Curtain Raiser

To Starve & Die in Brazil, Colltalers

The brutal execution-style murder of Brazil’s councilwoman Marielle Franco, Wednesday night in Rio, may have triggered what close to two years of President Michel Temer’s string of corruption scandals and slashes to social, health, and education programs hadn’t: social unrest.
It may be about time. After proudly leaving the U.N. World Hunger Map, in 2014, and overtaking the U.K. as the sixth-largest economy, Brazil retreated into a constitutional downward spiral, since it installed Temer in power two years later, in what’s now largely viewed as a coup.
The last time Brazilians took the streets to mass protest, they wound up serving interests of an alliance of right-wing politicians, powerful media organs, and segments of the middle class, that orchestrated President Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment halfway into her second term.
But when thousands showed up to mourn Marielle, as she was known, in Rio and other cities, the mood was different. In grief, Brazilians are again demanding human rights, justice, and freedom, just as they’d done in the 1980s to finally dislodge from power the military dictatorship.
They’ve got plenty reasons to do so. Yet, while there’s much soul searching and vicious arguments about what actually brought the country to such a paralyzing standstill, there are few areas of disagreement about what needs to be fixed: opportunity, the rule of law, a more accountable class of politicians, a clear path to regain control over the future, and others, are all often mentioned as common denominators.
But the endless chain of financial malfeasance by members of Temer’s cabinet, a judiciary that’s not just utterly partisan, but has resisted any effort to review its bill of privileges, plus the multi year, multi-headed political aim at dismantling PT, the Workers’ Party, of its legacy, has hardly left any space for thinking about solutions. In the middle of the national room, of course, sits the giant shade of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
The two-time former president seems now bound to prison, after a relentless campaign against his perceived misconducts all but ruined his reputation as the man who had at last put Brazil on another map, that of influential nations of the world. In fact, under his presidency, over 30 million Brazilians were lifted from deep poverty, and some social programs he implemented became

world standards for their efficiency.
But as he and his party gained global stature, inspiring Latin America’s left-leaning populist reforms of the early 2000s, the political establishment they successively beat at the polls, waged a behind-the-curtains war to articulate a resistance and its comeback to power.
Even the most die hard critic of Lula, Rousseff, and PT’s social programs, such as racial quotes in higher education, for instance, can’t deny that for a while, Brazil seemed unbeatable. Ironically, the last straw may have been the discovery of huge off coast oil reserves, with potential to fund an explosive economic boom, even if not immediately extracted. State-run Petrobrás by then was one of the world’s biggest concerns.
That, and the future, was of course put on hold when vice-president Temer took office, and its fractured coalition began to jockey for more power. He immediately enforced a 20-year freeze in social and education investments, ducked and neutralized several mini-coups and probes by his former allies, and perfected his maneuvers-in-the-dark style of getting his way. Brazil however has suffered under his administration.
Even though he’s so far failed to pass an overreaching set of social security reforms, that unfairly target long-term workers’ pensions, he’s still acting in tandem with his allies, calling the need to send Lula to prison an absolutely priority, and now, even running for president in October.
He has no chance, according to analysts. Lula still appears as the front-runner in any poll conducted so far, and even losing all appeals to run behind bars, if necessary, he could still beat ex-army captain and ultra right wing candidate, Jair Bolsonaro. Who, by the way, hasn’t said anything about de assassination of Mariella. Considering his skills at hate rhetoric, however, her supporters may think that’s all for the best.
It’s becoming evident that the black and LGBT activist and sociologist councilwoman, born in Rio’s disenfranchised Maré neighborhood, has been targeted for her political advocacy against police brutality towards the poor. Last week’s Temer-ordered military intervention in Rio’s favelas, a move largely perceived as to boost Bolsonaro’s profile, has also placed activists such as Mariella in the crosshairs of violent agents.
She got elected to the council in 2016, for PSoL, Socialism and Liberty Party, mainly to fight Rio’s widespread violence that unfortunately caught up with her. Just a day before her killing, she’d deplored on Twitter the fatal shooting of a black youth exiting a local church.
Surveillance cameras show that, after leaving a meeting, her car had been closely followed for several blocks by two other vehicles. Witness testified that a car lined up to hers and shot 13 times, killing her and the driver, and injuring her assistant. The bullets have since been traced to a lot sold to Brasília Federal Police in 2006, the same lot linked to São Paulo’s biggest civilian massacre in 2015, and other crimes in Rio.
While some compare the magnitude of Marielle’s murder to that of Chico Mendes, the union leader and environmentalist shot dead 30 years ago in the Amazon, her death has other implications too. Although little known outside Rio, Marielle is now the most known face of a new class of politicians Brazilians all but had lost hope of seeing emerging. And suddenly they seemed determined that others, unlike her, survive.
The country definitely needs them. In the past two years, unemployment has run rampant, about 4.5 million have been ejected from social programs, some of the biggest companies that used to support the economy are losing market share, or being liquidated by the government, and staples of economic activity, such as domestic consumption and social mobility are under severe stress. And then, there’s rising hunger.
None of these issues seems to worry the political elite, and many fear that, as the big media moves in to co-opt Marielle’s tragedy, the system will produce a culprit party, conveniently insulated from those who may have ordered the hit. And life will move on as it does. We hope not.
Brazil has the equal potential of becoming the world champion in killing environmental activists, social reformists, race and sexual minorities advocates, and anyone who’d stand for civil rights and freedom, as it has of fulfilling its destiny as a benevolent, and alternative, world leader.
‘Not much health, lots of ants: these are the woes of Brazil.’ The flawed translation (‘Pouca saúde, muita saúva: os males do Brasil são’) for a Mário de Andrade’s Macunaíma quote, a celebrated book published in 1928, may still have some mileage. After all, there’s new appreciation for that kind of large ant as a source of protein, given food unpredictability and the state of public health in South America’s largest nation.
Let’s keep our expectations in check, but without dismissing what’s happening in Brazil just yet. Like Marielle, who at 38, came to age at the turn of the millennium, many Brazilians have experienced what feels like living in a promising country, ready to take on the world with grace.
There’s hope that they, and by example, their kids too, will feel empowered by the worldwide response to her tragic murder and begin to build that great country of dreams already. We’re 1000% behind them and the American youth, set to lead Saturday’s March to End Gun Violence (taking it from the hugely influential 2017 Women’s March). In the U.S. and Brazil, it’s time for the voice and power of the young. March. WC


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