Monday, October 25, 2010

brazil's elections hang on corruption scandal

“This must be a really big guy,” said the student sitting next to me in the front row of International Affairs Building room 802, on October 14. “We don’t really see this many people in Brazil seminar events.”

Columbia students and scholars from Rutgers University, Bloomfield College, the Woodrow Wilson Center for Brazilian Studies and other institutions, filled every seat in the room to listen to David Fleischer, an expert in Brazilian politics of the University of Brasília, present the impacts of the October 3 country-wide elections and consequences for the year ahead.

It was a big guy and a very big topic. Here’s an overview of Fleischer’s presentation.

Nearly 112 million Brazilians – nearly 60% of the South American giant’s population – walked into voting stations for this year’s general election, on October 3, casting ballots for their future president, governors and members of the lower house of Congress and Senate. The voter turnout of above 80% is not uncommon in a country where voting is considered both a right and a civic duty – and compulsory between the ages of 18 and 70.

The Rise of Dilma Rousseff

According to Fleischer, for the past year, incumbent president Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, of the left-leaning Workers’ Party (PT), has fervently campaigned for candidate Dilma Rousseff – popularly known as the Iron Lady for her active fight against Brazil’s military dictatorship during the 1960s. Rousseff became da Silva’s Chief of Staff in 2005, after her predecessor was accused of leading a corruption scheme to buy votes in Congress.

President da Silva spared no efforts in an attempt to transfer his political capital and approval ratings hovering above 70% to his “chosen one”. In a March 2010 survey conducted by Datafolha, when asked whether they would vote for “Lula’s candidate”, 42% of respondents said “definitely yes”, even though many admitted not knowing just who the candidate was.

In a May 2009 simulation of the elections conducted by Datafolha, presidential candidate José Serra, of the opposition centrist Party of Social Democracy (PSDB), held 38% of valid votes (which exclude blank and null votes) while Rousseff obtained a mere 16%. One year later, a repeated study indicated a tie at 37%. Before voting day, most polls gave Rousseff a clear win with a majority vote of 50% or above.

The country’s highly praised system of electronic voting allowed Brazilians to receive the results before bedtime on October 3. Rousseff obtained 46.91% of votes (47,651,434), followed by Serra’s 32.61% (33,132,283) and the surprising surge of Marina Silva, of the Green Party (PV), with 19.33% of votes (19,636,359).

Is Enough, Enough?

What explains Rousseff’s failure to win outright on the first round? Fleischer argued that apart for errors attributable to polling agencies and the difficulties of constructing a representative sample in a large, diverse and unequal country like Brazil, the media points to recent corruption scandals involving the ruling Workers’ Party.

In mid September, Erenice Guerra, da Silva’s Chief of Staff who took over after Rousseff stepped down to run for president, resigned amidst allegations of participation in a corruption scheme involving government contracts favoring her son’s consulting firm. Accusations hit very close to Rousseff, who publicly referred to Guerra as her top aid and “right hand”.

Weeks before, the Workers’ Party was accused of illegally accessing tax records of Serra’s daughter and of PSDB members in an attempt to concoct a smear campaign against the opposition party.

Corruption is endemic in Brazil, ranked 75 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2009 Corruption Perception Index. Although no political party can claim a monopoly over the practice, the ruling Workers’ Party has been linked to all major corruption scandals in recent years. Amongst the most notorious affairs is the 2005 Mensalão (big monthly payment) Scandal, involving accusations that members of the party had paid opposition congressional deputies monthly allowances of around 30 thousand Reais (roughly US$ 17.6 thousand) in order to secure votes for legislations.

“After eight years of the same,” one attendee to the October 14 event asked, “Isn’t it time for a new team to take charge?”

Much Needed Change

According to Fleischer, the first debate for the second round of elections, on October 10, was sharp and filled with unrealistic promises and mutual offenses, overshadowing broader issues facing the country, including education and health care.

Amongst many delivered blows, Serra accused Rousseff of being “incoherent and two faced” for supporting the liberalization of Brazil’s strict abortion laws and then backtracking when she realized her position hit a sensitive nerve in the world’s largest Roman Catholic country.

An October 12 Datafolha survey indicated that Rouseff would receive 56% of valid votes, while Serra would get 44% – compared with 54% and 46%, respectively, one week earlier. “Could pollsters be overestimating Rousseff’s support once again?” asked one seminar participant. Considering the first round’s margin of sampling error, Fleischer considered it plausible.

Brazil is faced with an important choice and Serra stands a real, albeit slim, chance.

