Brazil’s attorney general asks that politicians be investigated
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.
Q&A with Manolo Quezon III on drug killings
I recently wrote a column on the ongoing war in the Philippines against drug pushers and users. The escalating body count has alarmed human rights groups and the United Nations, who have called on Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to reign in the violent campaign, speak out against extrajudicial killings and to respect the rule of law.
So far, Duterte has shown no signs of reigning in the killings.
For more perspective on this issue, I interviewed Manolo L. Quezon III, who was undersecretary of presidential communications under President Nonoy Aquino, and is a well-known political analyst and columnist. Here is the entire text of the interview:
Rasheed’s World: What are your general thoughts on this campaign? Do you support it, or think that it has gone too far with nearly 2,000 already dead?
Manolo L. Quezon III: The number of dead is an indication of what is problematic. An official distinction has been made between “legitimate” killings and those attributed to either preemptive internal purges within drug syndicates, or by vigilantes. The problem is that the mechanisms and manpower of the government seem hard-pressed (and sometimes simply disinclined) to clearly determine by means of inquests which fatality can be attributed to which of the supposed simultaneous trends going on. Responsibility, either by negligence or design, is also diffused; the entire police apparatus has been mobilized, and like any big organization the level of competence of various detachments varies widely. The result is all the public has to go on is confidence in both the president and his principal lieutenants in the police and other organs of the government.
The campaign itself seems to be modeled after that of Thaksin in Thailand –again problematic, because it was generally deemed a failure. Its domestic characteristics date to the administration of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (former president and one of the big players in the Duterte coalition) and some of her former people who had attempted saturation drives during her term, and whose political allies first tried to raise narco-politics as an issue in the 2010 campaign (narco-politics as an issue of public concern had emerged in 2001, the period of transition from the Estrada administration which was ousted from office and replaced with Arroyo). Both Thaksin and Arroyo (or their officials) in the face of their anti-drug efforts also found it convenient to use narco-politics as a political issue; this is risky because, as the present administration is also doing, any carelessness in accusations diminishes the long-term effectivity of the argument.
This much is clear. It is a campaign that is very specific –not a war on drugs per se, but a war on crystal meth. It is a war focused on the liquidation of pushers and the principal lieutenants of the drug kingpins, who have been officially announced to be generally overseas and thus beyond the reach of the government. It is one of indeterminate duration, which raises the problem of how –or by what measure– victory can be achieved.
Most worrying of all is that the state has a monopoly on the use of force grounded on the expectation that it is used sparingly, responsibly, and with accountability. A very human factor is thus being ignored in the ongoing debate on the war on drugs. We have a police –and possibly, in the future– a military that has been institutionally-expected to be responsible and judicious in its use of force. Individual policemen, long circumscribed in their actions by strict rules on the acquisition, and legal scrutiny, of evidence, and who had clearly defined rules of engagement in terms of the use of force on suspects and the public at large, are discovering that the institutions that used to limit their actions are now neutralized. This feeling of power, this sense of immunity and impunity, this thrill from obtaining instant results, can be a kind of narcotic, too. Once experienced, it can become increasingly difficult to limit it to just the war on drugs, particularly when that war takes on the attributes of a larger war, whether to “reform,” or “rebuild,” or “reengineer” or “defend” the state against its “enemies” –as defined by the commanders.
Every society that has experienced political instability knows these are developments that can have an effect on institutions and society lasting generations –it took the Philippines a generation to wean its military and police from a similar experience during the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos (1972-1986).
RW: Why do you think that President Duterte has so much popular support? Do you think this support will diminish in a few years? If so, why?
MLQ: Every president who wins an election –even as a plurality victor– obtains a subsequent overwhelming level of public support in their initial months in office. The public, which previously supported different candidates, rallies around the victor and gives the winner a chance to fulfill the mandate given at the polls.
This is an observable trend in public opinion surveys. In June 2010, Benigno S. Aquino III who won with 42% of the votes, obtained an 88% trust rating. In June 2016, Rodrigo Roa Duterte who won with 39% of the votes, obtained a 91% trust rating. Both surveys (By Social Weather Stations) having a plus or minus 3% margin of error, the results can be said to be quite similar, if not identical.
