Thursday, March 27, 2008

Remembering Where I Am

I love Brazil and I love living in Brazil. I have gotten used to pretty much everything about life here, and it all seems normal now. But sometimes I am reminded that this is not where I come from.

Last night I was waiting for the bus at about 10:45 at night. There were three women at the bus stop, and not much traffic on the normally very busy street. When my bus arrived, I and one of the women started to get on the bus when a passenger stuck her head out of the window and shouted, "Women, get on the bus! Get on, now!"

The two women stood up, confused, and looked at the woman on the bus. The fare-taker opened his window and told them, "Get on, there are some guys on bikes coming to rob you."

All four of us got on the bus, and the fare-taker told the women that they could get off the bus at the next stop -- one of the busiest intersections in the city, and an almost-robbery-proof location. He said that the bus had passed four men on bicycles circling around waiting for a break in the traffic so they could rob the people waiting at the bus stop.

However normal Brazil seems to me these days, this is something I will never get used to.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Soccer Is A Natural Resource And Brazil Is A Third-World Country

Here are the friendly games that Brazil has played since the 2006 World Cup ended:

August 16, 2006 Brazil-Norway in Oslo
September 3, 2006 Brazil-Argentina in London
September 6, 2006 Brazil-Wales in London
October 10, 2006 Brazil-Ecuador in Stockholm
November 15, 2006 Brazil-Switzerland in Basel
February 6, 2007 Brazil-Portugal in London
March 24, 2007 Brazil-Chile in Gothenburg
March 27, 2007 Brazil-Ghana in Stockholm
June 1, 2007 Brazil-England in London
June 5, 2007 Brazil-Turkey in Dortmund
August 22, 2007 Brazil-Algeria in Montpellier
September 9, 2007 Brazil-USA in Boston
September 11, 2007 Brazil-Mexico in Boston
February 6, 2008 Brazil-Ireland in Dublin
March 26, 2008 Brazil-Sweden in London

Notice anything strange about that list? Not one friendly game has been played in Brazil in the last two years. The CBF (Confederação Brasileira de Futebol) has a contract with Nike that pays something like $65 million per year (which is a pittance), and since that contract was signed the "Seleção Brasileira" has represented Nike more than it has represented Brazil. Brazilians don't have the money, generally, to buy $150 jerseys, so Nike demands that Brazil play in countries where the people do have that kind of money. Brazil is required to play its competitive "home" matches (the majority of the games listed above consider Brazil the "home" team) within Brazil's borders, or surely Brazil would play its World Cup Qualifiers in Tokyo and Berlin rather than São Paulo and Porto Alegre.

The situation is terrible, but it isn't likely to end any time soon. The CBF is run by an incompetent thief named Ricardo Teixeira whose sole qualifications for the job are being married to João Havelange's daughter and loving money more than soccer. Brazil was the reigning World Cup champion when he signed the contract with Nike, but he signed for next to nothing. One clause in the contract allowed Nike, and not the CBF, to schedule Brazil's friendly opponents and locations.

These days Brazilian players of any quality tend to leave the country to play in Europe at 18 or 19 years of age, so the Seleção is full of players that most Brazilians don't know. Lucas, who plays for Liverpool, spent only two years playing for Grêmio's professional team before leaving the country. He is Brazil's best young talent and likely to be the cornerstone of the seleção for the next ten years, but plenty of Brazilians have no idea who he is.

Teixeira has expressed his desire to end the state championships (fortunately, he almost certainly won't be able to do that) and change the Brazilian soccer schedule to conform with that of the major European championships (September to May) in order to facilitate the sale of players abroad. Like any other third-world country rich in natural resources, Brazilians no longer enjoy the fruit of Brazilian football. Football is becoming for Brazil what coffee and diamonds were in the 19th century.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Deforestation in Brazil

For the second time this week, the Washington Post has featured an article about Brazil on the front page.

It's a strange article, but more good than bad. Deforestation is an important issue, and enforcement is particularly difficult in the Amazon. The article nods at the question of poverty in Brazil's North, but doesn't look at it in any depth. The North of Brazil is like another country, completely cut off from the greater Brazilian cultural dialog. People are spread out, communities are isolated by the jungle that makes roads difficult, if not impossible, to maintain. The Post mentions that some of the individual charcoal producers have no other source of income, and that some came from far away to start their charcoal operations. Where did they come from? How bad was their situation if making charcoal in isolation is a step up? Where do these people get the money to build $300 charcoal ovens? What are their options now that their ovens have been destroyed? And, most importantly, what is the government doing to offer them a legal means of supporting themselves?

