Wednesday, February 15, 2012

In Brazil, When Things Go Wrong They Just Blame the Press

Salvador, Bahia, commemoration event of the Holocaust organized by the Brazilian Jewish community in the Bahian capital. The press is squeezed in a small area at about 20-30 meters from the stand where president Dilma Rousseff is staying. After the event the president flies away. No questions from the press.

We silly journalists came for the event well in advance, sometimes taking flights from cities far away to talk to the president. For nothing. Dilma did not have time for us. She flew away without giving us a minute of her time.

Salvador, Bahia. A couple of weeks before the strike of the policemen in Bahia I asked to be received by the Governor of Bahia for an interview about public security in the state. I am an international journalist. Not very common for an international reporter to come to Bahia other than for the Carnaval. I received no answer from the office of the Governor despite several emails I sent.

Salvador, Bahia. After the failure of the strike the press is blamed by the military police for all that went wrong. They didn't blame the criminal and terrorists acts done by the military police, hijacking autobus and paralyzing the traffic in the streets. Neither the arrastões (flash mob assaults) in the shopping centers.

Rio, Rio de Janeiro state. The journalists from Rede Globo are expelled by the area of the police on strike. They are depicting a wrong picture of the strike. They are responsible for the growing failure of the strike in Rio.

What is funny in what is happening in Brazil? Both sides of the strike, the authorities and the strikers, are punishing the press. The press is responsible for everything. The strong powers ignore the press. Journalists are seen as a pain in the neck by politicians. But also police strikers do not like the picture the press gives of them.

Journalists are always criticized in Brazil. But they play a very important role. Seven ministers stepped down among allegations of corruption and similar charges. And the press was responsible for revealing that.

To be an investigative journalist is a serious risky job in Brazil. You risk your own life most of the time for a low pay. Brazil is not like the Anglo-Saxon countries, where the press is so strong that they can even blackmail the strong powers.

Look at the UK for instance. The Murdoch group was effectively such a strong power for UK politics that British Prime ministers were always in good relations with that group. Rede Globo in Brazil has a strong power too. But only Rede Globo.

95% of the journalists in Brazil, especially the not very-well known reporters, are sometimes in the hands of God when it comes to job security or even their own life security.

Journalists killed in Brazil while on the job are many and sometimes not even known by the large press. But why is that? Because civil society in Brazil is not very well organized. Especially in the North and Northeast of Brazil. The journalist is seen as an intruder. Someone to stay away from.

And especially foreign journalists feel uncomfortable in Brazil. Because they are used to ask questions that go straight to the point. And that makes people feel like they are being offended. While that is not true.

I remember once I was interviewing a not well known politician. I asked some questions about his controversial past. And he answered: "Who are you to ask me that? A journalist? A foreign journalist?" And then he laughed loudly. But do you know what?

If Brazil wants to be the 6th economy in the world and wants to be a global player, Brazil has to play according to international rules. And Brazil has to respect the freedom of the press.

Otherwise it will remain a regional player with no power. Maybe the politicians should think about that, especially when they travel abroad to meet with potential investors in Brazil.

Friday, February 10, 2012

The end of the siege in Bahia

"I am going to burn cars, I am going to burn trucks and shut the access of the Rio-Bahia road, a federal road." "Shut the access my brother. Shut the BR". This conversation shown on Brazilian national TV did not take place between criminals but between policemen, between a policeman and Marco Prisco, the head of Bahia's police trade union.

This intervention by Rede Globo, Brazil's main TV network, was decisive to end the strike. Why? Because it showed what I have been writing for a long time during the uprising: this fight was not about money but about power. The power of force.

Once it was seen on TV that the leaders were terrorists, the potential popular support to the strike vanished all at a sudden. And that effectively legitimated an assault of the Army on the policemen under siege.

Nobody was protecting them any more. At that point the only sensitive thing to do not to be killed was to surrender. And that is what happened.

Wednesday, 6:30 in the morning, the strike of the military police under siege occupying the Legislative Assembly ended. Mr, Prisco was arrested and others terrorists like him will be too.

The strategy of using terror to win the uprising against the Government of Bahia failed entirely. The truth? Mr. Prisco and his followers at the beginning of the uprising must have thought: "They (the government of Bahia) have to do what we say. We have the weapons. We shut the streets. We do terrorism. We, not the politicians, give orders here in Bahia. Why? Because we have the pistols, machine-guns. And if they do not obey we are going to use them".