Both candidates are described as social democrats and agree on the broad outlines of economic and social policy. However, according to The Economist, where they diverge, Serra – a former congressman, senator, health minister, mayor and governor of São Paulo, the country’s economic and industrial hub – is the more persuasive of the two.

Albeit faulted for his inarticulate campaign and worrying tendency to micromanage, according to the publication, Serra’s records suggests he would be more efficient in cutting wasteful spending and eliminating the fiscal deficit, and keener in mobilizing private capital for much needed infrastructure.

In my view, handpicked and mentored by the enduringly popular da Silva, yes, but Rousseff is not Lula – lacking, amongst many other attributes, the incumbent president’s charisma and pragmatism. Despite repeated guarantees by her party that Rousseff will not be a fantoche of her mentor, it is hard to imagine she will be anything but. A political novice, Rousseff’s main ripostes are borrowed from da Silva, and her every sentence starts with “During President Lula’s government…”, often referencing accomplishments she did not attain. Critics accuse Rousseff of electioneering and robotically obeying her strategists.

And yet, Fleischer said, she is da Silva’s chosen one, and “A very popular president with an 80 percent approval rating is very hard to campaign against.”

In two days, Brazilians all over the world will have the chance to exercise their right and duty to choose the country’s leader for, at least, the next four years.

The October 14 seminar’s overarching conclusion seemed to be that barring the emergence of another big corruption scandal linked to the Workers’ Party and Rousseff herself, da Silva’s mentee seems likely to become Brazil’s next leader. But, if the party isn’t able to rein in the mounting allegations, the results could plausibly tilt against her. In two days we will know.

A version of this article was published on Columbia University's The Morningside Post, on October 29, 2010.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

what a shame mr. president

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, apparently unsatisfied with his new role as Dilma Rousseff’s campaigner-in-chief, has now decided to condone an act of violence against his party’s opposition candidate. What a shame, Mr. President.

While marching in the streets of Rio de Janeiro on October 20th, Mr. Serra, of the opposition Social Democratic Party (PSDB), and his supporters ran into a group of PT militants. At one point, the presidential candidate was hit on the head by what has been identified as a cylindrical roll of tape.

True, Mr. Serra did not dramatically collapse in front of the crowds or have his skull cracked open, but the event was enough to leave the candidate emotionally and physically distraught and prompt him to cancel all other planned events.

Despite widespread images of the episode, President Lula not only denied PSDB’s allegations of aggression, but went as far as ridiculing Mr. Serra. Lula accused the candidate of simulating injuries and compared him to Roberto Rojas, the goalie for Chile’s soccer team who deliberated injured himself in an attempt to avoid loss by his team during the 1989 World Cup elimination match.

Couldn’t our president have picked a better analogy? Or better yet, couldn’t he have followed others within his own party who immediately condemned the act of violence?

In fact, Lula also claimed Serra was hit by a “little paper ball” – which was the first object to be thrown at the candidate – and ran to get a tomography. “It is a shame,” said the president. “How many poor [Brazilians] die without even getting an ultrasound,” he asked.

Is it just me of did Lula just highlight his government’s failures? If we are pointing the fingers at the culprits for the deaths of the millions of innocent Brazilians unable to receive adequate medical treatment, I am pretty sure we won’t be looking at Mr. Serra.

Not only is Lula demoralizing politics but, more dangerously, sending out the message that attacking a politician “we don’t like” in the streets “is okay”. The president portrays the idea that the opposition candidate is the enemy, which ought to be defeated not only through lies, ruse and accusations, but now through physical brutality as well.

There is no debate here. Regardless of whether we wish to discuss the allegiance of Mr. Serra’s aggressors to the President’s Workers’ Party (PT), or PSDB’s use of the images against PT, there is only one correct route Lula could have taken. And he definitely chose the wrong one.

Fernando Abrúcio, a political scientist from the Fundação Getúlio Vargas (FGV-SP), said Mr. Lula’s behavior during this presidential campaign “is not good for Brazilian democracy”. Anyone disagree?

Friday, October 22, 2010

violence in the marvelous city

In one week Brazilians will flaunt into voting stations to choose their next leader. Whether Mr. Serra, of the Social Democratic Party or Mrs. Rousseff, of the Workers' Party, is elected, a tough challenge will remain. On top of endless priorities, the new president will have one major responsibility: transforming Rio de Janeiro’s favelas.

For the complete version of this article, please visit The Rio Times.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

aspiring journalists: don't despair

“You do not need to attend journalism school to become a journalist”, seemed to be an overarching consensus at the NYC Career Services International Media Panel, held on October 12. Actually, you may be well advised not to do so. Most companies are interested in experts from different sectors with an interest in journalistic writing. Consider The Economist, a weekly news and international affairs publication, which often seeks “scientist with an interest in journalism not journalists with an interest in science”.

