Blame it on Rio

I grew up in Rio de Janeiro in a very middle-class neighborhood. Not the fanciest one, but also not the poorest. Very much in the middle. This neighborhood also had the characteristic of being surrounded by hills. Many if not most hills in Rio de Janeiro have favelas. Favelas are poor neighborhoods that are formed by poor people who mostly want to live close to where the jobs are. Because I grew up in a middle-class neighborhood, studied in middle-class schools and had a middle-class family I was in danger of only knowing middle-class people. The thing that prevented me from that the most was going to church. In church, I lived with people from all kind of social backgrounds – including people who lived in favelas.

The history of Rio de Janeiro is mostly a history of expansion from the area we today call downtown. On several occasions, poor people (including my grandfather and his mother) were relocated (or frankly expelled) from their houses by the government that wanted to make some urban reform. People faced two options: to be relocated to far removed areas, far away from their jobs, or to occupy some undeveloped area in the vicinities of where they previously lived and form a favela.

Because Rio de Janeiro is the historic capital of Brazil, it received a lot of investment by governments over the decades. Many governments wanted to make it a vitrine of Brazil’s development. Also, Brazil has a strong history of developmentalism. Especially since Getúlio Vargas, who rule the country from 1930 to 1945 and again from 1951 to 1954, Brazilian presidents tend to believe that it is their job to bring economic development to the country. The higher the GDP growth, the best. I mean, who am I to say that GDP growth is a bad thing?! But we have a lot of stories worldwide of countries that grew too fast in too little time leading among other things to major population dislocations and new pockets of poverty around great cities. Lagos, in Nigeria, is a textbook example. So is Caracas, in Venezuela. So is Rio de Janeiro. This kind of development is pretty much like using steroids: the results are fast, but the side effects are terrible. Fernando Henrique Cardoso tried to “flip the page” from Vargas in the 1990s, but Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff returned to developmentalist policies in the 2000s. Even Jair Bolsonaro often talks as a developmentalist, apparently a tic from his military years. Anyways, developmentalism led to the fast growth of Rio de Janeiro over the decades – and the formation of new favelas.

One of the best stories of developmentalism in Rio de Janeiro is the neighborhood of Barra da Tijuca. Until the 1960s this part of the city, caught between the hills and the ocean, was basically desert. That’s when the government commissioned the architect and urbanist Lucio Costa to develop the area. Mr. Costa was also responsible for designing the city of Brasília, and it shows: Brasília and Barra da Tijuca are fairly similar. Not my kind of city or neighborhood. It’s very hard or even impossible to explore Barra da Tijuca on foot. Its area is roughly the size of Manhattan, but it has no subway lines. The bus lines are not very dependable. The city blocks are very large. Everything is very distant.

In my evaluation, Mr. Costa thought that he was God. Brasília and Barra and very interesting if looked from above, from the sky. But if you are on the ground level and don’t have a car, they are just not friendly. But that’s how modernists (including socialists) are: they swear they love humanity but hate human beings.

The news that the government was developing the Barra da Tijuca area spread fast. Many families came to the region looking for jobs in construction. Many of them settled in the vicinity of Rio das Pedras. Rio das Pedras became one of the main favelas of the region. In the absence of government, people started to organize themselves in neighborhood associations. Even with most of the construction projects done, the families never left. Barra da Tijuca became an affluent neighborhood with many jobs. Alongside came drug trafficking.

The “pre-history” of drug trafficking in Rio de Janeiro is almost idyllic. You just have to watch the movie City of God (2002). Of course, one could not sell drugs in fancy neighborhoods like Ipanema or Copacabana, where the government is strongly present.

So, most drug trafficking happened in the favelas, including Rio das Pedras. The first generation of drug dealers was mostly respectful towards residents of the favelas and other poor neighborhoods. Some even became legendary for pacifying the neighborhoods from other forms of crime: because they didn’t want to have trouble with the police, drug dealers would punish criminals themselves. However, this changed very fast. The dispute for territory led drug dealers to become more and more violent.

