Category Archives: O Brasil – Traveller’s Notes

“Sem Juros”: The Brazilian Shopping-Mall

Everywhere in Brazil goods are sold on the basis of a 12-month ‘parcelado’ out of monthly income at source. The result is that every household has a jotter in which the running-cost per month of these deductions is recorded – just as the banks, a major player under the terms of “crédito consignado”, notify the citizenry of any current and future deductions arising from such purchases at the head of every bank statement – a scary block of liabilities which makes every retail addict shiver. (This ticker-tape of bad news is routinely delivered at the ATM.)

Now, if your car, computer, “cellular”, shoes, party dress, another party dress, beach-wear, hi-fi, wii-fi, frying-pan, ornate wall-clock, college books, living room furniture, bedroom furniture, bathroom fittings, bejeweSem_Juroslled havaianas, bedizened namorada and anything else which is not fixed to your skeleton by living tendons has been chalked up on the “sem juros”, then the chances are that a quaky economy is likely to bring those rental walls down around your ears some time in the future. And that is the great risk facing milliions in Brazil today. Exchange rates and inflation to one side, it is paying for all that personal clobber bought on credit in the form of zero-interest purchase – in which the bank’s profits have been ingeniously loaded onto the retail price at point of sale – that is going to hurt the newly-created consumer masses the most. (A massive 40% became new bank-card owners in the last 15 years by some accounts.)

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Impeachment Night in Brasilia, 17 April 2016

The voting has reached 342 in the Congress, the necessary 2/3rds majority against Dilma Rousseff, and there’s a deep roaring noise in the Lower House (Camara) of the Federated Republic of Brazil. “Dilma Fora” has now become “Tchau Querida!” – the most prominent banners of the last day’s marches. (“Por Democracia, Contra Golpe” made a good show. too.) Vote by vote, every steaming delegate shouted out his or her reasons for a “Sim” or “Não”, professing to do so in the name of family, in the name of their constituency, in the name of the people, of shopkeepers, workers, hospital patients, and every other segment of the public they could think of. At one point is simply devolved into a competition as to who shout say “Sim” the loudest – though one elder simple said, “eu voto sim” in the shortest speech of all.

Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff speaks to the media after a bilateral meeting with Chile's President Michelle Bachelet at the La Moneda presidential palace in Santiago, Chile February 26, 2016. REUTERS/Rodrigo Garrido

Dilma in Santiago, Feb. 2016

I must admit that the expressions of disgust at the ‘parliamentary coup’ in progress on the part of some staunch PT-istas were among the most impressive mini-speeches in the five-hour odyssey but the avalanche of votes against the Partido dos Trabalhadores – often against a corrupt government rather than Dilma Rousseff in her own person, be it noted – sounded unmistakably like a majoritarian consensus. It seems to me that, for everyone there “on the night”, the dodgy Impeachment charges had morphed into a vote against a government which tirelessly supported a regime of inveterate corruption on the political plane, even when the perpetrators were as often among bought-on Congress supporters as from its own senior ranks (though not a few of these). In restaurants and shopping centres, during weeks past, all the talk was about the need for a moral reform in Brazil and and end to the “bad ethos” which seems to dominate every walk of life – even to the extent that, as someone told me today, doctors and dentists don’t consider it necessary to supply an invoice when they fill out a prescription or lavish their attentions on that migraine or that abcess which has been causing trouble all week. R$200 will see the job right. (Perhaps we aren’t so different.) Continue reading

Camping in Buenos Aires

Lamps of Buenos Aires

Lamps in Plaza San Martin

Any nation that does not claim Utopia as a province does not deserve a country  – thus spake Oscar Wilde (or words to that effect). Well, Latin America is a lively example of that principle, if only for the historical reason that it began with colonial rapine and has feverishly nurtured the Utopia ideal amid endless disappointments since that time. It an odd way, it was always the Western counterpart of the Oriental dream: “For I on honey-dew hath fed and drunk the milk of paradise …”. A brave new world – but for whom?

The scale and beauty of Buenos Aires – its monuments and gardens, streets and squares – is amazing. Ana and I touched every point within reach including the Evita Museum, which was well-worth visiting if only for the perverse education on Argentinian politics it affords. Happily, a superior course of instruction was available to me on the stone bench at the doorstep where I struck up a conversation with a returning Argentinian whose parents had fled Poland and Russian in the 1930s (you guessed it) and who shone a harsh light on Peronism and the ensuing military dicatorships from which he fled to Chicago in the 1960s.


