Another Sunday night, yet another episode of Game of Thrones drowned out by pot-banging and angry folk yelling into the night. In my quiet corner of Ipanema, a slanging match takes place as middle-class tenants of a high-rise apartment start slandering their neighbours in the favela below. The words ‘cow’ and ‘communist’, among others, are shouted by darkened figures hanging out of windows. The comebacks are meted out with equal ferocity. Things are tense in this town at the moment.
Pot-banging, or panelaço, is an established form of protest in South America. In Brazil it has been happening in many cities for several months now as the middle classes voice their exasperation with Dilma Rousseff, the country’s first woman president — now impeached on charges of using tricksy accounting to conceal the true size of the deficit. (This sort of thing would, of course, never happen in Britain.) She is not going quietly, claiming to be victim of nothing less than a coup — and one with sexist undertones at that. She has promised to fight to the end. Her alleged book-cooking might not be the crime of the century compared with the far worse corruption charges faced by many of her colleagues. But Dilma is certainly guilty of presiding over an economic crash that has sent the currency tumbling, unemployment soaring and inflation into double digits — all as Brazil prepares to host the Olympics. Many are delighted to see her go.
Not least Michel Temer, her deputy, who seems overjoyed to have ascended to the throne. His reshuffle looks like the revenge of the blokes: he has an all-male, all-white cabinet, quite some move in a country where whites are in the minority. He then cut the number of cabinet posts from 31 to 22: science merging with communications; culture with education; the ministry for women, racial equality and human rights absorbed by the ministry of justice. Ernesto Neto, an artist, described the move as a ‘cultural massacre’. Women are once again sidelined, just as Dilma was sent packing with patronising shouts of ‘Tchau, querida’ (Bye, darling). Even the Party of Brazilian Women doesn’t have a single elected female.
Brazilians are good at making light of the madness but are aware of how their country looks. Former Supreme Court Justice Joaquim Barbosa tweeted that the world must think Brazil a laughing stock. The level of corruption that has been exposed is beyond a joke — more than half the members of congress are up on criminal charges of some sort — and, despite the investigations, backhanders continue to grease everyday life. When my flatmate and I failed to pay our electricity bill recently, the two heavies who were sent round with a pair of shears to cut us off were placated with a ‘cafezinho’ — or R$50, known as a small coffee — and we were spared a weekend in the dark.
The scandals and the economic collapse come as Rio gears up for the Olympic Games this summer. In preparation, a 2.5-mile-long elevated bicycle lane had been perched on metal pillars, linking the beachfront neighbourhoods of Sao Conrado and Leblon. The views are extraordinary — or they were, until it was hit by a wave and a 150ft section collapsed on to the beach. Two died. People were shocked and despairing. Heads hung in shame. When I walked along it, the structure shook beneath me — and that was on a calm day. Did no one take account of the strength of the Atlantic? And if the work was so shoddy, just where did all that money go?
Things, are at least, looking up for the new (interim) first lady, 33-year-old Marcela Temer, a former beauty pageant contestant now being hailed as Brazil’s Carla Bruni. She featured in an admiring spread by Veja magazine, hailing her as ‘beautiful, modest — and of the home’. Her 75-year-old husband is a lucky man, the article concluded. It stopped just short of declaring Brazil lucky to have such a goddess in its midst. The internet exploded with mockery. Brazil may lag in social progress, but it leads the way on social media. Jokes, pictures and memes scorning the political goings-on fly down Facebook newsfeeds like newspapers off the press. A queasy-looking vomiting emoji has been created, showing disgust for Temer and his party: it litters comment threads. The new government logo (chosen by Temer’s seven-year-old son) has been given the vomiting treatment too.
The Zika virus seems to worry foreigners more than Brazilians — on that front (if on no others) things are heading back to normal. The Olympic flame, kindled on the day that the bicycle bridge collapsed, touched down in Brasilia a fortnight ago and is now winding its way around the country. Only in Brazil would you find Olympic synchronised swimming hopefuls like the gorgeous twins Bia and Branca Feres; athletes with genes so nice they made them twice. Practice events have passed off largely without incident — and no more structures have fallen apart. So… vamos ver (let’s see), as they say in Portuguese.