Tag Archives: corruption

Movements Against Corruption Afoot in Brazil

6 Sep

The performance of Brazil’s Congress, and particularly the governing coalition makes one wonder whether the nation’s deliberative process should be moved somewhere else— far away from the alleged ‘representatives of the people.’ Congress is where the government’s coalition ‘allies’ select their robber baron cabinet ministers, the same ones that have been resigning one after the next in the wake of President Dilma Rousseff’s spring cleaning. Yet despite the rash of corruption scandals over the past months, and one particularly egregious ‘secret vote’ that recently absolved a deputy of grand corruption charges, a few bright spots have begun to appear. These include a parliamentary movement against corruption and a September 7th “March Against Corruption” in support of President Rousseff’s efforts to purge Brasilia.

The Super-Party Front Against Corruption

Senator Pedro Simon

A group of parliamentarians led by Senator Pedro Simon (PMDB) have announced the creation of a “Super-Party Front Against Corruption.” The movement supports the faxina or cleaning that began shortly after President Rousseff took power.  According to the Jornal Globo, Simon asks that the President, “dialogue with us, chat, sit together to find a solution.” Simon’s plea does not sound like unconditional support for the fight against corruption, but rather a return to the amiguismo and ‘consensus impunity’ status quo. But at least the establishment of a ‘front’ against corruption is a promising sign that incentives are moving in the right direction.

Can Electoral Rewards for Ethical Behavior Change Congress?

One Deputy reinforces the idea that incentives to prioritize ethics do exist. Deputy  Jose Reguffe, a 38 year-old Deputy from Brasilia, is an ethical crusader who gave up half his staff, his complete travel allowance, and part of his ‘extra’ salary, because he’d rather save public money than receive funds he claims he doesn’t need. In proportional terms, Reguffe won more votes than any other member of Congress (266.5K), and with very little campaign money. The clear inference is that Brazilians reward honesty and ethical behavior. Although perhaps not the most novel conclusion for readers used to seeing dishonest behavior punished, it is highly significant for a country where assumed or proven dishonesty often has little bearing on election results or political support more generally.

Unchecked Impunity

Bribe-Taker, Roriz

Last week’s secret vote in the Lower House, which successfully absolved Deputy Jaqueline Roriz of corruption charges, provides a point-in-case of the sort of impunity that has long muddied the reputation of Congress. In 2006 Roriz was caught red-handed on tape accepting a bribe of R$50,000 (US$33,000) in public money. Yet deputies justified the 235-166 vote in favor of absolution by claiming that Roriz had not yet been vested as a federal deputy when the film was shot—  instead she was a state deputy at the time. The fact that a proven thief of public money continues to pose as a public servant seems to have escaped Congress’ sense of higher justice, much less its sense of irony. Irony of ironies, the ‘representatives of the people’ employed a very unrepresentative institutional mechanism –the ‘secret parliamentary vote’ – to endorse another desolating setback for parliament.

The March Against Corruption

But there is increasing movement against corruption and impunity. Tomorrow is Brazilian Independence Day, the 7th of September, and marches against corruption are set to take place across Brazil. The movement, simply called the “March Against Corruption” (marcha contra a corrupção) has been quietly accumulating supporters through social media, including Youtube (and here) and Facebook.

Organization against corruption is a positive step forward. As I wrote about a couple of posts ago, Brazilians have a reputation for passivity in the face of injustice. Yet it remains to be seen whether the March will prove little more than a fleeting protest. Discouragingly, the mainstream media has been providing very little coverage of the event.

The hands-off approach of the media makes perfect sense, however; zealous coverage of recent corruption scandals has led government to once more brandish the ‘media reform’ card. In the wake of the government’s efforts to purge corruption from federal ministries, especially those most involved in preparations for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics,  it seems the strategy is now to use the media as a scapegoat. This is the media’s cue to play nice. Stay tuned.

Why Don’t Brazilians React?

22 Aug

Juan Arias

The Fateful Question of El País Correspondent Juan Arias

Search for the question “por que os brasileiros não reagem?” (Why don’t Brazilians react?) or the phrase, “do Brazilians really not know how to react to hypocrisy and their leaders’ lack of ethics?” (“Será que os brasileiros não sabem reagir à hipocrisia e à falta de ética de muitos dos que os governam?”) and you will find pages upon pages of Brazilian bloggers and media outlets responding to an editorial by Juan Arias, a Brazilian correspondent of El País, and re-published in the Jornal Globo in mid-July.

