The holiday season hit Brazil like a tsunami: on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, after five years of record drought, two dams burst, as record rains and flooding put at least 116 communities underwater, killed 21 people, displaced at least 50,000, affected more than 417,000, and destroyed infrastructure (and vaccines) throughout southern Bahia; a flu epidemic broke out nationwide at the moment that Omicron arrived. The unseasonal rains led to an increase in mosquitos: though Zika and dengue fever numbers are still down, Chikungunya is way up.
It’s just over two years since former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was freed from jail, and eight months since he was declared innocent of all charges brought against him. As Brazil heads towards elections in October 2022, with the economy in recession, Lula holds a commanding lead over his electoral rivals, President Jair Bolsonaro and his former justice minister, Sergio Moro – the judge who put Lula in jail. But anything could happen between now and election day, especially since Donald Trump’s political star appears to be waxing again. Bolsonaro – who once said to Trump in public, unsolicited and unrequited, ‘I love you’ – has long taken the former US president as a role model.
As the Covid-19 pandemic abates in Salvador da Bahia, beneath a surface of relaxed tranquillity – the comedian Gregorio Duvivier calls it ‘positividade tóxica’ – run deep currents of fear, tension and violent terror: they are not new, but they have intensified. On weekend afternoons, a military police helicopter hovers over bathers in the water at Porto da Barra beach, shuttling back and forth between the Porto and the Farol da Barra. It’s part of ‘Operation Peace’.
In Salvador, the protest march on 19 June snaked in a wave of red T-shirts and banners from Campo Grande through Vitória and Graça to Porto da Barra in the south of the city, and from there to the white lighthouse of Farol da Barra, surrounded by the deep blue of the Baía de Todos os Santos. The march on 3 July took a different route, down Avenida Centenario and past the Morro de Cristo, to the same destination. Both were reasonably large, loud, diverse, young and festive, with several left-wing political parties and movements, as well as competing PA systems and drummers with chants, rants, music and dancing. Afro-Brazilians of all ages were well represented. There were no robocop riot police: hardly any police at all, in fact, except to direct traffic. Some older residents unfurled red PT flags from their windows. As the event headed towards closing, people sat on the hillside to watch the sun set in a marbled sky.
One of my happiest memories of Brazilian football comes from about fifteen years ago, when Botafogo were playing Fluminense at the Maracanã stadium in Rio de Janeiro. For reasons that were unclear even then, officials had opened only part of the ground, leaving thousands of fans milling around outside in search of tickets. My friend managed to get two from a tout but as we lined up to push through the turnstiles there was a commotion to our left. A crowd was running towards the massive iron gates. Within seconds they had forced them open and were stampeding through. As the security guards scattered, I nudged my friend and we ran, joining the throng that charged into the half empty ground. When we sat down my friend asked: ‘What was all that for? We had tickets.’ ‘We’ll always remember this,’ I replied. ‘The day we stormed the gates of the Maracanã.’
In north-eastern Brazil, a year has passed without carnival or football games. The ICU occupation rate is now at 85 per cent across the city of Salvador and the state of Bahia. The number of daily deaths has nearly doubled in the two weeks since the governor, Rui Costa, forecasting tragedy, cried on television. The mayor, Bruno Reis, implemented a curfew between 8 p.m. and 5 a.m., and ordered all non-essential businesses to close along with beaches, parks and playgrounds.
Were it not for the semi-consistent use of masks in the street, and the closing of the beaches on Sundays and Mondays, you could be forgiven for thinking the pandemic hadn’t reached Salvador da Bahia, the capital of the state with the second-lowest Covid-19 death rate in Brazil. The official number of deaths for the whole country surpassed 200,000 on 8 January. Locals and visitors (mainly from elsewhere in Brazil) congregate in groups at outdoor tables without masks, and people walk – some masked, others not – along the oceanfront. A festa continua, mas não.
Pablo Ortellado, at the University of São Paulo, studies the way social media are used for political purposes. ‘We analyse all the messages that we believe come from Bolsonaro and his supporters. It makes you want to cry,’ Ortellado told me. ‘At the beginning of the Covid-19 epidemic for example, people everywhere were receiving messages saying that Covid doesn’t kill, that it was made-up by the Chinese, that the hospitals are not full. There is nothing we can do about this spread of misinformation because it has already gone viral.’ Bolsonaro relies on Whatsapp more than Twitter or Facebook. ‘Because it is a private messenger app as opposed to a public platform,’ Ortellado says, ‘we believe it allows the president to disseminate malicious misinformation to millions of people without being caught.’
Brazil has 2.8 per cent of the world’s population and (so far) 14 per cent of the world’s Covid-19 deaths. The country’s death toll topped 100,000 on 8 August. For the first time, the military took rhetorical distance from Bolsonaro, who commented on the football results rather than the gruesome pandemic landmark.