In response to drug dealers and the slackness of the government, people organized in militias. What once were neighborhood associations became paramilitary organizations. Just like happened with the drug dealers, the vigilantes were initially friendly towards the people living in the neighborhoods. However, this changed very fast. The dispute for territory led militias to become more and more violent. Eventually, drug dealers and militias became mostly indistinguishable. Some militia leaders entered politics.

Marcelo Freixo, a Rio de Janeiro politician of the PSOL (Socialism and Liberty Party – as I said before, a contradiction in terms) rose to fame in the 2000s for presiding over a parliamentary inquiry on the militias. Mr. Freixo had a character inspired on him in the movie Elite Squad 2 (2010). The first Elite Squad (2007) was a very good movie. The sequel, not so much. Elite Squad is somewhat based on real events and tells the story of (what else?) BOPE, an elite squad in the Rio de Janeiro military police (somewhat analogous to the SWAT), especially during the visit of Pope John Paul II to the city in the late 1990s. The movie has some similarities to Black Hawk Down (2001). If you haven’t watched it and want to be spoil free, you might want to skip to the next paragraph.

Pope John Paul II decided to stay in a dangerous neighborhood, surrounded by favelas. The BOPE was responsible for his security. Although disagreeing with the strategic intelligence of allowing the Pope to stay in a dangerous region of the city, the squad did its job. In very military fashion, “orders are orders”. The movie shows the police officers as very dubious figures: they are extremely violent and often disrespectful towards citizens. But they are also very honest and dutybound. Captain Nascimento, the main character, is a tragic figure. He became a police officer to protect innocent citizens. He discovers that by obeying orders he is often just putting his life in risk for very little or no results. Worse, he is misunderstood by all those around him, including his family.

Even his son ends up calling him a fascist. Elite Squad also portrays the drug dealers in a nuanced way. They are violent and vengeful, but Captain Nascimento himself understands that no one grows up dreaming about becoming a drug dealer. Drug dealers and BOPE members fight a private war and ironically might be the only ones to truly understand one another. The real villains of the movie are the upper-middle class youngsters who use drugs, financing the drug dealers who the BOPE fights. It is against them that the police officers direct most of their rage.

So, I believe that Elite Squad is a very good movie, that pictures quite well how life in Rio de Janeiro is for many people. Most of the time it is hard to precisely identify villains or heroes. However, no wonder, despite being very popular, the movie was trashed by leftist intellectuals who called it fascist. The sequel gains in quality in almost everything but the characters, and this makes it worse than the original. The villains are completely villainous and the heroes, heroic. It lacks the nuances of the original. The character inspired by Marcelo Freixo is morally perfect. The vigilantes whom he fights are cartoonish evil.

Brazilian and international media gave much attention last year to the assassination of Marielle Franco, a Rio de Janeiro politician who, just like Mr. Freixo, was a member of the PSOL. Ms. Franco’s assassination, like any other, is a tragedy. The police investigation is still ongoing, and no one really knows who killed her, but it seems very likely that she was murdered by members of a militia. Despite what international media might lead one to believe, Ms. Franco was far from being the first Rio de Janeiro politician to be murdered in the last few years. Mr. Freixo himself is under police protection for many years now. Other politicians from several political parties were not so lucky and didn’t receive the same attention from the media. The left’s last blow against president Jair Bolsonaro is to say that one of his sons, Flávio Bolsonaro, is somehow connected to Ms. Franco assassination. In their narrative, Flávio would be connected to militias who in turn killed Ms. Franco. All things are possible. Not all are plausible. Definitely, not all are proven. To be honest, there are people in the right saying that Jean Wyllys, also from the PSOL, is connected to Jair Bolsonaro’s assassination attempt last September. Maybe they should all go have a drink together. They have much in common.

Making a generalization (but I hope not an overgeneralization), politicians and intellectuals from the left tend to romanticize drug dealers. They are pictured as social victims or social bandits, almost Robin Hoods. On the other hand, they vilify the militias in a cartoonish way. Just like Elite Squad 2. I began this text mentioning that going to church prevented me from entirely growing in a middle-class bubble. Because of that, I heard people saying that old drug dealers had at least some sense of justice. Younger ones (sometimes as young as 16 years old) are almost animals, psychopaths without any sense of empathy. If you watched The Godfather trilogy you know what I mean. I also heard people frustrated with the government, that offered no protection against criminals. The same people were (at least initially) supportive of militias.

