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Brazzil
Religion and Crime
May 2003

Can God Save Rio?

Under a new restrained, conservative conception of democracy,
 religion has slid into the equation. Apart from Israel and the US,
religion has also become the measure of accountability in the state
of Rio de Janeiro. Rio's state government is experimenting
with its own version of the national security state.

Norman Madarasz

Security—public and national—is now the buzzword in democratic social policies throughout most of the world. After Israel, the United States through the Patriotic Acts has implemented the severest restrictions on civil liberties in decades, all in the name of national security. France, under the conservative governance of Nicolas Sarkozy, has rhymed the fears of a social slump with ethnic-related crimes. Muscovites crumble under the fear of the Chechen terrorist specter in retaliation for having had their homeland plundered to a pulp. And in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, public security beholds the hopes raised from years of inept and corrupt policing. Organized crime has exploded statewide, garnering comparisons to a Colombia in the making.

As a policy obsession, `security' is traditionally slotted on the right of the political spectrum. Israel, the US, France and Russia have all been under the governance of conservatives unprecedented in their belief that the use of force is a legitimate means to pre-empting terrorist attacks. At the same time, each country has used the same idea of force to curb dissent at home. Despite the banners and sound bites on protecting democracy, each of these countries has ever so subtly withdrawn the rights of the democratic opposition. Under this restrained, conservative conception of democracy, religion has slid into the equation. Apart from Israel and the US, to not have to speak of absolutist theocracies like Saudi Arabia, religion has also become the measure of accountability in the state of Rio de Janeiro.

Little can express the indignation of the educated middle class Cariocas, Rio's own citizens, as they face current events wreaking havoc in the state. Neither wealthy enough to shield themselves from armed assault in guarded houses and armored cars, nor poor enough to be tempted by the free for-all crime wave bleeding the city, the large educated middle class has had to bite the bullet of its powerlessness. In that regard, it differs little from middle classes worldwide who have boisterously watched political leadership betray them over Iraq. Most peculiar is that while Brazil as a whole is embarking on important reforms under the leadership of President Lula da Silva, Rio's state government is experimenting with its own version of the national security state.

The current tale is one of a state government that has all but lost its grip on power. Yet it is also one that only months ago embraced power in a landslide victory. No mere fiction, it is the inner lining of a governor's dream, Mrs. Roseangela Matheus. Also known as `Rosinha', she spent the first weeks of her term shielded behind sunglasses for tears flowed day into night over her subjects' refusal to recognize her as a born-again Evita. They stubbornly rejected her profession of faith to spread the word of God to those for whom only divinity is left as a hope for redemption. Meanwhile political corruption has run rampant at the highest level, stripping the state of the funds so urgently needed for security purposes, to say nothing of operating the civil service.

The story is a pathetic one, too. Denial has reigned supreme regarding the "mysterious" disappearance of public funds, made accountable to the management of the former Vice-Governor—a black federal senator—Mrs Benedita da Silva. From April to December 2002, she served out the remaining months of the gubernatorial term after her boss, Rosinha's husband, Anthony Garotinho, left the seat of government at the Palácio Guanabara to pursue his presidential ambitions.

There is no Karl Rove in this story, only a slew of Jerry Falwells. This doesn't mean that Mr. and Mrs. Garotinho, both born-again Christians, differ in their self-serving use of the religious infrastructure in their rise to power. Both Presbyterians, their power treadmill nonetheless remains the massive, cultish organizations of the Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus (Universal Church of the Kingdom of God) and the Assembléia de Deus (Assembly of God). Public administration has been perverted in their trail. Separation of State from Church, which has long shaped Brazil's democratic political history, has been explicitly curtailed.

ÈsMeanwhile, organized crime has assumed unprecedented power. For years, drug lords have operated out of Rio's favelas, a shuttle point for the Colombian trade. Teenage gangs bring them the heavily armed support and commando tactics needed to spread fear in the population. But the wealthy North's desire for cocaine has stayed unabated despite the millions sunk into the US's War on Drugs—yet another ineffective and costly conservative `security' policy.

What's different now is that Carioca drug lords are attacking state institutions, orchestrating fake road blocks, threatening and murdering innocent civilians, destroying state and private assets, and target practicing on Rio's Military Police. On Monday, May 5, gangs even attacked a university in retaliation for a leader's death in a weekend raid. One student was seriously wounded, while hundreds more have sunk into fear. Every year, 7 percent of Rio's population is violently assaulted.

