Watching Rio: Brazil’s political turmoil touches Seattle

The iconic "Christ the Redeemer" statue stands over Rio de Janeiro. (Photo from Flickr by Geraint Rowland)
The iconic “Christ the Redeemer” statue stands over Rio de Janeiro. (Photo from Flickr by Geraint Rowland)

Twenty-five years ago, Jovino Santos Neto played a show in Seattle and fell in love.

“It’s kind of like Rio,” says the Brazil native. “It has mountains, it has a lot of green, and it has water. Those are three things I like,” said Neto last week, a few days after performing at the Seattle Latin, Brazilian, and Caribbean Festival in Columbia City.

He liked the area so much that in 1993, Neto moved with his family from Rio de Janeiro to Seattle to study at Cornish College of the Arts. Since then he has become a teacher at the college, has been nominated for three Latin Grammy awards and, more recently, has watched from afar as his homeland struggled under the international spotlight in preparations for the Summer Olympics.

Rio de Janeiro hasn’t been able to escape controversy over problems with police brutality and polluted waters in the run up to the games. Last month Human Rights Watch released a report on police violence tallying 645 people killed by police in the state of Rio de Janeiro in 2015, and 8,000 such deaths over the past decade. Three quarters of those killed by police were black men.

Olympic-sized pressures

Brazil is the first country in South America to host the Olympics — and the first in Latin America since Mexico hosted back in 1968.

“All I can say is that I hope that it goes well,” Neto says. “Like you know, you want to feel proud of the city, but it’s also very difficult because it’s a city that has so many urban problems. Just problems because it’s a big city.”

Neto doesn’t see the turmoil in his home country the same way the average Seattleite might.

“Bad news doesn’t only come out of Brazil. Bad news comes out of everywhere. It depends what people focus on. You could say exactly the same thing about the United States. You could say the same thing about England, France, and Syria—or Israel,” he says. “And at the same time, bad news is bad. And you have to hope that people can change bad things into good things. There’s good things happening every day. I’m a musician. There’s fantastic music being played in Brazil every day.”

(Video by Jose Mariscal-Cruz)

Brazil’s political turmoil

The backdrop to the hurried Olympics preparations has been a tense national political drama in Brazil. Suspended President Dilma Rousseff will face impeachment proceedings later this month. The results of those proceedings could have current interim President Michel Temer holding the position till the next election, despite corruption charges of his own.

This is truly distressing, says Eduardo Mendonça, a Redmond-based recording artist and composer who also immigrated to the United States in the 1990s.

“I don’t trust that the Temer administration will change Brazil for the better,” Mendonca says. “If we look at his cabinet and ministers he put in to support his time there as interim president, it is one hundred percent male, and one hundred percent white. There is no representation at all of the Brazilian people there.”

But where Mendonça see trouble, Neto takes a longer view.

”This is nothing new. The only thing that has changed is, if you’re talking about corruption in Brazil, like, ‘Oh my god, there’s so much corruption now in Brazil.’ No. Brazil was created as a country to be a place of exploitation, of slavery, of paying people very little to get a lot of things out of it — it was a colony,” he says.

Neto believes that the only thing that has changed since the beginning of time is that “people carry little devices that can record and film” and that “we have records” that can show it now.

Protesters demand the ouster of suspended President Dilma Rousseff in Sao Paulo on July 31. On the same day, there were protests in Rio against her replacement, Michel Temer. (Photo from Reuters / Rodrigo Paiva)
Protesters demand the ouster of suspended President Dilma Rousseff in Sao Paulo on July 31. On the same day, there were protests in Rio against her replacement, Michel Temer. (Photo from Reuters / Rodrigo Paiva)

Impacts in Seattle

Temer has already given hints as to what he’d do with a longer term as president — imposing austerity measures to reduce the national debt and privatizing certain state-owned companies. President Rousseff made her share of program cuts as well, and Brazilians here in the Seattle area say they are feeling the impacts.

“Even before [Temer] came money was short,” said Professor Orlando Baiocchi, Co-Director of the Center for Brazilian Studies at the UW Tacoma. “One person we were supposed to have here for a year didn’t get any funding. We had a program that was started by Dilma [Rousseff] called, Science Without Borders, where we had Brazilian undergraduates come here. We had for three consecutive years, the best of their respective programs, who did a lot of research work for us. But the money has been short, so now the program has been dislocated.”

I asked Neto about how friends and family back in Brazil have reacted to all the changes.

“People don’t really know what’s happening. They say, ‘oh, you’re so lucky to be in the United States where this sort of thing does not happen.’” he reflects. “The same stuff that happens in different places but happens in different forms…The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence,”

When I asked if all the political upheaval would make him less likely to go to Brazil in the future, Santos didn’t hesitate:

“Oh no, if I happen to have my way I’d go there all the time. I like to travel. My idea of a happy life is not one where I am always in one place,” he said. “I want to go back many, many times. I don’t think that whatever happens politically in Brazil is going to effect that.”

This post was produced as part of the Globalist Youth Apprenticeship program. The program is funded in part by the Seattle Office of Arts & Culture and the Community Technology Fund.