Politicians in the right, in turn, consider unimaginable to legalize any drug. But on the other hand, they were very slow to understand the danger of the militias, and citizens making justice with their own hands in general.

So, this is a story about Rio de Janeiro, one of Brazil’s most important cities. For decades politicians believed it was their job to bring economic development to the country – and to the city. This led to fast economic growth, which in turn led to the development of favelas. Favelas are areas where the official government is generally not present.

Therefore, its residents form neighborhood associations. Favelas are also places where, because of the lack of government, drug dealers can work in relative peace. However, over time drug dealers become more and more violent in their dispute for territory. The neighborhood associations, in turn, become militias. And the militias quite often become mafias. Some politicians rise to fame fighting these mafias, but the policies they defend are the same that begin this story in the first place. Politicians on the right are accused of dangerous liaisons. And no one seems to be willing to limit government to its primary function of protecting life and private property.

Brazil’s sole openly gay congressman leaves the country after death threats?

According to The Guardian and other online sources in English, Jean Wyllys, “Brazil’s first and only openly gay congressman” left the country after death threats. But is that so? Running a great risk (or certainty) of being called homophobic, fascist, racist, taxidermist, guitarist, etc., I’m gonna give some information that The Guardian and other sources neglect.

First of all, Mr. Wyllys is not “Brazil’s first and only openly gay congressman.” He was preceded by at least one other “openly gay congressman,” Clodovil Hernandes (1937-2009). Mr. Hernandes was elected for Congress in 2006 and before that was for several decades a respected (although sometimes controversial) fashion designer and television presenter. Mr. Hernandes was always open about his sexuality and while in Congress had good relations with Jair Bolsonaro, frequently accused of homophobia by Brazilian and international media – including The Guardian.

But coming back to Mr. Wyllys, he rose to fame after winning the Brazilian version of the of the Big Brother reality franchised television show in 2005. Following that, he ran for Congress in 2010 representing the Socialism and Freedom Party (PSOL. Socialism and freedom – a contradiction in the very party’s name) but received only an average of 13,000 votes. His election was only possible, considering the number of votes he had, through the votes of another highly voted candidate of the same party. In 2014 he ran for reelection and this time, justice be done, received a great number of votes: almost 145,000 – more than enough to be elected by his own rights, although still way behind Jair Bolsonaro himself, who received 464,572 votes in the same election. However, in the last elections, Mr. Wyllys went back to electoral mediocrity, with meager 24,295 votes. Once again, as in 2010, he was benefited by his electoral law and party votes and got elected, despite being behind candidates who received way more.

After Bolsonaro was elected president in last October, many leftists in Brazil declared they were part of “The Resistance.” One of the mottos of this informal group was “nobody lets go of nobody’s hand.” There were many rumors on the internet saying that Mr. Wyllys would leave Brazil with Bolsonaro’s election. Answering these rumors he said, “the slogan of my campaign was resistance. For all those who spread fake news saying that I would leave Brazil, I am here and here I will stay.” However, Mr. Wyllys’ resistance didn’t last for a month. Just a few days before the swearing-in he released a note from overseas stating that he will not assume his position as a congressman in February and that he will also not return to Brazil due to alleged death threats. Mr. Wyllys didn’t present any proofs of the death threats he affirms is receiving.

Mr. Wyllys despicable 24,295 votes – and the downfall from his previous almost 145,000 – show that he is actually a minor figure in Brazilian politics. However, considering the cover given him by The Guardian and other media, one might think he is something else. One might think that his alleged death threats are a major threat to Brazilian democracy. But let’s consider some things that The Guardian and other media ignore:

Last September, during the presidential campaign, Jair Bolsonaro suffered a knife attack in Juiz de Fora, Minas Gerais. Bolsonaro’s stabber, Adélio Bispo de Oliveira, was affiliated to PSOL – Mr. Wyllys’ political party – between 2007 and 2014. According to official records of Brazil’s House of Representatives, on the same day of the attack, Mr. Oliveira was in the House, in Brasília. Brasília and Juiz de Fora are almost 700 miles apart. Did somebody register his presence to create an alibi? Immediately after the attack, Mr. Oliveira was assisted by extremely expensive lawyers. The identity of who pays these lawyers is secret. If all these things don’t raise eyebrows, I don’t know what to do.