A typical dictatorship mentality, which is still present among some military police in Brazil, especially in the Northeast. Not all the military policemen think that way and certainly fewer of them think like that today.

The governor of Bahia risked seriously to lose control of the situation but he was right not to accept the blackmail and carry on. He won. The military police lost as it will receive a pay raise in line with the other public civil servants.

The military police would have received it anyway with or without the strike. Their leaders have been arrested. But the main result of the failed coup is that the military police lost its power of threatening the society. The are not above the law. They cannot terrorize the society and get away with it. This is a great victory for the Brazilian democracy.

Strikes are legitimate and should be allowed. But using terror against the population and children as human shields is a repulsive attitude. The military police thought they could do anything. They cannot and now they know it. They are part of a democratic society and have to adapt to it. Brazil is freer today.

At the same time, today, the Brazilian press will be grieving the defeat of the uprising. Let's not forget the truth once again. Very few papers gave a truthful picture of what happened during the uprising. Now it is easy to celebrate.

But during the military coup attempt only few of us journalists talked about human shields, terrorism acts and fight for the power and not for the money. We even risked serious retaliation during this short but cruel war with about 150 deaths. But we were right to say the truth to our reader.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Brazil Police Strike: For Bahia Governor It's Damned If He Does, Damned If He Doesn't

Legislative Assembly, Salvador, Bahia, Brazil. About 200 military policemen are occupying the Assembly. They are surrounded by more than 1300 Army soldiers, besides other police forcers. About 500 military policemen are outside the area threatening to close the Avenida Paralela, the main road to the Assembly which links the city center to the Airport.

This scene of war is going on while the head of the military police union, Marco Prisco, inside the Assembly, is saying that the policemen under siege are getting ready for the final attack.

Meanwhile the human shields used by the rioters, mainly children, seem to have been evacuated from the area, according to a human rights organization.

The Army warned the press not to get out of their designated area saying it won't be able to guarantee the security of a journalist outside that space. Everybody is wearing bullet-proof protection. The atmosphere is of war. We are just waiting for the end of the siege. It might happen any time although it is more likely it will occur at night.

The rioters under siege have no water, food or medication. The scene of friendship between the army and the rioters with the birthday cake given the Army commander in charge of dealing with the striking police, made the federal authorities angry. This is not a party and more troops are coming into the area.

There is no chance for the rioters to resist the assault. However, Prisco is counting on the 500 policemen outside the area to put pressure on the Army. Even then the militaries are more than double the number of the rioters.

The military solution might be the only one left as the negotiations got to a standstill. Those on strike are not happy with the salary raise offered them. But more than that the main block to the negotiations is the request from the striking policemen for amnesty.
Over 140 people got killed during the riot. Assaults on buses, panic in the streets of the whole state of Bahia, cars being stolen everywhere, no public service working, schools, tribunals, all closed.

A scene of war in the deserted streets of Bahia. All that was caused by the riot. It is unthinkable the request of amnesty for the rioters who committed crimes. But this request is really the issue at this point.

The siege made everybody tired. But the Army is getting nervous. They can easily win and the situation must be solved by the end of the week. That seems to be the order to save the Carnaval. Therefore the military solution seems inevitable.

People in Salvador are tired too. There is a genuine desire to be able to put an end to this situation. The coup failed and the responsible will likely pay for it. That is why they have nothing to lose. They are armed and they will use their weapons in a desperate attempt to save themselves.

A scene of war, that's what we are presented with at the Assembly. Some journalists are planning to get to the rioters before the Army assault happens. But that could be very dangerous. Besides, the rioters are angry at the press too.

The governor of Bahia, Jaques Wagner, is the most anxious one in this situation. He is a very smart politician and a very successful man, but his entire political carrier is at stake now.

His entourage underestimated the seriousness of the situation. Now it is too late for recriminations. Wagner has to act and he is facing the Devil's Alternative, as in the old book by Frederick Forsyth.

