web analytics

Tag Archive for Brazil

Dilma Rousseff re-elected: a missed chance to tackle corruption, cronyism and economic malaise

anev

Yesterday evening, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff was re-elected to a second term in office. In a close race, the Workers’ Party incumbent defeated the pro-business Senator Aécio Neves by a 51.64% to 48.36% margin.

Amidst the Workers’ Party euphoria at having clung to power, some important questions need to be asked about the impact the election will have upon both the country’s economy and international standing. On both counts, the outlook is negative.

Observers of Brazilian politics often keenly note that the country is a tremendously polarised one. Yesterday’s results leave it more polarised still. By squeaking back into office by the narrowest of margins, Rousseff has unwittingly exploited divisions which run far deeper than traditional rich/poor sentiments but extend to a regional divide between the North and South of the country, the urban and the rural, the middle class and the impoverished.

Dilma Rousseff’s victory has a rather hollow feel to it and is a world away from the outpouring of optimism brought about by former President Lula’s victory in 2002. Lula, a master of the spoken word and the product of a spectacular political transformation from militant trade unionist to soothing social democrat, built his victories on a coalition of the working poor, aspirational middle classes and ambitious manufacturers. Instead, Dilma took a purely transactional approach; pledging generous social benefits to her base and deriding her pro-business opponents as aloof and uncaring. (Neves, of course, firmly pledged to protect cherished benefits programmes such as Bolsa Familia, ProUni and Minha Casa from any cuts).

In some respects, the Workers’ Party’s (PT) welfare policies have been a victim of their own success. It is indisputable that they have played a big part in lifting millions of people out of poverty and creating a burgeoning middle class that is better educated, better travelled and more socially mobile. With that, though, came problems for the PT: these people wanted more than the welfare state and the “old politics” of cronyism and corruption.

The first moment it because clear that Dilma would face a tough race was back in April of this year when thousands of mainly young, mainly middle class Brazilians took to the streets to protest at widespread corruption and excessive spending on the World Cup and Olympics. Rather than seek to provide this sector of the public – who overwhelmingly backed Neves – with an olive branch, she instead revered to an aggressive core vote, 50%+1 strategy. With the root of their concerns unaddressed, trouble will undoubtedly spill over again soon.

On an economic level, Rousseff’s re-election is nothing short of a catastrophe.

Trade protectionism is widespread – and will remain so under Dilma. In a country as poor as Brazil, it is plainly ridiculous that the most basic of electronic goods – from fridge freezers to cheap televisions – cost more than they do in the United Kingdom. How can it be logical that members of the country’s emerging middle class increasingly find it cheaper to board a budget flight to Miami to shop for clothes rather than heading for domestic shops? How much longer can industry sustain crippling import tariffs for critical machinery?

Brazil’s public spending is a mess. Under the Workers’ Party – and, more precisely, the Rousseff Presidency – the country’s deficit has grown to a gaping chasm, with a tax base unable to fund the state’s generous spending programmes.

Around 90% of the entire spending the state does each year is mandated by a range of arcane laws, many of which are hangovers from the 1980s. With Dilma having pledged to increase social welfare spending on the poorest Brazilians, she will have little room inside the budget to make economisations elsewhere to provide such funds. The Brazilian Congress, a famously dysfunctional body that is dominated by former footballers, telenovela actors and other assorted egotists, has no appetite to change this construct.

In order to keep her base happy, the Rousseff administration has adopted policies designed to keep gas and electricity prices artificially low. While this may have proved to be a clever pre-election trick that has kept inflation at a relatively comfortable level, the state lacks the financial resources to sustain such a policy. Prices will have to rise – and so will inflation.

Despite is reputation in recent years as a hard-charging growing economy, Brazil remains a dire place to do business. Even the most basic of tasks requires multiple, costly government permits. The risk of a government agency deciding to level crippling retrospective taxes is ever-present. What this system does is sustain a state bureaucracy – but it doesn’t bring about private sector growth. While Aecio Neves had made the elimination of red tape a key plank of his campaign, Dilma has remained tight-lipped on the issue.

The days when Brazil’s poor fiscal climate and red tape-saddled regulatory structure, underpinned by external demand and global growth, could sustain growth rates of more than 7% are long gone. This year, the economy will grow by little more than 1% – and that’s an optimistic calculation. A credit downgrade now looms.

On a foreign policy level, the Rousseff Government has adopted an at times bizarre “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” policy which has involved the expansion of cultural links with Iran and propping up machismo-fuelled administrations in Venezuela and Ecuador with economic aid. Such activities have been bitterly at odds with Brazil’s own domestic focus on the expansion of social and political rights, campaigns to eliminate racism and a liberal line on sexuality issues. While Aecio Neves had pledged to discontinue the Workers’ Party’s more recherché international projects, a second Rousseff administration will likely continue to build links with openly anti-American governments around the world – a dangerous position to be in, given the country’s precarious economic state.

There’s an old saying that “Brazil is the country of the future – and always will be”. I’ve never believed that – but I do struggle to see much hope for one as long as Dilma Rousseff remains President of the Republic.

Brazilian Presidential election – Marina Silva’s exit shakes up the race, boosts Eduardo Campos

imageOne of the biggest surprises of the last Brazilian Presidential election was the expectedly strong showing by Green Party nominee Marina Silva.

While the majority of the race’s focus was trained on Workers’ Party candidate (and now President) Dilma Rousseff and the centrist Jose Serra, Silva’s quietly effective campaign saw her pick up 19% of the first round vote.

Since then, Silva has been a ubiquitous presence in Brazilian public life; staging rallies across the country, appearing on numerous television programmes and writing numerous newspaper op-eds. It was fairly clear to Brazilians that Silva was gearing up to run again in the 2014 election and polls repeatedly showed her to be the strongest possible challenger for Rousseff. Indeed, one poll last month showed her trailing Rousseff by only 14% in the first round of voting – 36% to 22%.