Brazil’s official Covid-19 death toll has more than doubled since I last wrote, four weeks ago, with 51,407 deaths and more than a million confirmed cases. According to the first nationwide study, the real number of cases could be seven times that, but the research teams charged with investigating were harassed and detained, and 800 tests were destroyed. President Bolsonaro, meanwhile, is still pushing hydroxychloroquine and making jokes about the ‘minor flu’. The federal court in Brasilia has ordered that Bolsonaro be fined every time he appears in public without a mask.
Bolsonaro’s cabinet meeting, which lasted several profanity-laced hours, was more like a mafia conclave than an affair of state. No reference was made to the thousands of dead and dying. The one reference to the virus came from the environment minister, who noted that with everyone distracted by the pandemic, the time was ripe to privatise and liberalise the Amazon further. Brazil now has to explain those remarks to the UN. The main issue in the meeting was that Bolsonaro had tried without success to change the head of the federal police in Rio so that no one would ‘fuck over’ his family or friends. He would therefore fire whomever he needed to, including the then justice minister, Sérgio Moro, and replace them with ‘people who belong to our structures’.
Last week a journalist asked Jair Bolsonaro how many people in Brazil would die from Covid-19. The president replied that he had no idea: ‘I’m not a gravedigger,’ he said. A few days earlier he had fired his health minister, Luiz Enrique Mandetta. Speaking scientifically in his daily press conferences and acting consequentially between them, Mandetta had eclipsed Bolsonaro. Working with state governors (the president’s chief political opponents), Mandetta had achieved an approval rating nearly double Bolsonaro’s and, more important, saved hundreds if not thousands of lives.
The Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, is the only world leader widely believed not only to have Covid-19 and to have lied about it, but to have knowingly spread it to untold numbers of his followers. Time (or Veja, the country’s leading news magazine) will tell, but at the very least, the circumstantial evidence is curious. Bolsonaro called on his largely evangelical base to hit the streets on 15 March to shut down Congress and the Supreme Court. Under quarantine after his return from the US – 25 members of his entourage have been infected with coronavirus, making Bolsonaro the centre of the largest initial cluster in Brazil – the president broke out of his motorcade to shake hands and high five those calling for the government buildings to be burnt to the ground.
In November 1982, Brazil held its first direct multiparty elections since the 1964 coup. A month before the vote, the captain of the national football team wrote a four-page spread in Placar, the country’s bestselling football magazine, in which he articulated his proposals for jobs, housing, health, education and food security. These are issues that ordinary people worry about, Sócrates said, and if addressed properly will ensure a better life for all. ‘But we will only achieve this when everyone has full and total freedom to speak, to learn, to participate, to choose and above all to protest,’ he wrote. ‘That’s what living with dignity is all about.’
Six months after a peace accord was signed between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, coca production in the country is said to be at its highest level in two decades. Rafael Alcadipani, a public safety researcher at FGV university in Rio de Janeiro, says that the Colombian peace process could make Latin America less stable. ‘It has a definite impact in making the connection between Colombian and Brazilian gangs stronger and the illegal drug trade stronger,’ he told me. ‘We’re getting information from intelligence services that the Farc and the PCC’ – the Primeiro Capital Command, a São Paulo gang – ‘have been in touch. There are some particular drug routes in the Amazon where the two groups meet and negotiate. My understanding is that the war is ending in Colombia and a war is starting between drug gangs in Brazil, so retired guerillas could be hired.’
São Paulo is for sale. João Doria, mayor since 1 January, is planning to auction off South America's biggest city piece by piece: not only the racecourse, football stadium and carnival centre, but lighting, transport, health services and even the public funeral system. The glitzy promotional video is full of glass towers and night shots of glittering avenues; there’s no sign of the heaving lanes of traffic that blast and fume among concrete towers as far as the eye can see. There are few green or public spaces in São Paulo; the biggest, Ibirapuera Park, is now up for sale.
Athletes are now arriving in Rio for the start of the Paralympic Games next week. The predictions of unfinished stadiums, Zika outbreaks and rampaging crime at the Olympics last month proved largely unfounded. Brazil won more medals than ever before, with some powerful symbolic victories for its ordinary citizens. The men's football team avenged their 7-0 World Cup defeat against Germany. Brazil's first gold of the games (for judo) was won by Rafaela Silva, a black lesbian from the City of God favela. Maicon de Andrade Siqueiro, who got a bronze medal in the taekwondo, trained around his work as a builder and a waiter. El País described him as a fighter not only in the stadium but, ‘like so many Brazilians’, in life.
