron, imported from England a century ago, like so much of the fine ironwork in Brazil. Henceforth Praia de Iracema looked northwards the sea, with the sun marking its progress daily from east to west, as thousands of people safely bathe from the beach and in the evening enterprising locals rent out fantasy bicycles and roller skates to people from the city coming to savour the fresh air and restored environment. IMG_2682

 

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Brazil: Temer Holds On

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 3rd August, 2017

Michel TemerLast evening was quite surreal. I was at a local working men’s health club in Fortaleza where, in one room, men were taking part in a karaoke competition, while in another, people were crowded round a TV screen, watching a live broadcast from Brazil’s lower House of Congress in Brasilia. The shouting and catcalls from the MPs were even rowdier than the hullabaloo among the karaoke contestants. An electronic clapometer recorded the scores of the amateur singers, while on the TV screen, votes for and against sending President Michel Temer for trial on charges of corruption were recorded one by one. The latter took a considerable time, as many of the MPs insisted on making a speech outlining why they thought the President was a scoundrel or else much maligned, according to their own political loyalties.

Dilma Lula As the figures mounted, the MPs’ vote became as exciting as a Eurovision song contest, particularly as the “Yes” votes started to accelerate. But as a two-thirds majority was needed for the motion to begin proceedings against Mr Temer to be passed, it was in the end a lost cause — which prompted more shouting and jostling from the elected representatives. It should be remembered that Brazil’s last President, Dilma Rousseff, was ousted from power by Mr Temer and others, and that her predecessor, “Lula” da Silva has been given a prison sentence (against which he is appealing); corruption is at the centre of all these scandals. In fact, corruption is such a part of Brazilian political life, from the margins of billion dollar contracts to planning permissions at a local council level, that is surprising that the electorate bothers to vote at all. But another thing about last night struck me forcefully, which was that the besuited members of Congress, overwhelmingly white, overweight and puffed up like prize cockerels, bore precious little resemblance to the ordinary people I was with, both physically and in the way they behave. There is a huge gulf in this country between the governing and the governed and the shattered reputations of almost all recent senior politicians must surely lead to growing cynicism, then perhaps angry unrest.

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Young Lives Lost

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 30th July, 2017

gun crime smallLast night, shortly after dinner, we heard gunshots not far away from the house, followed by police sirens, and this morning the story was all over town. An 18-year-old youth had shot dead another and wounded a couple of girls. The attacker was in turn shot by police and wounded, but not critically. He will doubtless now end up in prison — which in Brazil all too often means a struggle for survival in an overcrowded and brutal environment controlled by its own, often vicious codes. It’s because of night-time insecurity that we hardly ever go out after dark in Fortaleza, but instead sit snug and safe behind locks and grills, reading. In the daytime, it is a different world, a sunny resort where families peddle up and down the promenade behind the house on various fantastic bicycles. But then comes the night. Gun crime is a serious problem in many of Brazil’s cities, but before Europeans feel superior about our own native countries’ relative security, it’s worth pointing out that there are areas of my original hometown, Manchester (notably Moss Side) where guns can be obtained relatively easily. In London, we tend to hear more of knife crime and there has been a depressing surge in attacks with knives in the city. Almost always, the victims are teenagers themselves, so just as with last night’s shooting here in Fortaleza, young lives are lost. before they have really begun. And in a sense the same is true for the perpetrators. Such a tragic and unnecessary waste.

