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Brazil: heroes and rats

While the country mourns the dead of the Chapacoense football team, the Temer government, mired in corruption, is becoming unsustainable

SourceJan Rocha


As rain-soaked soldiers carried coffin after coffin into the football stadium in the small city of Chapecó, in a procession which seemed as though it would never end, Brazilians were mourning not only the loss of sons, husbands, brothers and idols, but the loss of a dream.   “Even God is crying, “said Chapecó’s mayor, as the heavens opened and the rain poured down. The crash on a Colombian mountainside near Medellin which killed almost the entire Chapecoense soccer team, an up and coming David among the Goliaths of Brazilian football, has plunged Brazil into sadness.
Message on Chapecoense club's facebook page, of thanks for the thousands of messages of condolence and support: "we looked for a word to say thanks for so much affection, and found dozens..."
Message on Chapecoense club’s facebook page, of thanks for the thousands of messages of condolence and support: “we looked for a word to say thanks for so much affection, and found dozens…”
Never have the words of the samba, Tristeza não tem fim, felicidade, sim (sadness has no end, happiness, yes) seemed more appropriate, as the country mourned the disappearance of a team with so much promise, such a bright future. In a country lacking in heroes, the Chapecoense players had become genuine heroes. Earning a fraction of the salaries of the stars of the big clubs, emerging from a small city in the far west of a small state, Santa Catarina, they were flying from Santa Cruz de la Sierra to Medellin to play the final of the South American Cup. What at first seemed a tragic accident in a plane owned by a small Bolivian charter company, has now been revealed to be the result of greed, irresponsibility and negligence, with elements of nepotism and corruption, involving the pilot, the company and Bolivian airport authorities. Besides 19 players, the club also lost its trainer, masseur, club directors and some of the local businessmen who supported the team.  Only six people survived, including three players. The plane crash also produced the biggest single loss of journalists ever – 21 sports reporters, cameramen and producers died. The tragic crash produced a moving wave of solidarity in Colombia, making many Brazilians aware, for the first time, that beyond the headlines about narcotraffickers and violence, Colombians are  also decent, fellow, human beings.
Aerial photo of the Atanasio Girardot stadium, Medellín, home to two Colombian football clubs, Atlético Nacional and Independiente Medellín, lit up in tribute, in the colours of Chapecoense.
Aerial photo of the Atanasio Girardot stadium, Medellín, home to two Colombian football clubs, Atlético Nacional and Independiente Medellín, lit up in tribute, in the colours of Chapecoense.
All around the world, soccer teams, great and small, expressed their sorrow and solidarity with silences, black armbands, slogans and words of sympathy. Chapecoense, from being a little known, almost amateur club, suddenly became known all over the world. President Michel Temer came to the collective wake in the stadium of Arena Condá, because he felt he ought to. He wisely made no speech, and left discreetly. It was as though people did not want the awful, raw emotion of the farewell ceremony, the visible grief of the families and the fans, the true solidarity of football fans from all over the world, to be contaminated by the sordid politics of Brasilia, where the congress had just voted to distort an anti-corruption bill, by introducing clauses to favour their own interests.
"I'm off to China - there they have the Year of the Rat." "Are you mad? Here it's every year for life!" -cartoon: Lila
“I’m off to China – there they have the Year of the Rat.” “Are you mad? Here it’s every year for life!” -cartoon: Lila
The day after the wake in Chapecó, thousands took part in anti-corruption demonstrations in big and small cities. Banners proclaimed support for the Lava Jato investigations, and for judge Sergio Moro, who is conducting the trials of those accused. In Brasilia, crowds gathered in front of the Congress, with posters denouncing the “rats” inside. Politicians not only face growing public anger but they are bracing themselves for what is being called the ‘plea bargain of the end of the world’. Seventy-seven executives of the once all powerful Odebrecht construction company, responsible for building dams, roads, and other major public works in Brazil and many African countries, have confessed to taking part in the company’s scheme of bribery and corruption, involving up to 200 politicians from all the major parties. Details of their confessions, and the names involved, are expected to be leaked at any moment (leaks have become so regular that it is no longer a case of “if” but “when”). The target of Sunday’s demonstrations was the Congress, but there is a growing feeling that the government itself is becoming unsustainable.  Since it took power after the finalization of Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment in August, six ministers have had to resign, most accused of corruption, one, the culture minister Marcelo Calero, because he denounced corruption. President Temer revealed that he did not understand why it was wrong for one of his closest ministers, Geddel Lima, to try and bend the law, because he had bought a flat in a projected apartment building 20 stories higher than the legal limit in an historic area of Salvador.  He referred to it instead as a “fatozinho”, a minor fact.  Temer’s growingly unpopular government seems to have pressed the button marked auto-destruct. What will count most though, is  the government’s failure to “put the economy back on track,” as Temer promised.   Instead, unemployment is rising and the GDP is falling. The optimism of the first months, when the appointment of Henrique Meirelles as Finance Minister was seen as the solution to Brazil’s problems, is over. The government is struggling to get its austerity package, the 20-year ceiling on government spending, through congress – not because the representatives realise what a bad idea it is, a measure that would hit the lowest paid more and deepen the recession, but because it has become another chip in the eternal bargaining process which involves everything in congress, where over 30 parties have to be consulted. Alternative measures, like taxing big fortunes and cracking down on the tax avoidance which costs the Treasury billions of dollars every year, have not even been mooted. 2017 is now expected to be, not the year when the economy recovers, but a year of deepening recession. And, for an increasing number of politicians and analysts, the year when the Temer government runs into the sand. Either because of mounting popular protests, or because the Electoral Court, the TSE, decides that donations to the PT/PMDB ticket in the 2014 elections violated electoral law. Possible candidates for Temer’s succession are already being discussed, among them former PSDB president Fernando Henrique Cardoso and former PMDB minister in PT governments, Nelson Jobim.  The emergence of a rightwing populist “Salvador da patria” (saviour of the country) is not discounted.  2017 promises to be a year of turbulence in Brazil, as it does in the rest of the world.

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Jan Rocha's Blog

Jan Rocha is a former correspondent for the BBC and the Guardian and lives in São Paulo, Brazil. She is the author of a number of LAB books, and contributes this regular column for LAB, known for its incisive analysis of current Brazilian politics.

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