Brazil: Lula’s Looking Good
As soon as Brazilian President Luiz Inacio (Lula) da Silva was sworn in on Jan. 1, the world worried that his leftist leadership would send Brazil down the path of neighboring Argentina. Foreign investors feared he would focus on pleasing his support base and fail to execute necessary reforms. Instead, Lula seems to be taking steps to defuse what some considered Latin America’s biggest time bomb.
The Brazilian president has wowed financial markets by introducing a program of severe fiscal austerity. The largely impoverished voters who elected Lula have been placated–for the time being at least–by the appointment of large numbers of trade unionists (seven), women (four), blacks (two) and others of the dispossessed who have rarely graced Brazilian cabinets.
All along, Lula has said that he will delay fighting poverty until he could restore Brazil’s teetering finances. His program should do just that. He has proposed no large new taxes. Brazil already collects a hefty 34 percent of all output in taxes, high by regional standards. For his voter base, Lula offered just one consolation–food stamps for Brazil’s poorest under a plan called “Zero Hunger.” It aims to provide each Brazilian enough for three meals a day. And even that initiative is responsibly financed. Lula is canceling the purchase of new fighter aircraft for the military and proposes a politically courageous reduction in the lavish pension benefits paid to unionized, upper- middle-class workers in government and state-owned enterprises.
As a result, Brazil’s government budget should continue in a surplus (excluding debt service) of 3.75 percent of GDP and inflation should shrink. Brazil’s trade surplus is soaring and interest rates on the debt that have been threatening to sink Brazil have already fallen by 40 percent. Brazil’s currency has risen by 20 percent since the election.
Of course, Brazil still faces problems–$120 billion in public debt is denominated in hard-to-earn dollars. And skepticism among foreign investors still exists. “Even so,” says John Williamson of the Institute for International Economics in Washington, “I think the financial crisis is winding down.” An old and nasty joke about Brazil is that it is “a country with a great future–and always will be.” Under Lula–if he can stick to his program–the future may be starting now.
Africa: Unease About Ebola
Apollo, the world’s best-known gorilla, is missing, and the Ebola virus may be the culprit. The alpha male of a 24-member family hasn’t been seen since early December when two
members of his family were found dead–along with three other endangered western lowland gorillas and several chimps–in the remote Odzala National Park of the Republic of the Congo. Less than a year ago, contact with a dead ape was blamed for an Ebola outbreak in the area that killed at least 53 people. Specialists have again found Ebola in the dead apes, NEWSWEEK has learned. Last week government officials began warning locals not to eat monkeys or to ritually wash any relatives who die of fever. So far there have been no confirmed human deaths, but keeping the epidemic at bay is a daunting challenge. Some 3,000 Pygmies and others in the area live from hunting monkeys. The area is thick with apes–as many as nine per square kilometer. That adds up to 80 percent of the world’s remaining lowland gorillas. Efforts to protect the apes until recently have centered on ending the traditional trade in “bush meat.”
But Ebola may prove far more devastating to man’s closest relatives. The Wildlife Conservation Society, based at the Bronx Zoo, suggests that huge numbers of gorillas and chimps may have died in an Ebola epidemic in the area five years ago. And the new outbreak may not be over–another chimp was found dead in the park last week, according to Jean-Marc Froment of ECOFAC, a regional conservation group. “We may be heading into a catastrophe,” he says.
Iraq: Help for Blix Is Nixed
We need more actionable intelligence,” chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix repeated last week, appealing for help from–especially– America. Blix complains Washington has been slow to pass evidence or leads on Saddam Hussein’s forbidden weapons programs to his inspection teams. One reason for U.S. delay, NEWSWEEK has learned: the U.N. teams don’t yet have overhead surveillance. The CIA has a list of suspect sites in Iraq and wants overhead monitoring of the sites before, during and after surprise U.N. visits–“to see nothing goes in or out,” a source said. America has offered Blix use of its Predator surveillance drone (UAV). To avoid the appearance of bias, Blix wants Europe to provide the UAVs. But European UAVs are not as good as Predator. “They [the CIA] don’t have that many shots in their locker,” said the source, referring to the suspect-sites list. “They want to ensure the U.N. makes effective use of what they do know.”
