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June 2003

Dreadful, puzzling, almost lovely Brazil

A beloved music producer is murdered in cold blood; the
opposition becomes the government's ally; and dirty, dangerous
São Paulo still hides some charm. Amid all of this, Chico
Buarque's silence is a hit and Veja magazine puts on its own grisly
act profiling a mortuary attendant accompanied by a picture of him
with the tools of his trade, extracting instruments included.

John Fitzpatrick

Here are a few snapshots of the current scene, which might be of interest to expatriate Brasileiros or the countless Brazil fans out there.

The Day the Music Died…

Violence is fact of life here and the crime pages of the local press make depressing and horrific reading. Most violent crime is rarely reported and the endless killings in the favelas, known as chacinas, which cause scores of deaths every week are routine page fillers. These generally arise from the drugs trade. The sheer pernicious of drugs has been highlighted in two recent cases in which fathers actually killed their own sons who had attacked them demanding money to buy more drugs. In one case, the father himself died of grief in prison shortly afterwards.

Occasionally, more high-profile murders hit the headlines, usually if the victim is a member of the middle class, a politician, judge or personality. This was the case this week when a music producer and writer called Almir Chediak was murdered in Petrópolis, near Rio de Janeiro. During his career, Chediak had worked with almost every musician associated with the Brazilian popular movement known as the MPB. He edited the songbooks of Dorival Caymmi, Caetano Veloso, João Bosco and Tom Jobim, amongst others.

These were not just rehashes of "famous hits" but academic works involving meticulous research and collaboration with the songwriters. Tom Jobim said of the Bossa Nova Songbook, "I regard the work of Almir Chediak as a piece of patriotism since it has to do with the memory of Brazil." Chediak was shot down in cold blood, with his arms tied, by a murderer who pumped four bullets into him.

Want to Be an Ambassador? Join the PMDB

As expected, that broad church known as the PMDB (Partido do Movimento Democrático Brasileiro—Party of the Brazilian Democratic Movement) is about to enter the government, giving President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva an even broader power base. The PSDB of ex-president Fernando Henrique Cardoso and the PFL are now the main opposition parties although do not be surprised if the PFL sneaks back in too.

As to the PSDB, some of its members have already switched to pro-government parties. According to the local press, the price for the PMDB's support was an ambassadorship for a former senator from Goiás state (Spain or Chile), the presidency of Transpetro for another and seats on the board of directors of Banco do Brasil and Banco da Amazônia for others. Whether any of those chosen few have the experience to undertake their new challenges is not known but the PT leadership obviously feels the price is worth the PMDB's support in getting the government's pension and tax reforms through Congress. Quite a promotion. One day a senator from a farming area in the MidWest, the next day Your Excellency.

EmbužGreat Place to Visit if You Can Find It

Every so often some report is published showing that São Paulo is a great tourist center with millions of visitors from Brazil and abroad. You can always rely on some city official to say how much tourists like the place and how tourism contributes to the economy. The fact is that the overwhelming majority of the foreign tourists come here on business and certainly not for pleasure.

Polls have shown that foreign tourists do not like the dirt, poverty, poor infrastructure, lack of English speakers and the feeling of insecurity. There are some tourist booths scattered around the city but these are poky little boxes, staffed by students who get 10 out of 10 for friendliness but 0 out of 10 for professionalism. The resources consist of inadequate maps and lists of events, sometimes outdated. These booths are more often closed than open and the entrances are often used as sleeping places by beggars and alcoholics.

Besides this, there is virtually nothing for the tourist to see in São Paulo. One of the "attractions" is the snake farm at Butantã where you can look down at a pit and watch snakes devour live white mice. Local schools even take children to this grisly spectacle. I admit it is not as bloody as a Spanish bullfight but hardly what most foreigners would regard as a tourist attraction.

Another place the tourist is generally taken to is the town of Embu, about 25 kilometers from the city. The highway to Embu and the entrance are grimy and ugly but the centre is pleasant and offers a popular arts and handicrafts fair on Sundays. However, there are no signs to the centre, so the tourist has a good chance of getting lost.

I went there recently and shortly after entering what I thought was Embu found myself back on the highway to São Paulo, thanks to the confusing layout. Later when I was trying to get back to São Paulo I got lost again and this time found myself back in the centre. If you are thinking of going there, take a tip—take a guide, a compass and a map or go by helicopter.

Veja Magazine Needs Surgical Treatment

When it comes to bad taste, Brazilian television is usually in a league of its own compared with the printed media. Trashy novelas with laughable scripts and dreadful acting are followed by inane "entertainment" shows in which you can see everything from graves being robbed, midgets being chased round studios by transvestites and staged fights as angry women attempt to beat up former boyfriends who have cheated on them. However, this week's Veja magazine has given the television a run for its money. It has presented a feature on the biggest hospital in São Paulo called Hospital das Clínicas, showing how this enormous place operates and presenting profiles of some of its 10,000 employees.

One of the profiles is of a mortuary attendant accompanied by a picture of him with the tools of his trade—a hammer, ladle, knife, scissors, thread and some extracting instruments. Every day this employee removes the organs from 30 bodies. The article says that with these crude instruments the assistant spends 15 minutes on each cadaver. Considering that a large number of readers have probably had some contact with the Hospital das Clínicas, which attends 10 million patients a year, the chances are that some of them have had relatives who have died there and undergone some kind of post mortem operation.

The assistant even mentions the name of a person whose body he cut open. As Veja puts it: "As an actor in his spare time, his (the assistant's) greatest emotion occurred on the day when he received the body of the playwright Dias Gomes. ´I never had the pleasure of knowing him when he was alive but it was an honor to take care of him here.'" Maybe this was just incompetent editing rather than bad taste but some questions need answering and some surgery is in order at Veja.

Plus Ça Change…

Guess who said this: "…the American government is imperialist: it went to war against Spain, seized Cuba, seized Puerto Rico, made Panama independent in order to construct the Canal, seized the Philippines, seized the other islands in the Pacific, grabbed most of Mexico. The whole of California was Mexican! Texas! What did it do with Texas? When it discovered that Texas had oil, the American government promoted a movement within Texas to make it independent and, a short time later the people "accepted" its annexation by the United States."

Some lefty outraged at the American attack on Iraq? No. It was Brazilian president General Ernesto Geisel in 1977 criticizing a US State Department report on the human rights situation in Brazil.1 Almost another decade was to pass before the soldiers went back to their barracks and let Brazilians themselves choose who         should be their rulers rather than having army officers like Geisel decide for them.

The Sound of Silence by Chico Buarque

Poor Chico Buarque. He really is top of the Brazilian hit parade at the moment thanks to his silence over Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. While other intellectuals, who have previously supported Castro, have started to back off or even condemn him, Buarque has kept quiet. At the same time, he is reported to have refused to sign a pro-Castro statement. The result is that he is being attacked by the right and left. Still, at least, he has been consistent, unlike Caetano Veloso who stated during last year's election campaign that he would vote for either Lula, Serra or Gomes. Considering that there were only four serious candidates, this shows that while he might be a great singer and songwriter, decisiveness is not one of Veloso's strengths.


1 Hist▀ria Indiscreta da Ditadura e da Abertura by Ronaldo Costa Couto, 1998.


John Fitzpatrick is a Scottish journalist who first visited Brazil in 1987 and has lived in São Paulo since 1995. He writes on politics and finance and runs his own company, Celtic Comunicações—  www.celt.com.br, which specializes in editorial and translation services for Brazilian and foreign clients. You can reach him at jf@celt.com.br 

© John Fitzpatrick 2003


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