If the Army attacks he will be blamed for the bloodbath that will take place. If he does not act he will be blamed for the inaction and the contagion risk which from Bahia might spread to the whole of Brazil. What will he do?

http://www.brazzil.com/component/content/article/242-february-2012/10557-brazil-police-strike-for-bahia-governor-its-damned-if-he-does-damned-if-he-doesnt.html

Fear in Bahia, Brazil, Is Emptying ATM Machines and Supermarket Shelves

Sunday, February 5, 2012. 7.30 am. A side road in a residential area of a city of Bahia state, in northeastern Brazil. "I am gonna kill you viado (queer)," shouts a poor guy in front of my window. I open it. And I watch the confrontation.

One of the guys, a strong brawny man, throws stones at the small poor guy shouting he is going to kill him. The fight is getting hotter. Other doors and windows open to watch the show. Stones fly through the air. Eventually the muscled guy leaves while the skinny one keeps on shouting at him.

What's wrong with this picture? In normal times, a poor guy would never confront a richer guy. The police would come and probably arrest the poor one and you'd never know what happened to him. Not any more. Not in Bahia these days.

The civil war going on in Bahia has already left more than 80 dead bodies in the streets of the state capital Salvador, since the 31st of January.

The atmosphere is very tense. And even I am in trouble since I have no cash. I have some cash in the bank in my Brazilian account but I cannot take it out. If I go to an ATM machine I risk my life.

No police in the streets is an invitation to be robbed. I am surviving with my debit card, but not everybody accepts it. Besides, many ATM machines are not working. All the money has been taken out and they have not been refilled.

Yesterday I went to the supermarket. Saturday mornings they are always empty. Not yesterday. The market was full. Lots of people were buying food and everything else. My favorite mineral water was already out of stock. Once I bought another one and got a severe intoxication.

What the hell is happening? People are fearful. They buy food early in the day because they do not want to go in the streets later on, when the assaults are more likely.

The streets are filled with trash. The sanitation company is not collecting trash at night any more. No explanation, but many rumors. Some say the employees fear for their lives and don't want to work at night. I heard in the radio that tomorrow, Monday, schools in Salvador will remain shut because they can't offer security to the students.

The city is effectively paralyzed. Some people might think I am exaggerating the fears. Maybe. But something is different. A noisy corner I usually pass on Sunday, a place normally filled with rowdy, disrespectful people who blast their loud speakers all day Sunday was quiet today.

There is silence, finally. Maybe the riot of the poor people is scaring even those who usually treat them like dogs. Yes, because now there is no protection for anybody.

There are many small battles inside the big war between the policemen on strike and the Government of Bahia. But they all have something in common: everyone in the middle of it risks seriously his or her life. I'm not exaggerating. A large stone almost hit me this morning while I was at the window watching the fight between the two men.

When will all this confrontation end? Some cynics say not before the powerful of Salvador chime in. They are starting to do that now. Salvador's trade association estimates the losses caused by the strike due to lost salaries, looting and assaults amount to 200 million reais (US$ 116 million).

Renowned singer Ivete Sangalo told reporters she feels very bad for what is happening to her Salvador. Carnaval is coming and big money too, but many people will stay away if the city cannot guarantee security for the revelers.

Singers will be among the biggest losers. They are already losing money canceling their shows in Bahia because of the lack of security.

In the meantime, I am running out of cash like many people in Bahia. Stores are empty. What are we supposed to do these days? I turn the question to Mr. Jaques Wagner, governor of Bahia.

http://www.brazzil.com/component/content/article/242-february-2012/10553-fear-in-bahia-brazil-is-emptying-atm-machines-and-supermarket-shelves.html

Brazil: After One Week and Over 100 Murders Still no End in Sight for Bahia's Police Strike

Side street of a residential area of a city of Bahia. Mountains of trash grow day by day under the very hot tropical sun. The trash has not been collected since Saturday and rats run freely in the streets.

Walking down the road the atmosphere is tense. Nobody is in the street. Yesterday it was much better. People seemed to have forgotten the tension and were walking freely. But when they woke up the mountains of trash revealed a sad reality: the bad times are not over.

I went to the bakery and asked the owner what he thought about it. He answered: "I do not know. It cannot be the arrastão (flash mob robbery). Are the robbers going to rob the rubbish?" A loud laugh broke the tension and we all felt better.

But the answer was a clear sign: tension runs still very high in Bahia. By the way, at 5 pm the bakery store used to be always very full and you had to wait quite a bit to be served. Not these days. It is always empty now. Nobody wants to stay too long in the streets.

