British Cultural and Historical Perspectives on Contemporary Brazil

Guanabara: The Bay of Innocents

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Guanabara Bay: "the bosom of the sea",  though given its levels of untreated sewage "the arse of the sea" might be a more appropriate description

Guanabara Bay: “the bosom of the sea” – though given its levels of untreated sewage, “the arse of the sea” might be a more appropriate description.

As Brazil scrambles to put the finishing touches to its 2014 World Cup preparations, doubts are being expressed about its readiness to stage the 2016 Olympic Games – at least, where the sailing is concerned.

Irish Olympic officials, who visited the city last summer, are worried that high levels of pollution in the waters of Rio’s Guanabara Bay will render it unfit to host the sailing events and have asked that a doctor be flown out to assess what they describe as ‘a significant health risk’.

‘We need to know if we need to take any special immunization precautions,’ said ISA Performance Director, James O’Callaghan, referring to concerns that sailors will be at risk of exposure to a range of illnesses including Hepatitis A, Tetanus and Leptospirosis. If O’Callaghan’s fears are realized, it could amount to Ireland’s most disastrous boating-related experience in the bay since 1827, when Irish mercenaries were incarcerated in prison hulks on the waters following an abortive rebellion.

Guanabara Bay has long functioned as a kind of informal cesspool for Rio de Janeiro’s metropolitan region, absorbing a million litres of untreated waste per day from the fifteen cities encircling its shores. Concentrations of fecal coliforms in its waters can total up to 390,000/100ml – 390 times the limit established by Brazil’s National Environmental Council (Conema). Arguably, the sole factor enabling it to continue to sustain marine life – and supply 95% of the seafood consumed in the city – is its capacity to recycle 50% of its water into the Atlantic Ocean every 24 hours.

There are further concerns that islands of floating rubbish – composed variously of plastic bags, mattresses, sofas, whole trees, television sets and even dead horses – will hamper competitors’ progress through the soupy waters.

‘It’s going to be the dirtiest course in Olympic history,’ admits Torben Grael, head coach of the Brazilian sailing team. ‘I hope that it improves, but we’re going to win the award for the worst water of the Games.’

An ambitious plan to clean up 80% of the bay’s pollution by the opening of the Olympics has been announced by new State Secretary of the Environment, Indio da Costa, incorporating eco-barriers, eco-boats and a series of planned river treatment stations. However, funds have been pumped into ‘de-pollution’ schemes at the rate of untreated sewage into the bay, since 1994 – to the same malodorous effect. Ten years ago, the President of the Brazilian Olympic Committee, Carlos Nuzman, declared that the bay would be entirely pollution-free by the 2007 Pan-American Games. He’s since revised his projections for the Olympics to a ‘partially pollution-free bay’.

Meanwhile, sensible calls for the transfer of the sailing events to the clean, open waters of Buzios, on Rio State’s northern coast, have been rejected by the Olympic Committee for reasons clear only to itself.

It’s a far cry from New Year’s Day, 1502, when Amerigo Vespucci piloted a Portuguese fleet into the limpid waters of the bay for the first time and christened it ‘Rio de Janeiro’ – ‘January Bay’ (‘Rio’ being a synonym of ‘bay’ and not because, as commonly reported, Vespucci mistook the inlet for the mouth of a vast river). Brazil’s pristine landscape and the apparent innocence of its inhabitants led Vespucci to believe himself ‘to be near the terrestrial paradise’. Guanabara would also be known as the ‘Bay of Innocents’ for decades after its Portuguese discovery and the drama and lushness of its topography can only have reinforced Vespucci’s sense that he had rediscovered Eden itself. (His letters describing the country would inspire Thomas Moore’s Utopia and ‘Utopian’ elements of Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’: ‘[The Indians] have no laws or faith and live according to nature. They do not recognise the immortality of the soul; and they have among them no private property, because everything is common; they have no boundaries of kingdoms and provinces, and no king!’ Vespucci wrote. ‘They obey nobody, each is lord unto himself…The women go naked, and although libidinous, they are pretty and well shaped. We were amazed that, among those we saw, we noticed none had fallen breasts.’)