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Street Girl

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 11th August, 2016

Street GirlJust a stone’s throw from the stadia where the Olympic Games are taking place in Rio de Janeiro tends of thousands of impoverished Brazilians live in conditions that would be unthinkable in Europe. Despite several years of strong economic growth, before a sharp fall-back the past two or three years, Brazil remains one of the most unequal societies on earth. The rich have a luxurious lifestyle, waited on hand on foot, and a depressingly high proportion of the affluent middle class think of the poor as almost sub-human. It was among those poor, in a small village in the south of the country, that Rozana McGrattan, grew up, in a family that was a dysfunctional as many trying to make ends meet. As a small child, she suffered sexual abuse from  a young neighbour before going to work, still a child, as a live-in maid and joan-of-all-trades for a couple of families, in conditions akin to slavery. From there she migrated to Sao Paulo, Brazil’s economic powerhouse, oscillating between “respectable” but abysmally paid jobs and destitution, including a spell in Cracolandia, the underworld of glue-sniffers, child prostitutes and drug gangs who subsist in a run-down part of town not far from the previously elegant Praca da Republica. Life expectancy there is short, violence is endemic and as Rozana describes in her searing memoir Street Girl (PWM, £7.99, co-written with John McDonald), she survived by petty thieving and relying on the charity of strangers, some of whom turned out to be monsters. Corrupt police and sexual perverts thrive in a place like Sao Paulo, where innocence is a luxury only the privileged can afford. Miraculously, Rozana managed to hold down a better job in her 20s and to get sent to England to learn English, though her bouts of mental illness and her habit of falling madly in love with the image of what she thought were ideal boyfriends meant even in the UK she had a bumpy ride. She married a Scot and had two children, though the marriage itself broke down, partly, she believes, because she found sex unappealing — apart from one unexpected, late encounter with another woman. Yet she has established herself in the UK as a relatively successful businesswoman running a cleaning company, while writing prose poems in her spare time. I suspect some European or North American readers might find parts of her story hard to believe, but as someone who has spent a great deal of time in Brazil over the past 30 years I know it rings true, even when she is effectively hallucinating. Despite occasional flashes of humour, it’s a saga of the misery of the human condition of a kind that Honoré de Balzac would have understood. But at least there is a kind of epiphany at the end, even it is one that is not conventionally Christian.

Rozana MxGrattan

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“It’s a Coup!” Cries Dilma

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 12th April, 2016

Dilma impeachmentBrazil’s President Dilma Rousseff today denounced what she said was an attempted coup against her — and accused the Vice-President (who is from another party) of being one of the “plotters”. Yesterday, a Congressional committee voted in favour of her impeachment and a motion to that effect could be put to the whole House as early as Sunday. A vote in the Senate would then follow. The charge is not that Dilma herself is corrupt — unlike accusations levelled against some of her political enemies — but rather that she massaged official deficit figures to make the country’s situation appear better than it is. Her hope is to stay in office until 2018 and then to be replaced by her predecessor, Luis Inacio “Lula” Da Silva, who is a political giant in the background at the moment, but in the process of being given a prominent role. Lula has recently recovered from throat cancer, and although now 70 has been out on the campaign trail. I saw him in Fortaleza the other day, where a few thousand supporters, waving red flags, chanted, “There is not going to be a coup!” Well, Dilma now says that is exactly what is happening, with the São Paulo business community and the huge Globo media empire amongst others ranged against her. The stock market has been buoyed by prospects of impeachment. But the millions of predominantly poor Brazilians who like what Lula and Dilma have done for them are going to carry on demonstrating, just as those calling for her departure will, in equal or even larger numbers.

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Brazil’s Crisis: Tragedy or Farce?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 1st April, 2016

Dilma Rousseff 1George HiltonThe resignation of Brazil’s Sports Minister, George Hilton, just four months before the Rio Olympics are due to start, has added another twist to the tortuous political crisis that the country has been suffering in recent months. The government insists his departure will not affect Brazil’s ability to deliver on the Games, but there is growing scepticism abroad about that event given the country’s slow but steady economic decline over the past few years, as well as confrontations between sports authorities, property developers and poor communities who are being evicted to make way for arenas. More seriously, George Hilton may not be the last Minister to quit the current ruling Coalition, as five others who belong to the PMDB party are under pressure to do the same. The Coalition is currently led by the PT’s Dilma Rousseff, who inherited the political capital of her hugely popular predecessor ‘Lula’ da Silva, but she has since been the focus of various corruption allegations, including supposedly massaging the country’s deficit figures to make them seem better than they are. The problem is that in Brazil almost all politicians are assumed by the general public to be corrupt, whethe it is at the municipal, state or federal level. Construction contracts, in particular, are often linked to back-handers to politicians. Similarly, petty bribery is rampant. So why, one might wonder, are so many Brazilians — not just PT members but whole groups of NGOs  and social movements — regularly going out into the streets to demonstrate in favour of Dilma?

