Brazilian president under fire from own party, voters

August 21st, 2009

Students protest against-Sarney. Photo: Agencia Brasil

Students protest against Senate President José Sarney. Photo: Agencia Brasil

Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is facing a backlash, not only from within his own party, but also potentially from voters at next year’s presidential election.

It comes after he pressured members of his own Workers Party (PT) to vote down corruption charges against Senate President José Sarney on a Senate Ethics Commission this week.

After the commission voted 9-6 in favour of dropping charges against Sarney, Aloizio Mercadante, Lula’s party chief announced he was quitting but on Friday agreed to stay on in his job, following talks with the president.

It was claimed Sarney failed to declare millions of dollars in assets and received hidden payments through a foundation, among a string of allegations against him made by a number of newspapers.

Police opened a criminal investigation against Sarney’s businessman son, who it’s alleged abused family connections to win deals with state companies.

The senate also stood accused of having passed ’secret acts’; under which taxpayers’ money was used to fund hidden increases in public servants’ salaries and hire employees without going through the proper channels.

Sarney in combatative mood. Photo: Agencia Brasil

Sarney, 79, who took charge of the senate for the third time in February, said he had no knowledge of any ‘secret acts’, before annulling 663 that were revealed.

He also insisted that a two million-dollar mansion undeclared to electoral authorities belonged to his daughter, and that he had no control over the José Sarney Foundation, which received money from semi state-owned oil company Petrobras.

Many are unhappy about Lula’s continued defence of Sarney, a man seen by his critics as one of the last of a dying breed of Brazilian politicians or families, which have retained a powerful grip on corners or regions of the country, promoting their own interests, while holding up its development in the process.

While Sarney rejects the allegations against him, insisting they are part of a media witch hunt, underlining his 50 years of public service, including five years as Brazil’s president, critics say an opportunity has been missed to start drawing a line under generations of widespread corruption in the country’s politics.

Disillusionment meets popularity

Former environment minister Marina Silva had already announced her intention to leave the party to stand at next year’s poll and has now been joined by Senator Flávio Arns whose comments that the party has abandoned its traditional moral high ground position are reflected by angry voters, leading some to say they will never vote for Lula’s party again.

“These senators have thrown the history of the party in the bin and burnt its main banner, that of ethics,” one reader wrote to the Folha de São Paulo newspaper.

Though Lula has said he doesn’t intend to change the constitution to allow him the possibility of being elected for a third consecutive time, it looks likely his favoured candidate Dilma Rousseff will be standing.

The make-up of Brazil’s political system means the president needs the support of Sarney’s PMDB in congress to ensure a smooth transition for his preferred successor.

Sarney’s party is seen by its detractors as having few ideals, only willing to lend its support to those from whom it can gain most advantage.

If elected, among many other things, Dilma will be charged with seeing through Lula’s pledge to build one million homes to at least partly address Brazil’s chronic housing shortage.

Dilma and the president share a quiet word. Photo: Agencia Brasil

Dilma and Lula share a quiet word. Photo: Agencia Brasil

Lula’s party won power for the first time in 2002 pledging to be squeaky clean, but senior PT figures were caught up in a damaging corruption scandal three years later that led the president to face an uncomfortable run-off for re-election in 2006.

Despite that episode, Lula’s personal approval ratings having remained remarkably high for a second-term president, perhaps even more so for one having to deal with fallout from an almost unprecedented global economic downturn.

It will be interesting to see how harmful these latest developments will prove, not only for the Lula’s Workers Party and its chances of getting Dilma elected at next year’s presidential poll, but also how voters will treat Sarney’s PMDB party.

But even before then, Dilma has other battles to fight, not least a battle with lymphatic cancer, but also now to retain her own credibility, after being accused of urging tax authorities to speed up investigations into Sarney’s affairs, something she rejects.

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Film puts Brazil anti-nazi immigration policy under spotlight

August 14th, 2009

A film about a Polish refugee suspected of being a Nazi fugitive by Brazilian immigration authorities at the end of World War II aims to shed light on a recent period of Brazilian history little known to most people in the country today.