The first Irishman to visit Rio, in 1648, and the city’s first tourist – ‘never any man like me before making that voyage merely on Curiosity’ – was Jesuit priest and literary laughing-stock, Richard Flecknoe, who shipped out from Lisbon after blagging 200 crowns and permission from the Portuguese king, Dom João IV. Flecknoe expressed similar misgivings to his Olympic sailing compatriots concerning the salubrity of Guanabara’s waters, claiming, in his inimitable style, that the ‘cunny’ fish – or blowfish – caught in the bay, ‘which swell’d just like blown bladders, when they had lain a while panting on the hatches,’ were ‘rank poison as the Portuguese assured us, the sea being full of diverse other venomous fishes, which render the water unwholsom (sic), as I experimented myself, when bathing me in it, I came out all faintish and ill-dispos’d, accostom’d to come out of other seas more vigorous.’

Flecknoe’s faintishness and ill-disposition did not, however, afflict the members of Rio’s British expat community who colonized the bay’s first beachside resort – Botafogo – in the early 19th century, and laid the foundations of the city’s celebrated beach culture, introducing sea-bathing, afternoon strolls, picnics and competitive sports.

Charles Darwin, who was bowled over by an enormous wave as he rowed ashore in the bay in 1832, described perhaps Guanabara’s first recorded sailing competition involving ‘launches, yawls, cutters & other large boats’ but found the event ‘rather too long; especially as the Beagle did not come off quite so triumphantly as might have been wished for. The evening passed away pleasantly,’ he added, ‘& by moonlight on the beach several foot races were got up between the officers & the crews of Captains gigs.’ (Darwin would spend three months in the city, botanizing his way up the Corcovado in the aftermath of a romantic disappointment and shuddering to think what a ‘horrible lovers’ leap’ it would make. Almost exactly 100 years later, in 1931, the man said to have replaced God was succeeded, on the summit, by a statue of the man said to be God’s son.)

Guanabara Bay’s first rowing regatta was staged in 1849, comprising boats crewed entirely by British or slave oarsmen. The sport would be embraced by Brazil’s late nineteenth century upper classes as the embodiment of their healthy, modernizing, Eurocentric aspirations. It would awaken Brazilians’ self-consciousness about their bodies and stimulate their obsession with the pursuit of physical perfection.

Despite British interest in Botafogo Bay as a picturesque location for country residences, lovingly-tended gardens and highly-structured social interaction, for the locals it remained, like all seafront areas on Guanabara Bay, primarily a site for the disposal of domestic waste. ‘Cloacina has no Altar erected to her in Rio, and a sort of Pot de Chambre is situated for her Temple,’ observed Rio-based wool merchant, John Luccock. ‘The beach, open spaces, and back lanes, are thickly strewed with ever fresh abominations.’ ‘…horses and dogs remain where they drop dead,’ recorded the German mercenary, Charles Schlichthorst, ‘sewage is dumped on the beaches and public squares, and the dead are buried in the churches.’ ‘It is strange to think,’ noted the engineer Thomas Bigg-Wither of the consequences of this approach to waste-disposal, ‘that one of the most lovely spots that nature ever created, should also be one of the most fatal.’

In 1800, precisely zero funds were allocated to the cleaning of the city’s streets which depended on intermittent rains to carry away their accumulated refuse. The city’s sanitation system consisted of a team of slaves tasked with ferrying crates of household sewage through the streets and turfing their contents into the bay. ‘Whatever vent it may find, or however it may be partially evaporated or dried up by the heat,’ recorded the persistently outraged Luccock, ‘the dunghill by the shore accumulates perpetually’. Uric acid leaking from the casks tattooed pale stripes on the slaves’ flesh, earning them the nickname – and fearsome reputation – of ‘tigers’.

Long before Rio had acquired its ‘Marvellous City’ reputation, Deputy Lino Coutinho joked that Brazil must be ‘the healthiest country in the world, because given all the filth in [Rio’s] streets, I don’t know how everybody hasn’t died of the plague.’ But by the mid-nineteenth century, outbreaks of bubonic plague, yellow fever and malaria had prompted the city authorities to belatedly set up a Central Board of Public Hygiene to implement an effective sanitation policy.