MR. AND MRS. GOVERNOR

On April 23, in the midst of this rising chaos, Governor Matheus dismissed Colonel Josias Quintal from his position as Secretary of Public Security. For months he had struggled with an underfunded policing sector, stunted additionally by the intestine war he was led to wage against the head of police, Alvaro Lins. Systematically rejecting pleas for reform issued by Lula's federal government, Rosinha failed—some say refused—to deal with the matter. It is nobody's secret that Rio's police are among the country's most corrupt while also most underpaid. During her husband's term as governor from 1998-2002, Anthony had preferred to fire his security secretary instead of oust the "rotten gang" spreading terror in the squad.

The new twist for law enforcers is to watch with deflating egos as their men are decimated by gangsters. Sixteen officers have been murdered only this year. Along with them lay the charred framework of over 200 city buses, and the fear of merchants in Rio's most prosperous commercial zones, sporadically shut down on order from narco-commanders. In Josias Quintal's stead, Governor Matheus named the man she "most trusts: [her] own husband", former governor Anthony Garotinho.

The move has only confirmed suspicions over the Executive's operating mode. Only four months after taking office, the Governor of Rio de Janeiro State is tittering on the edge of collapse. `Rosinha' has proved unable to administer, let alone govern, the state. Since taking power on January 1st, she has leapt from one crisis to another, facing major public sector strikes along the way for failing to cover bonuses and vacation pay. She was swept to power in a landslide victory in the very first round of last October's election in a staged ploy that only paranoiacs would fail to believe.

In the closing months of his term as governor, Anthony Garotinho left office to run as presidential candidate for his party, the PSB (Brazilian Socialist Party). His Vice-Governor, Benedita da Silva of the coalition PT (Workers' Party) took office. For the nine months of her term, she fought daily against a barrage of violence from drug lords matched only by the Garotinho's vociferous accusations of mismanagement.

In hindsight, their shots were nothing but pre-emptive strikes. Behind the appearance of populist prim, the Garotinhos left a financially stripped state machine. Where that money had fled to would soon be revealed in that God-awful Latin American scourge: corruption. Perhaps Rosinha was not the racist she appeared to be when disinfecting the Palácio das Laranjeiras from governor Benedita's residency. There must have other bugs to exterminate.

Only weeks into her governance, the top staff of her tax inspection team was arrested and charged with embezzling public funds and laundering money deposited into Swiss bank accounts. The tally is a handsome one, some 30 million American dollars. This group of fifteen may still grow as the trial begins. At this point, though, they have yet to lose their jobs as the State Parliamentary Inquiry Commission organizes the evidence and trial. Among Anthony Garotinho's executive civil servants, they were re-hired by Rosinha until their fateful time came in February. Funds were extorted from many of Rio's most prosperous companies in exchange for lessened or forgotten tax-evasion penalties.

Tax evasion is a bounty for punishment anywhere in the world. When a national security state is implemented, auditing is one of the first `social' programs to bite the dust. Overdue taxes then get mixed up with personal services. With leadership of this kind, is it any wonder organized crime feels empowered to threaten the government's control over parts of the state? Is it really astonishing that drug lords dare to choose the language of revolution and guerrilla warfare to justify their trade?

The national capital until 1960, Rio de Janeiro was once the hotbed of revolt and seat to the sporadic democratic governments that alone have brought Brazil its promised prosperity. Today, its residents wonder what has led to the spate of poor governance afflicting them term after term. This is not to say that most Brazilians aren't asking themselves what could have led the Cariocas to vote for born-again Rosinha in the first place. After all, Rio de Janeiro is an intellectual center, home to some of the country's best universities. Why seek evangelical diversion then?

The current federal government's economic team comes from the city's celebrated PUC University. The federal university is home to the prestigious COPPE engineering research institute. One of the country's leading economic think tanks, the Fundação Getúlio Vargas, has its headquarters in Botafogo, across the creek from Sugar Loaf Mountain. Rio still houses the National Library, and its historic center is populated with museums and galleries. Brazil's largest media conglomerate, Globo, still keeps its headquarters in Rio. Why the evangelical illusions when having access to education and information of international standards?

The condition of the rest of the state before its fusion with Guanabara (basically the former federal zone around the city of Rio de Janeiro) in 1975 is another story. Some of the country's poorest areas are found in the state, whereas the Baixada Fluminense, the greater Rio de Janeiro city outskirts, is infamous for its vigilante justice and state-specific lawlessness. The state population tally at 13.5 million contrasts significantly with the municipality's estimated 6 million. State statistics hasten to point out that Rio's consumer market is equal to that of Chile and greater than those of Paraguay and Uruguay put together.