‘Tempos de Paz’ [Peacetime], which opens on Friday, starring Tony Ramos and Dan Stulbach focuses on the encounter between a customs official and former-torturer for President Getulio Vargas’ secret police.

Clauswitz [Stulbach], a former Polish actor who experienced at first hand the full horrors that the war inflicted on his country and people arrives in Brazil in search of a new life but finds himself accused of being a Nazi war criminal by customs official Segismundo [Ramos].

Based on a successful theatre production, the film looks at some of the most important moments in modern Brazilian history, including the Vargas regime and a new influx of immigrants that helped build Brazil into the country it is now.

Vargas, who ordered the detention of political prisoners in the run-up to the Second World War, but was later elected to the Brazilian presidency is said to have hedged his bets in waiting to see which side would likely come out on top before siding with the allies, before eventually sending troops to fight in Italy.

In the film, Segismundo, who fears revenge from former detainees now has the final say on who is allowed to stay in Brazil and has been given the task of preventing Nazis from entering the country as the Getúlio Vargas dictatorship tries to smooth over relations with the United States.

Shot in Rio de Janeiro over ten days at the end of last year, ‘Tempos de Paz’ is directed by Daniel Filho, co-producer of the critically acclaimed and Oscar nominated ‘City of God’, the no-holds-barred portrayal of shantytown life in Rio de Janeiro.

“What interests me particularly is the massive displacement of populations for political reasons something that isn’t specific to the Second World War,” said scriptwriter Bosco Brasil, who adapted his play for the big screen.

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Political scandal is no joke for Brazilian president

July 21st, 2009

José Sarney is a man under fire. Photo Agencia Brasil

Sarney, a man under fire. Photo Agencia Brasil

A political scandal threatening to bring down the president of Brazil’s Senate is being portrayed by wisecrackers on file-sharing website YouTube, using spoof dialogue dubbed onto scenes from the Oscar-nominated film ‘Downfall’, depicting the final days of Adolf Hitler in his Berlin bunker and Nazi Germany in 1945.

It may be a laughing matter for some, but corruption allegations surrounding José Sarney, a former president of Brazil have put him at the centre of a media storm, with political ramifications, not only for Brazil’s current President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s government, but his hopes of a smooth transition for his chosen successor, if she wins power at next year’s election.

It’s claimed Sarney failed to declare millions of dollars in assets and received hidden payments through a foundation, among a string of allegations against him made by a number of newspapers, including Folha de São de Paulo and Estado de São Paulo.

Police have opened a criminal investigation against Sarney’s businessman son, who it’s alleged abused family connections to win deals with state companies.

The senate is also accused of having passed ’secret acts’; under which taxpayers’ money was used to fund hidden increases in public servants’ salaries and hire employees without going through the proper channels.

Sarney, 79, who took charge of the senate for the third time in February, last month said he had no knowledge of any ‘secret acts’, before last week annulling 663 that were revealed.

He also insists that a two million-dollar mansion undeclared to electoral authorities belonged to his daughter, and that he had no control over the José Sarney Foundation, which received money from semi state-owned oil company Petrobras.

Constant scandal

Brazilians can often be heard expressing exasperation and a feeling of helplessness about a seemingly never-ending stream of corruption scandals.

Even before pressure began to mount on Sarney, months of separate revelations flowed from the capital Brasilia, including the misuse of travel expenses meant for official business and overly inflated allowances.

Under Brazil’s proportional representation system, seats in Congress and the Senate are handed out to parties based on how many votes each party receives, rather a than straight fight at the ballot box to decide which candidate will represent a particular area of the country for the next term.

Photo: Antonio Cruz, Agencia Brasil

Photo: Antonio Cruz, Agencia Brasil

Although President Lula (pictured left) has continued to score remarkably high poll ratings for a politician two-thirds the way through a second term, the voting system has left his ruling government short of the majority needed to ensure its policies become law, putting the onus on forming alliances.