The biggest question, though, is why the article focuses on charcoal producers (throughout the article referred to as loggers) when the author admits that 80% of the deforestation is caused by soy farmers and cattle ranchers? I don't believe that there is any subsistence soy-farming or cattle-ranching going on, so the larger problem is caused by big companies with money to invest, and assets that could be seized.

In any case, it's nice to see that the Post is paying attention to problems in Brazil -- problems that are caused by poverty. It's easy to talk about stopping deforestation, but there are a lot of desperately poor people whose lives depend on it. Until the two problems are linked and approached as part of one greater problem, there will always be people who see the Amazon as their only way to move up from extreme poverty to severe poverty.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008


Yesterday the Washington Post had a front page (at least online it was front page) article about a gang called Thundercats that had been operating in Recife.

A friend of mine told me, more than a year ago, that there had been a gang operating a drug market in a neighborhood near hers. The police came in, arrested everyone in the gang (and probably a few people who happened to be nearby, too), and then left. And so Thundercats stepped in to operate the drug market and nothing changed.

The gang was crippled, if not destroyed, in a series of arrests that started last April and ended last August. What I can't understand is why the Post decided to write about it now. The Post didn't offer any evidence that the arrests have had any significant impact on crime in Recife, or that the police operation has served as a model for police in other states.

In any case, the Brazilian media (in the form of Globo) loves the "positive" attention that the article represents.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Some Of Us Care About More Than The Spin

But then again, some of us are the Washington Post. On the front page of the website the article about Obama's speech today is describe as "Presidential candidate tries to stem damage from divisive comments delivered by his pastor." Did he say anything at all interesting, or was it just a transparent attempt to convince us of something that doesn't matter anyway?

It was a hell of a speech, and people should know about it. Not just about what Obama was trying to accomplish (according to a reporter) when he gave it.

Winter Has Arrived

There are only two seasons in Recife -- summer and winter. It rained three times today, so apparently winter is here. The third rainstorm involved thunder and lightning, something I can't recall seeing in almost five years here. Global warming in action?

Oh, the game yesterday was terrible. Sport won 1-0, but it would have been 6-3 if Sport had decent forwards and didn't have a great goalie.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Clássico dos Clássicos Today

"Clássico" is the Portuguese word for what the English call a "derby" -- a game between two teams from the same city. There are three big teams in Recife (there was a fourth, América, but the last fifty years have not been kind to that club), and the two oldest are Sport and Náutico. Thus, the clássico between them is the classic clássico, the Clássico dos Clássicos. And it's today.

The Campeonato Pernambucano has a bizarre format this year, designed to force a final game (which will boost TV revenues), but the teams -- specifically Náutico -- haven't cooperated and if Sport can win today then Sport will all but guaranteed the championship with seven games to go.

The last time these two teams played was in September, in Náutico's stadium (where today's game will be played). Toward the end of that game, Sport's forward Jadilson (wearing black) suffered this foul:

Jadilson had just returned from a year-long absence due to surgery on his other knee. Vagner, the Náutico player pictured with his foot on Jadilson's knee, received a yellow card and, after Sport appealed, a four game suspension. Jadilson has yet to return. In the aftermath of that game (which Náutico won 2-0) one of Náutico's directors was rumored to have suggested that Vagner deserved a contract extension as a reward for what he did. Vagner will play this afternoon and will receive all manner of rude and ultimately ineffectual abuse from Sport's fans, myself included.

The last two times these two teams have met in Náutico's stadium there have been problems. In early February of last year Náutico only opened one gate for Sport's fans to enter, and then closed that gate half an hour before the game started. Sport's fans had to walk around the stadium (which is built into a residential neighborhood in between the buildings, so the walk is not a short one) and enter the main gate used by Náutico's fans. Then they had to walk around the inside of the stadium, suffering physical attacks from the Náutico supporters, to the police barrier between the two crowds. This confusion prompted Náutico's directors to close the main gate as well, turning away hundreds of people who had already purchased tickets. I was lucky enough to have entered an hour and a half before the game started, so I watched all this while safely in the middle of my red and black clad brothers. Should I survive whatever happens at this afternoon's game I'll give a report here.