Per capita income would be 60 percent higher than the national average—over US$ 8 thousand a year. Yet lacking accurate Purchasing Power Parity figures, that average attests especially to great concentration of wealth. In the outskirts, apart from the stunning natural beauty, much of the economic relief comes from religion. It is rare sight for office high-rises and luxury hotels to dot the interior landscape. But rising above the hot breeze, the Christian cross is a landmark to trade as well temples.

Throughout centuries of exploration and exploitation, there has been no dearth of comparisons likening Brazil's remarkable beauty to Paradise. Yet the positivist philosophy that shaped the country's democratic republican movement in the late nineteenth century set God on his temple pedestal and left Him there—banished from affecting the world of human administration. Nowadays though separation of religion and state is a thing of the past in Rio de Janeiro. The confusion having arisen in its wake should be a lesson for all North Americans who see anything redeeming about uttering the name of God in the context of a political speech.

AUTHORITARIAN DEMOCRACY

Garotinho's power breeds from this background. His appointment as head of Public Security is telling of his role. During the whole inquiry into the tax inspection fraud he has led a low media profile. But his stealth sojourn was far from inactive. As his wife slid ever closer to losing control of the state, he is said to have played more than a homemaker husband's role to the couple's half-dozen kids. Newspaper reports had him sitting in on a state-federal meeting during which the feds decided to dispatch the army to the streets of Rio for the Carnaval festivities. A few days earlier, drug lords had forced shops to close down in Copacabana and Ipanema.

In her solitary weeks at the helm, organized crime was only a secondary issue. Rosinha inherited a government with empty coffers. Her predecessor, Benedita, also had. Once `Bené' took office, she covered herself by informing the media that Anthony had left nothing for his successor. Her audit of state coffers was confirmed by numerous independent sources, including Rio mayor César Maia. In failing to pass on the buck, Garotinho bore a poisoned pill to his wife. As news of the extent of the financial damage began angering the population, his wife's impetuous behavior turned from her subjects toward colleagues at the state and federal level in their bid at passing social security reform. In the meantime, Rosinha's hysterical Rio was becoming the laughing stock of the nation. Most people would have kept laughing were it not for the increasingly common sound of gunfights puncturing the horizon.

This mixture of pathos and perversion explains why the press received Garotinho's appointment with relief. For weeks the pitch had been pounding in the direction of a premature change in government. Garotinho's presence, far from the saving grace he has touted it to be, primarily precipitated a cease-fire with the press. That no editorial from any major newspaper has thus far decried the fall in democratic standards implicated in his appointment is indicative of the damage. Even before tackling that issue, one can pause to raise a simple doubt. If Garotinho is so central a figure to the government, how could he have not known about the tax inspection corruption? If he didn't know about it, how could someone so incompetent be the political leader?

As for how democratic the move is, the public security, family and religious catch phrases came buzzing when it wasn't idiomatic populism. Interviewed by the Federal District correspondent, Carlos de Lannoy of Globo Cable-TV's very respected "News at Ten", Garotinho first silenced any concerns about the Security Secretary Josias de Quintal having been fired. De Lannoy then followed up with a hard-hitting question. "Given that de Quintal's dismissal was conceivable, in case of ineffective policies Garotinho's own sacking is unimaginable; how would he react to the accusations of nepotism that would surely ensue?", asked de Lannoy. True to form, the new Secretary of Public Security completely skirted the issue.

Whether he continues to play the big-mouthed populist, Garotinho will be watched scrupulously. Behind the press's silence, it expects him to adopt President Lula's policy on a single, concerted security action plan. Federal Justice Minister, Marcio Thomaz Bastos's plan calls for complete state-federal partnership in pooling information and forces in exchange of hefty increases in federal financial assistance.

Still, Lannoy's point was suggestive. Garotinho evidently needs the press little to build his political support. Ministers, `bishops' and religious peer pressure do the job for him. About accountability, most commentators observe that Garotinho has dived into an all or nothing risk for his 2004 presidential prospects. Either he solves the problem at home and shows himself deserving of the top job, or his political career is over.

