Vanessa Baird lived and worked as a journalist in Peru during the tumultuous mid-1980s, and she maintains a passionate interest in South America. She joined New Internationalist as a co-editor in 1986 and since then has written on everything from migration, money, religion and equality to indigenous activism, climate change, feminism and global LGBT rights. She also edits the Mixed Media, arts and culture section of the magazine.

Vanessa’s books include The No-Nonsense Guide to World Population (2011), Sex, Love and Homophobia (2004), The Little Book of Big Ideas (2009) and, People First Economics (2010). In 2012 she won a prestigious Amnesty International Human Rights Media award.


Vanessa Baird lived and worked as a journalist in Peru during the tumultuous mid-1980s, and she maintains a passionate interest in South America. She joined New Internationalist as a co-editor in 1986 and since then has written on everything from migration, money, religion and equality to indigenous activism, climate change, feminism and global LGBT rights. She also edits the Mixed Media, arts and culture section of the magazine.

Vanessa’s books include The No-Nonsense Guide to World Population (2011), Sex, Love and Homophobia (2004), The Little Book of Big Ideas (2009) and, People First Economics (2010). In 2012 she won a prestigious Amnesty International Human Rights Media award.

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Why is Theresa May rolling out the red carpet for crown prince Mohamed bin Salman?

Polling from Populus shows that only 6 per cent of UK adults supports arms sales to Saudi Arabia, and 37 per cent oppose the official visit of the Crown Prince which begins today, according to the Campaign Against the Arms Trade.

The British government already has much blood on its hands. The Saudi-led coalition bombardment of Yemen has involved military hardware supplied by the UK.

Airstrikes are hitting schools and hospitals, killing over 10 thousand civilians. Illegal weapons such as cluster bombs are being used.

At least 17.8 million people – two thirds of the population – are without enough to eat and more than 8 million are at risk of starvation.

British government statistics show that since the bombardment of Yemen began in 2015, the UK has licensed £4.6 billion worth of arms to Saudi Arabia, including:

  • £2.7 (US $3.7) billion worth of licenses for aircraft, helicopters, drones, and;
  • £1.9 (US $2.6) billion worth of licenses for grenades, bombs, missiles, countermeasures.

Andrew Smith of Campaign Against the Arms Trade said: ‘The overwhelming majority of people in the UK do not share Theresa May’s political and military support for the Saudi regime. Despite the spin surrounding the Crown Prince, he is a figurehead for one of the world’s most authoritarian dictatorships.’

While progressive moves to allow women to drive in the kingdom have attracted positive publicity, the treatment of dissidents remains appalling. They are subject to lashings, imprisonment and there has been a rise in beheadings, say Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

Protests against the Saudi regime and its UK government backers are taking place in various locations, including Downing Street, to coincide with the Crown Prince’s visit, which begins today.

Vanessa Baird is co-editor of New Internationalist magazine. The April issue, focusing on the topic of Humanitarianism, includes coverage of the crisis in Yemen.

When disaster strikes, put women in charge

Violence against girls and women soars in times of disaster. The lack of safe spaces for them during floods, earthquakes or wars, compounds their vulnerability in unequal societies.

But humanitarian interventions rarely take this into account, according to Plan International’s 2013 report on adolescent girls and disasters.

The risk of rape and, especially, sexual exploitation increases and girls’ families and communities are least able to protect them. On the contrary, girls and young women may be forced to resort to selling sex to meet their own family’s needs during an emergency.

In Haiti, after the 2010 earthquake, pregnancy rates in Haitian camps were three times higher than the previous average urban rate, according to Human Rights Watch. Two thirds of these pregnancies were unplanned and unwanted.

This isn’t unknown or peculiar to Haiti. It happens in disaster situations across the world. Oxfam and its aid workers in the field should know this stuff, if not in detail at least in principle.

Maybe they will consign the figure of the neo-colonial, testosterone-fuelled aid adventurer to the grim past where it belongs

And yet Oxfam staffers in Haiti – and we now know it’s more than one bad apple – exploited these most vulnerable of vulnerable people (we still don’t know just how young they were) in a time of crisis. They added injury to injury.

That’s not what humanitarian aid is supposed to be. It is inexcusable, and so is the culture that allows it and excuses it. With each statement calling for ‘proportion’ Oxfam top brass seems to be digging itself in deeper and deeper.

Now, at last, Oxfam has released the ‘full’ but redacted report into activities of its staff in Haiti during the country’s earthquake and its aftermath. It reveals behaviour even worse than we heard about last week. Witnesses to the abuse were physically threatened. Recommendations from the report (which dates back to 2011) were never put into practice. Predatory, exploitative staff were able to go and work elsewhere in the charity sector – and presumably, just carry on doing what men like that do. End of story.

Perhaps for those who were in position to do something about this in 2011, young dark-skinned women were – as is so often the case – just not considered important enough. Not compared with the imperatives of keeping a lid on all this nastiness and limiting reputational damage to the institution. It’s hard not to come to this conclusion.

For Oxfam it’s a public relations disaster of epic proportions – but good may come of it. Maybe Oxfam and other agencies (and you can bet others are waiting for their turn in the spotlight) will finally abandon the idea that men hired on short-term contracts are somehow best suited to run programmes in dangerous places and deliver aid to vulnerable people.

Perhaps aid agencies will have the sense to recruit women to posts and situations where female recipients of aid are most at risk

Maybe they will consign the figure of the neo-colonial, testosterone-fuelled aid adventurer to the grim past where it belongs. Perhaps the agencies will have the sense to recruit women to posts and situations where female recipients of aid are most at risk. And that means pretty much any disaster situation, anywhere in the world. Haiti is not unique. In Bangladesh, in Congo, Thailand, Kenya there are reports of NGO staff, and people posing as aid workers, sexually exploiting girls and young women, often in exchange for food, relief, money or a tent.

A woman during the Haiti disaster recalls a young girl who had lost her tent. She asked the girl why she did not get another one. ‘She told me that the man from the organization said she could have another tent if she slept with him.’

How different it could be if those young women who are being sexually abused and exploited, were instead listened to, respected and empowered to improve the situations of their families and to help to rebuild their communities?

Putting women in key roles in disaster work won’t be the only answer. But it might be a start.

Free Yanto now!

Supporting a petition might seem a fairly harmless activity in most parts of the world.

But not if you are a West Papuan named Yanto Awerkion who is campaigning for their country’s independence from Indonesia.

The 27-year-old is charged with treason for his alleged involvement in a petition calling for a referendum on independence and faces up to 15 years in jail.

In the next few days, on 9 January, his case is coming to court and supporters from around the world are calling for his immediate release.

They will be making an urgent call to the authorities today and Monday before the hearing (If you would like to join this action to Free Yanto please click here).

Yanto has already spent eight months in prison, awaiting trial, and unable to see his wife and new-born baby at Christmas.

His arrest took place on 30 May last year at a peaceful prayer gathering in the West Papuan town of Timika. As a local deputy chair of the West Papua National Committee (KNPB), Yanto took to the stage to announce to the crowd the news that in their region of Bomberai, 267,437 signatures had been collected.

Indonesian troops immediately raided the compound and arrested him. The armed forces involved were Indonesian military, police, Detatchment 88 (‘Anti Terror’ troops), Kopassus (Special Troops) and Intelligence Services. Yanto has been behind bars since.

The petition, which ran between May and July 2017, was outlawed by the Indonesian government, with threats of arrest and torture for anyone caught signing it. Despite such intimidation, an unprecedented 1.8 million West Papuans (70 per cent of the indigenous population) hand-signed the petition, calling for the United Nations to bring an internationally monitored independence referendum to West Papua.

An estimated 500,000 indigenous West Papuans have been killed at the hands of the Indonesian military and police over the last 60 years and the rate of genocide continues to climb.

‘Unfortunately the situation is getting worse not better,’ says Benny Wenda, himself a former political prisoner and newly elected chair of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP). Wenda was granted political asylum by the UK in 2003 and resides with his family in Oxford.

You can support the West Papua Campaign here.

And find out more about West Papua and its freedom struggle in this recent issue of New Internationalist.


Brazil’s rich weaponize law to stop Lula campaign

In a bid to stop Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva becoming Brazil’s next president, the country’s elites are abusing the law for their own political ends.

Leading UK human rights barrister Geoffrey Robertson QC says ‘extraordinarily aggressive measures’ to put Lula in jail and stop him running for president are being used ‘by the judiciary, by the media, by the great sinews of wealth and power in Brazil’.