Guns: The Battle Of Britain
Cricket on the village green, “bobbies” armed with no more than nightsticks, leisurely strolls along cobbled city lanes at any hour. Those who still cling to this sepia-tone image of Britain would not recognize the land depicted in the national media of late: teenage girls gunned down with a machine-pistol; urban areas plagued by gangland shootings; heavily armed special police laying siege to the home of a hostage-taking gunman; handguns so common in
some neighborhoods that they are seen as fashion accessories. This sounds like the United States, not the United Kingdom.
The British government moved into action last week–prompted by a series of sensational shootings over the holidays and some alarming new statistics: firearms offenses up 35 percent in the past year, and up 60 percent since 1996. It proposed minimum five-year prison sentences for illegal possession of firearms. Home Secretary David Blunkett summoned police and community leaders to a gun-crime summit last Friday to explore new ways of tackling the problem. However, British gun-control authority Peter Squires cautions that gun crime is “a crisis of our own making.” While new legislation and enforcement crackdowns may be useful, he says, they do not address the underlying societal causes of crime.
The shocking rise in gun crimes understandably offends traditional British standards of safety and civility, and Britons may rightly be worried that they are heading toward an American-style gun culture. But the good news is they’ve got a long way to go. Firearms are used in less than 1 percent of all offenses recorded in Britain. (Handguns are banned; even British Olympic shooters have to train in other countries.) British police studies show that up to three out of four “guns” used in crimes are actually so-called replica weapons–realistic toys, or firearms that have been incapacitated, which criminals use because the penalties for possession are much less severe. The number of homicides by firearms in Britain each year is about 100; during the 1990s, the United States averaged 16,500 per year. Gun crime has inarguably worsened in Britain, but an American is still 34 times more likely to be murdered with a gun than a Briton is.
–Stryker Mcguire and Emily Flynn
Hoaxes: Fooled by ‘Fidel’
Last Monday, Venezuela’s embattled President Hugo Chavez received what he assumed to be a pleasant early-morning phone call from his friend and staunch ally Fidel Castro. Minutes later, Chavez realized he’d been duped–by Miami DJs Enrique Santos and Joe Ferrero. Using digitally mixed clips of the Cuban leader’s voice, the two pranksters had managed to con the Venezuelan presidential palace–and its occupant–into — believing Castro was on the line. NEWSWEEK’s Malcolm Beith spoke to them about the most successful coup against Chavez to date:
NEWSWEEK: What inspired the idea?
SANTOS: We’ve been doing this segment for two months called “Fidel Te Llama” (“Fidel’s Calling You”). We’ve taken the conversation that Fidel Castro secretly recorded and made public last year between him and Mexican President Vicente Fox, extracted 43 different words and phrases and utilized these to prank-call people. We’ve called residences, different banks, information.
FERRERO: We were really concerned with what’s going on in Venezuela, [so] we decided we should do something. Actually, we never imagined we would be able to speak to Chavez. But he fell for the trick.
Fidel doesn’t exactly sound coherent on the tape. Were you trying to infer something about the aging comandante?
FERRERO: That’s the way Fidel Castro behaves and talks. I guess Chavez knows him so well that it didn’t bother him at all to hear Castro saying incoherent things–things that didn’t make any sense whatsoever. So he tried to start up the conversation to find out why [Castro] was calling him.
And Chavez hung up on you as soon as he caught on?
SANTOS: We hung up on him. The moment we identified ourselves, there was total silence. He didn’t respond back, so at that time I took the opportunity to tell him what I think of him.
The Chavez government has said it won’t press charges for taping without consent and verbally abusing him–at least for now.
SANTOS: It’s ridiculous. [Chavez] and the people surrounding him–the Venezuelan government–they’re the criminals. They’re the ones that charges should be imposed on.
Any other pranks on the horizon?
SANTOS: We’ve actually thought of calling Cuba to see if we can get Fidel Castro to believe he’s got Chavez on the line.
Entertainment: One Hot ‘Mamma’?
The shows that become Vegas staples–think Siegfried and Roy and Cirque du Soleil–dazzle guests, then dump them at the blackjack tables. Tourists here don’t like to sit still. But next month Mandalay Bay Hotel & Casino will stage a $7 million production of the ABBA musical “Mamma Mia!”–a Broadway import that runs more than two hours and will be the only show in Vegas with an intermission. New York stalwarts like “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Rent” failed in Vegas; “Chicago” was a modest success–but with locals, not visitors. “The spectacle of Broadway isn’t the same as the spectacle of the Strip,” says Vegas4Visitors.com executive producer Rick Garman. “Vegas is not a place where you want to pay attention to plot.”