Corruption scandals have brought down three ministers since President Dilma Rousseff took power, and many forget that Erenice Guerra—who was Rousseff’s first lieutenant while the now-President was Chief of Staff (later to become her replacement when Rousseff joined the 2010 presidential race)— was also sent packing in late 2010 after revelations of nepotism, influence-peddling and corruption.

Unmoved by A Global Movement toward Positive Political Upheaval

Why Brazilians have not reacted strongly against so many high-level corruption dismissals is a question worth asking. Grassroots protests towards corruption and poor governance continue to erupt all around the world. Globally, we are living a moment of positive political upheaval, but Brazil seems unmoved by clear evidence that their democracy is rife with graft.

Here are three significant good governance uprisings in well-established democracies that have occurred within the last three months or so:

1. Spain’s 15-M Movement or “Real Democracy Now movement!” (Democracia Real Ya!) responds to the mis-governance and corruption that has driven Spain to the brink of insolvency, resulting in unemployment rates in excess of 20 percent. Youth unemployment, at more than 40 percent, undoubtedly stands as one of the main drivers of protests. Rallies peaked in mid May, 2011, when more than 130,000 people across Spain protested poor governance, and 50,000 in Madrid alone. One of the key demands is passage of a freedom of information law, a measure promised since 2004 and only introduced to parliament a month ago. Protesters continue to engage in cat-and-mouse tactics with police and politically motivated vandalism has been rampant over the last months.

2. India’s Kisan Baburao Hazare went on a hunger strike in April 2011 in order to protest governmental feet-dragging on an anti-corruption bill. The LokPal bill would create an ombudsmen to investigate corruption in government without the need for the parliament’s to approve of each investigation. When a joint committee failed to meet expectations, Hazare threatened to go on another indefinite hunger strike. Thrown in jail before he could make good on the threat, urban India erupted in protests last week—in one day more than 1100 protesters ended-up in Mumbai’s jails. Authorities had little choice but to release Hazare, who has now given the government a deadline of August 30th to pass the anti-corruption bill. These efforts follow in the legacy of India’s 2005 Right-to-know success, in which citizen efforts led to the passage of one of the world’s most advanced and efficacious freedom of information laws.

3. Chile’s protests for education reform: Beginning in May and evoking concrete political responses, protesters seeking to reform Chile’s complex three-tiered private-public system have conducted massive protests. One of the latest “flash protests” on August 3rd resulted in the arrest of more than 800 students and teachers. President Sebastián Piñera’s public approval ratings have plummeted as a result of these protests against Chile’s allegedly “neoliberal” education system.

Pitched Debates

So why have Brazilians not responded to corruption scandals – proof of unethical governance –  in the same way as protesters in Spain or India? Yes, Brazilians are doing fine economically, but India and Chile are not doing so badly either. And while Brazil has a relatively new democracy, so does Chile. So what might account for a high corruption threshold in Brazil?

Arias’ question inspired pitched debates among the media, activists, and bloggers. A disturbing number of people condemned the audacity of a foreign reporter (“Arias, why don’t you shut up?”) for criticizing Brazil, especially in the light of Spain’s current troubles. Others used Arias’ article as a hook to talk about the muteness of Brazilians on other pressing issues yet to be satisfactorily addressed in Brazil, such as inequality and injustice. Some commentators on Transparencia Hacker, a listserve to which I subscribe, have fatalistically lamented the country’s incorrigible political culture; and still others offered interesting explanations for the malaise of political passivity in Brazil.

“It’s the PT’s fault”

I am most interested in responses that address this last line of reasoning. Why don’t Brazilians take to the streets? Veja’s Reinaldo Azevedo advanced the hypothesis that a lack of political activism in Brazil is a direct result of nearly a decade of PT (Partido Trabalhista) government.

Azevedo views the PT to have co-opted the public domain. He says the PT has exercised a certain “monopoly” over the public space. It has achieved this dominance because it has propagated the idea that “the plaza is of the people, just as the people are of the PT.”In other words, how can the public protest if the party in power is one-and-the-same as the public?

Azevedo also blames the PT for having co-opted those public actors most likely to lead protests. He alleges that the PT has bought-off most of the traditional corporatist sectors, such as the National Student Union (UNE). In this view, the ones most likely to lead protests are public-sector unions and PT-linked movements such as the Landless Movement for Agrarian Reform (Movimento Sem Terra). This corporatist perspective of protest seems to be excessively 1970s.

