BRASILIA, Brazil – Back in Brazil to visit the factory of the Brazilian aircraft manufacturer Embraer, I find that the major issues of the day here include the growing urban violence, the never-ending corruption of Brazilian politicians, and chaotic air travel caused by disgruntled air traffic controllers that has been ongoing since last year.
Last week, a domestic helper called Sirlei Dias, 32 years old, was violently attacked in Rio de Janeiro by a group of six young, middle class men as she waited at a bus stop to go to work. It was five o’clock in the morning and the men approached her laughing before punching her and kicking her repeatedly in the head and arms. Her crime? “We thought she was a prostitute,” said one of the youngsters after being arrested and booked at a police station.
Sirlei has become a national heroine after appearing repeatedly on national television to tearfully talk about being attacked and how a passing taxi driver scared the youths away and wrote down their car’s license plate number which would help the police arrest them later. Reports say that the young men could get up to 15 years in jail for their act of random violence, but not too many Brazilians really believe that they will actually be imprisoned that long. Many commentators here have pointed out that a group of young, middle class men who set afire a native Brazilian Indian sleeping on a bench at a bus stop in Brasilia ten years ago, and who subsequently died from his injuries, are already out of prison after only serving four years of a 15-year sentence.
Despite slavery having been completely outlawed in Brazil in 1888 by Princess Isabel, discrimination continues in acts of violence such as the one against Sirlei. She is mulatto, as are 39.1 percent of the 169,590,693 Brazilians, according to the 2000 Census. Her aggressors are all white.****BRAZILIAN politics have long been marred by widespread corruption, and the politicians of today are no different. The government of President Luis Inacio “Lula” da Silva has faced accusations of corruption for many years now, which Lula has been able to shrug off until now because none of it could be traced back directly to him.
Two major politicians are now fighting charges of having accepted illegal payments from private businessmen. Federal District Senator Joaquim Roriz of the PMDB party is accused of accepting a 2.2 million reais bribe (over $1 million). He tearfully denied this last week in the Senate, claiming that he had only accepted a loan of 300,000 reais ($150,000) to buy a cow! I doubt that many people are buying his explanation.
The president of the Senate, Renan Calheiros (PMDB-Alagoas), is also fighting charges of having accepted millions of reais from a prominent real estate developer and builder to help payoff his journalist lover and her child. Since the PMDB is in a ruling alliance with the Worker’s Party (PT), Lula has been vigorously defending Renan at every turn, even appearing on national television last week to say that the media should not accuse people who have not been tried by a court of law yet. With the full backing of Lula, Renan has been able to steamroll the Senate’s Ethics Committee into shelving its investigation into the accusations against him.****THE shock waves from the collision of a Gol Airlines Boeing 737 airliner and an American-owned Embraer Legacy jet last year over the Amazon, in which 175 people died, are still being felt today in Brazil.
Investigators blamed a series of unfortunate events, from the American pilots of the Legacy turning off their proximity transponder allegedly because they were annoyed by its incessant beeping in the cockpit, to the Brazilian air traffic controllers not being able to keep the two planes safely apart.
Air travel in Brazil has been chaotic ever since, with scores of flights being delayed or canceled on a daily basis throughout the country. Passengers blame greedy air traffic controllers, whom they accuse of being on go-slows in a bid to get salary increases. Air traffic controllers blame poor equipment and a lack of adequate training for the slowdown in Brazilian air travel.
TV news programs every day show irritated and angry Brazilian passengers screaming at airline personnel at airports across the country after waiting in check-in lines for hours only to find out that their flights have been canceled or that they have been bumped off flights because of overbooking. Airlines say that they are coping with these emergencies as best as they can, but that is poor consolation for frustrated and tired passengers who often have no choice but to sleep on the floor of the terminals.
The truth of the matter is that air traffic controllers are a part of the Brazilian Air Force, and as such are restricted in terms of promotion opportunities. Congress and even President Lula are aware that the controllers will have to eventually be put under civil aviation authority and professionalized further. The problem is that no one has the courage right now to confront the Brazilian military and take away yet one more of its powers leftover from the twenty one years of military dictatorship from the 1964 military coup until civilian rule was restored in 1985.