All polls show the former president and de facto Workers Party (PT) candidate well ahead of others. In second place is Jair Bolsonaro, a ultra-rightwing former army captain. The elections are in October 2018, but Lula’s fate could be sealed this month.

His appeal against a conviction for ‘accepting a bribe’ – which he denies – has been fast-tracked to 24 January. Lula’s defence lawyers say that this is being rushed through in record time deliberately to stop him standing for president – which he would be able to do if the case was still under appeal.

Lula’s defence lawyers say that this is being rushed through in record time deliberately to stop him standing for president

‘Normally the appeals process takes in excess of 12 months and in Lula’s case it has taken only four months,’ say Valeska Teixeira Martins and Cristiano Zanin Martins, Lula’s Brazilian lawyers. ‘The judge responsible for reviewing the appeal seems to have been able to have read over 250,000 pages of submissions in six days in order to decide and schedule the trial.’

The way that Lula has been treated by the judiciary has prompted his lawyers, with the help of Robertson, to take the Brazilian government to the United Nations Human Rights Committee in Geneva. It is expected to consider a petition this month claiming that Lula is being denied a fair trial and that Brazil is in breach of international human rights law of which it is a signatory.

‘What we are seeing is lawfare,’ said Teixeira Martins. ‘A conjunction of war and law which is the misuse and abuse of the law for political persecution. Lula is being tried for his political agenda, for his political choices.’

In July 2017 Lula was sentenced by a lower court to almost 10 years imprisonment for corruption. The quality of the evidence presented has been widely criticized by legal experts.

‘What we are seeing is lawfare, a conjunction of war and law which is the misuse and abuse of the law for political persecution’

‘Lula was convicted by Judge Sergio Moro in a lower court with no evidence of wrongdoing – indeed overwhelming evidence of his innocence was produced and then ignored,’ say the defence lawyers. ‘President Lula has always co-operated with the [Operation] Car Wash investigation and believes that no one should be above the law but equally no-one should be beneath it either.’

In Brazil, those found ‘guilty’ in a lower court are not considered guilty until a final unappealable decision is reached. During the appeal hearing later this month Lula’s lawyers will be allowed only 15 minutes to verbally make their case. What’s more, the head of the appeal judges is on record saying that the original lower court decision was ‘impeccable’.

‘It seems now impossible for Lula to be given a fair trial when the head of the appeals judges has made his bias so clear and the process has been rushed to fit a political timetable,’ say Lula’s lawyers. ‘We can only conclude that parts of the judiciary are so opposed to President Lula, either as a candidate or his political views, they will do anything within their power to stop him.’

Many other irregularities surround the legal pursuit of the former president, who is credited for having lifted 40 million Brazilians out of poverty during his two terms in office.

For example, his defence lawyers have been subject to a campaign of intimidation. Judge Moro ordered the tapping of 28 phone lines belonging to the law firm and then released tapes of confidential conversations to the prosecution and the media. Even after Moro’s warrant had run out, the intercepts continued. Details of a private conversation between Lula and former president Dilma Rousseff, who was removed from office in a ‘soft coup’ in 2016, were leaked to the media by Moro.

In Robertson’s view: ‘This is wicked conduct by a judge. If any judge [elsewhere] dared, before the trial, to release telephone intercept that would cause his dismissal, but not in Brazil, where this judge rather terrifies the higher courts – and indeed the politicians.’

The legal system operating in Brazil today has been likened to the Catholic Inquisition, with Moro as the Grand Inquisitor. ‘The grand inquisitor organizes, supervises the searches and procedures and arrests, forms his or her own opinions and then judges,’ says Robertson. ‘It’s bizarre. It’s as though you were arrested by a police officer one day, who takes off a helmet and puts on a wig the next, and passes judgement.’

Legal experts both within and outside Brazil think that Moro and colleagues, engaged in the Operation Car Wash investigations into large-scale corruption that has engulfed the country’s business and political class, are acting beyond their powers. But Moro argues that the investigating judges are dealing with corruption on such a massive scale – billions of dollars are involved and almost half of all parliamentarians are being investigated – that ‘exceptional measures’ are needed.

Moro, an ardent self-publicist, is a something of a star for certain sections of the Brazilian population and the press. He has made leaking, especially to the right-wing O Globo network, and trial by media, a key part of his modus operandi. When Lula was arrested in a dawn raid earlier last year, Moro tipped off the media so that they could capture and circulate images of him looking like a prisoner. The arrest was not only unnecessary – Lula had made it clear he would answer any questions – it was also unlawful, his lawyers say.

Power of arrest and detention without bail has been used liberally by the Car Wash investigators. ‘In Brazil the judge can lock up people until they squeal; until they deliver what the prosecutor wants,’ is how Robertson puts it. Although more then 300 witnesses were interviewed, the case against Lula is based on the evidence of just one person, a convicted criminal, who has been offered a reduced sentence in exchange for testifying against the former president.

The charges against Lula centre on a seaside apartment in Rio de Janeiro owned by his wife, Marisa, who died last year. Lula is accused of having accepted a bribe from a contractor who did $100,000 worth of work on the flat.

Robertson offers Lula’s defence to these charges: ‘Marisa, years ago, had a part in a building society which entitled her to a flat overlooking a rather second-rate beach. The building society went bust and was taken over by one of the contractors suspected of ripping off the country through deals with Petrobras, and this contractor offered Marisa a more spacious apartment and did $100,000 dollars worth of changes to it.

‘Lula visited the apartment once, didn’t like it, and told his wife he never wanted to live there. This was all after he had left presidential office; he had no power. Yet he is accused now of accepting a bribe. It is nonsense. There is no evidence in the case of any kind of quid pro quo, no evidence that he did anything for the contractor. There was no evidence of any corrupt arrangement, no evidence of crime.’

The second case relates to five days spent with his family at the estate of some wealthy friends. Again, this was after he had left office.

Robertson told a meeting at the Latin America Conference in London in December: ‘I’m quite satisfied that Lula is innocent; prosecutors have combed through the evidence and they have not found anything. All they have is his presidential salary and what he earns from giving lectures. He lives very modestly. I went to his home. I made all the checks I usually make to see if someone might be corrupt.’

‘Constant leaks of baseless information keep on appearing in the press intended to demonize Lula or his group’

The campaign against Lula is intense. According to Teixeira Martins: ‘Constant leaks of baseless information keep on appearing in the press intended to demonize Lula or his group. None of this information can be proven but it is leaked and appears in the press over and over again until the person is found guilty by the population.’

In spite of this, Lula’s lead in the polls has grown in the past few months. He recently embarked on the third stage of his Caravan of Hope campaign around the country which is reconnecting the Workers Party with its supporters.

Corruption is a major problem in Brazil. The Workers Party, the ruling conservative Democratic Movement (PMDB) and almost all other sizeable parties are involved. Leading officials, including a Workers Party treasurer have been convicted of funnelling illegal payments into party coffers on a massive scale. Petrobras, Odebrecht, JBS and other major Brazilian corporations have admitted paying billions in bribes to political figures in Brazil and across Latin America. However, prosecutors have struggled to find any evidence of personal corruption by former presidents Lula or Rousseff.

Former president Lula
Former president Lula on his Caravan of Hope tour around Brazil, ahead of this year’s elections. Photo: Midia Ninja, Creative Commons

'Political corruption is a cancer that must be dealt with fairly,’ says Robertson. ‘If it is not dealt with fairly the remedies will not last.’ Access to a fair trial has to be a starting point.

Teixeira Martins concludes: ‘Lula is obviously a victim of lawfare. This is something we cannot tolerate. Our job is to demonstrate to the world that Lula is innocent and the political wars may only be fought in the ballots. The courts are not the place for fighting for political ends. We want to stop it – so that what is happening in Brazil does not happen elsewhere.’

October’s issue of New Internationalist explored Brazil after the soft coup. You can explore that magazine issue here.

What to do about North Korea, Mr Trump

So President Trump will avoid visiting the demilitarized zone on the border between South and North Korea and staring his enemy in the face this week.

A White House official has revealed that the ritual, performed by most US presidents, is not on Donald Trump’s schedule because ‘it’s a bit of cliché’ and ‘there isn't time’.

It means the world’s media is denied the drama of the US president peering sternly through binoculars at the ‘rogue’ communist state that is busily building up its nuclear-ballistic capacity – to aim at the US.