In 2016, during the voting for the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, Mr. Wyllys spit on Jair Bolsonaro. Mr. Wyllys spit was followed by a wave of leftists spitting on opponents as a sign of political resistance.

The case is still under investigation, but there is a lot of evidence that Fernando Holiday, a black and gay city councilor for São Paulo, suffered a murder attempt last December. Evidence also suggests that this was a political crime, for Holiday defends a controversial social security reform. But I don’t see The Guardian celebrating that São Paulo, Brazil’s greatest city, has a young, black, and gay councilor or that worried that his life might be under threat. Maybe because Holiday defends free-market and conservative policies?

Joice Hasselmann, elected for Congress in 2018 elections, also claims she received death threats. The difference between Ms. Hasselmann and Mr. Wyllys is that she presented proofs: in late November a pig’s head with a death note was left on her residence’s door. The case is under investigation. A woman, elected for Congress of one of the world’s largest democracies is apparently receiving death threats, but the coverage by international media is minimum. Maybe because Ms. Hasselmann is conservative?

In sum, Brazil’s democracy is fragile indeed. A presidential candidate was stabbed. A counselor in the country’s largest city was the victim of a murder attempt. A congresswoman by the country’s most populous state receives death threats on her home. If Mr. Wyllys is indeed receiving death threats, he shouldn’t leave the country. He should honor his voters, despite how few they are, and most of all, he should cooperate with the police.

How the populists came to power

Jair Bolsonaro was elected president in Brazil. Donald Trump in the US. In other countries, similar politicians are gaining popular support. Some are calling these politicians “populists”. I don’t really know what they mean by this term. The populists that I know better are Getúlio Vargas, Brazil’s president for almost 20 years in the mid-20th century and Juan Peron, a leading political figure in Argentina in the same time period. What they had in common? Both fought the communist influence in Latin America, favored the labor movement and were anti-liberal. They were also extremely personalist, leading to something that could be understood as a cult of personality. I completely fail to see important similarities between Trump and Bolsonaro on the one hand and Vargas and Peron on the other. But I can see some similarities between Trump and Bolsonaro. The latter two both came to power against what the left became in the last few decades.

Once upon a time, there was a young German philosopher called Karl Marx. He was very well read but wasn’t very bright on economics. Anyway, he decided that he would correct the classical liberal economic theory of Adam Smith. The result was that Marx concluded that in the center of the economy, and actually in the center of history itself, was the class struggle between the workforce and the bourgeoisie. Of course, although appealing on the surface, Marx’s economic theory is pure nonsense. Maybe Marx himself knew it, for at the end of his life he was more interested in living a peaceful life in London than in leading a revolution. But this didn’t stop Marxists from starting Revolutions throughout the world, beginning in Russia.

Ludwig Von Mises brilliant pointed out that Marxism would never work as the economic foundation of a country, for it ignored private property. Without private property, there is no price formation and without prices economic calculation is impossible. In doing so, Mises founded the Austrian School of Economics. The economic debate between Austrians and Marxists ensued, but arguing with a Marxist is like playing chess with a pigeon. He will climb on the board, knock down the pieces and believe that he won. Regardless, facts don’t care about your feelings, and reality proved again and again that Mises was right.

However, at the same time, something else was happening. In Italy, a Marxist named Antonio Gramsci concluded that armed revolution was not the best way to power. He believed that a cultural approach would be better. Some German scholars in Frankfurt concluded pretty much the same. Their question was “why the proletariat will not follow us?”. The answer was that they were too alienated by capitalist culture.

Following Gramsci and the Frankfurt School, Marxists all over the world gave up studying economics and decided to study culture. They concluded that everyone can feel oppressed. The class struggle seized to be between factory workers and factory owners and turned into a fight between man and woman, black and white, gay and straight. Identity politics was born.