Amongst the NYC Career Series invitees were Robert Lane Greene, Business Correspondent for The Economist, Elizabeth “Bibi” Nunez, Production Assistant for CNN (SIPA and J-School ’09), Yalman Onaran, Senior Writer for Bloomberg (SIPA and J-School) and Michael Roston, Web Producer for The New York Times (SIPA ’06).

“[Your degree] doesn’t matter. What matters is how look at the world and how you question it. It is all about your outlook on life and how you perceive things. And SIPA does a good job at preparing you for the globalized world,” affirms Yalman Onaran, Senior Writer for Bloomberg. “We appreciate an International Affairs degree. It shows you have a wide view of the world.”

Onaran offered some hope to international students seeking to work in the United States. “Times haven definitely changed since 9/11, but you can do it,” he said. “I didn’t hire a lawyer because I didn’t have the money. But I filed my own applications. That was not fun, but I obtained two H1-B visas. So you can do it.”

Onaran added that, except for financial journalism – which he guarantees will always have a place in the media world – the outlook for the sector is very bleak. “In general, what relates to money and market is expanding. Other than that, it doesn’t look very good.”

“Journalism is about selling the news,” stated Robert Lane Greene, Business Correspondent for The Economist. “If you want to be in high demand, you have to ask what is in high demand and what is in short supply.”

For Greene, we should all ask ourselves: “What do I know, and what do I do that makes me in short supply? What do I know that nobody knows? What am I known for? Or, what can I be known for?” If the answers to these questions are unknown, take some time to figure them out.

Panelists were unanimous with respect to the value of SIPA dreaded courses: statistics, finance and economics – all very important, irrespective of area of interest or industry you end up in. “It is essential to know how to crunch in numbers and make sense out of data,” said Elizabeth Nunez, Production Assistant for CNN.

“Be adaptable and flexible,” added Roston, Web Producer for the New York Times and one of the founding editors of The Morningside Post. Technology is changing so rapidly that we do not know where we will be writing in five to ten years. We don’t know what platforms will prevail. “The important thing to do is know how to be a good beginner at everything,” Roston added. “And learn as things are changing.”

Take advantage of the “two year gap” while at SIPA, and focus on building your niche – be it in languages, regional expertise or any academic field. Make a name for yourself and don’t be afraid of putting your writing out there. Make use of new media to establish yourself as a writer. All of this so that one day, you may bring to publications a combination that no one else can offer.

“Make yourself distinguishable,” they all claimed. But more than that, make yourself indispensable, essential, ultimately irreplaceable. And, if you are lucky enough to be hired, make sure you are unique to your organization. Make sure that – and if – the time comes to make cuts, you will not be on the lay-off list. Easier said than done, I suppose.

Enlightening as the panel may have been, the many recommendations and “ought to’s” put forth seem to have overwhelmed – or in some cases even discouraged – many of the attending aspiring journalists.

This article was published by The Morningside Post, on October 12th, 2010.

Monday, October 11, 2010

a lot more than "the subway artist of nyc"

Enrico Miguel Thomas is popularly known to New Yorkers as the “Subway Map Artist of NYC”. His studio: the city’s subway cars, platforms and train stations. His tools of choice: an easel, every existing Sharpie in the color spectrum, acrylic paint, MTA subway maps and an endless determination. He can be regularly spotted at Union Square, or by the West 72nd street station, meticulously recreating cityscapes as perspective drawings, transforming subway maps into masterpieces.

When I arrive at Enrico’s 183 Lorraine Street, Brooklyn studio, he is waiting for me by the elevator with his habitual NY navy-blue hat and friendly smile. He takes me down long labyrinth-like corridors to room 90, where the walls are colored with his favorite pieces and a framed page of the April 22, 2010, New York Times, in which our artist was featured.

On the floor is a giant subway map on which Enrico has drawn train cars and commuters in silver marker. He stares at the finished work and utters, as if in disbelief, “they were going to throw this away at the MTA museum because it had a tiny crease. Now I have turned it into something beautiful.”

Part of Enrico’s philosophy is to recycle, making “something great of what others consider utterly useless” – like subway maps, which commuters simply discard and he transforms into priceless works of art.

“One man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” he says. “And art mimics life. So this is like turning your life around. Taking something bad or negative and turning it into something positive and beautiful.”

Through kind and expressive eyes and a calm, yet brutally honest voice, I would soon learn that Enrico has survived and lives by struggling to turn adversity on its head and constantly fighting to conquer it.

