Memorial Day – 2015

In the US, Memorial Day represents the start of summer. It is celebrated with hamburgers and hotdogs and represent a sort of poorman’s churrasco in America.

The official holiday was established after World War I to pay homage to those who died in war.

America’s modern volunteer Army has become increasingly set apart from the rest of society.  When U.S. servicemen and women return from the nation’s numerous wars, they no longer garner much special respect even when they come back lifeless. Those living and returning suffer  suicide and illnesses, such as PTSD, at much higher rates than the general population. The Veteran’s Administration – the special government agency that is tasked with assisting returning service men and  women – has one of the poorest reputations of all public agencies in the U.S.

Brazil is fortunate in not being involved in foreign wars. But as we know, Brazil is a nation at war with itself.  It is common to hear the expression ‘civil war’ when describing urban violence in Brazil.  Other analysts state that the social contract has broken down and that the cordiality long noted as a defining characteristic of society has pretty much disappeared.

These complaints typically arise and become more strident due to particularly shocking crimes that gain notoriety in the press and on TV.  Last week, for example, a cardiologist was stabbed and died as thieves took his bicycle during his ride around Rio de Janeiro’s Rodrigo de Freitas lake, an upper class neighborhood in the favored “Zona Sul” of the city.  The assailants, one of whom was apprehended, appear to be minors from the slums that surround Rio’s wealthy neighborhoods.

The cardiologist’s murder brings into close focus Brazil’s class divide.  A well trained doctor, most likely white, with a good income, an excellent job, who was dedicated to saving lives is brutally and senselessly stabbed by young, probably black men, with few skills and training, no jobs and no future except to be hunted down and probably killed by Brazilian police or death squads. Many of these death squads are often composed of blacks and mulatos seeking a way out of circumstances often as dire as those of the assailants.  The white upper class is victimized and the response ranges from passivity to collective actions involving people coming together to celebrate a Catholic mass or some religious service.  The cardiologist’s death may give rise to neighborhood movements of solidarity and even the emergence of “white” or elite class gangs set upon revenge and “justice” outside Brazil’s creaky and ineffective legal system.   Last year, perhaps in imitation of Breaking Bad, such vigilantes nearly beat to death and left naked, locked by the neck to a post, a young black kid accused of petty theft.  The lower class, too, can also be considered “victims” as they are viewed as only “marginal” by the upper and middle class.

Of course, the whole cycle of white/black -rich/poor violence has been going on throughout Brazil’s well known and turbulent history of exploitation, slavery and revolt.  The tensions of this system were  partially attenuated and managed through patrimonial distribution of goods to those with connections and through the patriarchal support of a mentor or stepparent figure (often the state).  In a period such as the current one of rising expectations with declining ability to deliver, there is a rise in frustration and violence.  The rigidity of Brazil’s class system plus the increasing complexity of a diverse society of over 200 million no longer affords the extended personal networks of family and friends to alleviate stress except in rare exceptional cases, i.e. a middle class family supports the education of the maid’s child and he/she makes it into the university.

Brazil’s rates of violence have been among the highest in the world for a long time.  In the western hemisphere, only a few Central American countries and Venezuela have higher rates of violence.  It was to be hoped that the Worker’s Party’s support of greater equality in Brazil,  including a fairer distribution of social goods, and higher levels access to education, that violence might come down.  Rio specifically has been trying to promote “community policing” and better police interaction with citizens through the UPP (Pacification Units Program) that sought to make the favelas safer as well as the surrounding environs.  Of course, these programs are being directly questioned as to their effectiveness and many in the slums see them only as “occupying forces” who are no better than the drug gangs that the UPPs seek to replace.

Brazil made it quite successfully (except for the national team) through the World Cup last year.  It is likely to shine almost as brightly (on TV) with the Rio Olympics.  Unfortunately, the deeper problems of social conflict and inequality will not be resolved, and certainly, Dilma, Lula and the PT (Worker’s Party) no longer seem to offer a solution to the national dilemma of peace and inclusion.  Likewise, the opposition parties, in turn, provide no sensible alternative. The result is that Brazil is left adrift in search of itself, its soul and perhaps a leader.  This will no doubt lead to the renewal of the Brazilian Diaspora and the enhanced frustration and exasperation of those who stay.

Perhaps Brazil should have a memorial to the 50,000 killed yearly in violent crimes through muggings, assaults, thefts and mayhem;  together with another 50,000 killed in vehicle accidents every twelve months. BUT then again our memories are short and such ceremonies, as in the US, may only turn into moments to enjoy a beer and a burger “ou um churrasquinho”.

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