Such views hastily omits two observable issues. Lannoy alone poked at accountability. Good governance without public accountability, which means transparent accounts, is impossible to achieve. As Garotinho's tax inspectors stand trial, he has offered no apologies for his or his wife's accusations of the interim government's complicity over disappeared funds. Nor has he even alluded to any critical comments on his gubernatorial term. After all, the `Rio War' didn't start during the nine months he was out office.

Instead, the populism chants away. On May 3rd, during his weekly Saturday radio show, he resumed accusations of Benedita da Silva's interim government. "The PT government in Rio was not good. It has to admit this. It collapsed. The governor was weak. I don't know why Benedita was not prepared or why her people weren't good." He went on to accuse Benedita for mismanaging the public funds that she claimed from the outset no longer existed by the time of taking office.

The fact that the press has all but eluded Garotinho's lack of accountability, ecstatically reveling in their pastiche of "The New Sheriff's Come to Town", makes then even blinder regarding the second point: predictions over political futures. One need only look south to Argentina. Carlos Menem, the former president accused of setting up slush funds, is whom most economists consider to be the cause of Argentina's collapse. This did not prevent him from winding up in the runoff election, closer to returning to the presidential office every week than to the jail cell he deserves.

Even the Financial Times—typically filing social welfare under smart financial jibe, never failing to hob-knob with the Third World's corrupt elite—lamented his having to wait another round before returning to the Pink Palace in Buenos Aires. At 41 years of age, nothing can count out Garotinho for the future—not failure as security secretary, nor possible corruption charges. Thinking in such a way would be too logical, too reasonable for the political world in which the Garotinhos thrive.

What will he now do that hasn't already been tried? Mr. Quintal's comments on April 22 after a police van had been ambushed by 20 gunmen in a Rio suburb made it clear that the government is using means contrary to its stated intentions. Mrs. Matheus has for weeks repeated that her government refuses to negotiate with criminals. Yet Mr. Quintal warned that were the twenty assailants not found by the following Sunday, he would "be forced to use other means at his disposal." Surely he wasn't referring to Garotinho's appointment.

Who was Quintal addressing this ultimatum to? The assailants or drug lords? If the latter, it's clear the government has been negotiating with them. Only a fool would believe that the imprisoned gangster `Fernandinho Beira-Mar' is orchestrating this war alone.

GOD AND THE STATE IN THE SOUTH-NORTH

The case of Rio de Janeiro is a spectacular mix of corruption and the scourge of the underground pot and cocaine industry. Administrative transparency has been the case now for the fourth consecutive government at the federal level. But Rio's political leadership has only sunk further into secrecy and ineptness. Matched with the wealth generated from the cocaine industry, the state approaches ever so slowly the national security model of the American war on drugs. It is also inheriting its failures.

For one thing, the best way to fight cocaine is to legalize it. The fact that marijuana is still illegal in North America should be deemed a crime against reason. No amount of money and legal action is going to curb the taste of the bad rush that Northern upper middle classes get from snorting the white stuff. But Colombia and Brazil would have far less blood spilling in the streets were the North to come to terms with their aphrodisiacs. No single substance more completely portrays the symbolic and financial capital crushing of the poor than cocaine. Where power is most deprived, in ghettoes and favelas, the drug is the cheapest—leading to yet another generation of youth to burn their lives away by smoking crack.

The only sensible voice on this matter came from the Folha de S. Paulo. In an editorial published last January it called for legalization of cocaine as the most effective remedy to cut organized crime down. Legalize cocaine must be repeated not only through the streets of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, but also in Miami, L.A. and D.C. Legalize it—by which I mean subject it to the tough regulations by which alcohol is let to trace its destiny in free market economics.

Alcohol is far more tested an addictive aphrodisiac than is cocaine, let alone pot. Legalize cocaine—but barring stimulations to its consumption through commercial ads. Legalize it—and ban the bloody arm of narcotics: fire arms, i.e. weapons of minority destruction. The blood and repression of the poor can no longer be the currency exchanged for the pleasures of the American and European rich. It is time to quit pointing to poverty as cause for the coke industry. Wealth is no less a cause of moral depravity than is disparity.

But behind the appearances of sophisticated discourse and designer clothing, when the `model' classes and societies project only corruption and lawlessness as their real trade, what should lead the rest of society and the world to ethical behavior?