Ivete Sangalo wrote in her twitter account: "What a wonderful day today is." But the tension is high and people responded harshly to her cheerfulness: "maybe for you, maybe in your mansion not for normal people in the streets of Salvador."

Meanwhile at the Legislative Assembly some of the human shields, children, as the Brazilian Minister for human rights Maria do Rosário defined them, were let go. But some are still joining the striking policemen.

The situation inside the Assembly building is quite bad. No water, no electricity, no food. Because of the presence of the kids inside some water and bread was offered to the insurgents. But the tactic of the Army is quite clear: to give nothing the rioters until they surrender.

Negotiations between the two sides have been going on with the mediation of the Archbishop of Salvador don Dom Murilo Sebastião Ramos Krieger. Whoever calls what's happening in Bahia a normal strike for a pay increase would be considered crazy here. There's an ongoing fight for power, but at least the negotiations started.

However the situation is so bad that even the American State Department advised American citizens not to go to Bahia these days.

Tribunals, schools, and other public activities are paralyzed. More than 100 people have been murdered. Meanwhile the governor of Bahia, Jaques Wagner, said he does not have the money the insurgents want. Which means he might have to ask the Federal government to help pay the bill to end the strike.

There is also a contagion risk. The Rio de Janeiro police have already made it clear that any attack against the Bahia police would cause an anticipation of their own strike.

Meanwhile, Marco Prisco, the head of the police unions, has friends in many police forces in Brazil. Prisco supported similar campaigns for pay rises in Rondônia, Alagoas and other Brazilian states. He is popular and smart.

The contagion risk is serious especially because the military police is seriously underpaid in Brazil and their request for pay rise is legitimate. What's not legitimate is for them to use children as human shields to reach this objective.

Rio de Janeiro state's secretary of security, José Mariano Beltrame already made it clear that security will be guaranteed during the strike of Rio police. However if the contagion spreads to the whole of Brazil the situation might run out of control.

This is why governor Wagner is pushing very hard to end this strike as quickly as possible. Brasília is not rushing for a federal solution as Romero Jucá, government leader in the Brazilian Senate, declared that the constitutional change required for adopting a national salary for the police won't be voted in 2012.

In the meantime the reintegration to the police force of Prisco and other 4 people is also part of the negotiations. Prisco was exonerated in 2001 during the previous riot of the police in Salvador and never got back his job.

http://www.brazzil.com/component/content/article/242-february-2012/10556-brazil-after-one-week-and-over-100-murders-still-no-end-in-sight-for-bahias-police-strike.html

Leaders of Police Rebellion in Brazil Use Women and Kids as Human Shields

Human shields: the same tactic used by Saddam Hussein during the US invasion of Iraq is being used now to protect the policemen on strike in Salvador, the capital of Brazil's northeastern state of Bahia.

The Legislative Assembly of the state was invaded by 350 people very well coordinated by Marco Prisco, the head of the police officers Union, Aspra.

Mr. Prisco uses tactics of guerrilla. He is very smart. When the Legislative Assembly was invaded by the policemen they brought along with them their families. Women and kids. They are all together in the area under siege by the policemen on strike.

The elite force of the Federal Police sent by Brazilian capital Brasília to vacate the Legislative Assembly was supposed to intervene last night but it did not. Why? Because of the human shields.

Even before the arrival of the federal forces Mr. Prisco had told the press that 99% of the policemen in the area were armed and in case they were attacked there would be a bloodbath. The insurgents are very serious and seem to have nothing to lose.

The governor of Bahia, Jaques Wagner, on the other hand, has already asked the federal government to use the federal prisons for the custody of the insurgents. Both sides are very determined and nobody wants to retreat.

Confrontation is very likely. Mr. Prisco even organized checkpoints around the Legislative Assembly to avoid the final assault. It is a real coup, which failed. And, like in all the coups, whoever wins takes no or few prisoners.

But the coup was very well orchestrated. Not only in the capital, Salvador. A proof of that? The soccer team of Bahia was going to play in Itabuna, a city in the south of the state, hundreds of kilometers from Salvador. But local policemen on strike tried to stop the team to play. They only did not succeed because the local population of Itabuna wanted the game.

In the meantime the voices clamoring to put an end to the riot are getting louder and louder. Claudia Leite, a popular singer from Bahia, asked the authorities to find a solution for the dispute.

