A not-so-merry Christmas in Natal
Once lauded as a rapidly developing nation with a great future Brazil, one of the “BRICs”, has seen its economy crash and, like much of the protected forest areas, is in flames.
In recent years Brazil has suffered embarrassing publicity. The impeachment of Brazil’s first woman President, Dilma, investigations in respect of corruption on a massive scale, the near impeachment of Michel Temer, Dilma’s successor, and now the failure of the Government to pay public servant salaries since October.
The operations of the police force in the Northeastern state of Rio Grande do Norte are currently effectively suspended so the already stretched public security forces are no longer on the streets to protect the people. The reason being that there are inadequate supplies of arms, ammunition and handcuffs, bullet-proof vests are in need of replacement, and police vehicles are in need of repair so the police are not willing to leave their stations unless these issues are resolved. One must sympathise despite the constant fear of assault or stray bullets. Organised and unorganised criminals, who are significantly better armed than the police, are at liberty to do what they will.
And they have! 75 cars stolen, one bank robbed and another attempted on the first day of the breakdown in security. A supermarket was invaded and all its mobile phones stolen. A school was also invaded and its pupils robbed at gunpoint.
On the third night - after all shops in two main shopping areas closed early due to risk of assault - dozens of stores were broken into. No police were available to even consider looking into these events.
The most interesting case, a couple of days ago, was of a priest that was robbed. On discovering he was a priest the robbers decided not to shoot him, as planned, but dropped him off at a bus stop, returned his wallet and documents and left him with enough money to catch a bus (about 1$) and ... a request that he pray for them! Yesterday an armed robber passed hand-written notes to victims politely asking them to stay calm while they were being robbed, wishing them a Merry Christmas!
Hospitals, already with significantly reduced budgets, are paralysed - medical staff are not permitted to take strike action but have stopped working as they had not been paid. Families are in desperation as they see loved ones suffering, at risk of death, while waiting for urgent medical attention.
Many public servants work for minimum salary (about $400 per month). Many workers in the private sector earn less than minimum wage. As a result of the late payment of salaries, they have been unable to pay bills or rent since October. This has had a significant adverse impact on the economy. It is common people to divide payment of purchases in instalments - so there are late payments, defaults and other negative aspects related to debt. Borrowing rates are, in general, usurious. But not everyone can borrow from banks, and borrowing from “loan sharks” is sometimes the only option families have. If they default on these loans the consequences are unimaginable - threats, physical violence and even threats of death!
The families of jailed criminals receive more than minimum wage - about $500 per month. Who says crime doesn’t pay?
One can opine that the Brazilian government lost control of public security long ago - robberies and death on a daily basis are accepted. The death rate arising from violent crime places Brazil in the Premier League of the worlds most dangerous countries. Rio Grande do Norte is the most dangerous state in Brazil. The narcotics industry is out of control - the occasional big “busts” make headlines but barely scratch the surface as products are smuggled in and out of the country.
It was less than 18 months ago that the Federal Government mobilised the National Armed Forces to supplement local security units in patrolling the streets of Natal. Calm returned for a while after the chaos that ensued from mismanagement of the principal penitentiary in the region. The chaos has returned, but on this occasion is has been brought about by mismanagement of public finances - insufficient money to pay salaries and other expenses. The people are convinced that the mismanagement of public funds is as a result of creative accounting to divert public money to private accounts. Many politicians are currently under investigation for corruption - smoke and fire?
Conclusions? It will take decades for Brazil to overcome the security issues. It lacks the resources and the political will to tackle the underlying issues. Unemployment levels are high. Bored youths see no future so are tempted into taking drugs and, as a result, turn to crime to feed their habit while some “good” adults, desperate to feed their family, turn to crime to pay the bills. There is a dearth of investment to create jobs in the region. Where does the blame lie? successive years of bad management. Too many politicians existing in their line of business to profit from corruption - trace back the wealth of the politicians to the time they entered public service and the chances are some will find it hard to. Voters who elect the same people, despite knowing what is going on, merely to select the devil they know.
The National Armed Forces are returning to Natal but, yet again, it’s a case of too little, too late.
The city of Natal (Christmas, in English), state capital of Rio Grande do Norte, loves to celebrate Christmas. Certain parts of the city have permanent reminders of the event in the form of statues or structures commemorating Christmas, augmented by seasonal lighting in the main streets. Unfortunately, Christmas, this year, has been adversely impacted by the security situation and many families are suffering as a result. A sad state of affairs - a shame that the year-end celebrations should be spoilt by poor governance.