Instead Trump is visiting Camp Humphreys, a military installation (more comfortably?) south of the South Korean capital, Seoul, on the Korean leg of his Asia trip which also includes China, Japan and the Philippines.

In North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, Trump appears to have met his match in terms of aggression and volatility.

The young Korean leader’s ballistic emissions are often timed to coincide with sensitive international meetings and cause embarrassment to the great powers, China included. Trump’s taunts (‘Little Rocket Man’) and vengeful responses are equally unhelpful to world peace.

But what’s the alternative?

This is a question repeatedly asked (but not answered) by western media, including the BBC. In this, journalists seem to be wilfully ignoring the fact that viable solutions have been proposed more than once – and rejected or simply dismissed out of hand by the US.

North Korea, together with China, made the same suggestion more than once, saying it would freeze its nuclear and missile programme if the US stopped its threatening military exercises with the South

In July this year, China and Russia put forward a proposal that both sides should make concessions. North Korea would suspend its nuclear and its missile testing in return for a suspension of South Korea’s annual military exercises with the US. Those military exercises on North Korea’s borders include simulated nuclear-bombing attacks by B-52s, by the way.

It’s not the first time the proposal for concessions on both sides has been made. In fact, North Korea, together with China, made the same suggestion more than once, saying it would freeze its nuclear and missile programme if the US stopped its threatening military exercises with the South.

And there’s the rub. The US won’t budge. And a compliant western media seems reluctant to even acknowledge that the offer is on the table, let alone recognize why North Korea should be wanting to build nuclear capacity in the first place.

North Korea’s reasons for having nuclear weapons are exactly the same as those of the existing nuclear powers – nuclear capacity is a deterrent.

As Isabel Hilton of China Dialogue notes: ‘The North Korean regime has tended to be characterized as uniquely irrational and unpredictable. From its perspective, however, its behaviour makes eminent sense…’

Even the showing off.

She goes on: ‘Signalling is also an element in deterrence. The regime is certainly unpleasant and destabilizing, but it is a mistake to imagine that there is no clear purpose and no plan.’

There is a grim but hard to resist rationale. North Korea is doing what Israel, India and Pakistan did when they nuked up. None has been invaded in recent times. Whereas the nations such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, which suffered ‘regime change’ or invasions at the hands of the US and its allies, did not possess nuclear weapons.

North Koreans do not need to look far beyond their own borders for a reminder of the scale of US aggression and fire-power. As Noam Chomsky notes:

‘North Koreans remember well that their country was literally flattened by US bombing [during the 1950-53 Korean War], and many may recall how US forces bombed major dams when there were no other targets left. There were gleeful reports in American military publications about the exciting spectacle of a huge flood of water wiping out the rice crops on which “the Asian” depends for survival.’

According to Isabel Hilton: ‘The US dropped as much ordnance on North Korea as it had during the whole of the Second World War Pacific theatre, including the carpet bombing of Japan. To this day, any building site in Pyongyang is likely to turn up some unexploded ordnance. North Korea was born in a rain of fire, which it has incorporated into its national story.’

The military and nuclear noose that the US has been developing in the Pacific and the South China Sea (see John Pilger’s The Coming War on China) is, for those living in the region, further provocation.

‘North Koreans remember well that their country was literally flattened by US bombing during the 1950-53 war, and many may recall how US forces bombed major dams when there were no other targets left’

In terms of world peace and security, nuclear proliferation is a zero-sum game that threatens us all. The wise course is disarmament, as recognized by the 122 nations that in July this year signed the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. This is the first legally binding international agreement to comprehensively prohibit nuclear weapons, with the goal of leading towards their total elimination.

But if a major nuclear power like the US (the only country to have actually used a nuclear bomb in war) will not play ball, what right has it to try and compel smaller, more vulnerable countries to do so?

Right now, the US could de-escalate nuclear tensions with North Korea by indicating that it will cease its aggressive, provocative military exercises with South Korea.

Instead Trump is choosing to pick a trade war with China while chastising it for not doing more to bring North Korea to heel.

And far too many of us are just nodding along – as though this were a rational course of action and there is no alternative.

Brazil’s soft coup hardens

The word ‘coup’ suggests a sudden and violent action, literally a ‘blow’.

Citizens may wake up to a coup d’état to find tanks on the streets and radio stations off-air or playing patriotic music.

And if the takeover is anything like that which occurred in Brazil in 1964, or Chile in 1973, or Argentina in 1976, it will be followed by students, activists, trade unionists being rounded up, tortured, disappeared.

The coup that took place in Brazil last year was not like that. Not a shot was fired when President Dilma Rousseff of the Workers’ Party (PT) was ousted from office and her former coalition partner, Michel Temer of the centre-right Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), took her place.

After months of political plotting, street protests and a media campaign that accused Rousseff of corruption, she was first suspended and then, in August 2016, impeached by members of the Brazilian Congress.

The political agenda that Temer kicked into action bore little resemblance to the socialism of the past 13 years under Workers’ Party rule. The interim president’s new cabinet imposed a 20-year freeze on public spending and promised to gut labour law and radically reform the pension and taxation systems. Their ‘new era’ for Brazil was austerity, neoliberalism and privatization – with rocket-boosters.

Rousseff was impeached not for corruption but for unauthorized movement of funds to cover holes in the budget. The fact that previous administrations had done the same without being punished was neither here nor there.

Too many parliamentarians were baying for her blood and the pro-impeachment lobby got the votes it needed. The public mood, stoked by a hostile corporate media led by the O Globo group, had turned against a president who had once enjoyed a 79-per-cent approval rating.

Their ‘new era’ for Brazil was austerity, neoliberalism and privatization – with rocket-boosters.

The impeachment proceedings were peppered with pious and emotive speeches about the evils of corruption. The most impassioned and persuasive came from Eduardo Cunha, the Congress’s speaker and a close Temer ally. Cunha is now in prison serving 15 years for receiving more than $40 million in kickbacks. An evangelical Christian, he had stashed the cash in a shell company called Another Temer ally, Senator Romero Jucá, was recorded plotting to remove Rousseff because she refused to halt the Operation Car Wash corruption investigations .

It should be noted that Rousseff – a former Marxist guerrilla, imprisoned and tortured during the 1970s by the military dictatorship – was one of a dwindling number of politicians not personally associated with corruption.* Currently, almost half of all deputies and senators – including Temer – are being investigated by the Supreme Federal Court.

The Brazil coup goes on

Impeaching Rousseff was just part one; the next stage of this incomplete, slow-motion, soft coup is to make sure that Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (or Lula), Brazil’s popular former president and Rousseff’s mentor, is not returned to power in the 2018 presidential elections.

According to polls, he is still way ahead. But will he be able to run? In July, Lula was convicted by Car Wash judge and prosecutor Sérgio Moro for accepting a bribe in the form of an apartment from Brazilian contractor OAS. He was sentenced to nine-and-a-half years in prison. Lula denies wrongdoing and says the case against him is fabricated. There was no evidence that Lula or his wife accepted the apartment or ever stayed in it. Almost all the evidence comes from a convicted criminal and former OAS employee who managed to get his 16-year sentence reduced by 80 per cent for testifying against Lula.

Brazil’s political system... is complex, with 35 parties – 28 of them represented in Congress. Representation is proportional and there is a system of ‘coalition presidentialism’, which means the executive has to court congressional majorities. This is democratic but vulnerable to bribery. Reform of the political system, including a proposal for public funding of parties, is being debated. In 2015, in response to the Car Wash scandal, the Supreme Court banned private party donations, a traditional sluiceway for bribes.

While on appeal Lula remains free, but he faces five other charges. Many believe that the Car Wash investigators are biased against Lula and the Workers’ Party. But the party itself can hardly claim innocence. It has a history of bribery and secret illegal payments to party coffers. One of the early scalps in the Car Wash investigations into money laundering was party treasurer, João Vaccari Neto. Other political parties, sheltered from the media glare, are just as compromised. Temer’s PMDB features prominently on the list of suspects, as do members of the rightist Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB).

A few weeks later film evidence appeared, showing a Temer aide collecting a suitcase stuffed with $150,000 from a pizzeria.