Finally, Azevedo blames the media, who he views to have ceded too much space to the left; so much, indeed, that the country no longer allots any space for a right-leaning discourse. In short, Azevedo views the PT to have exercised so much control over the public, traditional activists, and the media that Brazilians have become passive observers.

These are provocative explanations for Brazil’s political apathy, but I think there are a couple of other hypotheses that deserve further exploration:

1. Brasilia.

They protested in New Delhi outside of parliament; they protested outside the Palacio de las Cortes in Madrid; they protested in government plazas in Santiago. But can you really expect anyone to protest in Brasilia?  The city is more than a thousand kilometers away from Brazil’s largest cities, São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Moreover, practically everyone who lives in Brasilia works directly or indirectly for the government. Who’s to protest? When the capital was Rio de Janeiro, prior to the 1960s, this country was much more politicized. Indeed, hyper-politicization and stalemate in Congress contributed to the military coup of 1964. In short, the location of the capital renders politics distant from the everyday lives of Brazilians, literally and figuratively.

2. Brazil has come a long way in a short time.

Since hyper-inflation in the 1980s and early 1990s to stable macro-economics, stable presidents, and the deliverance of tens of millions from poverty to the working class, Brazil has made huge strides. Sure, corruption is bad, but things get done (“rouba, mas faz”).

3. There’s no one to blame.

In india, Chile, and Spain there are two dominant political parties or coalitions. In Brazil, party arrangements are much more fluid. Sure, it’s government versus opposition, but the governing PT has less than 20 percent of seats in Congress, forcing it to form coalitions with close to a dozen parties (of 23 total). Opposition parties may join the government coalition, and government coalition members may drop out to become opposition. Two of the three Ministers who resigned from their posts were from allied, coalition parties. Should Rousseff be held responsible for parties that expect to enrich themselves at the public expense in return for their support in Congress? Who should take the blame when there are so many parties? Perhaps if there were four parties protests could be better directed…but 23?

4. Education.

The average time spent in formal education is just above seven years in Brazil. Politics is complex; and a reasonable education—formal or informal—is usually required to understand and expect basic standards of political behavior. In Chile, the average years spent in school is over nine and most importantly, the best educated of Chile’s citizens live at the doorstep of power, in the protest-ready capital, Santiago.

5. What’s to complain about?

The system works for the middle classes upwards, so why should these more educated sectors protest? The economy is doing well, and a strong Real means more trips to go shopping in Miami. The public sector is so large and their salaries and benefits so luxurious that they rival those of most northern countries. As I write about here, scholars Wendy Hunter and Natasha Sugiyama observed that about a quarter of Brazil’s education budget goes to universities, which enroll less than two percent of the total student population (mostly from wealthier families, to be sure). Public sector corruption does result in higher taxes, but with a little ingenuity many in the elite can find ways around these annoyances. That’s Brazil’s got an enormous burden of value-added taxes, which tend to fall hardest on the poor. So if you’re well educated, what’s there to complain about?

6. Cultures of consensus.

“Tudo bom?” (“Everything good?”)

“Everything’s well” (“tudo bem.”).

For better or for worse, Brazil is a country where it is culturally expected that people will conform to agreement, happiness, and accord. This idea is elegantly captured by Brazil’s quizzical everyday greetings: “tudo bom?” (everything good?), “tudo joia?” (everything like a jewel?), “Beleza?” (beauty?).  It is a place where there is a strong social aversion to discord. To question is not native to the culture. Criticism and constructive criticism are often viewed as one and the same. In short, it is the kind of place where most people would prefer to steer clear of the negative. I write about these issues in different ways, here and here. Beleza? Joia?

7. Globo

The TV network has over 70 percent of the national market and is the third largest network in the world. They own interests in newspapers, magazines, broadband, you name it. With this type of influence, you’d want to make sure that things stay even-keeled too.

I love Brazil. My children will be Brazilian. That’s why I believe it’s essential we debate questions like Juan Arias’, to face-up to the corruption that keeps Brazil perpetually the country of the future.

Reviewing the New Brazilian President’s 1st Semester: Politics

15 Jul

This past Wednesday night Dilma Rousseff threw a cocktail party to celebrate the end of her government’s first semester and the beggining of the National Legislature’s mid July break. According to LatinNews.com, 17 of 38 ministers made an appearance, as did the Presidents of both Chambers of Congress and the Vice President. The event began at 7:30, but by 9pm most invitees had already left. The lukewarm turnout and hasty departures reflect a palpable lack of enthusiasm for Rousseff’s performance after six months in power.