Fortaleza demoThe reason basically is to be found in 20th century history, not just of Brazil but of the whole region. Military or other right-wing dictatorships thrived in Latin America until well into the 1980s, often with the covert support of the United States. Indeed, that support was sometimes overt, as with the overthrow of Salvador Allende’s Marxist government in Chile by General Pinochet. Socialists and other leftist groups in Brazil are terrified that the move to impeach their soul-mate Dilma and bring down the current government is just a prelude to a political coup d’état, in which the far right would take over and crack down on dissidents and the marginalised, as happened in the past. The fact that the Military Police (a most alarming section of the security forces during the periods of dictatorship) was flying low overhead in helicopters last night in Fortaleza while a pro-Dilma rally was going on down the road from where I am staying did nothing to calm the nerves of those who fear that the country could suddenly succumb to a right-wing take-over.

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Brazil: Check Mate for Dilma?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 30th March, 2016

Dilma RousseffMichel TemerToday in Brazil the largest party in the country’s ruling Coalition, the PMDB (Brazilian Democratic Mvcement Party), pulled out, declaring that the game is up for President Dilma Rousseff. Ms Rousseff is in danger of being impeached over allegations that she manipulated government accounts to hide a yawning deficit. The Brazilian economy has been contracting each year these last few years, following an earlier spurt of growth during which Dilma’s predecessor, ‘Lula’ de Silva, proudly declared that the country had grown out of its traditional syndrome of being ‘the country of the future — and which always will be!’ Opponents of Dilma’s Workers Party (PT) have accused Lula of pulling the strings since Dilma succeeded him, and that impression was hardly lessened when the other day she attempted to make him her Chief of Staff. Opponents derided this as an attempt to put him beyond the reach of Justice, and the matter will now be examined by the Supreme Court. In the meantime, millions of Brazilians have been taking to the streets in demonstrations and counter-demonstrations for and against Dilma’s impeachment. Whichever way it goes, one thing is sure: the PMDB’s withdrawal is a cruel blow for the chances of Dilma’s survival. But whether it amounts to ‘check mate’, as the PMDB is crowing tonight, remains to be seen. One clear reason the PMDB might wish so is because if Dilma is ousted, the PMDB leader Michel Temer, currently Brazil’s Vice-President, would succeed her as Head of State.

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Brazil Rejects Israel’s Dayan

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 28th March, 2016

Dani DayanIn the face of Brazil’s firm refusal to accept former settler leader Dani Dayan as Israel’s new Ambassador to Brasilia; Israel has today admitted defeat and named him as its next Consul General in New York instead. The government of Dilma Rousseff has been one of the strongest supporters the international recognition of Palestinian statehood and considered the nomination of Mr Dayan; who was born in Argentina; emigrating to Israel as a teenager; as unacceptable b,ecause of his strong support for illegal Israeli settlements in the Occupied West Bank. This situation led to a seven-month stand-off between Tel Aviv and Brasilia, but the Brazilians dug in their heels and now the Israelis have conceded defeat. It is very unusual for a country to refuse the credentials of a designated ambassador, but the Brazilians are to be congratgulated for refusing to compromise on a core matter of principle. The United States, alas, has no such qualms, but Mr Dayan’s arrival in New York is likely to spark at least some protests, not least from US Jewish groups who oppose Israel’s 49-year-old occupation of Palestine and Tel Aviv’s efforts to delegitimise the nascent Palestinian state.

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