In a bid to get his promises adopted, Lula turned to one of Brazil’s largest parties Sarney’s PMDB, which in the words of its detractors, is the ‘whore’ of Brazilian politics, with few ideals, willing to lend its support to those from whom it can gain most advantage.

Many are unhappy about Lula’s gushing defence of Sarney, a man seen by his critics as one of the last of a dying breed of Brazilian politicians or families, which have retained a powerful grip on corners or regions of the country, promoting their own interests, while holding up its development in the process.

The affair has given Brazil’s president multiple headaches. Not least for being seen to backtrack on critical statements about Sarney made in his earlier days as a radical union leader and politician.

Lula’s support for Sarney has infuriated members of his own Workers Party (PT), with some voters promising to shun PT in future.

Whether true or not, Lula’s backing of Sarney has also led some to say he is willing to turn a blind eye to corruption when it suits him, despite coming in to office promising to be squeaky-clean, prompting one columnist to say it is tantamount to supporting other high-profile discredited politicians.

The president needs the support of Sarney’s PMDB to ensure a smooth transition for his preferred successor Dilma Rousseff, who if elected among many other things will be charged with seeing through his pledge to build one million homes to at least partly address Brazil’s chronic housing shortage.

‘Witch hunt’

For his part, Sarney rejects the allegations against him, insisting he has no intention of stepping down, quoting the words of the philosopher Lucius Aneu Sêneca. “Great injustices can only be combated with three things: silence, patience and time,” he said.

Sarney maintains he is the victim of a media witch hunt against him – something the YouTube clip also underlines.

Portuguese subtitles added to scenes in Hitler’s bunker portray staff fretting over the existence of ‘secret acts’, before loyal associates reluctantly tell Sarney (as Hitler) that the most cited phrase on Twitter during the week was Sarney Out!

In the midst of his own misfortunes, Sarney’s character rants on about how senators should stick together to keep their perks, while angry at an uneducated Lula, who he says armed with a speech defect and an economic stimulus package, breaks wind and belches on every political platform, grabbing all the public adoration, while he himself with 50 years public service can’t make even the smallest indiscretion without the press jumping all over him.

Finally, in a scene that some might argue is a sad, but true reflection of Brazilian politics generally, as he address his staff, a woman in the guise of Eva Braun kisses and reassures the leader telling him: “Don’t worry you’ll get back in at the next election, the Brazilian people are stupid.”

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Air France disaster not caused by single factor, analysts say

June 23rd, 2009

AF 447 debris aboard Brazilian Navy corvette Cabloclo. Photo Brazilian Navy, Agencia Brasil

AF 447 debris aboard Brazilian Navy corvette Cabloclo. Photo: Brazilian Navy, Agencia Brasil

As the crew of a French Navy submarine races against the clock to recover flight data recorders from an Air France jet lost over the Atlantic Ocean last month, aviation analysts say while the ‘black boxes’ remain the best hope of uncovering what happened, people shouldn’t expect there to be a single cause, even if they are found.

The Airbus A330 bound for Paris left Rio de Janeiro’s Antonio Carlos Jobim airport at around 19:00 local time (23:00 GMT) on May 31, but then some three and half hours later lost radio contact.

On Tuesday, following a media report claiming weak signals from the black boxes have been detected, the French air incident investigation bureau (BEA) issued a brief statement.

“No signals transmitted by the flight recorders’ locator beacons have been validated up to now and work is undertaken on a regular basis that is aimed at eliminating any doubts related to any sounds that may be heard, and findings will be made public,” the statement said.

Though officials say it’s much too early to establish what lays behind the incident, speculation has centred on whether faulty speed sensors caused the plane to go down in stormy conditions.

Minutes before the plane went missing, it sent out around two dozen automated messages, providing contradictory information about the plane’s airspeed.

Bill Voss spent 23 years at the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and was director of the Air Navigation Bureau at the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).

“The public tends to assume that everything can be broken down into one single fact and that’s only in the movies,” said Voss, who is now president of the Flight Safety Foundation, an aviation safety advocacy organisation.

If investigators are eventually able to shed light on what happened, answers are likely to involve interplay between the environment, the weather, which is no longer being talked about, as well as the interaction of the aircraft’s automation and the pilot, Voss added.