To her credit, the President has kept the economy buoyant while Europe and the U.S. tank, and she has added continuity to former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s achievements by expanding and inventing new social programs, such as the new Program to Fight Extreme Misery (Programa de Combate à Miseria Extrema). But apart from these significant bright spots, the President’s policy performance has been halting at best and weak at worst. Overall, the clearest trend has been to privilege the unity of her legislative coalition at the cost of policy priorities, ultimately making a success of neither.

The Coalitional Problem

Notwithstanding the largest majority coalition in Brazil’s democratic history, the president has had extreme difficulty ensuring congress’ support. Supposed allies have disobeyed and blackmailed Rousseff, weakening or delaying governmental policy priorities, particularly those critical to Brazil’s future sustainability and stability— Forestry Legislation (Código Forestal), the establishment of a Truth Commission, and the passage of a Freedom of Information Law, among others.

On the other hand, Congress has merrily passed measures to increase opacity in budgetary accounting, as was the case with decree 527/11, ostensibly designed to expedite contracting for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics. One of the few members of the congressional opposition, PSDB party leader, Aecio Neves, commented:

In all, absolutely all modern societies, transparency or the advance of transparency is seen as an instrument to defend [the rights of] society. Here we are taking a contrary path, employing the argument that we’re in a hurry, as if we had just now discovered, over the last couple of months, that we would host the World Cup and the Olympics.

The Corruption Problem

Despite Congress’ role in obstructing the President, resisting transparency, and supporting opacity, it has predictably blamed the President for a lackluster first semester. “In this first semester,” according to the President of the Senate, José Sarney, “the crises that emerged were all within the Executive.”

It is true that Rousseff has had to replace no less than four ministers in her first six months in office, including two as a result of major corruption scandals. First to go was Antonio Palocci, the President’s Chief of State and congressional fixer. It was the Folha de São Paulo that discovered a multiplication of 20 in the político’s net worth over four years. Apartments and other assets had been registered under false names.

Second was Rousseff’s Transport Minister, Alfredo Nascimento, a coalitional cabinet posting for the PR, an important ally. Nascimento’s ministry and PR congressional leaders had skimmed untold amounts from the massive public transport projects in advance of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics. Nascimento then had the gall to ask Rousseff for an additional $6.5 billion because of budget shortfalls.

While the Transport Minister’s entourage was forced to resign, it appeared that Nascimento himself had escaped the axe. Then it was discovered that the net worth of the Minister’s son had increased from somewhere under US$130,000 to around US$20 million in a matter of a few short years. The Minister’s resignation—which Rousseff should have ordered from the very beginning—soon followed suit.

It is widely suspected that the leak responsible for this scandal originated within the President’s sphere of influence. Rousseff is viewed to support a housekeeping of corrupt rent-seekers, many of whom, like Nascimento, are hangovers from President Lula’s two administrations. When Rousseff finally did choose a replacement minister for Nascimento, the PR appeared to be unhappy with choices made; this past Wednesday it boycotted a lunch for PT allies in the Lower House.

The need to pander to congressional allies is the critical reason Rousseff has not acted with greater decisiveness. Some, including the author, originally thought that what Rousseff lacked in negotiating ability, she would make up for in fearsome authority. Yet with congressional legislators disloyal to ideology and local constituencies, negotiation through pork and positions seems to be one of few alternatives.

Rousseff’s decision not to spend last year’s residual budget funds is illustrative of what can happen when legislators are denied resources. When Rousseff refused to release funds for pork barrel spending, the Lower House conducted a boycott; not even her own party would vote for critical health legislation until Rousseff caved-in, disbursing the US$3 billion she had sought to save taxpayers. Such defeats illustrate that Rousseff still has much to learn about legislative hardball.

Next post will review Rousseff’s performance on policy.

Why the Media Have Made the Palocci Scandal into a Crisis

6 Jun

Research shows that the news media’s issue-attention cycle tends to be short, averaging about three days for a major story. When it diverges from this norm, you can bet that the event is either truly sensational or else the media has a vested interest in it.

In the case of the first major ‘crisis’ to hit the Rousseff Administration, it appears that zealous coverage of a scandal–for more than two weeks–can be explained principally by the former.

