Brazil’s attorney general asks that politicians be investigated

Attorney General Rodrigo Janot’s boxes of evidence that back up his request to have 83 current politicians investigated for corruption arrive at the Supreme Court in Brasilia on Tuesday evening.


By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

BRASILIA – Brazil’s Attorney General Rodrigo Janot sent a long list of 83 current politicians to the Supreme Court to be investigated for possible involvement in corruption linked to the Car Wash investigation. He sent a further list of 211 suspects to lower courts. In Brazil, politicians in office can only be probed and tried by the Supreme Court.

According to the O Globo newspaper, citing sources that had seen the documents, former presidents Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff are on the list, as well as current senators Aecio Neves and Jose Serra. The president of the House of Representatives Rodrigo Maia; the head of the Senate Eunicio Oliveira; the chief of staff of President Michel Temer, Eliseu Padilha; the general secretary of the Presidency, Moreira Franco; Foreign Minister Aloysio Nunes; Minister of Science and Technology Gilberto Kassab, and Minister of Cities Bruno Araujo, are also going to be investigated.

The leader of the government in the Senate, Romero Juca, the leader of the PMDB party in the Senate, Renan Calheiros, and Sen. Edson Lobao will also be investigated, according to O Globo. Former finance ministers Guido Mantega and Antonio Palocci are also included in Janot’s list.

Janot’s list of those to be investigated arrived in seven boxes at the Supreme Court in Brasilia at 5 p.m. They have been placed in a secure room next to the office of the head of the court, Chief Justice Carmen Lucia. Jornal da Band estimated that it will take court employees at least 10 days to initially go through all of the boxes, sorting the evidence that Janot sent the court, and scanning all of the documents into a computer system.  It is not known if the court will release the names of all being investigated, or of just a select few.

The Brazilian capital has been waiting with bated breath for the past two weeks for Janot’s list to reach the Supreme Court, with leading politicians in Congress afraid that their names would be included in the list.

Former President Lula gave testimony to a federal judge in Brasilia on Tuesday afternoon. Lula was asked if he had tried to unduly influence the Car Wash investigations. He denied the accusation, and alleged that he was the victim of a campaign to “massacre” him, reported the Folha de Sao Paulo. In the first minutes of his testimony Lula said that he woke up every morning in his home afraid that journalists would be camped out at his door waiting for him to be arrested.

The presidential palace wants the Supreme Court to release all of the names of the investigated politicians by the end of this week, so as to have time to counter the negative impact the list will have on the opinion of Brazilian voters. The Temer government is trying to push through Congress a major overhaul of the Social Security system, which will raise the mandatory retirement age. It also fears that the opposition will use the names of current government ministers on Janot’s list to attack the Temer administration during nationwide protests to support the Car Wash investigations to be held on March 26.

Some Brazilians skip Carnival for spiritual retreats

Members of the Adventist Church participate in a spiritual retreat during the 2012 Carnival in Brazil.

 By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

BRASILIA – With the official Carnival parades of samba schools in full swing in Brazil, many Brazilians are opting to not participate in a celebration that they believe to be excessive and immoral.

“Many immoral and nearly naked people go to Carnival. They engage in excessive drinking. We like to travel during Carnival without participating in the street dancing. We follow the Bible,” Neusa Lacerda, a 50-year-old housekeeper who lives in Gama, a satellite city around 34 kilometers from Brasilia, told me in an interview.

Born into a Catholic family, Neusa says a Jehovah’s Witness family raised her. She and her husband are now members of the evangelical church, and like to participate in family barbecues on the weekends.

“I have danced in the streets during Carnival in the past,” she said. “But God forgives us. I suffered a lot as my father was an alcoholic, and my religion says that we cannot become drunk. It is a question of self-control.”

Neusa is part of a growing number of Brazilians who are leaving the Catholic Church, which is still the largest in Brazil, and joining evangelical Protestant churches. According to the Datafolha polling firm three in every ten Brazilians (29 percent) are now evangelicals. In 1994, 75 percent of Brazilians considered themselves Catholic. In 2015 that number had fallen to 55 percent. The evangelical churches have been aggressive in recruiting new members, and use singing and other activities to attract Catholics bored by the relative traditionalism of the Catholic Church.

Carnival celebrations are big business in Brazil, with the 2016 one in Sao Paulo, Brazil’s largest city, generating R$400 million (US$129 million) in business sales, according to the mayor’s office. It estimates that for every R$1 spent, the city earns R$40 in return. This year in Salvador, Bahia, the local government estimates that R$50 million (US$16 million) will be spent on 197 attractions, with more than half of the expenses being sponsored by the private sector. In the colonial city of Ouro Preto, Minas Gerais, it was reported by the O Tempo newspaper that revelers consumed 1 million liters of beer in the 2012 Carnival.