Black box maker Honeywell has said it is confident the devices will be found, though batteries only last around 30 days, leaving about a week to bring them to the surface.

Search for answers

Colorado-based aviation expert Micheal Boyd says while the black box is a crucial piece in the jigsaw,  significant amounts of debris, including the galley picked up so far may give investigators enough to piece together what happened.

“It’s usually a number of things coming together that have never come together before and may never come together again,” he said.

Since the incident, flight safety monitoring equipment makers have been promoting awareness of their products, with one telling this website that its satellite-based trends monitoring system probably would have prevented the disaster.

Air France says it is unable to comment on the matter under French law and is referring the media to the BEA, which so far has not responded to a request for information on that issue.

However, analysts such as Chris Yates, an industry consultant and aviation security editor at Jane’s Information Group in London disagree.

“I wouldn’t say there is nothing new about this,”he said. “But after twenty years in this business no one has the ultimate answer to the holy grail.”

Yates’s sentiments were echoed by Voss.

“I think that it’s unlikely that any trend monitoring system could have told us what we need to improve on  and that’s why I so hope we do get the black boxes because they will give us the information to really illuminate the whole story,” he said.

Twenty-three days into the recovery operation, though a body hasn’t been found in the past week, possible fresh sightings of debris are spurring the hunt for evidence.

“Unfortunately, the possibility [of finding new bodies] is reducing. All the same for the moment the search is going to continue”, Frigate Captain Tabosa Giucemar, a Brazilian Navy spokesperson said.

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Air France loved ones face identification anguish

June 10th, 2009

Photo: Brazilian Navy, Agencia Brasil

Brazilian Federal Police working with Interpol agents are expected to use pictures taken from airport closed circuit television to help identify bodies of passengers of Air France flight AF447 recovered from the Atlantic Ocean.

Investigators will also try to use dental records and DNA tests to confirm identities, as a French Navy submarine arrives in the area where the plane is believed to have gone down to join the search.

By 19:47 local time (22:47 GMT) on Tuesday, the Brazilian Navy had pulled 41 bodies from the sea, in addition to a large section of the Airbus 330-200’s tail plane from waters 1000 kilometres (600 miles) north-east of Brazil’s Fernando da Noronha islands.

Because passengers of more than 30 nationalities were on the plane, international police force Interpol will lead the identification process.

The plane bound for Paris left Rio de Janeiro’s Antonio Carlos Jobim airport with 228 passengers and crew on board at around 19:00 local time (23:00 GMT) on May 31, but then some three and half hours later lost radio contact.

Though officials say it’s much too early to establish the cause, speculation has centred on whether faulty speed sensors caused the plane to go down in stormy conditions.

Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva earlier insisted Brazil will do everything it can to find the passengers’ remains.

“At this painful moment finding the bodies will not resolve the problem, but it will bring immense comfort to the families,” he said.

But the families’ legal plight may be complicated by Brazilian laws that assume there is no death without a body, meaning they may have to get a court judge to declare the death of their loved ones.

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Missing Rio-Paris flight relatives search for news

June 1st, 2009

Photo: Air France

Brazilian TV and other media have shown pictures of worried family and friends in search of information about passengers on board flight AF 447 from Rio de Janeiro, which disappeared as it headed for Paris.

It has been suggested the plane with 228 people on board may have been struck by lightning, though experts say this is usually not enough to bring a modern passenger jet down.

The Airbus A330, left Rio de Janeiro on Sunday at 7 p.m. local time, (11pm GMT-6 p.m EDT), but around four hours later, the plane sent an automatic signal indicating electrical problems while going through heavy turbulence.

Those connected to passengers on the Air France flight have so far had difficulty obtaining information, according to government news agency Agencia Brasil.

When relations and those connected to passengers on the Air France flight arrived at Rio de Janeiro’s Antonio Carlos Jobim airport they found the airline’s counter closed and were directed to a sitation room put in place by the Brazilian airport authorities agency (Infraero).

