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A gigante acordou – The giant has woken

22 Jun

I’ve just arrived back in Rio from a week visiting the baroque towns and isolated splendour of Brazil’s colonial past to the protests, uncertain and rising spirit of the chaotic present. Hints of the movement rippling across the country came from short snippets of news on the TV, people leaving early from work to be able to arrive home and scenes of the giant marches and homemade placards in all of the major cities. However, it was only talking to my Brazilian housemate today, her experience of the protests, reading the news reports and watching the film clips that I really became aware of the scale of this uprise.

The protests started over a week ago, just before we boarded a bus for the interior with small marches of students and members of the Movemento Passe Livre (Free Movement) against rises in bus fares in several major cities including Sao Paulo and Rio. These were small rises, to R$2.95 in Rio (£1), but as I’ve discussed before are a huge cost if you are living on the minimum wage. A large but peaceful march in Sao Paulo was met by riot police with rubber bullets and teargas and huge indignation across the media and the public and were the spark for ever increasing protests across the country. There were giant marches in the centre of Rio every night last week but also smaller scale protests across the city. 500 footballs with red crosses were placed on Copacabana beach these morning, representing the half a million people murdered in Brazil in the past 10 years whilst people have marched and camped outside the Governor of the State of Rio de Janeiro’s residence in Leblon.

Although the politicians have struck a conciliatory note, saying that they need to listen to the demands of the people and that this is a sign of democracy, the police have reacted somewhat differently. Videos abound of teargas and rubber bullets being sprayed towards people, apparently without reason, as they stand on pavements, walk down the street, sit in their cars or film events from their apartment. My housemate told me of walking in the crowd towards the Prefeitura (the seat of Rio’s goverment) as helicopters flew lower and lower overhead, dropping teargas from above as crowds including young people, children and pregnant women fled away. This style of policing may be partly due to the use of the BOPE police, heavily armed shock troops more accustomed to entering and tackling drug gangs in the favelas than policing protests.

And what does this waking giant want? Although the spark was the rise in bus prices the underlying frustrations are multitudinous. The poor infrastructure and investment in health and education, friends constantly declaim the poor wages of teachers and the endless waiting and lack of equipment at public hospitals, any one that can pays for private education and healthcare plans. The cost of hosting the mega events of the World Cup and the Olympics, which appear to serve external international interests such as the International Olympic Committee and Fifa rather than the local population. In Cuíaba, the capital of Mato Grosso, a recently built stadium has been knocked down and a new one built specifically for the World Cup that is hugely outsized for the audience of the local lower tier football team. But overlying all of this is the corruption and self-serving interests that have chipped away at people’s respect, trust and belief in politicians, in their trust that these mega-events are not being used to line the pockets of politicians whilst public services are neglected. The recent mensalão (Big Monthly Payment) scandal where 25 senators, businessmen and PT (Workers’ Party) officials were found guilty of receiving monthly payments to vote with the government, has still not resulted in any of the guilty going to prison. The politicians appeared outraged that the Supreme Court had had the gall to actually prosecute them, let alone find them guilty.

One of the specific complaints of the protesters is the amendment PEC 37 to the constitution which will be voted on this coming week, with today and tomorrow called the ‘Dia do Basta a Corrupção’ (Enough Corruption Day). This amendment would mean that all prosecution investigations would have to be carried out by the Federal or State Police, rather than some being brought by a public prosecutor, as occurs at the moment. People are worried that this concentration of power will give a monopoly to the police to investigate crimes, leaving some uninvestigated, especially those of corruption by politicians or police. Other people have suggested that a change is needed from the status quo, with local police forces needing more independence and better pay to increase their autonomy from State Governors and their ability to investigate corruption. Overall, it indicates the lack of trust in federal institutions.

Whatever the outcome and changes that occur from these protests, the giant has definitely woken. I am proud to see this spirit of change and demand for a better future speak on the streets of these cities, to see a people find its voice after so many talks with my colleagues, hearing their complaints about public services and corruption and their disbelief that any change will happen. Talking to people on our travels around Brazil they have told me how needed these protests are, for politicians to see the anger and frustration of the people and to know that they are watching and that they will demand change. Currently President Dilma hasn’t offered enough to calm this giant, we’ll see what the next week brings.