In 1857, a contract was signed in London with engineer Edward Gotto for the construction of a sewage and water-drainage system, based on that of Leicester and other English cities. Work began in 1862 and two years later the first treatment station was inaugurated in the district of Gloria (where the Manchester-style building remains today), where sewage was pumped to the surface by James Watt & Co-designed steam-engines and shipped out to sea on barges loaded to the gunwales.

Gotto’s partial separation design proved insufficient to cope with Rio’s heavy rains. Manholes overflowed and galleries released sewage directly into the bay during downpours. But it represented a vast improvement on the previous model and rendered Rio only the second capital in the world after London to boast a modern sewage network.

British-designed sewage systems were subsequently built in other Brazilian cities, from Santos and São Paulo to Recife, but access to sanitation remains one of the country’s principal infrastructure challenges. Only 48% of Brazilian residences currently enjoy sewage collection and only 37.5% of the collected waste is treated.

If Guanabara Bay is to justify its reputation as ‘The Bay of All Delights, The Bay of All Beauties’, as Hermann Melville dubbed it, (and Brazil its association with the idyllic, mythical Irish island of Hy Brasil to which it may owe its name), it needs to seize the opportunity offered by the Olympics to overhaul its shamefully inadequate sanitation systems. The city has spent considerable sums in recent years on the construction of lavish museums in a bid to bolster its image as a global cultural capital. But as someone once said, “A sewage system is a thing of more beauty than a painting by Raphael”.

Bowie in Brazil: The Duke, the Emperor and the Marquise

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Bowie in Brazil                                                        ‘Tim White Duck’

Shape-shifting pop-rock enigma, David Bowie, is to give something back to the continent which supplied him with controlled substances for much of the 1970s.

The ‘David Bowie is’ exhibition, which ran to critical and popular acclaim at London’s Victoria and Albert (V&A) museum for six months in 2013 will transfer to São Paulo’s Museum of Image and Sound (MIS) on January 31st.

The multi-media retrospective features over 300 hundred objects – handwritten lyrics, original costumes, set designs, films and Bowie’s own instruments – which trace the sui generis career of the so-called ‘Thin White Duke’ – or ‘Tim White Duck’ as Brazil’s O Globo newspaper improbably referred to him in a recent article.

The collaboration with MIS follows the announcement that the V&A is to establish a partnership with Rio’s future design museum, the Museu da Moda, to be housed at the Casa da Marquesa de Santos. A neo-classical V&A-like pile located conveniently close to the Imperial Palace, the Casa takes its name from its former resident, Domitila de Castro Canto e Melo, the Marquise of Santos and mistress of the first Emperor and ‘Liberator’ of Brazil, Dom Pedro I (1798-1834).

Domitila was the most notorious lover of the priapic Emperor whose compulsive promisucuity rivalled that of the pale pop Duke in his cross-dressing pomp (‘I’ve had so much sex and drugs,’ Bowie once told Morrissey, ‘I can’t believe I’m still alive.’ ‘I’ve had so LITTLE sex and drugs,’ Morrissey replied, ‘I can’t believe I’m still alive.’) Pedro is thought to have fathered as many as 120 illegitimate children, including four with the Marquise herself and one with French dancer, Noemy Thierry (who he impregnated while negotiations for his marriage to Archduchess Maria Leopoldina of Austria were at an advanced stage. Thierry’s baby died soon after being born and the distraught Emperor, somewhat macabrely, had it embalmed and kept in a cupboard, in the royal palace, for nearly 10 years).