“I came to the airport because I wasn’t able to get any information and my parents are very anxious,” one relation in search of news told the news agency.

Brazilian Air Force jets have been scouring waters around Fernando da Noronha off the North-East coast of the country for any potential signs of wreckage.

Air France has set up special free telephone numbers for relatives.

The numbers are:
0800 800 812 in France
0800 881 20 20 in Brazil,
and + 33 1 57 02 10 55 for calls from all other countries.

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Amazon to stage first World Cup Finals match

May 31st, 2009

mapaula, flickr

mapaula, flickr

The first-ever FIFA World Cup Finals match will be played in the Amazon region of Brazil, after the sport’s governing body announced the cities to host the tournament in 2014.

Wild celebrations were seen across Brazil on Sunday in the twelve chosen cities.

Porto Alegre, Curitiba (South); São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Belo Horizonte (South-East); Natal, Recife, Fortaleza and Salvador (North-East); Cuiabá and Brasília (Centre-West); and Manaus were selected to host matches.

In 1950, when Brazil staged the first post World War II finals, Rio de Janiero,  Belo Horizonte, Curitiba, Recife, Porto Alegre and  São Paulo played host to 13 teams and 22 matches.

Brazil’s World Cup qualifying matches have been staged outside big cities in recent years because of criticism of the performances of highly-paid players, many of whom play for European clubs.

Though there were no real surprises, the city of Manuas in Amazonia beat off competition from rival Belém.

Manuas is said to have drawn on support from Japanese electronics multinational Sony whose Brazilian base is in the city. Sony has been a regular World Cup sponsor or partner in FIFA’s parlance.

Hot and Humid

Unsurprisingly for a city of 1.7 million people in Brazil’s Amazon region, average temperatures of between 24 and 31 degrees, added to high humidity levels for teams drawn to play in Manaus will be big factors.

It’s believed FIFA had intended to name only 10 hosting cities, until the intervention of Brazilian Football Association President Ricardo Texeira.

Five cities Belém, Campo Grande, Florianópolis, Goiânia and Rio Branco missed out on the chance to host the competition in which 31 countries are expected to line up alongside Brazil, once they have negotiated tricky qualifying stages to get through to the final 64 matches.

The tournament’s opening match will be in São Paulo with the final scheduled to played at the Maracanã stadium in Rio de Janeiro, scene of the final match of 1950, which saw the Jules Rimet trophy snatched from under the Brazilian team’s noses by 11 minutes from the end by Uruguay.

In this football-crazy country, that 2-1 loss first sparked a period of national mourning on the scale of the assassination of John F. Kennedy and then self-examination that was to last eight years until 1958, when Brazil clinched the first of five victories 5-2 against hosts Sweden in Stockholm.

The Brazilian government has been preparing a number of mini-economic growth packages to stage the 20th edition of the FIFA World Cup, putting the emphasis on transport and other infrastructure projects. Cuiabá, Natal and Recife will get new stadia.

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Brazilians still shopping as going gets tougher

May 14th, 2009

Brazil’s worst set of industrial employment figures in eight years are reflected in latest official numbers and though shoppers haven’t stopped filling their baskets, what they are buying may point to a subtle change in habits.

The number of workers employed in the industrial sector fell by 5% in March compared with the same month last year, with analysts saying if they weren’t already, all sectors of industry are now being affected.

Nowhere more so than automobile sector. After four straight months of rising sales, inspired by cuts in production taxes, the recent recovery shuddered to a halt in April.

Tell-tale signs are also in the steel industry, which relies on the auto sector for orders.

Producers have been running at half their normal capacity with no one in the industry prepared to make forecasts for the rest of the year.

And if that weren’t confirmation enough that the economy is spluttering, Development, Industry and Foreign Trade minister Miguel Jorge conceded Brazil is in technical recession - the first government figure to do so.

Since the onset of the global economic downturn last September sparked by the international credit crisis, economists have been whittling down their growth forecasts for Brazil from an initial 5% for 2009 to as low as a 1.4% contraction.