Now 39, Enrico started drawing more than three decades ago by mimicking images from comic books strips and enrolling in every possible poster contest in his native Houston, Texas. Wherever he would be, art was always a part of his life.

Growing up in a military family, Enrico did not have much choice but to move with his mother and siblings, when his stepfather was stationed in Staten Island, NY, in 1985. While living in “complete suburbia”, he would get hints “here and there of what Manhattan had to offer” but would mostly dream of making it to the big city.

Eventually Enrico did make it, only not in the way he had envisioned. Desperate to get away from a home ran in a “military fashion”, Enrico ended up at Covenant House, a young-adult shelter on West 17th street. “At least I was in Manhattan,” he says. “I just couldn’t believe I was in the city, finally, I was completely free.”

“[Covenant House] didn’t feel like a shelter. They had rules and requirements, but they created an atmosphere that helped [me] thrive and embrace [myself] as who I was. [It was a place] for my personal growth and self-realization. This was completely non-existent in the home I grew up in.”

Enrico never turned back, and claims to feel more at home than ever in New York City. “There is a logo that says ‘the spirit of New York,’ and it’s true. The people in NYC have this spirit, whether it’s the firefighters from 9/11, the police officers, the commuters who take the subway each and every day or its entertainers. The spirit associated with New York is contagious and you become inspired simply by living here.”

He guarantees there is no solitude in the city’s subway art world. “[It] is a vast world below. You know there are a lot of artists down there – singers, musicians and visual artists – all with big dreams of making it. And when you see them, either as a commuter or as a fellow artist, you don’t feel so alone.”

With very few exceptions, New Yorkers have welcomed Enrico’s work and given him strength to continue fighting. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without the support that has been given to me by the city’s population,” he admits. “Even little kids are inspired by my work, intrigued and amazed by it. So many people have bought my pieces. This means so much to me, to know that my art is hanging on someone’s wall and that they see that piece every day. It’s really something when you know you have made a contribution to humanity. In some way, in any way that you want or chose.”

Enrico considers himself a self-made entrepreneur with a unique sales strategy. He realized early on that the best way to attract would-be buyers was simply by working instead of sitting, wondering when someone would purchase his work. “That is not the energy I want to emanate,” he claims.

“When you are engaged in your work, it becomes contagious. I think that when people see that you love what you are doing, it is so attractive that they will approach you, ask you questions and even want to purchase something. The love of something really and truly overpowers anything else. It is really not that complicated. When you really love something, it monopolizes any other doubts that you might have about what you are doing, to the point that you become successful.”

But for Enrico Miguel Thomas, art is more than a passion and breadwinner, it is an escape from the evils of a world which has left him physically and emotionally scarred. A victim of child battery in the hands of his biological father, Enrico was driven into a coma with burns over more than 60% of his body. Three facial reconstructive surgeries followed, leaving scars covering his scalp and running down either sides of his face. “A bit self-conscious” of the marks of repeated abuse, Enrico is rarely seen without his navy-blue New York hat.

“For me, art provides a therapeutic refuge, so that the world essentially disappears. Because my father is still in this world and even my body that was severely injured is still in this world. But when I am doing my work, my body seems to disappear and my spirit comes out, and that is what is doing the drawing. So I don’t care how I look to other people or what happened to me.”

“Magically and mysteriously this dominates the period of time that I am working. It will completely take over the moment and obliterate anything that was once bothering me. This is absolutely wonderful and powerful, and it has never failed me.” Through a daily psychological struggle, Enrico claims to be emerging “a new person, a better person, a person that is more enlightened.”

Enrico believes his duty as an artist is to use his talent to communicate the state of our world. And this is precisely what he seeks to accomplish by working in the city’s dark, dirty undergrounds. “Working down there is sometimes impossible, you have the wind, trains, crowds, dirt and rats. But […] if I can overcome these difficult conditions, I can show the world, metaphorically, that adversity can be turned on its head and conquered. And that you can aspire to become whoever you want to become, no matter how hard the conditions are.”

Working on the streets and undergrounds of Manhattan has posed all kinds of challenges. Enrico tells me of two distinct episodes which left him emotionally distraught. Once, a passerby threw ice at him while he was kneeling down on the A-train platform, finishing a beautiful piece, which now hangs on his studio wall. On another occasion, an inebriated woman took some of his markers and drew on a completed cityscape drawing, claiming “to want to finish his work for him.”

