In October 1964, Charles de Gaulle visited Brazil. The country was six months into its military dictatorship. In April of that year, there had been a relatively bloodless coup against the sitting president, João Goulart, who one morning found a tank pointing its muzzle at his residence in Rio. The ensuing military regime lasted for two decades,and routinely tortured its dissidents. One of those tortured was a 22-year-old female member of a militant guerrilla group who was arrested in 1970 and subjected to paddle beatings and electric shocks to her ears, feet, breasts and thighs. Today, she is president. This is Brazil’s fairy tale.
Except that Dilma Rousseff is now being unseated in her own coup, after the Chamber of Deputies (the lower house in the National Congress) voted last month to impeach her. An anti-corruption inquiry, Operation Car Wash, has exposed a kickback scheme related to the national oil company Petrobras so diffuse that by the time all the politicians involved in it have been swept up, there may be no one left to run the country. Amid all this, Brazil is in its worst recession since the 1930s.
Which is why you have to hand it to de Gaulle. He only needed three days in the country to get under its skin. Asked to sum up his views, he yawned: ‘Brésil n’est pas un pays sérieux.’
How the country has remained mired in its endemically serious problems, slipping repeatedly in the innards of its venality and military brutality in the half century since de Gaulle’s visit, is the story told by Brazil’s most famous anthropologist, Luiz Eduardo Soares, in his book, Rio de Janeiro: Extreme City.
The picture built by Soares through first-hand tales of political corruption and Rio’s drug gangs is almost guilt-inducingly compelling. He remembers, for instance, the tank pointed at João Goulart’s residence because he was living (aged ten) in the neighbouring building at the time.
That moment of witnessing Brazilian history firsthand seems to have set the course for Soares’s inside track. A professor of social sciences at Rio State University, and domestically famous for writing Elite Squad, a book about Rio’s crack police unit which was turned into the country’s biggest grossing film ever, he has moonlighted as under secretary for public security for Rio, and as national secretary for public security for Lula. Neither job lasted long.
In the former post, Soares stepped in to pacify a brewing riot when two teenage boys from different favelas were executed on the same day by police looking to renegotiate their pay-offs from drug dealers. Soares publicly condemned the police. He was promptly asked to pack up his desk. In the latter post, he launched an investigation into a nationwide series of scams being run by the federal highway police under Lula’s nose. He was again asked to pack up his desk (after having his apartment building in Rio sprayed with bullets).
‘I feel ashamed of my country,’ Soares despairs at the end of a chapter, after being driven around one of Rio’s largest favelas by the leader of its ruling criminal faction, who has contacted Soares for advice on how to get out of the criminal life. The drug lord has told him that he can’t, as Soares recommends, hand himself in to face justice, because the police won’t let him live long enough to see trial. It’s in the interests of the police that he stays in place so that they can keep the supply of hush money pumping. Indeed, when another drug lord known as Lulu escapes his life as crime boss of the Rocinha favela in Rio, the police find him, kidnap him and bring him back to Rio to reinstate him as their proxy drug lord. After he’s exhausted his usefulness, they shoot him dead at point-blank range.
An alternative view of Brazil’s fun and games is offered by the Australian travel writer Fran Bryson (no relation to Bill) in her travelogue In Brazil. A screeching world away from Soares’s gritty true-crime tales, Bryson’s book is a breezy, episodic trek around the football nation, all samba, voodoo, carnival and ayahuasca. Its cheeriness (‘Brazilian people are so fascinating’) says a lot about the abundance of worldly and sensual pleasures that have finally started to lose their ability to pacify Brazilians, who have increasingly taken to the streets in their hundreds of thousands to protest at the generalised snafu of their country.
The historical episodes lighted upon by Bryson, however, resonate neatly with Soares’s own analysis of Brazil’s ongoing calamities. She recounts the military massacre of the escaped slave community at Canudos in 1897, for instance, comparing it to the police execution outside Rio’s Candelaria church of eight homeless children in 1993 (one police colonel later described this as a ‘decontamination’).
Similarly, Soares connects current police violence towards poor young blacks in Rio (there were 10,699 police killings in the city between 2003 and 2014) with the history of military violence enshrined by the dictatorship years, and with the country’s late-abandoned slave trade — Brazil took millions more Africans than America.
The gap between Soares’s and Bryson’s tones, though, is as wide as the gulf between the image of Brazil as the home of cold beer and nicely shaped bottoms (‘Everybody loves Brazil’, in the words of Alan Hansen, who features as one of Bryson’s epigraphs) and the reality identified by de Gaulle. Bryson’s guidebook frolic is as light and upbeat as a Tina Fey movie. Soares’s portrait of Brazil’s byzantine corruption is as thrilling and depressing as The Wire.