Given that the model society projected to Brazil today is the USA, criticism made by its journalists and pundits of Latin America often seem gratuitous when lacking full exposure of their own country's flaws and crimes. After all with the world's highest GDP, nearing 10 trillion dollars, the social record of the USA is contemptible. Fifteen percent of its population lives below the poverty line. Over any given two-year period, roughly one-third of the population spends some time without basic medical insurance. The American public education system is in shambles, even were we to focus only on science teaching. The production of American pop culture, steeped as it is in violence, seeps the general population's meager wealth into a suicidal thrill of increased idiocy.

This matched with the decrease of middle class wealth from its prime in the 1960s makes an outside observer wonder in amazement at where the trillions lie and how they get recycled into the community—if they do at all. Median real wage is only 7 percent higher now than it was in 1979. Whereas top income increases since 1970 soared to 500 times that of the average worker's wage. Even Wall Street's annus horribilis of 2002 still garnered median executive pay a 14 percent boost. Citing the US as a model, contrary to what many Americans are led by their corporate media to believe, is done not to offend alone, but to insist on how that country could be so much more.

Yet the middle classes, following decades of disparaging aristocratic-retrograde descriptions of intellectual mediocrity and cultural ineptness, are now in a struggle to maintain their economic and political power within democracies. This point just doesn't seem to want to take hold. Economic class differences are being wiped over by the political tastes of a fabricated "investor class", with a supposed disgust of government spending. What do these pundits call warfare, international intervention, the IMF and World Bank, homeland security and the entire defense industry? Are these sectors of the economy supposed to exemplify free market behavior, whereas only education, health and culture are to be damned from government spending?

Regarding southern mimicking of the northern model, and its incumbent failures, in the eyes of the North the South may just as well be blamed for the problem. Not that this is either new or surprising. As Tarik Ali writes, all foreign news in the US "is exaggeratedly simplified and reduced to a state of preoccupying incomprehensibility." Most dramatic is how the tone filing corruption and inequality at the place mat of the South's door alone is present even in the liberal press. Marc Cooper's recent piece on Brazil and the PT in 1The Nation simply fails to address the question of the powerlessness of the middle classes to curb violence and impose economic reform while the elite's political will, at home and abroad, is more intent on crushing its advances in the legislative realm.

With a population bred on simplifications and reductions, whether in North, Central or South America, religion is given a clear path to populate its celestial doctrines. The disturbing fact is that few if any governments under religious jurisdiction recognize accountability as a primary principle of governance. Many North Americans of strong religious persuasions don't seem to be concerned about mingling God with the polity. Right-wing propagandists are all too ready to reassure them in their philosophical carelessness.

Depending on one's faith, God's actions on human life may be more or less direct. In political atheism, it is existent only as a ploy. The Bush government, consisting of the wealthiest and most tightly-knit corporate group ever assembled in the capital, seems to think that God's effect is more direct, that God is on America's side. Surely, when curtailing ethical norms and legal prescriptions on the most spectacular accumulation of wealth within America's richest and the most spectacular plunge in Wall Street, the middle class—denying the pathetic disgust of its own powerlessness—seems to prefer explaining the successes of the rich by divine right alone.

When it comes to being accountable for public service, God is not the one to blame for the failings of human beings. This is the veil systematically eluding the Religion/State cluster clan. Humans may be a fallible species, as with every living being destined to die. But we also have the power to establish laws by which our actions will be evaluated and judged. This is the philosophy the Enlightenment broke into the theocratic political culture of the Western world, and which the Church so vehemently fought against. It has also become the history lesson our democracies no longer see a point in teaching.

Certainly it makes for boring reading when the history lessons most Americans get come from the diatribe of Fox News, or Brazilians from the innumerable novelas on Globo. Religions have made inroads to politics worldwide, consolidating themselves for generations to come. Today America with its fundamentalist minority holding the reigns of power is clearly akin to fundamentalist regimes of other stripes. Only the blind would claim that, contrary to their fundamentalism, ours is of a good kind.

No one is arguing that secular states are foolproof. We're merely saying that trying a culprit in court, especially when they're a big fish, is a lot easier when God is not in the judge's seat. Ask your local mafia don what he thinks of that as he kneels in prayer to the almighty at the church to which he so generously gives tax-free donations. While we do see the honesty of wealthy northerners regarding credence displayed over and over, Cariocas of all walks of life must ask themselves seriously whether submission is part of God's will, or that of the crooks speaking in His name.

A researcher in philosophy and the social sciences, Norman Madarasz, PhD, writes on international relations for Brazzil, CounterPunch, IslamOnLine and other publications. He lives in Rio de Janeiro, and welcomes comments at nmphdiol@yahoo.ca  

 

 



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