The future Marquise was scarcely the most obvious candidate for the post of imperial consort. Said to be “averagely attractive” and “uncommonly fat”, when the Emperor first met her, in 1822, she was a married mother-of-three and bore the fresh scars of a near-fatal knife attack unleashed by her jealous husband. The Emperor nevertheless lost himself in her seductive sloe eyes, paid off the husband and embarked on a tumultuous affair that would ultimately lead – like Edward VIII’s with Wallace Simpson – to his abdication. (The husband, Felício Pinto Coelho de Mendonça, was awarded a lucrative sinecure in exchange for agreeing to the annulment of his marriage and to stop pestering his former spouse. When an outraged Pedro discovered that Felício had written a letter disparaging their affair, the accomplished horseman-Emperor rode forty miles to personally beat him up. A penitent Felício restricted further contact with Domitila to grovelling requests for advancement and intercession in his attempts to sell land to an English gold-mining concern. The sale of the land, to the ill-fated “United Macaúbas and Cocaes National Brazilian Mining Association”, headed by the serial Victorian fraudster, Edward Oxenford, would only be concluded by Felício’s cousin, the Baron of Cocais, in 1833, long after the Marquise had lost her influence at court).

Dom Pedro I

Dom Pedro I: Emperor, Liberator and prolific philanderer

Pedro and Domitila’s torrid affair – said by one biographer to reek of moist, crumpled bed sheets – survived both Pedro’s impregnation of her older sister (not the first occasion on which the Emperor seduced members of the same family) and Domitila’s subsequent attempt to have said sister assassinated. Pedro’s consuming passion was evident in the more than 170 letters sent to his lover, signed variously “Big Devil” (“Demonão”), “Firey Fire” (“Fogo Foguinho”) and “The Emperor”, and illustrated with pornographic doodles of his ejaculating penis. (On one occasion, the romantically-inclined monarch sent Domitila whiskers from his moustache in lieu of his heart, and in another less conventionally romantic moment, according to historian, Alberto Rangel, clippings of his pubic hair. He also despatched detailed updates of the venereal symptoms that hampered the operations of his royal “three-piece machine”.)

In 1825, in a clumsy and monumentally insensitive bid to legitimise his extra-marital affair, Pedro raised Domitila to the position of Maid of Honour to his long-suffering wife, the Empress Leopoldina. Leopoldina now had to put up with the intimate attentions of the “monstrous seducer” from the moment she left her chambers every morning. An accomplished natural scientist and linguist, and the scion of one of the most illustrious royal houses in Europe, marooned in the bumpkin court of her serially unfaithful husband, Leopoldina sank into depression and wrote to her father, Francisco I, begging fruitlessly to be allowed to return to Vienna. She died a year later, at the age of 29, her demise hastened by a boot to her pregnant stomach delivered by the Emperor, furious at her refusal to attend an event at which the Marquise would also be present.

The much-loved Empress’s death was widely mourned, no more so than by Rio’s slaves who regarded her as a protector and patron, and were said to have cried, “Our mother has died. What will become of us?” Domitila was held responsible and her house – the Casa da Marquesa de Santos – pelted with stones. Within three years, she had been permanently banished from the court as Pedro sought respectability in a new marriage to the minor European royal, Amélia Augusta Eugênia Napoleona de Beauharnais, the alluring grand-daughter of the Empress Josephine, and the first princess to accept the reviled monarch’s proposal following ten rebuttals. But Pedro’s political credibility had been fatally tarnished and, in 1831, a series of crises forced him to abdicate the Brazilian throne and seek refuge on the British gunship, HMS Warspite. (As he helped the new Empress up the ladder into the ship, the incorrigible Emperor’s parting-shot was to advise her, “Careful as you go, my dear, you’re not wearing any knickers.”)

On his return to Europe, the Duke of Braganza (as he now called himself) embarked on the final redemptive chapter of his life, displaying unexpected heroism in the war to restore his usurped daughter, Maria II, to the Portuguese throne. Besieged for over a year in the city of Porto by the forces of his brother Miguel, the former domestic-abusing debauchee emerged as a hands-on, Henry V-like soldier-king, criss-crossing the rain-drenched city in military cape and muddy boots, digging trenches, mounting canons, visiting the wounded in hospital, eating with the rank and file, and, inevitably, having affairs with the locals (he fathered his final ‘illegitimate’ child on a brief stop-off in the Azores prior to the start of the war). The siege of Porto was finally lifted after the British were persuaded to send Pedro support in the form of 5 steam-driven warships commanded by Admiral Charles Napier. Napier would later observe of Pedro that, ‘his good qualities were his own; his bad owing to want of education; and no man was more sensible of that defect than himself.’ Pedro’s acute awareness of his educational shortcomings was evident in his declaration to his son and successor, Pedro II, shortly before his abdication: ‘I intend that my brother and I will be the last badly educated members of the Braganza family’.