A trip to Brazil’s Imperial past

26 Nov

Last weekend we took a trip to Petropolis, an hour north of Rio and the summer residence of Brazil’s Imperial family. To give a little historical background…the Portuguese Royal family fled to Brazil as Napolean’s army was heading towards Lisbon in 1807. The King eventually returned to Portugal when his mother died, demoting Brazil to a colony and leading to a rebellion with his son, Don Pedro I, declaring the Brazil an independent country and himself Emperor in 1922. Passing through the hills to the north of Rio and staying on a farm he had decided it would be a perfect spot for a cool summer residence and for his daughters health. A German architect was employed to design it and it was settled by over 300 German families along with the Emperor and his retinue…resulting in Petropolis, a little bit of European splendour in the midst of the rainforest.

The bus ride up gives spectacular views of the mountains and valleys leading down to the coast. And then you step out and go back in time…and to a different continent. The weather was cold (at least 11-12 C!) and it was grey and drizzling so it felt like we were back in the UK, perhaps in the peak district. We had been looking forward to some colder weather…but we’ve decided its not for us. We’ll stick to the sunshine, wearing T-shirts and sitting with the windows open all day and night! I’d just get rid of these pesky mosquitoes, which biting me now…arggghhh. You can’t have everything!

Anyway, Petropolis is very beautiful, if slightly bizarre, full of French style chateaus, old crumbling wooden latticed houses, clattering horse carriages and a faded gentile charm. The old Imperial summer palace is beautiful, not overly grand, but grand enough! When the Republic took over the Presidents decided they needed to keep up the summer palace practice so there’s another beautiful building, decidedly shabbier, that they had for their use. Since the capital moved to Brasilia and the sight of Presidents in large summer palaces became a voter turnoff, they only drop by to hang their painting on the wall. Dilma is obviously yet to visit, or maybe they’re just seeing if she lasts!

Presidential Palace and French-style chateaus in Petropolis

Presidential Palace and French-style chateaus in Petropolis

Imperial Palace Petropolis
Imperial Palace Petropolis

There have been several  other notable residents of Petropolis. Particularly interesting is the house of Alberto Santos-Dumont, one of the fathers of aviation, and according to the Brazilians, at least, the first person to fly a plane. His was the first ‘official’ heavier-than-air flight, certified by the Aéro Club de France in 1906, with him demonstrating his flights in public, unlike the Wright brothers who were interested in obtaining a patent! His house, which he designed himself, demonstrates his general interest in engineering and innovation. It isn’t large width and every bit of space is maximised. The bed turns into a desk during the day, he designed a shower that he could control the temperature of by mixing two halves of a bucket containing separated hot water (heated by a little alcohol stove) and cold water, and the stairs that lead up the steep hillside are carved so that you don’t hit your shins as you walk up!

Alberto Santos-Dumont's innovative house

Alberto Santos-Dumont’s innovative house, you can just make out the carved steps

Finally we ended up at the brewery. This definitely demonstrates the cities Germanic influence. The citizens were fed-up of having a to wait weeks for beer to arrive so they built their own brewery! Even today they import all of the ingredients, hops, oats and yeast. The beer must taste better if the ingredients have been shipped halfway across the world! I have to say I was pretty happy when I tasted their Bohemia Confraria, a belgian style beer with flavour, yippee. The chopp (draft lager) is perfect for a hot day on the beach, but oh for aromas and something to tickle the taste buds…

Enjoying the beermaster taste test of the at the Bohemia cervejaria!

Enjoying the beermaster taste test of the at the Bohemia cervejaria!

I’ll just leave you with the amazing views down to Rio with the sun streaming through the clouds during our bus journey home…

The view from the mountains of Petropolis down to Rio

The view from the mountains of Petropolis down to Rio