The Scandal

The scandal concerns Antonio Palocci, the President’s Chief of Staff (akin to a prime minister in the Brazilian system), and the issue at hand began with Palocci’s personal estate, which in four years experienced fantastic multiplications. From well under half a million dollars in 2006, by 2011 Palocci’s fortune had expanded twenty-fold, effectively transforming a professional politician into a multimillionaire in less than half a decade. Even more suspicious, most of the money was made in ‘consulting fees’ during the 2010 presidential election.

To be sure, the rapid enrichment of a once-finance minister (2003-2006) deserves investigation, especially since Palocci’s wealth began to skyrocket just after he became one of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s sacrificial sheep, resigning in the heat of the 2006 Mensalão Scandal.

What is Special About the Palocci Case?

Yet by the same token, no shortage of untoward behavior, questionable enrichment, or murky contracts can be found in Brazilian politics. It just so happens that the media has arranged its soldiers along this story line and appears unwilling to let it go out with a whimper, unlike the vast majority of stories conforming to this sordid genre.

Current media attention is not unjustified. ‘Influence trafficking’ pervades Brazilian politics and ought to be addressed, particularly at the highest levels of government where examples trickle down. Palocci also deserves scrutiny. The Minister’s record is spotty at best, and Rousseff ought to have known better than to bring back a skeleton of Lula’s administration—even if the appointment was Lula’s prerogative, as opposed to her own.

Hidden Agenda: the Forestry Code?

But the dogged media focus goes far beyond ethics and bad apples. The issue is inextricably connected to one of the most important pieces of legislation that the Rousseff administration will consider—the Forestry Code (O Código Forestal) now being considered in the legislature. As a representative for the government’s hard-line stance against illegal deforestation and for conservation, Palocci is an easy target for those seeking to express their dissatisfaction with official prerogatives. Many legislators seek a more ‘relaxed’ Forestry Code—the code of agribusiness, mining, hydro, and logging interests– an inestimably powerful lobby here in Brazil.

Even the government’s major ally in Congress, the PMDB, supported weakening amendments to the Forestry Code. The PMDB’s perfidy resulted in a tense exchange between Rousseff’s Vice-President, Michel Temer (PMDB), and Palocci at the end of May, undoubtedly kindling incendiary media coverage.

Opportunities for Media Criticism

Fueling this drama is the media’s persistent and sympathetic coverage of calls for a Palocci crucification. To hit at the government right now is opportune. President Rousseff has demonstrated an unsteady command thus far; her public appearances and displays of authority have been infrequent and unimpressive. The Rousseff government supports environmental legislation that is unpopular with big businesses and industries, many of whom are the media’s top advertisers. Most media outlets also tend to lean right and, in addition to supporting business interests, claim to defend ethical behavior in government. These, in short, are a few of the reasons why the media has marched the Palocci affair into the ground.

Lessons on the Media

What can be taken from all of this? First, the media chooses its battles opportunistically and this one just happens to runs along several strategic frontiers. Second, and most regrettably, zealous coverage of the Palocci scandal demonstrates the irony of a media that performs spectacularly as a watchdog once in a while, but that constantly lacks the capacity to act as guide dog. In other words, while outlets indirectly support calls for a Palocci resignation by giving critics air-time, they are short on lending a voice to advocates trying to prevent ethical lapses from occurring in the first place. The Folha de São Paulo did provide some interesting coverage on consulting fees in light of Palocci’s millionaire earnings, but these too fall short of looking at the implications and solutions of current public policies and political configurations.

Ironically, a freedom of information law sits in the Senate awaiting passage and, despite a rich opportunity to broach themes related to transparency, the media has barely uttered a whisper about the measure over the past weeks—even though Congress was supposed to pass the law more than 20 days ago, on May 18th. Noise about what holds Brazil back must be balanced by vested coverage of how to move it forward.

Narrowing or Widening the Fountainhead of Corruption?

7 Apr

One of the oldest tenets of corruption theory is that election campaign contributions constitute the fountainhead of corruption in government. To repay that three million dollar contribution of BankX, elected candidate X proposes a bill to lower taxes on bank profits. Simple stuff.

Conventional thinking is that if you eliminate this patron-client relationship by financing campaigns with public taxpayer money, the result will be less corporate influence and corruption in government. But at what cost?

Mexico’s system is completely publicly funded, meaning that parties receive money from the Federal Electoral Institute on a proportional basis (based on representation) and cannot accept donations from other sources. The system costs taxpayers over two billion dollars (between 12 and 13 billion pesos per election) per presidential cycle–one presidential and one midterm election.