The question is what the next survey in October and every quarter thereafter, will reveal. No one knows. If public trust remains high, it will further embolden the administration; if it plunges, it can embolden the administration to even more vigorously pursue current policies, knowing time is running out in terms of public support. However, whatever the results, it also suggests the administration knows it can count on a committed constituency of 39% to sustain itself –even now, despite every indication of public support being high, efforts to mobilize this constituency to mount demonstrations against the Senate (which conducted an inquiry into the drug war) are being made, which suggests some in the ruling coalition may have noticed a dip in public enthusiasm.
RW: Many people, among them officials, judges, journalists and politicians, seem reluctant to publically criticize this anti-drug push. Why do you think this is so?
MLQ: The answer is simple: fear. Fear of public opinion and more importantly, fear of the president. The president’s supporters are vocal, aggressive, plentiful and in some instances, organized. They swarm social media, and media sites both local and foreign. The President himself has a gift for targeting specific personalities who to his mind, represent challenges to his authority. This combination is formidable and considering the enthusiasm for the use of force, requires every individual venturing on expressing an opinion to consider the consequences.
RW: Vice President Leni Robredo has called for the rule of law to be applied in the hunt for drug pushers, but has not really come out to criticize the president’s anti-drug campaign. Do you think she could do more in terms of speaking out, or is that too politically risky?
MLQ: In the Philippines we elect our presidents and vice presidents separately, a practice that dates from the foundation of our modern institutions in 1935. It was felt important at the time that the potential successor of a president should have a clear, personal, mandate, too. However, this means every vice-president is viewed with suspicion by the sitting president, especially if they do not come from the same party. This suspicion is particularly intense not only because Vice-President Robredo defeated one of the paramount allies of the president, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., but also, she was the candidate of the very administration the president’s ruling coalition (composed of the factions of former presidents Fidel V. Ramos and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, the united front parties of the Communists, and the political apparatus of the Marcos family) was meant to not only defeat, but permanently discredit as an ex-post-facto rehabilitation of themselves (the whole 1986-2016 era, with its periodic outbreaks of People Power, its anti-dictatorship constitution, and relative media independence and civil society participation, was a perpetual thorn in the side of those wanting a Marcos restoration, an Arroyo political rehabilitation, and a Ramos-proposed parliamentary system modeled on the one-party dominance of UMNO in Malaysia).
The other factor is that so long as the Vice-President is in office, an alternative leadership is available, and could potentially provide a rallying figure for those disaffected for whatever reason, with the present administration. However, the Vice-President herself seems to sense a long-standing rule in Philippine politics. No Vice-President has ever benefited from challenging the sitting president: the public expects the Vice-President, of whatever party, to cooperate with and serve, the sitting president, of whatever party. At the same time the civil society background of the Vice-President suggests she probably views it as a matter of civic conscience to have a seat at the table, in order to give voice to the constituency that elected her. A very delicate balancing act is therefore required, meaning she cannot be as vocal or critical as some of her supporters might want, but also, however cooperative she is, supporters of the president will always view her with suspicion. The wider public, on the other hand, will probably be more understanding in this regard.
She has from time to time issued gentle reminders about human rights, against the dictatorship of Marcos, and this includes the drug war. It would be fair to say however she is still finding her own voice in the midst of fast-moving events.
OFW votes could give Marcos a win
This column appeared in Arab News on May 15, 2016:
By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh
National elections in the Philippines, which took place on May 9, are producing surprising results. In the presidential race Rodrigo Duterte, mayor of Davao City, and a politician with a mouth like Donald Trump, has won the race with 15,709,136 votes, against the 9,663,869 votes of administration candidate Sen. Mar Roxas.
But it is in the race for the vice presidency where things are tight. With 95 percent of the votes already counted, Sen. Bongbong Marcos, son of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, was initially leading, but then on the 10th was surprised by the overtaking of Rep. Leni Robredo. At the time of this writing, Robredo leads with 14,012,780 votes against 13,797,137 votes for Marcos, a difference of only 215,643 votes. The more than 400,000 votes of Overseas Filipino Workers are just being tallied now, and Marcos is leading in that part of the poll.
As of Saturday morning, Marcos had garnered 156,123 votes from OFWs, against only 84,144 votes for Robredo. This gives Marcos an edge of 71,979 among the OFW votes. If the trend continues, this would give Marcos a comfortable margin in beating Robredo.