When Did The Washington Post Change Its Focus to Humor?

Is this really the best photo they could find of Bill Foster? No, obviously not. How did this slip past the editors?

The Post will fix the photo eventually, but when they do, here is the photo they originally ran.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Democratic Spies in the GOP?

Seriously, how long do you think it will take for someone (the first one will no doubt be one of Sadly, No!'s regular targets) to blame this entire mess on the "fact" that Christopher Ward was a Democratic mole?

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

My Morning in Court

A friend of mine is suing her former boss -- who we'll call F, because that's the first letter of his name. F is the kind of person you can go most of your life without meeting in the US -- because unless you're poor enough to work for him or rich enough to be just like him, you'll never meet him. In Brazil, on the other hand, if you are in the middle class (i.e., you have a college degree) then you can't help but meet someone like him at least once a month.

F owns a company that sells supplies for plastic surgery -- silicone and saline implants, botox, and so on. F's father is a surgeon, and F has gotten everything he has ever wanted in life. His father set him up in the business. F has a salesman working for him on commission, and a secretary who handles the administrative side of the business. F just signs the checks.

My friend was F's secretary for two months before he signed work book (a peculiar bit of Brazilian bureaucracy) and made her a legal employee, and then he fired her two months after she got pregnant (a huge no-no).

During her period of employment in his office, F spent as much time out of the office (sometimes on two-week trips to Rio with a friend while his wife stayed behind in Recife) as he did in the office. At least once he casually mentioned to my friend that he had spent more money the previous weekend than she earned in a month. He also told her that what he was paying her (a little over R$400 per month) was enough for her to buy a car and a house, if she was smart with her money. When he fired her he told her that "people like me work to enjoy themselves lavishly* on the weekends, people like you work to buy beans."

I met F once. He told my friend that he needed to study English, and she suggested me. He called and set up an appointment, and I went to the office to meet him. He told me, in Portuguese, that he spoke excellent English but had difficulty understanding English when it is spoken to him. He spoke for fifteen or twenty minutes, in Portuguese, about how great his English was but how he needed to improve his listening because he had to go to conferences and speak to suppliers in the US. When he finished telling me, in Portuguese, about his proficiency
in English, he asked me what my price was. I told him -- R$30 per hour -- and he replied that my price was too high, he couldn't afford it, and that he knew someone who would come to his office and give English lessons for R$8 per hour (about $3US at the time). I wished him luck with his R$8 teacher, thanked him for his interest, and left.

My friend called me last night to ask me to appear as a witness this morning, because she apparently needed someone to testify that she had in fact worked for F's company. I said yes, grumbled when I got off the phone, and rearranged my schedule so I could do it. I went to the Tribunal de Trabalho (the Brazilian court system is nothing at all like the US courts) and waited for her hearing. Her attorney arrived and told me right away that I couldn't testify -- because I knew her before she worked for F. So her husband and I waited outside of the hearing room, watching through the glass.

And the good news is that F is well and truly fucked. My friend's employment is well documented, she earned commissions a few sales that took place while the salesman was out of the office, and F signed the commissions, and her pregnancy was well documented. The only objection F's attorney raised was to the pregnancy test presented as evidence -- he asked for it to be excluded because she hadn't taken a second test two weeks later to verify that it wasn't a false positive. I think that was his hail Mary, because her son's birth certificate was also in evidence. (I also suspect, on the basis of no evidence at all, that he was hoping to get a male judge -- he didn't -- so he could use the "You know we can't trust them bitches" defense.)

F was furious. That was the best part. His eyes were red and he looked like he was barely hanging on to his self control. He knows that he has almost no chance of winning this case, but his pride made him refuse the possibility of a settlement. He will, in all likelihood, have to pay seven months' salary (the pregnancy) plus another four (I think, although it might be as low as two) months' salary (maternity leave), plus damages, and then additional fines (which probably won't go to my friend). It's all too rare in Brazil that people like F have to pay for their mistreatment of others. It's too bad I couldn't hammer a nail or two into his coffin, but it was still a great morning.