Photo: monkey magic, flickr

Photo: monkey magic, flickr

The forecast contraction failed to hit home in the household consumption of food, drink, health, beauty and cleaning products in the first three months of the year, as sales rose among all socio-economic classes.

Spending among the lowest income groups increased 15% in cash terms and 9% by volume, according to figures from retail analysts LatinPanel .

That word household may be a pointer to what is actually happening economists say, as people prefer to dye their hair at home rather than paying the hairdresser.

Spending on food to eat at the dinner table is also rising faster than on eating out.

“The consumer is changing habits and this should continue to the end of the year,” one economist was quoted as saying.

Not everyone is doing badly.

Given the still massive disparity between the wealthy and poor in Brazil, it’s perhaps not surprising to find upscale supermarket chain Pão de Açúcar doing well.

So well in fact, the chain tripled its profits to R$94.9 million ($44.8 million) in the first three months of this year versus the same period in 2008 on the back of cost cutting and increased sales.

Brazil’s government will hope some of that feelgood factor will be transmitted to makers of white goods such as fridges, freezers and washing machines, after it cut production taxes in a bid to boost demand.

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Iran leader cancels Brazil visit

May 4th, 2009

Photo: karimii,flickr

Photo: karimii,flickr

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has cancelled a visit to Brazil scheduled for Wednesday, Agencia Brasil, the country’s government news agency said.

The planned visit, which angered Jewish and human rights groups, led to protests in Brazil.

Before the announcement, opponents of the visit argued Brazil should not be rolling out the red carpet to a leader who has repeatedly questioned whether the holocaust took place and openly supports the oppression of women and the persecution of homosexuals.

Though Iran insists its nuclear energy programme is for peaceful purposes only, western governments are worried about its intentions, given Ahmadinejad has questioned neighbouring Israel´s right to exist.
On April 20, a speech by Ahmadinejad at a United Nations Security Council anti-racism conference sparked a walkout by diplomats from western nations.

The following day, Brazil’s foreign ministry issued a softly-worded statement saying it would use this week’s meeting to raise the issue of discrimination with Ahmadinejad and while it sees dialogue as crucial, the government is concerned about the Iranian leader’s comments “diminshing the significance of the holocaust.”

Ahmadinejad has also dropped plans to visit Ecuador and Venezuela Agencia Brasil, said.

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Ronaldo targets World Cup recall after title victory

May 3rd, 2009

Photo: Ronaldo has put the smile back on the Corinthians club. Photo: nikefutebol, flickr

Photo: Ronaldo has put the smile back on the Corinthians club. Photo: nikefutebol, flickr

Ronaldo says he still hopes to play in next year’s World Cup Finals in South Africa and is ready to return to Brazil’s national football squad, should coach Dunga pick up the phone.

“It’s not my choice, but I’m a Brazilian soldier waiting in reserve, in case the commander-in-chief calls,” Ronaldo told TV variety show host Faustão, when asked whether his goal is to play in the 2010 World Cup, after his Corinthians team clinched the São Paulo state championship.

A 1-1 draw with rivals Santos was enough to complete Ronaldo’s fairy-tale comeback to Brazilian football, as Corinthians lifted the oversized trophy in front of their own fans at Pacaembu stadium, São Paulo on Sunday.

Santos took the lead from a Kleber penalty on 28 minutes, narrowing the deficit from the first leg of the the tie, which Corinthians won 3-1.

Five minutes later, André Santos steadied Corinthians’ fans nerves, shooting past Santos keeper Fábio Costa, after an exchange of passes with Dentinho.

As the trophy slipped away, Santos’ fate was sealed in 83rd minute with the expulsion of Domingos for a second yellow card offence, the final whistle sparking a cacophony of fireworks and car horns all around the city of São Paulo.

The result marks not only a happy return for World Cup winner Ronaldo, 32, after a year out from the game with another career-threatening injury, but also for Corinthians, a team that suffered relegation from the separate First Division championship at the end of 2007.

Corinthians bounced back to the top division at the end of last year and then took a chance on the ageing former superstar - a move that paid dividends, once Ronaldo returned from injury to notch eight goals in eleven appearances.

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