The Carnaval, which starts a little more than a week away, on February 16, a Thursday, is at risk and that would mean huge economic losses for Salvador, since these festivities are a considerable boom for the local economy.

Schools are shut. Tribunals of the state of Bahia are also shut. Like in a military coup all the public functions have stopped while the confrontation gets nastier and nastier. The bloodbath might really happen.
In the meantime, the number of killings is already close to 100. In Homs, Syria, there were 300 deaths a few days ago and the international press screamed bloody murder. The 100 deaths from Bahia are not making noise internationally. Why? Because Brazil is Carnaval, happiness and forget the social tensions.

Not anymore. The coup attempt in Bahia shows the world that the social bomb hidden under the skin of a peaceful and nice population can always explode. And when it does the 6th economy in the world shows also that it is the 84th in the UN's Human Development Index.

The elite force of Brazil, the best of the best in the country, is designing a plan for the final attack. Maybe they will succeed. Maybe not.

I just hope that in this mean confrontation the innocent kids used as human shields will be spared and will survive the craziness of both sides.

http://www.brazzil.com/component/content/article/242-february-2012/10555-as-saddam-hussein-leaders-of-police-rebellion-in-brazil-use-women-and-kids-as-human-shields.html

Brazil: Bahia Is in State of Siege with Police on Strike and Criminals Roaming Streets

Shopping Iguatemi, the most popular shopping center in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil. 3rd floor in front of Mc Donald's. I close my laptop while my two small children start fighting each other as usual. I tell them to stop. Finally they do. I put my laptop in the case. All at a sudden my wife starts shouting. "Let's run, get a kid and run, now".

For a second I don't understand what's happening. I turn myself around and then I can the commotion. A wave of people running, shouting, the terror in their eyes while they come in our direction knocking down everything in front of them: tables, chairs, advertising signs. The throng is out of control: they are hundreds creating a human tsunami that destroys everything in its path.

I grab my little kid and run with him in my arms just to the bottom end of McDonalds. The wave slowly stops while people still seem to be panicky. I hide my family behind an advertising panel. And then people apparently terrified start asking the same question: What's happening?

Welcome to the arrastão (dragnet), a hellish Brazilian experience which has become a common occurrence in Bahia. A group of criminals, from a couple to dozens of them, hiding their faces with masks start running in any public place like a beach or a shopping center. In their race they steal purses and whatever they can get, pushing everybody and creating a tsunami of panic that can do more damage than the arrastão itself.

The arrastão described here happened while the local military police is on strike asking for better salaries in a very tough confrontation with the Government of Bahia. The situation is so serious that the Legislative Assembly has been under siege for a few days now by the striking policemen.

The government of Bahia, on the other hand, has asked the Federal government to send federal troops to help contain the situation.

In the interior of the state the situation is even worse. In the city of Feira de Santana, for example, the situation is so bad that the bus drivers went on strike fearing for their life. In Itabuna businesses close their doors afraid they might be assaulted.

It's a climate of civil war. Thursday three other shopping areas were invaded by mob in the neighborhoods of Caixa d'Água, Liberdade and Comércio, all in Salvador, which is the capital of Bahia. Shops closed earlier throughout the city.

Since the government of Bahia has decided not to negotiate with the strikers some of them took over buses that were place in middle of main roads of Salvador, stopping the traffic.

Criminals in need of replenishing their weapons arsenal threatened this Friday to invade the police station in Liberdade.

The situation is very tense just a few days before the Carnaval of Bahia, one of the most famous in the world. Forecasts are that Carnaval this year will be very hot but not for the weather.

It's ironic that a few weeks ago I sent a request to the Cabinet of Bahia's Governor of Bahia for an interview about the security of the state after reports the violence in Bahia is bigger than in Rio de Janeiro.

I got no reply. Foreign reporters don't get much attention in Bahia despite the fact that the governor Jaques Wagner is a very friendly guy. His aides, however, don't seem to care for the press.

Bahia is always a wonderful land with the best Carnaval in the world. No doubt about that. However a change is needed in the approach to this police strike because the politics of confrontation is making things dangerously worse for the population and the tourists.

http://www.brazzilmag.com/component/content/article/107-february-2012/12819-brazil-bahia-is-in-state-of-siege-with-police-on-strike-and-criminals-roaming-streets.html