Earlier this year a recording emerged of President Temer talking to serial briber and co-owner of the giant JBS meat-packing enterprise, Joesley Batista. They were discussing the need to keep funds flowing towards imprisoned congressman Cunha to keep him quiet. Temer denies the allegations and claims the recording was ‘doctored’. A few weeks later film evidence appeared, showing a Temer aide collecting a suitcase stuffed with $150,000 from a pizzeria. And recently, $16 million in cash was found in a flat allegedly used by a former minister and Temer ally.

According to Batista, corruption flourished under the Workers’ Party but Temer and his cronies were the greediest.1

Falling out of love

Corruption is at the rotten core of Brazil’s current political and social crisis, but it’s not the only reason the coup was possible.

Let’s roll back to 2013. Eleven years of Workers’ Party rule had delivered many benefits. More than 30 million Brazilians had been lifted out of poverty. The Bolsa Família welfare programme had ended hunger, increased school enrolment and was reaching 14 million households. Many new universities were built and, thanks to affirmative action, enrolment rose by 18 per cent in Rousseff’s first term. The Minha Casa, Minha Vida (My House, My Life) programme had built three million homes. What’s more, Brazil had won the bidding for both the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. You might think Brazilians would have been proud and happy.

But in April 2013, a rash of street protests began, which over the next three months involved hundreds of thousands and spread to 100 cities. It started with students complaining about an increase in public-transport fares. Soon it fanned out into other issues: the cost of living, the poor state of public healthcare, corruption, police brutality, the cost of preparing for the World Cup and the Olympics.

Heliosa Melino, who protested in Rio, recalls: ‘Up until then, the streets were the place where people on the Left protested. Suddenly there were people from the Right and the Far Right on the streets. It was very confusing.’

The traditional middle class was disgruntled. They had benefited from Brazil’s growing economy but didn’t feel better-off because the gap between them and the poor had shrunk. The introduction of labour rights for nannies and domestics had made them more expensive to employ. And the economy was shrinking fast, thanks partly to plunging commodity prices – most dramatically, oil.

The growing discontent was harming Rousseff’s chances for the 2014 presidential campaign. She was re-elected, but by a whisker, polling 51 per cent against her rival Aécio Neves of the PSDB.

While electioneering, Rousseff promised supporters more socially progressive policies. ‘She said she would tackle the banks,’ recalls João Machado, who teaches economics at São Paulo’s Catholic University (PUC). ‘But after the elections she launched a very conservative programme, adopting some rightwing social- security measures from the opposition. Lots of people who voted for her felt they had been betrayed.’

Leonardo Sakamoto, journalist, academic and activist with Repórter Brasil, comments: ‘She was impeached because of mistakes she made in her first term, because she lied in her second and she lost control of the economy.’ But he adds: ‘Dilma suffered a perfect storm of the economic slow-down, declining commodity prices, and rising unemployment. People could no longer buy their citizenship through the consumption of goods. If we had had an economy growing at seven or eight per cent like before, I don’t think [she] would have been impeached.’

‘But after the elections she launched a very conservative programme, adopting some rightwing social- security measures from the opposition. Lots of people who voted for her felt they had been betrayed.’

During 2015, the clamour for impeachment, in Congress, on the streets, in the media, grew.

One young journalist employed by a large mainstream media outlet told me: ‘I think the press has to take a lot responsibility for biased reporting, for taking one side – against Dilma.’

But another factor was that the Workers’ Party had become institutionalized in power, losing touch with its grassroots supporters, who were not there when it needed them – a story familiar to labour parties in other countries.

The backers

‘We are living in a crisis without precedent,’ says Bernardo Kucinski, novelist, veteran journalist and a founding member of the Workers’ Party. ‘It’s a mess, a political crisis that is affecting all areas, all branches of the state – legislative, executive, judiciary. The parties are in disarray. No-one has a mandate to do anything. And on top of that, the economy is in a very bad shape.’

Unemployment has hit a record 14 million, debt is rising and the country is barely emerging from protracted recession. Between 2012 and 2016, GDP per capita fell from $12,364 to $8,731.

The neoliberal answer to such problems is to cut public spending and squeeze the poor; privatize public assets and enable the rich to get richer. This is the time of the oligarchs – Brazil’s big landowners, agribusiness entrepreneurs, cattle ranchers, mining company owners and construction tycoons who seek unhindered access to the country’s natural resources. Already, Temer has delivered on several of their key demands by sacrificing the rights of indigenous people, peasant and family farmers, and the environment. And in July controversial labour reforms were passed: worker protections removed, business costs reduced and more labour market ‘flexibility’ introduced. The unions had protested and called strikes, but to no avail.

The government is hoping to pass unpopular pension reforms – which will hit low-paid, seasonal and female workers the hardest – by the end of October.

Investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald highlights the link between the coup and the austerity agenda: ‘In a remarkable admission that Brazil’s corporate media ignored, Temer went to New York in September [2016] and, speaking to a group of hedge-fund tycoons and foreign-policy elites, explicitly admitted that the real reason Dilma was impeached was her resistance to greater austerity.’

Wikileaks’ revelations show Hillary Clinton playing an important role in preventing the ousted leftist Honduran leader Manuel Zelaya returning to office.

Greenwald has also observed that whenever Temer’s political survival looks doubtful, the Brazilian currency and stock market is punished; when he looks safe again, they rally.

So is the coup all about making Brazil oven-ready for foreign investors? A recent announcement that the state power company Electrobras is to be sold off and the buyer could be a foreign transnational suggests as much. Temer’s government is engaged in a veritable fire-sale of public goods, with 57 public companies, including airports, port terminals, highways, even the national currency-issuing mint, slated for privatization.

And in August, a presidential decree (later challenged by the Supreme Court) opened up a protected Amazonian reserve the size of Switzerland to mining, which environmentalists say will set back rainforest protection by 50 years.

‘Shall we just sell off the Amazon?’ Michel Temer (right) with his vice-president Rodrigo Maia at an enviroment summit. Note the matching green ties.
‘Shall we just sell off the Amazon?’ Michel Temer (right) with his vice-president Rodrigo Maia at an enviroment summit. Note the matching green ties. Picture: Ueslei Marcelino / Reuters

‘People speak of the indirect involvement of the US and of big international capital in the coup. I think it is possible and probable,’ says Machado. ‘But fundamentally the coup was the action of the Brazilian bourgeoisie, which is anyway internationalized.’

Nonetheless, the US was quick to recognize the Temer government. As it was to recognize other coup governments in the region – in Honduras in 2009 and Paraguay in 2012. Wikileaks’ revelations show Hillary Clinton playing an important role in preventing the ousted leftist Honduran leader Manuel Zelaya returning to office.

We now know the extent to which the US was involved in the military coups of the last century in Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Uruguay and how this was all part of the Cold War. Today the US’s main rival is China, whose influence spread throughout Latin America during the ‘pink tide’ period of left-leaning governments. China is now Brazil’s biggest trading partner – galling and concerning for a US that still views Latin America as its ‘backyard’.

Greenwald has also observed that whenever Temer’s political survival looks doubtful, the Brazilian currency and stock market is punished; when he looks safe again, they rally.

With neighbouring Venezuela descending deeper into chaos, some are asking: ‘Could Brazil be the next Venezuela?’ Perhaps a more pertinent question, politically, is: ‘Will Venezuela, post-Nicolas Maduro, become another Brazil?’ Maduro, whatever his failings, was democratically elected. Temer, who enjoys a public approval rate of just five per cent, was not.

The Trump factor

Brazil has shifted to the Right – and it could go further. Citizen anger, disillusion and disgust with the entire political class creates an ideal climate for a rightwing populist leader, an anti-establishment ‘saviour’.

There are two obvious candidates: João Doria, São Paulo’s authoritarian mayor, casts himself as a political ‘outsider’. A millionaire owner of several companies, he also happens to be a former presenter on the Brazilian version of The Apprentice. His politics are free-market liberalism and social conservatism: he opposes abortion, is against decriminalization of drugs and is tough on homeless people.

More alarming is the Rio congress member Jair Bolsonaro. A former army captain, he openly praises the military dictatorship of 1964-85 and promises to appoint generals to his cabinet if elected president. He is attractive to rightwing, law-and-order conservatives: Brazil has one of the world’s highest murder rates, a rising crime toll, and some of the planet’s most violent police. Openly racist, misogynist and homophobic, Bolsonaro also appeals to anti-feminist young men who think it’s cool and counter-cultural to be against human rights. Some Brazilians told me he was too loathsome to become president – then they thought of Donald Trump.

Some Brazilians told me he was too loathsome to become president – then they thought of Donald Trump.