“Mamma Mia!’s” plot is easy to ignore, which is why Mandalay thinks it will be a hit. The story is a thinly veiled excuse for staging catchy tunes in that over-the-top, Sin City style. Still, the touring production of the show made two extended visits to nearby Los Angeles and has played in 25 U.S. cities a year for the past two years. Garman wonders if tourists will spend their vacation dough on a show they can see elsewhere, since most visitors crave those only-in-Vegas experiences. Mandalay likes the odds. “Given that the content of the show is light
and brisk,” says Mandalay Resort Group president Glenn Schaeffer, “it has every feature that would spell success for the Las Vegas Strip.”
Internet: A Friend Indeed
At first it seems as if someone has gone to great–even weird–lengths to proclaim his fealty. “There are over 6 billion people alive today,” the personalized Web site proclaims. “Out of all those, I consider Seth Mnookin my friend.” With the gushing music from “Dragonheart” playing in the background, a host of… attributes? compliments?… flashes on the screen: “Companion. Colleague. Depend. Grateful. Truth. Gift. Happiness.” Never mind that the site can’t seem to tell nouns from verbs. The latest word-of-mouth Web sensation is youaremyfriend .com–a nifty little project that requires nothing more than the ability to type in someone’s name (as in seth.mnookin. youaremyfriend.com) to produce instant,personalized treacle. Since early December, the site’s averaged a million visitors a week. “It started as a way to test other software,” says the site’s creator, Robert Blake, a Canadian systems analyst. “I’ve heard people have used it to keep from breaking up with their girlfriends.” Blake, who speaks in the truncated English endemic to computer programmers, says one of his goals is “to make the lower- quality Internet slightly more useful.” Happiness!
Culture Notes: The Rest Dissing the West?
Strolling amid the crowds of fashionably dressed under-30s out for a Saturday night in Seoul, South Korea, I chanced on a busy outdoor market where sidewalk vendors had set up long tables piled high with CDs. A boombox was blasting out the latest Korean rock. One song caught my ear and I decided on the spot to buy the CD as a present for my twentysomething American son. Back in New York, when I presented it to him he stared suspiciously at the Korean-language titles on the label and asked, “What’s this? Some kind of Korean folk music?”
“No, it’s rock,” I told him. “Korean rock. It’s by Cool, the No. 1- selling band in South Korea.” He was shocked. “I knew Koreans listened to American rock and British rock,” he said. “I guess I just didn’t think their own bands would sell more than the Western imports.”
Guess again. Not only do Korean kids prefer their own rockers, but so do Japanese kids, Chinese kids, Russian kids and Egyptian kids. While rock is certainly an American invention, and a big-selling import in many world markets, local music is still what the masses are buying most of.
Chalk that encounter up to the BJ&M syndrome–that’s blue jeans and McDonald’s. Sufferers from BJ&M syndrome seem to believe that because many people all over the world like rock
and roll, blue jeans, fast food and American movies, they are equally enamored of American values and ideas about how the world works.
Wrong. Sometimes it’s just the beat or the cut that attracts the world’s huddled masses. Nor is anybody who is sipping Starbucks necessarily saluting American culture. In fact, in a number of places, American imports are decidedly under pressure, especially those products whose style can be easily appropriated.(Take Mecca-Cola–a Coke knockoff aimed at Middle Easterners who like the taste of the American soda pop but don’t really like America.)
If Americans are ever to understand the emerging revolt against their supposed cultural hegemony–McDonald’s, Starbucks, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Procter & Gamble, among others, have all been challenged– they must look beneath the surface. Or as Harvard’s Samuel P. Huntington famously put it: “Somewhere in the Middle East a half-dozen young men could well be dressed in jeans, drinking Coke, listening to rap, and, between their bows to Mecca, putting together a bomb to blow up an American airliner.” Even in South Korea, where sharpening attitudes toward the West still pale in comparison with those in many Middle Eastern countries, it should come as no surprise that many of the kids screaming in the streets protesting U.S. policy are wearing… Levi’s.