With the whole country shutting down for four days during the peak of the Carnival, it can be hard for evangelical churches to compete with the large street celebrations all over the country. Just last weekend in pre-Carnival street celebrations in Rio de Janeiro, it was estimated that one million people took to the streets to dance behind “trio eletricos” or mobile bands that blast out happy music for hours on end.

Some evangelical churches have decided to join in the Carnival celebrations, but in squeaky-clean and religious versions. According to the Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper the Bola de Neve Church in Guarulhos held a Carnival party on Feb. 10 at its headquarters, with music and dancing. But instead of the sleazy lyrics common in Carnival songs, words praising Jesus were inserted.

But most evangelical churches stay well away from dancing during Carnival and instead promote spiritual retreats where followers can spend their time in reflection and prayers. That is what the Baptist Ebezener Church of Taguatinga, around 24 kilometers from Brasilia, is doing yet again this year. It started holding this annual retreat in 2002, and runs around 20 branches of the church in Brasilia and surrounding cities.

“We are holding a spiritual retreat from Feb. 24-28, and we are expecting 3,000 people to attend,” pastor J. Alves told me in a phone interview.  “We have invited several guest speakers to give lectures during the day, and we have separate activities for the children and teenagers. We will charge each attendee around R$50 (US$16) a day in order to participate.”

Brazil tries to contain yellow fever outbreak

This story was published in Arab News on Feb. 2, 2017:

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

Special to Arab News

BRASILIA: Brazil is trying to contain an outbreak of yellow fever that has already claimed 46 lives, by vaccinating inhabitants of high-risk areas.

There have been 568 suspected cases of yellow fever so far this year, with 430 still being investigated, 107 confirmed cases and 31 discarded ones, according to the Health Ministry.
The outbreak is centered in rural areas of southeast Minas Gerais state, and the bordering areas of the states of Bahia and Espirito Santo.

“Apparently the state governments involved were rather slow in vaccinating everyone, but as soon as the outbreak happened they started to quickly vaccinate the population at risk,” Dirceu Bartolomeu Greco, an infection specialist and professor at the School of Medicine of the Federal University of Minas Gerais in Belo Horizonte, told Arab News.

“I think we may have reached the peak of the current outbreak. This serves as a very important reminder that the preventive part of this is perhaps the most important. I think this outbreak will be controlled.”

There is no known cure for yellow fever, so getting vaccinated is the best way to prevent contracting the disease.

It is a viral infection that causes fever, headache, chills, back pain, fatigue, loss of appetite, muscle pain, nausea and vomiting. In advanced stages it attacks the liver, causing the victim’s skin to turn yellow.

Brazil has been battling the disease since the mid-1800s. It originated in Africa and was brought to South America by slaves.

The Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz) in Rio de Janeiro has been leading the fight against yellow fever in Brazil since its establishment in 1900, and today produces millions of doses of yellow fever vaccine for Brazil and various countries in Africa.

The Health Ministry reinforced its strategic stock of vaccine with an additional 11.5 million doses. It has already sent out an extra 5.4 million doses to five states: 2.9 million to Minas Gerais, 1.05 million to Espirito Santo, 400,000 to Bahia, 350,000 to Rio de Janeiro and 700,000 to Sao Paulo.

The problem is that many people living in urban areas have rushed to public health posts to be vaccinated for free, causing temporary shortages of the vaccine in some cities.
In Luziania, Goias, just 57 kilometers from the capital Brasilia, a suspected yellow fever death led to a rush on vaccination centers, causing a 30 percent increase in the number of people seeking vaccination, O Globo newspaper reported.

The federal government sent an extra 100,000 doses to Goias. The state government of Goias said 94 percent of its population is already vaccinated against the disease. The strain of yellow fever prevalent in Brazil is spread by mosquitoes living in rural areas, where monkeys are the common carriers of the virus.

The government recommends that Brazilians living in 19 states, mostly in the mid-west and north of the country, take the vaccine.

New scientific studies have shown that a single yellow fever vaccination could possibly protect a person their whole life.

“The advantage of the vaccine is that studies are showing that you’ll probably only need one dose to protect yourself for life,” said Greco.

Studies have shown that a single vaccination has protected some patients for up to 30 years. Current practice recommends that people living in or traveling to high-risk areas be vaccinated every 10 years.