The U.S. system is privately funded and the result is massive corporate influence in politics, but at the very least  taxpayers do not have to pick up the tab directly (although they may pay for it indirectly through bad policy or tax cuts and privileges for corporations). In 2008, the most expensive election ever, the U.S. spent $2.8 billion on elections. Per capita, this is about twice what Mexico spends on a presidential election, in real terms, unadjusted for purchasing price parity.

A few days ago, the government of Dilma Rousseff deployed its majority in the Committee on Political Reform to pass public financing— the first step to a plenary vote and its ultimate approval as law. In partisan terms, it’s a good time for the government to advance public funding: financing is based on current representation in Congress, and because the government of Dilma Rousseff has an overwhelming coalition majority, the governing parties will be the recipients of most of the public funds to be doled out in the coming election. Traditionally having benefited from the favor of the private sector, the PSDB and parties in the opposition unsurprisingly voted against the proposal.

The pressing question is how much publicly-funded elections will cost in Brazil. Given that there are close to 30 political parties represented in the National Congress, funding might get complicated and imply heavy costs. Under one of the heaviest tax burdens in the world, can Brazilians afford to pay for such a system?

Considering the Diversion of Public Monies in Brazil -A Cool US$35 Billion for Starters

31 Mar

US$35 billion of public monies stolen. A colossal affront to the cities and country they work for? Yes. Preventable? Not yet.

The most significant news item on the diversion of public monies I have seen in some time appeared in yesterday’s Globo as the lead opinion piece: “The Indicators Show Billions Stolen.” The article cites grim figures: of 131 municipalities audited by the Comptroller General, 90 percent showed irregularities; and it is estimated that municipal officials and their accomplices steal 30% of federal and state transfers– US$ 35 billion dollars (R$60 billion) a year. As the author notes, this sum could tidily pay for Brazil’s primary schooling goals, or a presidential term’s worth of Bolsa familia conditional cash transfers –2.5 percent of Brazil’s annual GDP, which goes to its 44 million poorest (11 million families).

Minor in raw numbers, the second news item is equally disturbing. In the poor state of Amazonas, a Federal Police operation on ‘over-billing,’ found that the State University of Amazonas paid US$380,000 (R$615,000) for a website that should have cost US$3000. The contracting official and contractor would have split the excess funds.

In most advanced democracies, citizens, journalists, public advocates or competing firms tend to be the first to note over-billing or billing to nonexistent companies. But note how in both of these articles government entities did the auditing? Without a complete transparency infrastructure — the sort that can only be laid out by a comprehensive Freedom of Information Law — citizens will be unable to help government account for the $30 billion diverted by municipal governments and their co-conspirators. It’s also costly to have government officials do all the sleuthing.

Seeing as Brazilians labor under one of the heaviest tax burdens in the world, it’s about time to start ‘following the money’ and adopting the tools to do so. As the father of billionaire Eike Batista stated at an event I recently attended at the Rio de Janeiro Industrial Association (FIRJAN), the country cannot, should not, and need not go on “with the taxes of Switzerland and the services of Angola.” The country’s freedom of information law awaits passage in the Senate.

Rio’s Unfortunate Police Force

29 Aug

Carolina and I were eating our breakfast at a little joint we favor for mixto quentes com ovo (ham, cheese and egg sandwiches) and açai. Today was a busy Sunday, and late-morning there were quite a few people trying to put in their order for açai and salgados. Up walks a police officer, a short black fellow, buds in front of a few people and shouts at a kid behind the counter to put a few things in a bag. The kid looks at him with a mixture of fear and acquiescence, and does as he’s told. Carol pointed out the scene to me. Afterward she said,
“I bet he didn’t pay. The police in Rio do this sort of thing all the time.”
I was curious about whether this indeed was the routine petty extortion I hear so much about. So after finishing my meal I went to the kid behind the counter.
“The policeman who was here, does he pay?”
“No…he doesn’t pay…” the kid responded.
Then the manager jumped in.
“Yes, he pays, he pays,” he said with some urgency.
Carol and I walked away knowing that the kid had told the truth, the manager had told what was safer to tell.

Even though we have had few encounters with the police here in Rio, they have not been pleasant. While we were looking for an entrance to a Botofogo soccer game, Carol went up to a couple of policemen leaning leisurely against their vehicle. As she came close they looked her up and down, their mouths slightly open, making no attempt to disguise their sexual intent. Carol was disturbed.
“Imagine them, police, wearing a uniform and hired to serve the public, acting like a couple of jackass adolescents.”

If Rio is to overcome crime, perhaps those in charge of this task should first stop acting like criminals.