The interim president of Brazil, Michel Temer, didn’t win the bid to host the Olympic games in Rio or organise the event. But he could regard the opening ceremony as a personal triumph. All over Rio last Friday there were protests against his leadership, which many are calling the result of a coup d’état. The words ‘Fora Temer’ – ‘Temer Out’ – could be seen on the beach, outside the Maracanã Stadium, painted on people’s bottoms. But the billions of viewers who tuned in to watch the beginning of the Olympics did not see this outcry, and the booing which accompanied the president's official opening of the games wasn’t obvious over the television.
A dead man lies on the floor with arms outstretched, his legs crossed. Beneath him are the words: ‘seja marginal, seja herói’ (‘be an outlaw, be a hero’). The image, created in 1967 by Hélio Oiticica, became an emblem of the resistance movement against the military regime that ruled Brazil between 1964 and 1985. When they displayed the picture on a flag at a concert in Rio, the musicians Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil were arrested, jailed, then sent into exile in London. But the word marginal does not only mean outlaw, it also means, simply, ‘from the margins’. Oiticica’s dead hero demands status for the marginalised in a country where the poorest have always been exploited by those in power.
Here is what the victim remembers: she arrived at her boyfriend’s house in a Rio favela at about 1 a.m. She was alone with him there. Then, she woke up in a different house, in pain. The men – there were a crowd of them, some with guns, and she would eventually count 33 – had delegated two to hold her down. They were taking turns to rape her. When they finally let her go, she was naked and bleeding. She found some spare clothes and then walked home; they had also taken her bag. In the video that the 20-year-old suspect Michel Brasil da Silva posted to Twitter, a man stands beside the victim’s unconscious body as she stirs.
Since I wrote about Zika in February, genome sequencing has shown that the virus has three lineages: West African, East African and Asian. Analysis of a 1966 Malaysian strain and a 1968 Nigerian one point to an Asian origin for the Brazilian viruses; it is likely that Zika has been circulating in Brazil since 2013. The virus has been evolving in expected ways (its RNA genome has a high mutation rate); no change that could account for an enhanced ability to damage the brain has yet been found. None of these findings has hit the headlines.
On 18 April 1947 in a cage on a tree platform in the Zika Forest in Uganda, rhesus monkey number 766 developed a fever. Its serum was inoculated into the brains of mice. They fell ill. Zika virus had been discovered. The sentinel monkey researchers were the virologist George Dick and the entomologist Alexander Haddow, based at the Rockefeller Foundation Yellow Fever Laboratories in Entebbe. Haddow went on to build a 120-foot steel tower in the forest to study high-flying mosquitoes and their viruses. The best time and place to find Zika virus was in the evening, 80 to 100 feet above the forest floor.
Paraty, midway between São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, was a place of periodic trade booms in the colonial era, variously dominating Brazil's gold-mining industry, cachaça distilling and (briefly) coffee exports. Since 2002, it has hosted Flip, the Paraty International Literary Festival, modelled on Hay-on-Wye. Once reliant on exports, the city now depends on the import of culture.
Sooner or later the Brazilian football team will be treated like lepers, or perceive themselves to be so. Unfair to lepers, but appropriate for an off-pitch reason. The official World Cup mascot, Fuleco, is a Brazilian three-banded armadillo. Humans apart, the armadillo is the only animal that gets leprosy. Admittedly, the evidence refers to the nine-banded kind; it is not known whether the three-banded armadillo is susceptible. It would be very hard to find out, because the Brazilian species is very rare and in danger of extinction. Fuleco's name is a portmanteau of ‘Futebol’ and ‘Ecologia’.
Britain may have invented the soap opera but nowhere has the format been promoted more vigorously than in Latin America. For decades, telenovelas have been produced in Mexico, Venezuela, Argentina and elsewhere, and viewed by hundreds of millions daily from Mexico City to Buenos Aires. Their reach extends to the US and (on a more limited basis) to state-controlled TV in Cuba. Wherever you are in most of the Americas, you can keep up with developments in your favourite soap.
The honeymoon between Barack Obama and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva didn’t last long. When Obama was elected, the US press imagined a natural alliance between the two men, expecting them to sideline the ideologues and set the Western Hemisphere back in greased grooves. ‘This is my man, right here,’ Obama said at the G20 summit in London in April, grinning and shaking Lula’s hand. ‘I love this guy.’ The first bump in the road was the coup in Honduras in June, which sparked a clash of wills between the US and Brazil over how best to settle it. ‘Our concern,’ said Lula’s foreign-policy adviser, Marco Aurélio Garcia, is that Washington’s push to legitimise the Honduran elections ‘will introduce the “theory of the preventive coup”’ – an extension of Bush’s doctrine of preventive war – ‘in Latin America’.