Rapid expansion of the population into rural areas has added to the severity of yellow fever outbreaks, said Greco: “Brazil hasn’t had an urban outbreak of yellow fever since 1942, but we need to keep an eye on this push into rural areas and keep up our prevention campaigns.”

The virus is transmitted in Brazil by mosquitoes in rural, heavily wooded areas, not by the Aedes aegypti mosquitos of urban areas that have already spread dengue fever and the Zika virus. This year’s outbreak of yellow fever has been the largest in Brazil’s history, Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper reported.

In 2000 there were 85 cases and 40 deaths, in 2008 there were 46 cases and 27 deaths, and in 2009 there were 47 cases and 17 deaths.

Melancholic transition in Brasilia

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff.

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff.

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

With less than two days to go before the Brazilian Senate committee is expected to vote to accept the impeachment complaint filed against President Dilma Rousseff, her aides and ministers are getting ready for life after the Dilma presidency.

Her chief of staff Jaques Wagner is thinking of going back to his home state of Bahia to perhaps work in the state government as head of a department. The minister of social communication, Edinho Silva, is thinking of returning to his hometown of Araraquara, Sao Paulo, and running for mayor in the October municipal elections. He was the mayor of the town from 2001 to 2008.

Although she will be allowed to stay in the presidential palace for the maximum 180 days that the whole Senate has to vote on the impeachment complaint, the atmosphere among her aides is one of defeat and departure. According to the O Globo daily, Dilma is thinking of mounting a small group of her closest advisors who would stay and work with her during her period of exile from the presidency.

But no one seems to know how the transition from a Dilma presidency to that of Michel Temer, who is currently the vice-president, is going to unfold. One minister, according to O Globo, in a fit of anger threatened to delete all of his important files to make life difficult for the new government. Other ministries are preparing transition documents which highlight each ministry’s ongoing contracts and obligations. One minister supposedly suggested at a recent meeting with President Dilma that a formal transition process be started, but he was immediately shut down.

President Dilma has vowed to go down fighting the impeachment charges against her to the very last moment. She will not be alone in her fight. Former President Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva, the Workers Party and a wide leftist alliance called the Sole Leftist Front have vowed to rally around her by holding nationwide protests against what they call a coup attempt against her presidency.

She has already started attacking the coming government of Temer, claiming that he will cut social service programs, such as the “Bolsa Familia” program which gives cash payments to the very poor every month. O Globo denied this in a front-page story on Sunday, pointing out that Dilma’s administration itself had already cut social services by 87 percent this year alone because of the severe recession that Brazil is going through.  According to the paper, spending on crèches had shrunk by R$3.7 billion (around US$1 billion), and the low-cost housing project of the federal government has suffered a loss of R$20 billion (US$5.7 billion) in funding.

The camp of Temer has been extremely busy, holding whirlwind meetings with politicians and technocrats, in preparation for the new administration. The vice-president said he wanted to cut the number of ministries from the current 32 to a much trimmer 26. Most of this would be accomplished by merging ministries, such as those of education and culture. But he has run into the reality that he will have to give out ministerial posts as rewards to the various smaller parties who have switched their support from Dilma to him.

According to Veja magazine, the Temer camp is frantically studying ways of cutting the government’s spending while at the same looking for measures that would help jump start the ailing economy. Among the measures being studied are the partial privatization of the Post Office, Infraero (the federal operator of airports), and Eletrosul. They also want to cut spending in this year’s budget by 68 percent, fire 4,000  appointed federal government workers, and fix 65-years of age as the minimum retirement age.

Temer is also thinking of appointing Sen. Jose Serra as his foreign minister, a move that will be heartily welcomed by many of the career diplomats at Itamaraty. President Dilma has repeatedly cut the Foreign Service budget, and is known to dislike the diplomats working there. According to the Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper, diplomats feel that having a high-profile politician heading the service will be advantageous for the prestige it will bring and the fact that Serra will have direct access to President Temer.  Serra, of the opposition PSDB party, has run several times for the presidency and never won. He also served as health minister in a previous administration, and was elected mayor of the city of Sao Paulo.

The polarization of Brazilian politics continues, with supporters of Dilma protesting in especially shocking ways. Last week in Sao Paulo outside of the MAM Museum a group of leftist activists spat on pictures of the right-wing congressman Jair Bolsonaro. A few days later a public school teacher was filmed urinating and defecating on a picture of the congressman. Bolsonaro caused such violent reactions when he praised a few weeks ago the memory of the late Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, a colonel in the Brazilian Army who was in charge of torturing leftist guerillas during the military dictatorship in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and is accused of having personally tortured hundreds of guerillas.

