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.