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A wide gap remains between the `two Brazils'.

Byline: Kevin Cape For The Register-Guard

RIO DE JANEIRO - People here talk about crime the way others discuss the weather - and seem equally resigned to both.

"Several more bodies turned up in Ipanema the other day," a man from the famous beach neighborhood told me, "One poor fellow was found in the trunk of his abandoned car, 50 meters from a police station."

Although Brazil has long been known for its high murder rate, people here are noticeably more insecure than when I visited several years ago. Police respond that the problem is not statistically worse, though governments around the world are known for massaging crime figures.

"The problem is that the bandidos have become both more violent and more omnipresent," another Ipanema resident said. "A few years ago, most of the violence was confined to the favelas (slums). Occasionally, gangs made forays into more prosperous areas, but if you handed over your car keys or money, they left you alone. Now, they kill you for fun."

Certainly the lucrative profits of the drug trade have fed a veritable arms race. When 250 policemen stormed the favela of Sao Carlos on March 4, they were backed by two rocket--firing helicopters, only to find among the traffickers' arsenal an anti-aircraft weapon capable of penetrating armor - or downing a helicopter.

So even as Rio, the Cidade Maravilhosa, celebrated the 443rd anniversary of its founding this month, the party was dampened by complaints that large urban areas have been let down by successive governments. "It's not only crime, but also really brazen political corruption," one restaurateur commented. "For example, the government gave out 7,000 credit cards to top civil servants to make their expenses more transparent, but they just went on a spending spree."

Local grumbling also has been accentuated by the handling of a dengue fever epidemic sweeping through the city's favelas. The stagnant water that is the breeding ground for the dengue-bearing mosquitoes should have been drained or sprayed several months ago, when the epidemic first was identified. Yet bureaucratic inertia was such that serious eradication efforts did not begin until nearly 20 people had died.

All of this contrasts starkly with a different Brazil, the "B" in BRIC, the others being the new economic stars, Russia, India and China. While Brazil's economic growth rate, about 5 percent, has been the least rapid of the four, international investment has been pouring in, and the Bovespa stock index has gained more over the past 12 months than that of any other major economy.

Brazilian newspapers are chortling over the news that the famous dollar bear, Warren Buffett, has made $100 million by betting on the rise of the Brazilian real against the dollar. Buffett is quoted lavishly in the local press as saying, "I never would have done this a few years ago."

Some of the credit for this economic confidence must go to the pragmatic stewardship of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (known as Lula), who has provided help for the poor without scaring the international financial community, unlike the erratic Hugo Chavez of Venezuela.

Another element of this country's rise is high commodity prices for its exports, such as soya beans, oil and iron ore. Brazil also is moving up on the valued-added scale. Its star aviation company, Embraer, now produces high-tech executive jets, for which the firm has an order backlog of five or six years. (Readers who have taken short trips within the Pacific Northwest have probably been on one of Embraer's small prop-jets.)

Yet the paradox of the two Brazils remains: on one hand, the darling of international investors; on the other, a place of grinding crime and corruption. The minimum wage has just been raised to $250 per month, but the tens of millions who rely on it often have to work several jobs.

While Lula's government has managed to provide relative security for international capital, local militias provide it in crime-ridden neighborhoods. The justice ministry has said that militias now dominate 115 communities of Rio de Janeiro state (which surrounds the city). Made up of off-duty police, military, firemen and the like, these paramilitaries offer security - for a price.

In a rough neighborhood above Ipanema, a friend gathered "a little insurance money" to pay a smiling paramilitary figure, who arrived almost comically, machine gun around his neck, two revolvers in his belt. I looked down at the glittering beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana, beguilingly close, yet a mirage for many.

Lula deserves credit for bringing the two Brazils closer, but the gap still is stunningly wide.

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Eugene native Kevin Cape is a teacher and writer living in Paris.
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Title Annotation:Commentary
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Mar 11, 2008
Words:779
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