Violence against vulnerable groups (see: ‘Agribusiness seizes power in Brazil’) has increased since the coup and the past few weeks have seen intense militarization of public space, with thousands of soldiers drafted into and around Rio favelas, supposedly to fight a ‘war on crime and drugs’. Troops on the street crank up fear and play to the Right’s agenda; the worst outcome would be if next year’s general and presidential elections were postponed. Meanwhile, Christian Evangelical religion has become massively popular, gaining a strong presence in parliament, mobilizing across all sectors of society, and spreading a socially regressive message.

Is another Brazil possible?

But the Left is on the move too. In August, Lula embarked on a ‘Caravan of Hope’, a 2,300-mile tour of the northeast, visiting nine states and 25 cities.** The reception was rapturous – millions in the region have been lifted out of desperate poverty thanks to the Workers’ Party’s social programme. This tour echoes a previous one: Lula’s ‘Caravan of Citizenship’ in 1992 which helped construct the social programmes that defined his government. But a note of contrition and humility has crept in. Fernando Haddad, former mayor of São Paulo, said that the party would need to ‘incorporate the criticism that arises from the people, the workers, and to take note of the errors they point out.’

Whether the Workers’ Party can rekindle the hope and enthusiasm lost during the years of scandal, corruption and detachment remains to be seen. But Lula is giving it his best: ‘I really trust in the future of Brazil,’ he said. ‘A new government, a legitimate one, the fruit of the popular vote, with a progressive vision for the country, can perfectly take Brazil out of the quagmire in which it is today.’

And in a message to the young and disaffected: ‘I do not think we have the right to give up. My mother taught me that. We always have to fight, always try to make tomorrow better... If you think politics is bad, get into politics and try yourself to be the militant or political leader you dream of for Brazil.’


‘I think Sérgio Moro [the Car Wash judge] is on the side of the US and what he is doing will destroy the Brazilian national economy. This is a coup d’état of the market’
Tereza Briggs, playwright and PT activist, Rio

‘Brazil has a corrupt economic and political system. It has to stop. There is now an open battle between the vested economic interests, the Car Wash judges and the ‘old politics’ of Congress. It’s bad for Brazil but good if we have a better country afterwards.’
Leonardo Sakamoto, activist, academic, São Paulo

‘I don’t have any hopes for Brazil any more… The Lula era was an interval in a 400-year history of domination by a local bourgeoisie that does not want progress , does not have a national project. They just have their own short-term
economic interests.’
Bernardo Kucinski, prize-winning novelist, São Paulo

‘I’m an activist lawyer who confronts the police when I see them behaving violently towards people. I can do that because I’ve a middle-class face, I could be “somebody’s daughter”. But they can be as violent as they like to anyone who is black or trans or poor.’
Heloisa Melino, feminist academic, Rio

‘I don’t like the way companies manipulate the party in power.
I will vote for PSOL, they are on the Left and not corrupt. Of course I want security in my favela – that’s why I want the police out of it; they are the ones shooting at kids, the youth. Drugs are illegal, but guns are not. It’s crazy – it needs to be
the other way round.
Mariluce Maria, community artist, Complexo do Alemão, Rio

‘It’s unusual to be gay in the favela – and yes, it can be tough. People attack you, say things, and then there is religion… But I had a very supportive teacher at school who opened debates on LGBT. And I belong to a group, Theatre of the Oppressed.
Lucas Francisco, student, Maré, Rio

Lula remains the most able and charismatic leader Brazil has ever known and the Workers’ Party’s best bet, but he may well be campaigning for an alternative presidential candidate – possibly Haddad. Few are calling for Rousseff to return. While Marina Silva, environment minister under Lula, with a good record on Amazonian conservation, was polling high earlier in the year and she and her Rede de Sustentabilidad party should not be discounted.‘I do not think we have the right to give up. My mother taught me that. We always have to fight, always try to make tomorrow better... If you think politics is bad, get into politics and try yourself to be the militant or political leader you dream of for Brazil.’

But perhaps the spark needed to unite and mobilize the Left will come from outside the party political system. Vamos! (Let’s go!) is an initiative recently launched by the People Without Fear social movement.

Under the slogan ‘Another Brazil is Possible’, the aim is to bring together people from all walks of life and across political parties, including the Workers’ Party and the leftwing Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL), to build grassroots democracy – rather as Podemos did in Spain. ‘What kind of Brazil do we want?’ is the big question.

‘I do not think we have the right to give up. My mother taught me that. We always have to fight, always try to make tomorrow better... If you think politics is bad, get into politics and try yourself to be the militant or political leader you dream of for Brazil.’

Activist Guilherme Boulos explains: ‘We are facing an abyss and the systems are broken. But it’s the Right that has managed to channel popular discontent, not the Left. So we are creating a project for the country, a project of the Left. An open debate on what we can do to contribute to the democratization of the country.’ As a jaunty video on the Vamos! website says: ‘We can’t let disillusion destroy our chances.’

Vamos! kicked off in late August, with a gathering in São Paulo, which is being followed by public debates across the country. Participants will examine key areas to be democratized: the economy; political power; media and communications; the environment and gender, race and sexuality.

‘We want to create a new space for debate; new paths for Brazilian democracy,’ says Boulos, who also leads the dynamic Homeless Workers Movement (MTST).

Social mobilization is the priority now, he says, along with the skill that the Left used to have – ‘trabalho de base’ or ‘work at the grassroots’.

It’s a lesson that many around the world are having to learn. But few as urgently as Brazilians today, as a rebranded dictatorship of corrupt plutocrats stares them in the face.

* On 6 September, for the first time, a criminal charge was levelled against Rousseff, accused with Lula and others of ‘forming a criminal organization’. The allegations are denied.

** A DataPoder 360 survey on 12-14 August 2017 shows Lula still in the lead at around 32%, followed by Bolsonaro at 25% and Doria at 12% for the first round of the presidential elections.

Header image: Pro-Dilma political protest at Estádio Nacional during the 2016 Summer Olympics. Creative Commons, Rodrigogomesonetwo / Wikimedia Commons

1 Epoca, ‘Temer é o chefe da quadrilha mais perigosa do Brazil’, 2017/06/19.

What is Brazil’s ‘Operation Car Wash’?

Operation Car Wash: Sergio Moro as Superman - a popular inflatable doll.
Sergio Moro as Superman - a popular inflatable doll.

Why the name?

Operation Car Wash (Lava Jato) began in March 2014 as a small-scale probe into a gas service station in Brasilia being used to launder money. Police found that black-market money dealers were acting for a senior executive in Petrobras, the state oil company, and that the company had been deliberately overpaying contractors in exchange for a cut of up to five per cent on deals, which would be channelled into a secret slush fund.

How much is involved?

Petrobras admitted it had paid $2.1 billion in bribes. But the total value of graft involving several big companies will be much higher than that.

So who else is involved?

There’s Odebrecht, a giant construction firm used by Petrobras, which has admitted it spent at least $3.3 billion bribing political parties in Brazil. It did the same in other countries – Peru, Chile, Colombia, Panama and Venezuela. Former CEO Marcelo Odebrecht has been sentenced to 19 years in prison. The Brazilian state development bank (BNDES) is also involved.

Any other big companies?

There’s OAS, another large construction conglomerate, and JBS, the world’s biggest meat packer. JBS co-owner Joesley Batista has been spilling the beans about how he made secret payments to major Brazilian parties and individuals.

How many political figures are involved?

Nearly 100 politicians and officials have been convicted so far. Four previous presidents and at least 71 parliamentarians are facing Car Wash investigators. At the same time, a total of 238 members of both houses are being investigated by the Supreme Federal Court, the majority in relation to criminal corruption allegations.

How many parliamentarians are there in total?


Sounds crazy! Are you sure the Car Wash isn’t out of control?

Many politicians think so – but then they would, wouldn’t they? The Workers’ Party is convinced Car Wash is biased against them. Politicians on all sides have been complaining about the investigators’ methods, some of which are of dubious legality and in breach of human rights. Many lawyers agree.

How’s that?

The investigators (police and judges) stage unnecessarily dramatic arrests, tipping off the media, and impose lengthy preventative detentions, holding suspects until they confess. Their powers have been likened to those of the Spanish Inquisition. Often they enter into questionable plea bargains and their leader, Sérgio Moro, has had to apologize for leaking confidential information.

So how do they get away with it?