“Stout Cortez … silent on a peak in Darien” (Keats)

All the time I have been here I have been on the look out for personal ‘takes’ on the new Macri government – aside from the reports in La Nacion (more or less easy to read after an immersion in Portuguese). The consensus at street level is less ‘love him’ than ‘accept’ the necessity of a change of government after the Kirchners whose presidential hands were so deep in the coffers that the common wisdom goes, “Argentinians are always trying to fill the same political packages”.

That is a literal translation of a phrase which I take to mean that they are unable to change the mould of their political affiliations rather an allusion to the culture of brown envelopes – though this appears to have been very much part of the recipe also.It is no novelty to say that Latin America politics are driven by “transfers” of one kind or another and our visit to Buenos Aires coincides with the news from Brazil that Lula and Dilma’s publicity chief Joao Santana has been removed in handcuffs from an international flight on suspicion of parking $8.7 million from Petrobras in an offshore account. Some say that this is the break for Judge Moro that will “touch” Dilma and end the mandate by impeachment and they are already discussing the rules of succession – whether to go to the “urnas” [polling boxes] for a new President or to install a Congress appointment to finish out the four-year term. Continue reading

GM and the Zika Epidemic


Aedes aegypti (uma mosca com um proboscis)

Numerous British papers are reporting that the Zika epidemic in Brazil could be halted by the introduction of a genetically-modified strand of the carrier-mosquito Aedes aegypti, crediting the British company Oxitec with the break-through research.

Meanwhile, a maverick journalist called Claire Bernish has published a counter-story in “Activistpost” online relating that the GM mosquitoes have been disabled by tetracycline fed to larva in the incubation period in Brazil shortly before they were shot into the “ambiente” in April last year. According to her account, the cat-food used to rear the little bug(gers) was contaminated with the antibiotic in the chicken-factory where it was sourced. Surprise, surprise (mar dheat)! Result: a fortified Aedes aegypti which is now bigger and better at its malignant job.

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Aleijadhino – Brazil Barocco Master

The most frequently recurrent name in Brazilian architecture of the eighteenth century is that of Aleijadinho, a mixed-race (“mulatto”) sculptor who defined High Baroque in that country both as a designer and sculptor – and also as the builder of military fortresses. While talking with my Brazilian friends my enthusiasm for his work and his career rose to such a pitch that I was invited to lecture on the subject in the future – a challenge I had better turn down.

Antônio Francisco Lisboa - "Aleijadinho"  (?1730-1814)

Antônio Francisco Lisboa – “Aleijadinho” (?1730-1814)

My idea went on two legs, first that the Baroque with its famous “superfoetation”, is largely due to the encounter with South American nature and its corresponding efflorescence of forms and colours. I think I recently read the case made that the exploration of Brazil was indeed a seminal influence but I have not been able to retrace the source. It is known in any case that ‘barroca” is a Portuguese word, though its application to the art-style of that name is a little more oblique than the etymology suggests of its own accord.

Baroque is usually defined in terms of the reduplication of forms which seems to be a central trope to the architectural style. (The idea of motion connected with the Laocoon of classical times is another element in the mix.) At the same time, the style evinces a tendency towards pure form and, in the case of Aleijadinho (fl.1790) it approximates in certain passages to Cubism – to my eye, at least. I am thinking here of the folds in the garments worn by his 12 prophets in Congonhas. This is the second leg of my conjecture – and I wonder if there is anyone out there who can quickly tell me to desist, shut up and give over before I make an utter fool of myself. Continue reading

Ouro Preto: Brazil – Past & Present

I am here uploading some modest pictures from a recent trip to Ouro Preto and the cities of gold in Minas Gerais – Brazil’s mining state in which 2/3rds of the world jewels were extracted in the 18th century – under predictably odious conditions for the slaves involved. The ‘Ciclo do Ouro’ ended with the Rebellion of the Inconfidentes against the Portuguese in 1789 – an anti-tax revolt inspired by American example – and the hanging of Tiradentes, the populist leader. Other poets and writers were sent into exile in Mozambique and the episode has gone done in Brazilian legend as a piece of ‘proto-nationalism’ .

Igreja de São Francisco, Ouro Preto

Igreja de São Francisco, Ouro Preto

Tiradentes (1746-92) is unquestionably the iconic figure of the revolt. His curious name means, of course, ‘teeth-puller’ – i.e., dentist – and his original premises still enjoy a touristic shadow-life in present day Ouro Preto – as do the houses of the other conspirators, most of whom were officials or doyens of the local administration. He was hanged after a judicial processo in Rio de janeiro and sent back in pieces to the areas where the abortive revolt had started. He is usually depicted as a Christ-like figure approaching the scaffold with a saintly phiz in a Dickensian night-shirt. Robert Emmet is his closest Irish counterpart. While intellectuals are a bit sniffy about his populist credentials. Continue reading