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Can God Save Rio?

 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.
by:
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has ever so subtly withdrawn the rights of the democratic opposition.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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