To a casual observer from outside the country, it may seem that the Marcos family is only now returning to power, but in reality this has been going on for many years. Bongbong’s father, Ferdinand, was an intelligent and charismatic lawyer from the north, who was elected congressman in 1949, and then re-elected three times. In 1959 he was elected to the Senate, and in 1965 was elected president of the Philippines. In 1954 he married Imelda Romualdez, a beauty queen and singer from Tacloban, who won Marcos with her beauty and lovely voice. It was she, with her relentless ambition, who encouraged and pushed her husband to steal billions from the country during their 21 years of conjugal dictatorship.
In September 1972, Ferdinand Marcos decreed martial law, suspending the constitution, closing Congress, jailing political enemies and seizing profitable businesses for himself and his cronies. Philippine Airlines, ABS-CBN television network, the Manila Electric Company and the PLDT phone company were all snatched by Marcos and his close friends. To hide this wholesale robbery, Marcos put many of these companies in the name of his allies.
Just as in the military dictatorship of 1964-1985 in Brazil, more than 300,000 Filipinos were arrested, tortured and many of them killed for opposing the dictatorship. The People Power Revolution in 1986 ended the dictatorship of the Marcoses, with the whole family fleeing to Hawaii.
But Bongbong was the first in his family to return to the Philippines in 1991 and was elected congressman. He had been deputy governor and governor of Ilocos Norte province during the dictatorship, so his return to politics was relatively easy. His mother, Imelda, soon also returned to the country and was also elected to Congress. Bongbong was elected to the Senate in 2010.
Through the massive corruption of the Marcos couple, it is estimated that a total of $10 billion was looted from the country, and the following democratic governments were able to recover only a small fraction of this stolen wealth. Nevertheless, there has always been a very solid base of Marcos supporters in the electorate. These people believe that the Marcoses did many good things for the country and its people, claiming that they built much of the modern infrastructure that the country has today.
Yet despite these hardcore Marcos supporters, there is a larger portion of the population that was and still is against the political rehabilitation of the Marcoses. But they have found the forgetfulness and willingness to forgive easily of many voters as their biggest obstacles to stopping the nation from forgetting the violent excesses committed from 1972 until 1986.
To add to the horror of the critics of the Marcoses has been the new generation of voters, those born after the end of the dictatorship. Most of these voters do not have a negative view of the Marcoses, believing that Ferdinand did much good for the country by leading it with an iron hand. Therefore a group called the Campaign Against the Return of the Marcoses to Malacañang recently produced a dramatic video in which young voters were filmed talking about what they thought of the dictatorship years in front of people who were tortured and raped by the regime. When these victims reveal what happened to them, the young voters are stunned and amazed, and some even break down and cry, asking for forgiveness for their mistaken ideas.
But should we hold a son responsible for the sins of his parents? The Philippine electorate will have to decide that. But from the votes coming in, it seems they are ready to forget and forgive, placing Bongbong that much closer to the presidency.
Melancholic transition in Brasilia
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.
Questioning of Lula is sign of Brazilian maturity
This column was printed in Arab News on March 6, 2016:
By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh
Brazilians awoke on Friday morning to the breaking news that the Federal Police and tax inspectors were parked outside the home of former President Luis Inacio “Lula” da Silva in Sao Bernardo do Campo, a suburb of Sao Paulo. This was the beginning of the 24th phase in the months-long “Car Wash” investigation into massive corruption at the state oil giant Petrobras. Lula was being taken into custody for questioning whether he wanted to go or not.
Soon supporters and critics of the former president had gathered outside his home, arguing and pushing each other. The police were quickly called in to take control of the situation, as Lula was questioned for nearly four hours at an office of the Federal Police at Congonhas Airport.
Lula took three lawyers with him and a federal congressman of his Workers’ Party. When it was over, he went to the headquarters of his party and gave an angry speech, railing against the excessive use of police intimidation and devolving into his usual accusations of the rich not being able to accept that a once poor man such as himself had made it to the presidency of the nation. It was the classic leftist class struggle spiel of the rich versus the poor.
Lula ruled Brazil for two terms as president from 2003 to 2010, and now the current President Dilma Rousseff, his protégée, has ruled Brazil from 2011 until now. While no one denies that the Workers’ Party helped lift millions of Brazilians out of poverty and gave them many new rights, the corruption of the politicians from this party has been so all-encompassing that practically no aspect of Brazilian life seems to have escaped its taint.
The “Car Wash” investigation, which is being led by the federal judge Sergio Moro, has found that top Petrobras officials were involved in a massive corruption, kickback and overpricing scheme that has involved a handful of the country’s major construction and engineering firms. These firms have been accused of funneling money gained from Petrobras to a host of politicians in illegal payments, including Lula. Even President Dilma’s 2010 election campaign fund has been linked to dirty money from construction companies.