They have high public approval – unlike the politicians! Many of them are young and they come across as crusaders. They enjoy good relations with the media, especially the conservative O Globo conglomerate, and US-educated Moro is a bit of a star. Supporters say that the Car Wash judges need exceptional powers to be effective in tackling such endemic corruption perpetrated by powerful people.

Where will it all end?


Sources include: UOL, 2017/07/25; The Guardian 2017/06/01


‘We have a lot to teach the city’

Lala, eight months old, is sitting on my lap. She’s a lively, strong baby with dark piercing eyes and a bold demeanour. She is scrutinizing me fearlessly.

On the sofa next to us are her mother, Tayla, and a family friend, Eliana.

Further along, on another sofa, are three dogs – alert, sitting up and looking outwards, in what appears to be a canine mimicry of our own poses.

A few inches away from all of us – and alarmingly close to young Lala’s lungs – cars whoosh past.

For the ‘home’ that Lala’s father, Carlos Henrique, has brought me to, is actually a kerbside, under a viaduct in the busy central São Paulo area of Bras.

This ‘occupation’ is home to about a hundred families – some 400 people at any one time. A few have lived here all of their lives. Old Manuel has been here, off and on, for 38 years. He lets me take his photo, but only if I write that all he wants is ‘uma casa digna’ – a decent place to live.

The ‘home’ that Lala’s father, Carlos Henrique, has brought me to, is actually a kerbside, under a viaduct in the busy central São Paulo area of Bras.

Almost every local governor or mayor of São Paulo has at some point tried to evict the people living here, using varying degrees of persuasion, coercion or force.

Homelessness is rocketing in São Paulo. Around 20,000 people are without shelter, say the city authorities, and social workers have registered more than 12,600 living rough on the streets.

Occupations of street people like this one are seen as a stain on São Paulo’s self-image as the economic capital of a country aspiring to win a place at the top table of industrial nations.

 Lala, pictured with her mother, Tayla, was born in the occupation. Voices of Brazilian favelas
Life under the viaduct: Lala, pictured with her mother, Tayla, was born in the occupation.

Homeless Paulistanos, like poor Londoners, are despised by those who think that the purpose of a city is to serve capital, not citizens. And besides, the Brazilian ITAU bank has real-estate investments in the area around this viaduct that it wants to develop.

Homeless Paulistanos, like poor Londoners, are despised by those who think that the purpose of a city is to serve capital, not citizens.

Up to now, at least, efforts to permanently remove the occupiers have failed. Paulo Escobar, an ‘autonomous social worker’ who is there every day, explains that the community is determined and organized. ‘We are influenced by Zapatista principles,’ he says as he shows me around a large hall-like space under the road. ‘This is where we meet every fortnight and where decisions are made.’

Photos pinned up on a wall tell a history of their struggles – and their support for other homeless actions in the city.

What do the people living here want, I ask?

‘There are many different demands because there are many different people here. Some people want a house to live in. Some want to be reunited with their families. Some want to live on the streets. Some use drugs or alcohol. Others don’t. Some are very much involved with communal activities. Others prefer to keep to themselves.

‘But the authorities always present us with just one solution, which usually involves moving the residents out of the city centre and into hostels, where men and women are separated, where gay people are not welcome, where you have to be in at seven o’clock at night and out again by six in the morning. People don’t want that. When the proposal is put to them, they say “no”.’

‘The first duty is to survive’

I ask Eliana where she sleeps. She leads me to a plywood structure on a traffic island under the bridge. She is hoping that ‘God will deliver something better’, but in the meantime she and her husband have made a good job of their home. There’s a TV, a small kitchen, a bedroom. It’s clean and cosy.

The bathroom, showers and clothes-washing facility are across the road in the communal area. There is also a communal kitchen and a workshop where residents design and make their own T-shirts to sell. Artwork and murals are everywhere.

There is a sleeping space for random people who need shelter for the night. Other rough sleepers often pitch up on the perimeter of the occupation. ‘For their safety,’ Paulo explains. ‘If they get attacked by police, they can call for help from the residents inside.’

‘The intention of the authorities is to kill these people. Everything they do seeks to make their death more rapid. So the first right and duty of this struggle is to survive.’

The people in this occupation are living close to the edge. Although they have rights to basic services like health and education, they are often denied them by local service providers due to prejudice against homeless people. Children may find themselves excluded from local schools on the most flimsy of grounds, and doctors will put homeless patients at the bottom of the waiting list. When Maria, a resident in her late fifties who sells delicious honey-flavoured cachaça (a distilled spirit) from her makeshift bar, had a heart attack recently, residents could not get an ambulance to pick her up.

‘We had to stop a car and almost force the driver to take us to hospital,’ recalls Paulo.

He is blunt in his assessment of the situation: ‘The intention of the authorities is to kill these people. Everything they do seeks to make their death more rapid. So the first right and duty of this struggle is to survive.’

 ‘when will black lives stop being criminalized?’
A message posted at the gathering in Maré. Roughly translated, it asks: ‘when will black lives stop being criminalized?’

That struggle has become more challenging since the coup. Cuts in welfare and a 20-year freeze in public spending is coupled with a more authoritarian and militaristic approach to city management.

In May this year, 500 armed civil guards launched a dawn raid on a city-centre area known as ‘Cracolandia’, for its concentration of drug users. Makeshift homes and tents were set on fire. The attack angered the area’s many working-class residents who do not identify as drug users. They complained that they were given no warning and said the raid would not solve anything. Sure enough, the 900 or so people dislocated by the raid set up camp a few hundred yards away in a square near Luz Station, which was then raided a few weeks later. The crackdown was spearheaded by São Paulo’s newish mayor, João Doria, a rightwing presidential hopeful, determined to show his toughness.

‘Drugs are used all over Brazil,’ says Paulo. ‘A helicopter which crashed, carrying 400 kilos of cocaine, belonged to a leading politician. What happened to him? Nothing. If someone here is caught with a small amount of marijuana, for their own use, they are put in prison.’

‘They are monsters’

A week later I’m travelling on a main artery leading to the north of Rio de Janeiro, and heading for Maré – a waterside favela that sprung up in the 1940s. In those days the shanty dwellings were constructed on stilts in the water. Nowadays it is a pretty solid complex of about 15 shanty towns and home to around 130,000 people.

Maré is one of the favelas targeted for the controversial ‘pacification’ programme, which was intensified in the lead-up to the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016. The idea was for police with military back-up to drive out armed criminal gangs and create permanent police posts, as part of the ‘war on drugs’.

‘The war on drugs is not a war on drugs. It’s a war on residents,’ says Flavinha Candicle, a Maré-born-and-bred mother of three boys aged 16, 13 and 9. This view is shared by many residents. Though many were initially pleased to see the power of the drugs gangs diminished, the violence of the empowered and trigger-happy police became a bigger and more unpredictable problem. ‘The police come in with guns and they just shoot. We want a normal life. I just want a normal life so that I can send my kids out to school without fear.’

 ‘The police have killed so many people here. Isn’t the right to life for everyone?’
Flavinha: ‘The police have killed so many people here. Isn’t the right to life for everyone?’

Flavinha’s 16-year-old sets out at four every morning to go and study hotel management in Rio’s smart Southern Zone. She worries for his safety.

‘I am black, a woman and from a favela. For me, the state is violent. We suffer a coup here every day, from the police, from the state.’

‘When the kids in the Southern Zone use drugs, they are called “users”. But if the kids here use drugs they are called “traffickers”. If drugs were legalized the police would just use another excuse to attack us. They want to kill us. Why are they like this? Why can’t they respect human beings? They should be protecting us, not attacking us. It’s worse today than in the past. The Rio police are monsters. They have no respect for anyone.’

She says her sons, thankfully, have not been at the receiving end of police brutality, but she has. During a protest against police violence in 2013 she was injured by them and still has the scars on her back. At first she sought emergency treatment – but then escaped from the hospital because she feared the police might come after her.

‘I am black, a woman and from a favela. For me, the state is violent. We suffer a coup here every day, from the police, from the state. It is a daily struggle. They have killed so many people here. They never said how many but there were many, many black people. The police are the main problem we have here. Why isn’t the right to life for everyone?’

In Brazil, black lives don’t matter

There is, it is said, a genocide of black youth happening in Brazil today. One black youth is killed every 23 minutes. Black males are three times as likely to be killed as white.