*The verb he used, "luxar," doesn't have a direct translation to English -- it's the verb form of "luxury" but not exactly "to luxuriate."

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Happy Data Magna!

On this day in 1817 the Revolução Pernambucana began in, of course, Pernambuco. This year is the first time the state government has commemorated the date with a holiday. The revolution was a reaction against the permanent residency of the Portuguese royal family, specifically Dom João VI, in Rio de Janeiro. The economic elite of the Northeast gained nothing from the presence of the royal family in the Southeast, but suffered from the higher taxes imposed to maintain the court in Rio. At the same time, sugar and cotton exports (the main economic activity of the Northeast) fell due to competition from Jamaica (sugar) and the US (cotton). A drought in the Northeast exacerbated the economic problems of the region and inflamed revolutionary sentiments. Liberal ideas had been sweeping Brazil, and the revolution demanded Brazilian independence from Portugal and the proclamation of a Brazilian republic. The revolution gained support in Alagoas, Paraíba, Rio Grande do Norte, and Ceará.

The revolutionaries installed a provisional government and a constitution that guaranteed freedom of expression and equal rights (although it apparently didn't free any slaves). The revolution lasted only two months. Portuguese troops from the Southeast joined with soldiers contributed by loyal plantation owners in the Northeast to suppress, violently, the revolution and imprison the leaders. The Revolução Pernambucana was the last attempt at independence before Pedro I declared Brazilian independence in 1822.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Brazilian Celebrities Who Look Like American Celebrities

This will be an ongoing series here, because Brazilian television is pretty much nothing but American celebrity look-alikes.

The photo above is Fernanda Vasconcellos, who is currently starring in Rede Globo's novela Desejo Proibido, and the photo below is comedian and activist Paula Poundstone.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Tropa de Elite

I finally saw Tropa de Elite on Sunday, and it was a very good movie. That said, it wasn't ambiguous, as Mr. Trend implies but quite explicit in making the BOPE the knights in shining armor. The movie's message is unmistakable: All police are corrupt except the BOPE, who are the only ones actually doing anything about the problems if crime in Brazilian society.

At no point do we ever see what the police look like to favelados who aren't in gangs. In fact, the only valid criticism of the police is related to the corruption of the normal Polícia Militar -- they don't take the "war" against drug dealers seriously enough, and the BOPE might have to kill them. The middle-class law students complain about the unfriendliness of the police at a traffic stop, tarring all criticism of police brutality as the effete rebellion of rich kids who romanticize the poor.

It's difficult to argue with the film itself -- it is probably exactly how the BOPE members see the world. Within its limited vision it is probably perfectly accurate, but what a limited vision it offers. The buzz surrounding the movie was huge, but in the end it reminded me of a cop movie from the 80s, like Cobra. Kill the bad guys and go home, nothing else to it. It's too bad, though, because unlike Cobra it could have been so much more.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Stupid Is Not The Exclusive Property Of The Right

This is asinine. I hope it goes away quickly, because there are substantive issues to be engaged.

I am the recent father of a girl born to one American parent (me) and one Brazilian parent (her mother), and she is a natural-born American citizen. Period. She has a passport issued by the US government. The only paperwork involved was registering her birth at the consulate and requesting her passport. This is not open to discussion. John McCain was born outside of the US (let's simplify the situation and call the Canal Zone a foreign country) to two (the number that comes after one) American parents. He is a natural-born American citizen. There is no interpretation necessary. This isn't an interesting case. It's a waste of time.

The comments discussion on Group News Blog looks like a discussion with a wing-nut who insists that "every tax cut in history has resulted in an increase in tax revenue." On one side there are people with actual experience in the relevant area and facts at their fingertips, on the other side there are people who cling stubbornly to a belief that makes them feel warm and fuzzy inside.

I hope I never see anyone discussing this again.


It is embarrassing that the US can find so much money for war and so little for food aid. This isn't penetrating analysis, or anything that hasn't already been said before. But it needs to be said.

I understand that helping others isn't the sort of thing that arouses people's emotions, and won't provoke an intense debate in congress. But how can anyone justify cutting back on food aid while spending so much more on a misguided and illegal war?