The Liberator of Brazil died at the age of 36, within months of leading his troops to victory, fatally weakened by war, tuberculosis and, possibly, venereal disease. He would have been consoled, however, to learn that his son, Dom Pedro II, would grow up to be a dedicated scholar and gifted linguist. When Pedro II visited his distant cousin, Queen Victoria, in England, his austere habits and insatiable, polymathic curiosity prompted her to record: ‘The Emperor goes about everywhere & sees everything, but does not go into society. He gets up a 5, & is already out at 6!!’ One can only speculate what Pedro II would have made of the notion that the institution to which his cousin, Victoria, leant her name, the V&A, would one day be associated with another, housed in the residence of his father’s mistress and mother’s nemesis: the Casa da Marquesa de Santos.

Marquesa de Santos II

The Marquise of Santos: averagely attractive and uncommonly fat but possessed of beautiful black eyes

Domitila lived out her last days in her São Paulo mansion, hosting literary salons and charitable events, and supporting a prostitute’s association and another for single mothers (she herself would give birth to a total of 14 children). Isabel Burton, wife of the polyglot explorer, writer, soldier, ethnologist, spy, fencer and sometime Santos consul (1865-1868), Sir Richard Burton, became friendly with the Marquise when she and Burton were living in São Paulo:

‘I used to see a great deal of her … She had been obliged to adopt up-country habits, and the last time I saw her, she received me en intime in her own kitchen, where she sat on the floor, smoking, not a cigarette, but a pipe. She had beautiful black eyes, full of sympathy, and intelligence, and knowledge. She was a great bit of interest to me in that out-of-the-way place’.

Isabel Burton was evidently not the first person to find Domitila ‘a great bit of interest’ or to be struck by those ‘beautiful black eyes’.

Sex, Football, Holidays and Hair-Transplants

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A two-finger salute: the only Churchillian gesture Brazilian politicians have offered their electorate


A two-finger salute: the only Churchillian gesture Brazilian politicians have to offer their electorate

At her 2013 end-of-year press conference, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff sounded a somewhat schizophrenic note. Regarding modest projections for Brazilian economic growth in 2014 she told the assembled press corps, ‘I don’t make GDP predictions and I don’t think you should either,’ before swiftly conceding: ‘We are in a position to state that the GDP (for 2013) will be around 2%, 2 something.’ The rhetorically-challenged Rousseff, notorious for Ron Burgundyesque blunders when performing off the cuff, duly swung back onto the defensive: ‘I’m not going to tell you what the GDP will be, either for this year or next year, because if I get it wrong by 0.2 percent, I’ll be the one left carrying the can.’ Continuing in split-personality mode, she warned that it was ‘absolutely unforgiveable for a government to be pessimistic – unless you’re facing a war, and even then I prefer Churchill’s approach: “blood, sweat and tears, let’s go on to the end, let’s defeat (the enemy)” – that’s how you win.’

At a time when the biggest challenge facing Brazil, according to its President, is the relative non-apocalypse of 2% GDP growth – a rate for which David Cameron would willingly trash a Bullingdon Club restaurant – it was curious that she should invoke a speech designed to rally a country as it braced itself against invasion by Nazis.

A few months earlier, the Brazilian Senator, Cristovam Buarque, one of the few righteous souls in the Sodom-and-Gomorrah twinning-candidate of the federal capital, Brasilia, cited the same Churchillian rhetoric, though in a different vein. Responding to news that, despite possessing the 7th largest economy in the world, Brazil continued to occupy an unenviable 88th position in global Human Development Indices, Buarque observed that, in Brazil, such reports are generally greeted with bland assurances that ‘we’re winning the war’ rather than Churchillian entreaties to tighten belts and dig metaphorical allotments.