“Oh my God, I was absolutely crushed,” he laughs. “I mean, this is just the kind of stuff you encounter in Manhattan.” Despite the shared amusement, Enrico admits both episodes were emotionally challenging. “There is an extremely intimate relationship I have with my work, as far as being therapeutic for me [and] considering my history. [They] didn’t know that. But I did.”

Enrico just kept going. A fighter and conqueror of life’s hardships, he likes to refer to himself as the Rocky Balboa of the NYC art world. “I have come from really nothing, from being in a coma with tubes connected to me so that I could breathe, to being a Pratt Institute graduate, to being featured in the New York Times. And this is all because I never gave up. I fought so hard and I never took no for an answer. There have been so many enemies who have tried to take me down, and doubt me and my abilities. And I’ve always said ‘no’ to them. But ‘yes’ to myself.”

“Life is hard, and art is life. I don’t feel I can separate the two. [But] you keep going, you have to keep going. Like I said, the Rocky Balboa of the NYC art world. You take the punches, you are all pummeled, but you keep on going.”

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

a story of forgiveness and triumph

Maybe more of us SIPA students should have sat down on Monday evening for the screening of “Pushing the Elephant”.

The documentary portrays the long journey of Rose Mapendo, whose story evokes one of history’s darkest moments. Mrs. Mapendo, her husband and their seven children were in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) when the Rwandan army invaded the country and war broke out in August 1998.

In response to the violent invasion, DRC’s president Joseph Kabila announced that some ethnic groups within the country were “the enemy” and therefore needed to be punished. Mrs. Mapendo and her family were amongst the proclaimed groups.

Thousands of women, men and children were hunted down, beat, raped, tortured, jailed, mutilated and murdered by their fellow Congolese. Those who were lucky enough hid in attics or ceiling compartments or were able to flee to neighboring countries.

However, Mrs. Mapendo’s family was not among the fortunate ones. They were all arrested and imprisoned along with relatives and friends.

In jail, soldiers murdered Mrs. Mapendo’s husband, and she watched helplessly as loved ones died of malnutrition, diseases and repeated abuses.

Shortly after her husband’s death, Mrs. Mapendo realized she was pregnant. By her eight month of captivity, she gave birth to twins in a dirty and dark prison cell. She recounts having to beg for a piece of bamboo to cut the umbilical cords and using her hair to stop the bleeding.

Mrs. Mapendo named her twins after two of the most brutal guards – in Kasai culture a sign of respect and love – in hope that this would allow her children to live. She managed to keep her babies alive despite overwhelming odds.

In prison, Mrs. Mapendo’s eldest son, John, was repeatedly beaten and her eldest daughter, Aimee, was taken by a soldier as old as her grandfather, and forced to bear his child against her will.

Following sixteen months of imprisonment, Mrs. Mapendo and her family were sent to a refugee camp in neighboring Cameroon. Ultimately, with the United States government’s intervention, they resettled in Phoenix, Arizona.

The family was recently reunited with Nagabire. Nagabire, one of Mrs. Mapendo’s daughters, was with her grandparents when violence broke out, and remained separated from her brothers and mother for thirteen years.

Mrs. Mapendo’s ten children and one grandchild are all healthy and attending school in the United States. Many of them have no recollection of life in prison or in the refugee camp.

Rose Mapendo’s life has been transformed, but she has not forgotten those who were less fortunate. She has transformed her unimaginable and immeasurable pain into strength and power, and has turned her status of victim into that of a true hero.

Mrs. Mapendo has devoted her life to challenge the international community to accept peace and reconciliation. She’s now a tireless advocate of anti-violence policies and for the protection of the rights of children and women in Africa.

She has been honored by the White House, and in 2009, Mrs. Mapendo was named The United Nations Humanitarian of the Year. She has inspired the creation of Mapendo International in 2006, an organization “working to fill the critical and unmet needs of people affected by war and conflict who have fallen through the net of humanitarian assistance.”

She is also co-founder for Mapendo New Horizons, a humanitarian organization that protects and cares for forgotten refugees.

Rose Mapendo has something to teach all of us: “if you think about the future and other generations, you will see that vengeance is not the answer.” For her, the answer is in unity and forgiveness, not in war. “We are all losers in wars,” she says.

Mrs. Mapendo asserts we ought not to think of what could have been done to change the past, but of what we can still do to impact the future.

If this remarkable woman, courageous beyond description, can find it in her heart to forgive her husband’s murderer, her daughter’s rapist and her son’s beaters, and still ask for understanding and reconciliation, then why can’t the rest of us do the same?

Let this incredible survivor, who has turned her life into a mission for peace, serve as an inspiration to us all.

This article was published on Columbia University's The Morningside Post, on October 26th, 2010.