Sometimes citizens are caught in the crossfire between police and criminal gangs. But increasingly they are killed by police. In 2016, 920 citizens were killed by police in the state of Rio. In the first two months of 2017, the rate of killings by police had increased by 78 per cent. Most of the victims are young black men.

Robert Muggah, research director of the Igarapé Institute, a security and justice think-tank in Rio, says: ‘Unfortunately, police violence here has been a tragic reality for some time.’ He attributes the increase in recent years to a combination of the military police being trained in aggressive tactics, an organizational culture that tolerates high levels of force; and the economic and political crisis in Brazil, which he says has led to ‘a deep crisis of leadership’.

‘You have a deeply distressed and exasperated population who see the police as an enemy, not as a servant to the public good. This creates a very antagonistic relationship. It’s worsened by the routine egregious use of force caught on film,’ he says.

Police, and their families complain that they too are at the receiving end of violence. In July, after the 91st police officer was killed in Rio this year, relatives took to the streets of Copacabana to protest.

Shortly afterwards, the government announced that it was deploying 8,500 troops to crack down on crime in the city. In August the troops raided several favelas, as they did before the 2016 Olympics.

Meanwhile, the mainstream media obsessively replays acts of criminal violence and presents the ‘insecurity’ and ‘the enemy’ as coming from the shanty towns – the places where poor people live.

Pride not prejudice

Flavinha is showing me around the Museum of Maré. This is a wonderful and moving project that recreates the life of the first settlers, showing, in grainy black-and-white photos, their enterprise in all its precariousness as they push wheelbarrows on gangplanks over swirling water.

Among the exhibits is a life-size reconstruction of an original one-room house on stilts with furnishings. There are children’s toys of the epoch and religious paraphernalia of many faiths.

An especially poignant photo shows a line of bare feet facing a line of police boots. Elsewhere there is a glass box full of bullet casings, presented like a grim reliquary.

Manuel has lived on the streets for 38 years. ‘I just want a decent home’, he says.

Manuel has lived on the streets for 38 years. ‘I just want a decent home’, he says.

Today is a special day for Maré – it’s the first meeting or encontro of six different favelas organized by Marielle Franco, a black woman member of the Rio City Council. Franco is a daughter of Maré. A sociologist by training, she has been a great inspiration to Flavinha. ‘It’s thanks to Marielle Franco that I studied,’ says Flavinha. This day makes her proud to be from Maré, she says, from the favela.

An especially poignant photo shows a line of bare feet facing a line of police boots.

This is how Marielle explains her decision to go into local government. ‘The State is the main violator [of our rights] but it is also a principal means by which our rights can be obtained.’

The event, called ‘Right to the Favela’, is a vibrant affair. About 200 participants are getting stuck into debates, workshops and cultural performances. Under discussion are civic rights, health and sanitation, education and culture. Improvements in these areas were promised with ‘pacification of the favelas’ but they have not materialized. Sanitation systems are in disrepair. There is a serious lack of decent local schools and teachers refuse to work in the shanty towns; public transport, ditto. There is also, inevitably, a session on drug decriminalization and security.

Taliria Petrone, a teacher and black local councillor is talking about the uphill struggle to deliver lessons on equality in schools these days. Posted around the hall in which we are gathered are vivid messages exhorting rights and respect. Someone hands me a leaflet that mentions the problems faced by LGBT+ people in the favela.

There is a rolling of drums. Another theatre performance is starting up. The theme of the piece happens to be about a young, bookish boy who likes wearing dresses – to his mother’s dismay, incomprehension, fury and, ultimately, disgust. We follow him through the stages of his childhood and the flowering of his affections.

We see the anger and family turmoil his developing sexual and gender identity seems to provoke, culminating in him being thrown out of the home, in his teens, by his mother. We see him being teased by local boys; the bullying intensifies and leads, shockingly, to his murder. The audience is transfixed, saddened and appalled – then gets to its feet. The teenage cast receives a standing ovation.

The values being asserted in this darkened room full of people, with the hot sun outside, are those of support, equality and community. I’m left thinking about what Mariluce Mariá, from nearby Complexo do Alemão, has just told me: ‘We, from the favela, have a lot to teach the city about respect.’

And the world.

Header image: The spirit of creative resistance is strong in the Rio favela of Maré. But Brazil is suffering a ‘genocide’ of black youth. All pictures in this article: Vanessa Baird

Marcela’s recipe: how to make a soft coup

Marcela's Recipe of the month
Illustration by Steve Munday

This dish may seem a bit challenging at first glance, but is guaranteed to impress your guests!

There are a number of versions. À la brésilienne, featured here, is hot and trending. À la paraguayenne and à la hondurienne are other options, which can be eaten cold. (I’ve heard from British friends that there’s even one called ‘oh brexit’, but no-one can tell me what it is!)

Basic ingredients:

  • Prime cuts of beef
  • Dough balls
  • Extra-venal oil
  • Coddled tycoons
  • Full-fat cream
  • Assorted lawyers
  • Firm and juicy contracts
  • A tub of mixed blunders
  • Extra-strong bribe juice
  • Concentrated media paste
  • Plump peaches
  • Self-serving politicians
  • Seeds of discord
  • Glutinous gossip

For the marinade:

Mix concentrated media paste with a good amount of popular disaffection; sprinkle with flakes of apathy; and add a bottle of vintage grand corruption. Spice with scandal.


You will need a Le Creuset élite kitchen set; a steak hammer or similar tenderizer; a large spoon with holes in it (to remove moral fibre); a set of sharp knives.

Wine: 1973 Chateau Pinochet.

Serves: the 0.01%


Chop up the beef into large mouth-sized chunks. Soak in the marinade, keeping the peaches to one side.

Keep your post-coup policies lined up and ready, so that they can be introduced quickly at the right moment. Season with Austerity BittersTM.

Heat the oil in a large pan over a high flame. Add a handful of discord seeds and heat until they crackle. Introduce the firm and juicy contracts. Toss in the beef and the self-serving politicians. Stir. Keep the dish liquid with regular lashings of bribe-juice (any brand will do). Add the dough balls. Introduce the lawyers and add a blob more concentrated media paste. Increase the heat until the mixture steams, hisses and spits. Keep stirring. Add the peaches. This step is vital. You have to get it right – it’s called impeachment or empêchement. Introduce the full-fat cream. It’s a beautiful moment – a moment of shock and awe, when you know that the coup has taken.

From now on it’s all chemistry and artistry; make sure you have a whisk to hand to avoid curdling. (As all good coup cooks know, a cabinet stocked with trusted tools is the name of the game!) Swiftly introduce the policies you prepared earlier, adding another dash or two of Austerity BittersTM. Speed and timing are of the essence.

Turn down the heat a little and squeeze the ingredients hard. Discard unprofitable dross (husks of social justice, welfare programmes, etc). This is an intense, high-protein, alpha-male kind of dish, so remove anything that gets in the way of that rich hit to elite taste buds and bank accounts.

Serve immediately on a bed of compliant media.

Illustration by Steve Munday

Agribusiness seizes Brazilian power

‘No,’ says the man behind the large locked and chained gate. ‘There is nobody you can talk to here.’

He seems sad. The whole place seems sad.

We get chatting and, after a while, he lets me into the grounds of the Museu do Indio – Rio de Janeiro’s indigenous museum.

‘If you had come here in March, there would have been people to speak to. But it’s been closed since then,’ he says. ‘It’s supposed to be for repairs, but the repairs have been abandoned.’

After a while he lets slip that staff haven’t been paid either.

It all begins to fall into place. The museum, which exists to educate the city folk about indigenous culture, and to celebrate it, is run by the Fundação Nacional do Índio (FUNAI) – the government agency for the protection of indigenous people.

But since the coup there is little interest in protecting indigenous people or their rights. Quite the contrary: indigenous people are seen as a nuisance; an obstacle standing in the way of profits and a particular, self-serving notion of progress.

FUNAI has come under sustained attack by the Temer government. In May, its outspoken director, Antonio Costa, was sacked for refusing to appoint to posts friends of ministers who had no interest in indigenous protection. The agency is being starved of funds.

We sit down in a deserted room and Xmaya Kaká Fulni-ô agrees to give an interview.

He comes from Pernambuco in the northeast of Brazil; he is an ambassador for his Fulni-ô community and sells its handicrafts.