Churchill’s ‘blood, toil, tears and sweat’ speech was designed to introduce a sense of urgency into the political debate and distance him from the complacency which had characterized his predecessor’s appeasing administration. It was also carefully calibrated to resonate with that puritanical strain in the British psyche which thrives on the idea of thrift, ration-books and ‘There’s a war on, don’t you know?’ hardship.

But such an appeal has little currency in the increasingly consumerist, pleasure-fixated, conflict- and toil-averse culture of modern Brazil, where a kind of anti-work ethic prevails, the legacy of four centuries of slavery when physical exertion was exclusively identified with the despised slave classes. (This is not to say that Brazilians don’t work hard. Many do and for very little money. But where no immediate self-interest is involved, Brazilians can appear to have an ingrained resistance to putting themselves out, as the abysmal levels of service in almost every sphere of commercial life, and the fact that the average Brazilian worker is only one fifth as productive as his US counterpart, attest. The Brazilian journalist Elio Gaspari has noted that whenever Brazilian politicians quote Churchill’s speech they invariably omit the ‘toil’ aspect.) To find a receptive audience in Brazil, Churchill would have to declare: ‘I have nothing to offer but sex, football, Xboxes and holidays!’ (Though, to be fair, it’s a speech that would go down pretty well almost anywhere.)

The political complacency highlighted by Senator Buarque was further evident in the end of year review delivered by the President of the Brazilian Chamber, Renan Calheiros. Calheiros devoted much of a self-congratulatory speech to highlighting cuts in wasteful government spending and advances in transparency. Unfortunately, this transparency didn’t extend to his mentioning that, a few days earlier, he had chartered a Brazilian Air Force jet to fly him 2,000 kilometres for a hair-transplant operation. When news of this flagrant abuse of government resources leaked, Calheiros issued a qualified mea culpa: he would clarify with the Air Force whether he had committed a breach of decorum. (Having agreed to reimburse the public coffers to the tune of R$32,000 a few months earlier, after it was discovered that he had requisitioned an Air Force jet to fly him to a friend’s wedding, it seemed odd that the President of the Chamber should require further clarification.)

By a curious non-coincidence concerning the compulsively promiscuous culture of Brasilia, the surgeon who conducted Calheiros’s transplant turned out to be the same medic who replenished the Bond-villain hairline of Lula’s disgraced and now incarcerated former chief-of-staff, José Dirceu, the alleged architect of the so-called Big Monthly (Mensalão) slush-fund scandal. (Dirceu managed to engineer a further mini-scandal from prison when it was discovered that the hotel where he’d landed a R$20,000 a month ‘managerial’ position – permissible under the terms of his ‘semi-open’ prison sentence – was owned by a shell company, registered in Panama, in which Dirceu himself may have had an interest.)

But the honour for most wretchedly complacent Brazilian politician of 2013 must surely go to congressman, former Brazilian President and vanity publisher, José Sarney. The embodiment of old-school provincial Brazilian politics, Sarney and his family have run the north-eastern state of Maranhão as a family fiefdom for 50 years. His 2009 election to the Presidency of the Senate was described by The Economist as a “a victory for semi-feudalism”.

In response to reports that, in 2013, 59 prisoners were murdered – several decapitated – in a Maranhão prison complex (under the ultimate responsibility of his daughter, the State Governor, Roseana), and that wives and sisters of inmates were being routinely raped by gang members during prison-visits, Sarney proudly declared: ‘Here in Maranhão, we’ve managed to keep the violence in the prisons and off the streets!’ (In November, in a similar spirit of dereliction, the Brazilian Justice Minister, José Eduardo Cardozo, described conditions in Brazil’s prisons as ‘medieval’: ‘If I had to spend many years…in some of our prisons, I’d prefer to die!” he added, grateful no doubt that, as a university graduate, he’d never have to do time in one of the hell-holes reserved for the common refuse of Brazilian society).

If the sober spirit of Churchill’s wartime oratory fails to resonate in contemporary Brazil, his famous rhetorical flourish – “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat” – has a tenuous double-Brazilian connection. By one account, it was the re-unifier of Italy, Giuseppe Garibaldi, who coined the original phrase, telling revolutionary forces outside Rome, in 1849: “I offer hunger, thirst, forced marches, battle, and death.” Garibaldi had previously fought in the separatist Ragamuffin War (the Guerra dos Farrapos) in the southern Brazilian state of Santa Catarina (Churchill had once considered writing a biography of him).