And that’s how the “populists” came to power. It is not so much that the common people (and especially conservatives and libertarians) are crazily in love with Bolsonaro or Trump. It is just that people eventually get tired of being called oppressors. The left, once legitimately concerned with the conditions of the poor, ignored that the best solution for poverty is the free market. Instead, they decided they would crush the common people they swore to protect, calling them homophobic, misogynists and so on. Common people answered by voting for whoever was on the other side of the political spectrum.

Some challenges Brazil has to overcome to achieve development

Now it is true. As I predicted some time ago, Jair Bolsonaro became Brazil’s president. Bolsonaro is not the brightest guy in the room, but I believe he has some qualities a leader requires. Above all, Bolsonaro shows conviction, a quality central to leadership, as Albert Mohler observes. Bolsonaro has the conviction that socialism/communism is the wrong way, and that Brazil has to try an alternative. The alternative, he has grown to understand, is the free market.

In his first remarks as president, Bolsonaro said that Brazil is “leaving socialism.” Some Brazilian friends, even people with high education, found this quote preposterous. In their view, Brazil can’t abandon socialism because she never tried it. That’s quite scary! After almost two decades of rule of the Worker’s Party (PT) there are people in Brazil who believe that Brazil never tried socialism.

It must be observed that PT is a big party, with many internal tendencies. Still, historically the party has the objective of turning Brazil into a socialist country. It is quite shocking that some people haven’t realized this!

On the other hand, many Brazilians still charge capitalism for all the country’s problems. The difficulty with this is that, if we take capitalism as free-market, Brazil has never been capitalist. Brazil’s economic history, in a nutshell, is of government control of the economy.

One of the challenges Brazil has, as surprising as it may be, is to teach people what is socialism and what is capitalism. The other is to make people understand that socialism is just bad. It has been tried. It failed, as it should. Capitalism, understood as economic freedom, worked everywhere. And there is no reason to believe that it wouldn’t work in Brazil.

The childishness of the left

Jair Bolsonaro took office as president of Brazil this last January 1. The government has barely begun, but I think we can already observe a little of what the next four years will look like. During the campaign, Bolsonaro made it clear that his government would be “liberal in the economy and conservative in customs.” Here an explanation is necessary for English speakers: in Brazil “liberal” almost always means “classic liberal,” that is, defender of the free market economy. Conservative, at least in the context of Bolsonaro’s speech, is not so different from the sense of the English language: conservatism as an appreciation of the customs and traditions of Judeo-Christian society.

The speeches of the Bolsonaro himself and his ministers already in office follow exactly this tone. Paulo Guedes, chosen to be the “super-minister” of the economy, made it clear in a speech of almost an hour that Brazil’s problem is excess of state. During the last 40 years or more Brazil has treated symptoms, not the causes of its economic backwardness. The speech of Paulo Guedes was a class of economic history of Brazil.

However, what dominated the Brazilian media in recent days was not a speech, but rather a remark by a minister. Damares Alves, the human rights minister, the one who was harshly criticized for saying she saw Jesus when she was in a guava tree, said at an informal moment that “boys wear blue and girls wear pink.” The speech fell on the media and provoked the reaction of Brazilian celebrities. Many “artists” appeared changing colors, men wearing pink and women, blue. What draws attention in this case, besides the difficulty of understanding figures of speech, is the infantilization of the left activists. Damares said that “boys wear blue and girls wear pink,” not that men wear blue and women wear pink.

The minister’s speech fits into a moment Brazil is living. The cultural wing of the left wants to teach that gender is only a social construction, with no connection to biology, and therefore children should be treated as neutral, awaiting their decision as to what gender they want to adopt. Damare’s remark, therefore, refers to the education of children in public schools, not adult men and women. Brazil is a country free enough for adult men and women to wear the colors they want. The identification of many celebrities with the minister’s speech shows that leftist activists have the mental age of kindergarten children.

Damares Alves and the left’s hypocrisy

The last polemic in Brazilian politics was due to a testimony of Damares Alves, chosen by Jair Bolsonaro to be his minister of human rights. In a video that is available on YouTube, during a religious service, Damares tells how in her childhood, between 6 and 8 years of age, she was systematically sexually abused by someone close to her family (some sources I found say that the abuser was her uncle). To add to the sexual abuse, the criminal also exploited her psychologically: he told Damares that if she denounced him, he would kill her father. He also said, taking advantage of the religious beliefs of Damares, that she would not go to heaven because she was “impure.”