Temer has vowed to extend the hand of cooperation to the Workers Party once he becomes the interim president on May 11. But it is unlikely that he will get any cooperation from the Dilma camp and its battalion of leftist supporters. Unions and other groups have promised to launch nationwide protests and strikes in protest. Keeping the political atmosphere on an even keel might be more difficult than improving the economy that does not seem able to sink lower than it already has.




Finding a scorpion at home

The scorpion that my maid found under my kitchen sink in Brasilia on May 1, 2014.

The scorpion that my maid found under my kitchen sink in Brasilia on May 1, 2014.
(Photo by Rasheed Abualsamh, all rights reserved. May not be copied without written permission.)

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

My maid Silvania found a live scorpion lurking under my kitchen sink this week when she was cleaning. I had gone out to run an errand and when I returned she proudly pointed to an old peanut butter jar that she had placed the scorpion in, killing it with rubbing alcohol and bleach.  There it floated gracefully and menacingly, its stinger in its tail pointing towards the surface, around 8cms long, colored a yellowish-red.

“The yellow scorpions are some of the most poisonous,” my mother tells me, only adding to my anxiety about whether there are more lurking in my house.

I look up scorpions on the internet and find that the females of the yellow-variety do not need a male to reproduce. They reproduce through parthenogenesis, in which unfertilized eggs develop into embryos. They can fast for up to 6-12 months without eating anything and survive because their metabolism rate is so slow. Scorpions are present on all continents except for the poles, and originally were not present in Great Britain or New Zealand. International trade put an end to that, with scorpions being introduced into the UK in the 1860s, most probably from Africa. Of the more than 1,700 species of scorpions, only around 25 are venomous enough to kill a human being. That is scant comfort for me, as my dead scorpion seems to be of the very venomous type.

Further research finds that scorpions usually come into houses to escape from the cold outside. This makes sense as its been around 13 degrees centigrade here in Brasilia at night, and my house tends to be extra warm because of the heat that my roof retains from the sunshine during the day. My mother is worried that there may be a whole nest of baby scorpions hiding in my house. To make sure I don’t get surprised by one of these nasty creatures, I spray insecticide under my kitchen sink, in the living room, bedrooms and my bathrooms before going to sleep. A Brazilian friend tells me on the phone: “Don’t walk around barefoot, and check under your bedcovers and shake out your pillows before climbing into bed!” All of which I do.

The next day I decide to call Jacques, a trained agronomist and an exterminator that sprayed all of our land two years ago to get rid of termites. “What most people do after they’ve found a scorpion in their home is to have their residence fumigated. Scorpions usually eat cockroaches and other insects, but you could go for years after finding a scorpion and not see another one,” he tells me reassuringly.  The fact that I haven’t seen any cockroaches in my house for a while both reassures and scares me, for it could mean the scorpion had eaten them all or it could just be that there haven’t been that many cockroaches to begin with.

My revulsion of certain types of insects began at a young age. I vividly remember visiting my grandmother in Riyadh in the early 1970s when we lived in Geneva and I was around 7 years of age. Walking up the stairs to the second floor of the house where she lived scared me immensely because of the horrible and scary insects that were lurking there on the landing between the floors. I remember seeing scorpions and other insects, and refused to walk up or down those stairs without the protection afforded to me by an adult uncle or aunt, whom I was sure would shield me from them.

Scorpions like to live in dark crevices, so I have decided that I need to have the hole in the wall below my sink patched up. The previous tenants left the hole when they moved out and I never got around to having it fixed up since it was out of sight.

I’m not surprised to find out that scorpions are part of the Arachnid family of insects, of which spiders are the most common. And indeed there are too many spiders in Brasilia, spinning their webs quickly on anything that is standing still, and at an amazing speed. Knowing that, I opened a kitchen cupboard before going to bed on the day Silvania caught the scorpion and was faced with a spider’s web between containers of sugar and an army of tiny black ants trying to get into the containers. I gasped in horror and quickly sprayed the insects with insecticide. Here was one arachnid that had gotten away from my maid.




The delightful Tororó waterfalls of Brasilia

I DIDN’T EXPECT to be so amazed by the beauty of the Tororó waterfalls in the Federal District when Thiago asked me a few weeks ago if I wanted to go explore them.

“Sure,” I said. “Let’s go.” Little did I know that to get to the majestic 12-meter falls, we would have to hike down a steep and rocky hill for 20 minutes.

To get there you drive up to the Jardim Botanico area above QI 23 in the Lago Sul area of Brasilia. Turn right once you are up there and continue on the DF-140 road for around 15 minutes, passing two roundabouts. At the second roundabout, circle back and drive around 10 minutes until you see a turn-off on the right. Take that road, which will eventually turn into a dirt road. Near the end of it you will see signs pointing to the waterfall area.