Moro has been handing down reduced sentences, called “delacoes premiadas” in Portuguese, to get prime suspects to cooperate with investigators and spill the beans about all they know. The latest person to do so was Sen. Delcidio Amaral, the former head of the ruling party in the Senate. He was arrested late last year and just released a few weeks ago after he agreed to squeal on his co-conspirators.
Joao Santana, Lula and Dilma’s main election campaign strategist, and his wife were recently arrested after it was discovered that $7.5 million in tainted money had been paid to him by construction companies.
To top all of this off, Brazil is going through a severe economic recession. Its GDP shrank 3.8 percent in 2015, its worst performance since 1990, inflation is at 10.67 percent and unemployment is around 8 percent.
All of this has deeply polarized the Brazilian electorate, with most of the poorer Brazilians still supporting the Worker’s Party, while more educated and well-off Brazilians are fed-up with a never-ending stream of corruption scandals.
Having been one of the most popular presidents that Brazil has seen in modern times, Lula for a long time believed he was untouchable. The relentless investigation by Moro and the Federal Police has shown otherwise.
So far the independence of the investigators has been maintained despite alleged attempts by various ministers to get some of the accused off the hook. Hopefully the investigations will continue. This shows that Brazil has become a mature democracy where no one is above the law.
Tehran gains more leeway for meddling
This column was printed in Arab News on Jan. 24, 2016:
By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh
The lifting of nearly all the economic sanctions against Iran last week was celebrated worldwide as a victory of American and European diplomacy. A victory because Iran has accepted the need to downgrade its nuclear energy program and has pledged to no longer try to develop nuclear weapons.
From Washington to Paris and Moscow, political leaders are patting themselves on their backs as saviors of world peace for having gotten the Iranians to accept their demands and sign the agreement. But they left out of the document a crucial part of what causes most of the tensions in the Middle East: The insistent Iranian meddling in the internal affairs of several Arab countries. Americans admit this failure, but insist that they could not include it in the agreement because of Iran’s objections.
With the lifting of sanctions, it is estimated that Iran will now have access to $100 billion of its own money, which was frozen in bank accounts abroad for years. This will leave the country with more resources to continue its interference in the Arab world. From Iraq to Lebanon, Syria and even in Yemen, the fingers of the Iranians are everywhere, arming and providing economic and political support to the Iraqi government and its Shiite militias; to Hezbollah; to the government of the dictator Bashar Assad, and to Houthi rebels.
In Syria alone it is estimated that the Iranian government has injected billions of dollars in support of the Assad government, and up to 3,000 soldiers of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard are fighting there against the Syrian rebels.
In an article in the New York Times this week, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir insisted that the Kingdom and its Gulf allies will continue to resist Iranian expansion in the region and respond with force to acts of aggression from Tehran.
“The Iranian government’s behavior has been consistent since the 1979 revolution,” wrote Al-Jubeir. “The constitution that Iran adopted states the objective of exporting revolution. As a consequence, Iran has supported violent extremist groups, including Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen and sectarian militias in Iraq. (…) It is clear why Iran wants Bashar Assad of Syria to remain in power: In its 2014 report on terrorism, the State Department wrote that Iran considers Syria ‘as a crucial causeway to the its weapons supply route to Hezbollah,’” he added.
The cynicism of the agreement with Iran was echoed by many Saudi analysts. “Khamenei (the religious leader of Iran) traded a bomb he did not have for a document that gives carte blanche to the Revolutionary Guard in the region and stripped the P5 + 1 of any influence over Iran,” Mohammed Alyahya told the British newspaper Guardian.
“Riyadh has decided not to allow Iran to posture itself as the protector of the Shiites in the Arab world as it has been doing since 1979,” wrote Emirati professor Abdulkhaleq Abdulla in Gulf News. “They (the Saudis) have had enough of Iran’s bullying, and genuinely feel they are being targeted by Tehran as much as by Daesh.”
And the Iranians themselves are now admitting that with the end of economic sanctions, the country will have more money available to help its allies in the region. An Iranian security official told the Reuters news agency that funding for the Revolutionary Guard and its international arm, the Quds Force, would increase.
“It is clear that our leaders will not hesitate to allocate more funds for the Revolutionary Guard when needed. More money (available) means more funds for the Guard,” another Iranian official told Reuters.