Damares tells that she unsuccessfully tried to ask for help from people in her family and her church. She would frequently climb a guava tree in her backyard to cry. When she was 10 years old, she climbed that same tree, having rat poison with her, in order to commit suicide. She tells that this is when she saw Jesus, coming to her. Jesus climbed the tree and hugged her. She felt accepted by Jesus, and she gave up the suicidal ideas.

Damares went on to become a lawyer. For many years she has been defending women who like her are victims of sexual abuse. Because of the violence she suffered as a child, she can’t bear children. However, she adopted an Indian child who would otherwise be murdered by her parents – some tribes in the Amazon believe that some children must be murdered at birth due to a series of reasons. Damares saved one of these children.
Someone cut from the video only the part where Damares says that she saw Jesus from the guava tree. The video went viral, and “crazy” is one of the milder insults directed at Damares on social networks.

In sum: the Brazilian left makes fun of a woman who was sexually abused as a child. Damares’ religious faith helped her cope with the pain. To be honest, I am usually skeptic about stories like the one she told. But what does it care? Somehow her faith in Jesus helped her to cope with one of the most horrendous things that can happen to a person. But it seems that Bolsonaro’s political adversaries have no sensitivity not only to a person’s religious beliefs but to the violence women and children suffer. When the violence does not fit their cultural and political agenda, they don’t care.

As I wrote here, Liana Friedenbach, 16 years old, was kidnaped, raped, and killed by a gang led by the criminal Champinha. Defending Liana, Bolsonaro wanted laws to be tougher on rapists. Maria do Rosário did not agree with Bolsonaro, and even called him a rapist. Bolsonaro offended her saying that “even if I was a rapist, I would not rape you.” The left in Brazil stood with Maria do Rosário and condemned Bolsonaro. The same left today mocks a woman who was sexually abused in her childhood, but who grew to help women in similar situations. Instead, they prefer to make jokes about Jesus climbing guava trees.

Jair Bolsonaro, Maria do Rosário, and the Champinha case

Over a decade ago, in November 2003, Liana Friedenbach, 16 years old (a minor in Brazil law), and Felipe Silva Caffé, 19 years old, were camping in an abandoned farm close to São Paulo.

While they were camping, the couple was found by a group led by Roberto Aparecido Alves Cardoso, aka “Champinha”. Initially, Champinha and his group wanted to steal from the couple. Realizing that they had little to no money, they changed their minds and decided to kidnap Liana and Felipe.

In the first day of captivity, one member of the gang raped Liana. Felipe was killed on the next day with a shot in the back of his head. Liana heard the shot, but the group lied to her saying that her boyfriend was set free. Liana was then raped by other members of the group led by Champinha.

The group never contacted the families asking for a ransom. On the third day, Liana’s family, worried about the lack of contact, called the police, which found the place where the couple was camping, with some of their belongings. Noticing that the police was closing in, Champinha killed Liana with knife strokes.

Champinha, the leader of the group who kidnapped, raped, and murdered Liana, was underage when the crimes happened, and because of that could not be sent to prison. Instead, he was interned in a correction institution.

The crime shocked Brazil. It was answering this crime that Jair Bolsonaro, at the time a congressman, was clamoring for a change in Brazilian law, allowing criminals like Champinha to be prosecuted. Maria do Rosário, a congresswoman from PT, the party of former president and today prisoner Lula da Silva, was opposing Bolsonaro. During their debate, Maria do Rosário called Bolsonaro a raper. Bolsonaro answered “I am a raper? Look, I would not rape you because you don’t deserve it”. Later Bolsonaro explained that he intended to insult Maria do Rosário by saying “even if I was a raper, as you say, I would not rape you because you are too abominable, even for that”.

So that’s it. I hope this helps non-Portuguese speakers who can read English to understand a polemic phrase attributed to Bolsonaro. And I also hope that Brazilian law is changed someday so that justice can be made and criminals like Champinha and his gang get the death penalty for their crimes.