The Tororó waterfalls are on private property, so cars have to pay a small fee of R$10 ($6) to park in a clearing. A small van is set-up there selling water, soft drinks and beers. Thiago and I bought two ice-cold beers and off we went down the very narrow trail to the waterfall.

The descent was anything but easy. Sharp rocks of varying sizes stick up out of the ground at various angles, making our journey perilous. We had to keep looking at the ground to make sure we did not step the wrong way on a rock and twist our ankles or lose our balance and fall down. To make matters trickier, I had on leather flip-flops, while Thiago had rather wildly taken off his sneakers and socks and was proceeding down the hill barefoot and happy-go-lucky!

“Stay bent over a bit and stretch your arms out close to the ground, so that if you fall you can cushion your fall,” said Thiago. “We need to walk like monkeys!”

Since I am taller, older and less fit than Thiago, I found it more difficult to assume that position. Huffing, puffing and sweating, we finally arrived at the bottom of the hill, after passing several groups of people climbing back up who had also come to enjoy the small river and waterfalls.

Signs along the way down warn hikers to not start any fires, to not camp out overnight and to take all trash out of the area.

At the waterfalls, Thiago waded into the pool at the foot of the falls, while I sat on a wooden log that stretched across the pool. Soon we were joined by a group of boisterous and friendly young Brazilian men who proceeded to climb up the rocks under the waterfalls and perch up there looking down on us.

Thiago eventually joined them up above and when I got bored waiting for him to come down, I waved and said, “let’s go!”

According to a local website, the ecological balance of the area is being threatened by the growing numbers of visitors to the falls and the many nearby housing developments and the planting of soya on a farm not far away.

If you live in Brasilia, this is a wonderful way to spend a Sunday afternoon hiking in the area. Just come prepared for the steep hike down, bring a change of clothes if you want to take a dip in the pool at the base of the waterfalls and don’t forget to take your trash with you when you leave!

Alarming murder rates just 40km from Brasília

THE Brazilian TV show Fantástico revealed on Sunday night that the murder rates in four cities just 40 kilometers from the country’s capital Brasilia are twice the national average of 24.5 victims per 100,000 inhabitants. Shockingly, these cities are only beaten by Honduras, considered the most violent country in the world.

Novo Gama, Luziania, Aguas Lindas and Valparaiso are all approximately 40 kilometers from Brasilia and have grown much in recent years as escalating living costs in Brasilia and the Federal District have pushed more and more of the poorer populations into the adjoining state of Goias, where living costs are much more affordable. This has led to an overcrowding of schools and hospitals in these cities, with Novo Gama not even having a public hospital of its own. It has also concentrated violence in these urban areas.

The murder rate in Luziania is more than double the national rate at 71.4 victims per 100,000 inhabitants, while in Valparaiso the rate is a shocking 75.97 victims per 100,000. In comparison, the most violent country in Europe is Turkey with 18.4 murders per 100,000, and the most peaceful are France with .8 murders per 100,000 and Norway with only .53 murders per 100,000 inhabitants.

These cities on the edges of the Federal District have always demanded financial support from the federal capital for their security, schools and hospitals, arguing that this helped stem the flow of their inhabitants going to Brasilia seeking medical care or education. Brasilia in turn, already facing overwhelmed public hospitals that force patients to lie on cots on hallways, has reluctantly been willing to dole out money to help these cities. Unfortunately, this has led the state of Goias to become lazy in funding these cities, having grown accustomed to the aid from Brasilia.

Police in Goias and the Federal District blame much of the violence in the so-called “cidades do entorno” on drug traffickers and criminal gangs clashing with one another. They also blame the surge in violence on a lack of policemen to patrol the streets, with the Secretary of Public Safety of the DF Sandro Torres Avelar admitting to Fantástico that more needed to be done to lower the murder rate.

The program noted that an integrated security headquarters in Aguas Lindas, that had been set up a few years ago and was staffed by military and civil police, as well as by firefighters, but then abandoned more than a year ago, was going to be reactivated.  Yet it noted that two weeks after it starting filming for the program that aired Sunday, the building where the center used to be located at was still empty and abandoned.

The security situation has deteriorated so much in these four cities, that residents are afraid to go out at night, and state authorities had to call in 107 soldiers of the National Security Force to help patrol the streets.

Ironically, Fantástico noted that funeral homes listen-in illegally to police scanners and then often show up at crime scenes even before the police can get there. “Sometimes up to five funeral homes show up at the same place,” Candido da Silva told the program.



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