An alternative theory suggests Winston’s inspiration was a speech delivered by Theodore Roosevelt when, in 1897, as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, he told members of the Naval War College: “Every man among us is more fit to meet the duties and responsibilities of citizenship because of … the blood and sweat and tears, the labor and the anguish, through which, in the days that have gone, our forefathers moved on to triumph.”

Roosevelt famously took part in a 1913-14 expedition to the Brazilian Amazon led by the great advocate of Amerindian rights, Cândido Rondon, where, afflicted by infection- and fever-induced delirium, the former US President endlessly repeated the opening line from Coleridge’s Khubla Khan as his party struggled to trace the headwaters of the aptly named River of Doubt (later renamed the Roosevelt River).

Despite assurances that “this year we had a better performance… in every respect we did well”, Dilma’s Churchillian allusions suggest intimations of gathering storm clouds (if not Luftwaffe squadrons): burgeoning inflation, a weakening currency, the possibility of a credit-rating downgrade, the ongoing loss of BRIC lustre, the corresponding flight of international investment, the prospect of being overtaken by Russia as the world’s 7th largest economy and looming World Cup-related protests, not to mention the perennial problems of creaking infrastructure, excessive bureaucracy, corruption, public order challenges and substandard education.

Regardless of the urgency of the problems, the rhetoric, in a World Cup-election year, will remain relentlessly upbeat. But as Senator Buarque observed, ‘During the Second World War, while Churchill asked for “blood, sweat and tears”, Germany used its propaganda machine to create the impression that everything was fine on the front and that the critics were defeatists. And we all know who lost the war.’


Ronnie Biggs and the South American Dream

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Ronnie Biggs posing on Copacabana beachRonnie Biggs: not the first criminal to wash up on
Brazil’s shores or don an England shirt

Ronnie Biggs, who has died aged 84, opens his autobiography with a cinematic description of his schoolboy self fleeing a local thug through the streets of London’s East End, only to be denied refuge in his own home by a tough-loving father. Slamming the door in Ron’s face, Biggs senior orders his son to turn and face his tormentor. Ron duly dispatches the bully with some fancy fist-work and learns a valuable life-lesson: never back down to anyone.

Biggs’s daring escape from Wandsworth Prison and his extended thumbing of a sun-burnt nose at British authorities suggested a lifelong commitment to the no-surrender principle. But in 2001, failing health and financial difficulties forced a chastened Ron to board a tabloid-chartered plane to Heathrow in exchange for an in-flight curry and the promise of an NHS-assisted retirement, sipping frothy pints of English ale on the Bermondsey waterfront. The reality was to prove more milky porridge.

Twenty years ago, I was invited to a party at Ron’s Santa Teresa mansion arranged to celebrate his 40th year on the run. By this time, pecuniary problems had reduced him to selling trademarked Ronnie Biggs memorabilia and would-be guests were expected to bankroll the bash. But the event was rained off and we were denied the chance to subsidize the louche lifestyle of a notorious felon. (A friend who ran into Biggs and his entourage in a lift in downtown Rio described them, pungently, as ‘men who looked like they’d spent too much time in the company of cheap prostitutes’). Ron would subsequently stage a lavish knees up for his 70th birthday attended by a rogues-gallery of former East End villains-turned-90’s-publishing-sensations, including former prize-fighter Roy “Pretty Boy” Shaw, once dubbed the most dangerous man in Briton’s penal system. “It’s romantic,” reflected invitee and sometime cleaver-wielding scourge of Chinese waiters, Dave Courtney. “I feel like I’m living a part of history”.

Ron’s place in history was assured by his role in the Great Train Robbery and his identification what might be termed the South American Dream: living it up in Rio on the lam. But Biggs was scarcely the first criminal to wash up on Brazil’s shores. The Portuguese colonization of Brazil was initiated by a pair of ex-lags turfed onto a north-eastern beach, in 1500, by the country’s Lusitanian discoverer, Pedro Álvares Cabral. (The convicts wept to see the sails of Cabral’s caravel disappear over the horizon before seeking consolation in the arms of their Amerindian hostesses). They were followed by a fugitive miscellany of ex-cons, semi-literate administrators, New Christians (forcibly-converted Jews), orphans, second-sons, donatories and aspiring slave-plantation owners.