 ‘Now the landowners can attack us and the government does nothing.’
Xmaya Kaká Fulni-ô: ‘Now the landowners can attack us and the government does nothing.’ Picture: Vanessa Baird

Xmaya is deeply worried about what is happening in the rural areas. The government, he says, is failing in its duty to protect its indigenous citizens. That’s putting it mildly. The Pastoral Land Commission (CPT), an NGO associated with the Catholic Church, has been monitoring the escalation of violence towards indigenous people and peasants. This year has seen a marked increase in rural killings, 48 in the first seven months of 2017.

In May, 10 peasants were massacred during an attempt to evict them from land to which they had an ancestral claim in Pau D’Arco, in the northern state of Pará. Thirteen police are being investigated in connection with the case.

In another incident, hired guns and ranchers attacked an indigenous camp in Maranhão. Ten Gamela indigenous people were wounded, two suffering deep cuts to their hands. This northeastern state is dominated by powerful landowners led by the Sarney family. One member, José Sarney Filho, is Temer’s environment minister.3

Since Temer’s takeover, agribusiness and ranching interests have intensified their efforts to evict indigenous people from their ancestral lands through intimidation and violence. The Guarani-Kaiowá people have often borne the brunt of such repression – their home state of Mato Grosso do Sul, in southwest Brazil, bordering Paraguay, has the country’s highest rate for murder of indigenous people. It is on the frontline of agribusiness expansion and, after decades of violent territorial disputes with ranchers and soy and sugar cane farmers, the Guarani-Kaiowá people are fighting for recognition of their indigenous land rights.

Local landowners have become emboldened – there are videos online of hired guns driving through Guarani reserves, shooting at unarmed civilians. Last June, a violent attack in a Guarani community left a health-worker dead and six others wounded, including a 12-year-old boy.

A few weeks later, in the northern state of Bahia, Raimundo Mota de Souza Junior, leader of Brazil’s Small Farmers Movement, was killed. He had been a staunch defender of agro-toxin-free farming techniques. He was also a Quilombola – a descendant of Africans who fled enslavement and formed communities in the Brazilian countryside.

Father Paulo César Moreira of the CPT commented: ‘In Brazil there is now licence to kill. Loggers and rural oligarchs are empowered. The reasons? Impunity from crimes against life and the government of Michel Temer.’

There have also been attacks on a facility run by the Landless Workers Movement (MST).

‘It’s like they [the rural oligarchs] think, “right, we’ve got our people in power now. We can do what we like”,’ says Leonardo Sokomoto from the human rights NGO, Repórter Brasil.

Beef, bullets and bible

The bancada ruralista, or agribusiness lobby, is the most powerful single political force in Congress today.

More than that, it appears that some of its protagonists were instrumental in making the coup and reshaping the Brazilian political landscape to suit themselves.

Elsinho Mouco, a publicist for Temer, alleged earlier this year that meat-processing giant, JBS, a key backer of the bancada ruralista, was one of several who helped fund a campaign to bring about a coup against Dilma Rousseff.

Since coming to power, Temer has consistently done the bidding of the rural lobby – part of the Beef, Bullets and Bible caucus. He has attacked indigenous land-right guarantees (assured by Brazil’s 1988 Constitution); has moved to break up conservation areas; and sought to turn over 1.2 million hectares (2.9 million acres) to wealthy land thieves who want to legitimize their land grabs. And he has also acted to weaken environmental licensing laws for projects beneficial to agribusiness.

Temer’s choice of agriculture minister was indicative: Blairo Maggi, the billionaire heir of a soy empire, faces investigation on several fronts. His company, Amaggi, was involved in a business endeavour that destroyed 115 square miles of Amazon forest and was allegedly involved in illegal land appropriation and use of slave labour. The company (along with JBS and Bom Futuro Group, whose partners are Maggi’s cousins) also allegedly transferred $5.3 million to cattle rancher AJ Vilela, the leader of a violent gang of Amazon deforesters, charged during the Flying Rivers Operation federal investigation.

Helping himself to a beef dinner in Brasilia, soy billionaire and now agriculture minister, Blairo Maggi.
Helping himself to a beef dinner in Brasilia, soy billionaire and now agriculture minister,
Blairo Maggi. Picture: Adriano Machado / Reuters

Like at least eight others in Temer’s cabinet, Maggi is named in the Operation Car Wash corruption investigation. According to the testimony of Odebrecht construction company executives, Maggi allegedly received $3.6 million in illegal campaign contributions during his 2006 run for governor of Mato Grosso.

‘Maggi is the catalyst of forces that promote agribusiness at any cost,’ says Brazilian agribusiness watchdog, Alceu Castilho, who edits the website De Olho nos Ruralistas.

With 27 other senators, soy-king Maggi presented a constitutional amendment to suspend the demarcation (or boundary-marking) of indigenous lands. This came as a devastating blow to Brazil’s indigenous groups, who had been pursuing the slow legal process for decades.

Then, in July, Temer ordered his administration to paralyze all indigenous land demarcations and approved a proposal that any group not occupying its land when the 1988 Constitution came into force would lose its right to live there. This was a cynical move, as many indigenous people had been expelled from land to which they had a legal claim in the colonial and military eras prior to 1988.

Some 748 pending cases would be halted, and indigenous people would be illegally stripped of their constitutional rights to permanent and exclusive use of their territories. Schemes deemed to be in the ‘national interest’, such as hydroelectric dam and road construction, would be authorized without respecting the indigenous right to consultation.

About 13 per cent of Brazil’s land has been set aside for the country’s 900,000 indigenous people, based on the territories they historically occupied. Overturning this and preventing future demarcations would represent a huge gain for the agribusiness lobby.

Temer got his reward a few days after his announcement. The rural lobby in Congress saved his political skin by voting against Prosecutor General Rodrigo Janot’s attempts to send the president to the Supreme Court to face corruption charges. Temer saved his presidency – and himself from potential jail time – for now.

How to resist the land thieves?

At the heart of this story is land theft on a grand scale. And yet a major move to help the thieves steal more easily went virtually unnoticed by both Brazilian and international media. On 12 July – the same day that Lula was sentenced to prison – Temer signed a bill which would make it easier for wealthy land thieves who have illegally occupied and cleared vast areas of public land in the Amazon to legalize their holdings.

The impact of this law will be devastating, and peasants, indigenous groups and the environment will be the biggest losers. It’s also likely to mean the loss of millions of acres of Amazonian rainforest.

Deforestation has been happening at an alarming pace in the Brazilian Amazon – with a 29-per-cent increase in 2016. Norway, a major donor to Brazil’s environmental programme, has warned that its funding will be affected if this trend continues.

In July, some 800 members of the MST occupied farms owned by Temer and others as part of a day of action against the rightwing agrarian reforms and the killing of peasant farmers. They protested under the banner ‘Corrupt People! Give Us Back Our Land’.

In Brasilia earlier this year, indigenous protesters were pushed back by marines and prevented from taking part in a Congress committee session that concerned them. On 9 August, the International Day of Indigenous Peoples, indigenous activists were back in Brasilia, protesting outside the Supreme Court.

A week later they won a significant victory when the Supreme Court ruled in favour of two indigenous groups in a land dispute involving the state of Mato Grosso. The Court upheld indigenous land rights and rejected a case brought by the state claiming compensation after land was declared indigenous territory of the Nambikwara and Pareci peoples. A ruling in a third case is expected soon.

Survival International, which has led an international campaign against the assault on indigenous land rights, commented: ‘While the ruling does not end the possibility of further attacks on tribal land rights in Brazil, it is a significant victory against the country’s notorious agribusiness lobby, who have very close ties to the Temer government.’

There is no room for complacency though, and the building of an international network of allies that will put pressure on the Brazilian government is key.

Speaking in Rio’s empty Museu do Indio, Xmaya is convinced that his country’s indigenous people need international support.

‘There is no respect for us here in Brazil. People do not respect our values – to love, to take care of Nature, to look after it, not just to exploit it. They don’t care about us, they don’t see us,’ he says sadly. ‘Temer’s government does not like indigenous people. Under Lula it was better. FUNAI worked, we had healthcare, we had schools. We had demarcation of indigenous land. Now the landowners can attack us and the government does nothing. It says to them, “you can do anything”. It has abandoned us.’

For the fragile environment of the Amazon rainforest, ‘the lungs of the world’, the consequences of Brazil’s current policies are dire. This coup is one that extends far beyond its national boundaries.

It’s not just a coup against Brazilians – but also against the planet.

Header/Thumbnail image: Gregg Newton / Reuters


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