Saudi Arabia is seeing a new and decisive leadership in Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman, who took the throne in January 2015.
The military intervention in Yemen, led by the Saudis to contain the spread of the Houthi rebels, has lasted over 10 months and we show no sign of withdrawing from the conflict. Internally, reacting to the very low price of oil on the international market, our government increased the price of gasoline in December 2015 and, soon after, also increased the tariffs for electricity and water.
This new tough stance of the Saudis will not let the Iranians continue to present themselves to the world as innocents in the region. It is estimated that last year Iran executed a thousand people accused of various crimes. This is much more than the 150 that were executed in the Kingdom last year. From the outside, Iran may seem to be a more progressive country than Saudi Arabia, but behind the scenes it is the ayatollahs who hold power. And it is in Iran where government supporters still chant “Death to America! The United States is the Great Satan,” and not in Saudi Arabia.
The rocky relationship
This column was printed in Arab News on Jan. 17, 2016:
By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh
The recent visit of leftist Brazilian congressman Jean Wyllys to attend an academic conference at Hebrew University in Jerusalem caused a mini-storm of controversy in Brazil, with many pro-Palestinian activists accusing Wyllys of supporting Israeli propaganda and letting down the cause of the Palestinians.
It all started when the congressman posted a picture on his official Facebook page showing him standing in front of a Hebrew University sign. Critics were quick to point out that one of the university’s campuses is built on land confiscated from Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem. Members of his Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL) harshly criticized him, with the news website The Intercept reporting that Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, a Brazilian diplomat and former UN rapporteur on Myanmar, posted a video online in which he said: “Lamentable and deplorable, Congressman Jean Wyllys’ comments about his visit to Israel reveal a crass ignorance of and total misinformation about Israel’s current human rights policies.” The video was later removed.
The Intercept reported that the congressman was not even scheduled to visit the West Bank, but after the backlash he announced he would visit Bethlehem and perhaps Hebron. When some Brazilian voters commented that he should try to visit Gaza, the congressman said he would never be allowed to because of his “sexual orientation.” The Intercept noted that Hamas would never harm a visiting foreign politician.
Wyllys’ trip brought up the whole controversy surrounding the Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS) movement, which aims to pressure the Israeli government into accepting an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, into focus. The congressman said he was deeply opposed to any sort of boycott movement, saying that it only strengthened extremists on both sides of the conflict.
Another controversy currently rocking Brazil-Israel relations is the appointment of Dani Dayan by Israel to be their new ambassador in Brasilia. He headed the Yesha Council from 2007 to 2013, which represents the half-million illegal Israeli settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Dayan was appointed in August 2015, after the previous Israeli ambassador left Brazil after serving here for only a year. His appointment was announced on Twitter, even before the Israeli government officially communicated the decision to the Brazilian government. The Brazilian Foreign Ministry felt like it was being railroaded into accepting Dayan’s appointment, and has refused to accept his nomination, saying that Brazil considers the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem occupied territories and therefore does not want Dayan here. The Israelis have admitted privately that Dayan will have to be sent elsewhere.
Although Brazil is a strong supporter of Palestinians and their struggle for an independent homeland, they also buy many Israeli weapons. Brazil chooses Israeli weapons because their prices are often cheaper than western alternatives and the Israelis are willing to transfer the technology along with their weapons. The former Brazilian foreign minister, Celso Amorim, recently warned that Brazil was becoming too dependent on Israel for weapons, and said that the country should further diversify its arms suppliers.
Despite the efforts of the Israeli government to promote Israel in Brazil and get more Brazilians to visit and sympathize with them, most Brazilians have a strong sense of justice and see the Israeli oppression of Palestinians as not acceptable. Last year two very famous Brazilian singers, Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, received much criticism for a concert tour of Israel. The Israeli government and people were more than happy to receive them and host them, as Brazilian music is very popular in Israel. But when Veloso returned to Brazil he wrote a newspaper column saying he would never return to Israel as long as the Palestinian issue remained unresolved.
Wyllys has said he plans to return to Israel again if invited by leftist Israelis. But even so, the controversy surrounding his visit, and that of Veloso and Gil, shows that Israel, despite its best efforts, cannot hide what is happening to the Palestinians under its control. Israel may be a democratic oasis, but only if you are Jewish and Israeli. The lengths that Israel goes to control and oppress Palestinians gives lie to their propaganda that all is good in Palestine. It’s not and most everyone knows it.