But it wasn’t until the 19th century that the paradigm of flight to Brazil with piles of pilfered cash was created by no less a historical figure than the Portuguese Prince Regent and future Brazilian Emperor, Dom João VI. In November 1807, facing the threat of a double invasion by warring French and British forces, Dom João belatedly threw in his lot in with the Brits, misappropriated the entire contents of the Portuguese treasury and decamped to Rio on a British-escorted gunship. After fifteen idle years in the tropics, indulging his tastes for butter-basted chicken and al fresco hand-jobs, the Emperor completed an unprecedented double, scouring the coffers of the recently-created Bank of Brazil (his original misbegotten funds having expired almost as quickly as Ron’s) and sheepishly returning to Portugal.

Brazil’s reputation as a land of easy-living, beyond the laws of God or man, dates back as far as the century of its European discovery, when the maxim “there’s no sin beneath the Equator” entered the Portuguese vernacular. Since then, a cartoonish fantasy has taken root of Brazil as a highly sexually-charged netherworld where the normal rules of human behaviour are magically suspended and where actions bear only the remotest relation to consequences, thanks in part to a culture of pervasive impunity. It’s a fantasy in which Brazilians themselves are heavily invested.

Ronnie Biggs’s was taken to heart by Cariocas – Rio’s native residents – as a pink-faced version of their own folkloric, loveable-rogue figure, the malandro, and duly accorded the moniker, “thief of the century”. But it’s an epithet that might more appropriately be applied to any number of Brazil’s own kleptomaniac political and civil servant classes. Even allowing for inflation, the train robbers’ £2.5 million pound haul represents a mere mini-cooper of a job compared to the juggernauts of cash siphoned annually from Brazil’s public coffers by its governing classes (an estimated R$45 billion). The ruling Workers’ Party is currently reeling from the shock of seeing key figures from former President Lula’s administration banged up for rerouting R$141 million of illegal public loans into party slush funds. (Lula responded to the scandal with typically paradoxical expressions of outrage at the supposed betrayal and solidarity with his supposed betrayers). In São Paulo, an investigation is underway into claims that a gang of tax inspectors salted away as much as R$500 million in ‘discounts’ from local businesses. (Prior to his arrest, one of their number led a life of ostentatious luxury, defiantly confessing to friends: “Of course I steal!”). And, in what might be dubbed Brazil’s Great Train Robbery, a further R$500 million is suspected to have been lost in bribes and overbillings dispensed by a cartel of foreign and Brazilian companies contracted to build São Paulo’s metro system. (Though arguably Brazil’s greatest train-related felony is its criminal underinvestment in its knackered, largely British-built railway system, which is subject to almost weekly violent mutinies by stranded suburban passengers and remains woefully ill-equipped to carry Brazil’s ever-increasing load of foreign-bound raw materials).

Brazil has lost none of its appeal as a potential bolt-hole for international fugitives, as Edward Snowden’s request for asylum, published the day before Ron’s demise, attests. It seems unlikely, however, that the Brazilian government will acquiesce to it given that it has just delivered a calculated insult to the US (in the form of a multi-billion-dollar jet-fighter contract awarded to Swedish contractor, Saab, over its American rival, Boeing) but doesn’t want to risk a full-scale rupture with such an important trading partner. (The Brazilian Foreign Office has moreover displayed a cultural aversion, in recent years, to doing what might be termed ‘the right thing’. If Snowden wants to gain sanctuary in a South American country with a genuinely progressive government, he’d be better off applying to Uruguayan President, José Mujica’s administration). But if Biggs could offer a word of advice to his fellow outlaw, as Snowden’s domicile options dwindle, the Russian winter sets in and the Obama administration shows no sign of relenting, it would probably be: never back down to anyone – and, next time, nick something you can at least play Monopoly with.