The snag for Silva, however, is that she didn’t have a political party. She left the Greens shortly after the 2010 election after a series of bust-ups with other members who were none to happy at Silva’s attempts to dominate the party. Brazilian Greens don’t confirm to the Western European stereotype of long-haired tree-huggers wearing tie-dye t-shirts but are ordinarily rather scholarly, cultured and wealthy in the mould of an effete Manhatten Democrat or Islington Liberal Democrat. Silva’s outspoken radicalism rather jarred with the party membership.

Under Brazilian law, a candidate must be a member of a political party’s for a year prior to a general election. In order to meet this requirement, Silva sought to gather the 492,000 needed to register her ‘Sustainability Movement’ as a political party. Regrettably for her, the Supreme Electoral Court found roughly 100,000 of her signatures to be invalid, leaving her 5,000 signatures short of what was need to form a party. Her appeal against the ruling was rejected on Thursday, leaving her until only Saturday October 5th (yesterday) to join a party and qualify to run in next year’s Presidential election.

Yesterday evening, Silva shocked the political establishment by joining the Brazilian Socialist Party and throwing her support to the party’s Presidential nominee Eduardo Campos, the popular Governor of the northern state of Pernambuco. Her decision has totally upended the election.

Over the past year, Silva’s support in 2014 polls has risen steadily from 18% to around 25% while Campos’ has been steady at around 5%. It’s clear what Campos has to gain from her endorsement but rather less obvious what advantage Silva gains.

Her decision is a politically risky one.

Firstly, it is far from clear that her largely poor and predominantly ethnic minority voters will be comfortable with backing the white and wealthy Campos. It’s possible she could be dismissed by these groups as having betrayed them by selling out to the political establishment, driving them into the hands of other leftist groups. There are plenty of other people active in Brazilian politics who could appeal to Silva’s base – including Rio de Janeiro Congresswoman Benedita “Bene” da Silva and former Alagoas Senator Heloisa Helena.

Secondly, by boosting Campos’ profile nationally she risks turning him into the de facto ‘leader of the opposition’ and helping him position himself for another run at the presidency in 2018 when Rousseff is term-limited. There is talk of her joining the Campos ticket as Vice-President but, as we all know, it’s the Presidential nominee that gets all the attention, not the Veep.

Thirdly, her alliance risks dividing left-wing voters between the incumbent President and the currently little-known Campos, making it more likely that the centre-right candidate Aecio Neves will make it to the second round. With Dilma’s polling numbers gradually declining, the popular and eloquent Neves may well have a shot at defeating her. It’s hard to see her supporters being happy with such an eventuality. As such, it may well have been wise for her to have exit the race and “risen above politics” rather than backing Campos.

Given how surprising Silva’s announcement was yesterday, no polling has yet been conducted on how it will impact upon next year’s election. I’m certainly looking forward to seeing how her exit will shift the race.

A guide for those thinking of visiting Rio de Janeiro for the first time

Several times a year, I get excited emails from friends and acquaintances heading off to Rio de Janeiro for the first time.  The request is always the same: can I recommend some places to see, restaurants to visit and attractions that are “off the beaten track” for most tourists.  To my shame, I usually only manage to tap out a few quick thoughts before returning to deal with the rest of my ordinarily-enormous inbox.

I’m writing this blogpost so that next time the request comes, I’ve got something more meaningful to point people at.

One doesn’t have to have visited Rio before to know that the city is inspiring, intimidating, uplifting, depressing, hectic and tranquil in equal measure.  Taking into account the satellite cities that surround Rio, its metropolitan area is close to fifteen million people – making it virtually impossible to get to know each area well.

I don’t claim that the below is by any means a definitive guide to Rio – but it is guide to the things I like and the things I enjoy doing while in town.  Boa sorte e divirta-se!

Keeping safe

I’ll start by addressing the big elephant in the room when it comes to any discussion about visiting Rio: safety.

Rio’s reputation for violence amongst would-be tourists is slightly undeserved.  The overwhelming majority of visits to the city are entirely trouble free.  Cariocas are, by nature, extremely warm and friendly people – but it’s important to always keep in mind that you will be visiting one of the most socially polarised cities in the world where crushing poverty can often be found only a stone’s throw from gauche opulence.

There are a few basic steps you can take to make sure that you stay out of trouble.

I rarely carry a wallet when out in Rio and instead usually only carry one bank card and a small amount of money with me.  If you are coming from London you might want to think about keeping a credit card and a couple of larger bills in an Oyster card holder – that’s what I usually do.  If you’re in the unfortunate enough to be mugged, just hand everything over straight away and calmly walk away afterwards.

Unless I’m going out for an evening at a friend’s house or at a restaurant in a very safe neighbourhood, I usually don’t wear the nice watch my parents bought me for my 21st birthday as it would only serve as a target for an opportunistic mugger. You don’t really need a watch in Rio as most main roads in the city are lined with huge digital clocks displaying the time and temperature.  Additionally, nobody in Rio cares about being on time anyway so, even if you’re half an hour late for your appointment, nobody will care…

While the beach is a huge part of Rio culture, you should generally avoid the seafront promenades after sundown – particularly Copacabana. The beach can become a gathering point for druggies and other people up to no good in the evening.  On a positive note, there is actually relatively little other than residential buildings and condominiums located on the beachfront (most bars and clubs are a couple of streets back) so you won’t be missing anything when it’s dark.

Buses are safe to use during the day but can be a pretty bewildering experience if you’re using them for the first time.  If you’re in any doubt, shout the name of your destination at the bus driver before getting on and you’ll either get a thumbs up or a thumbs down.  Unless you know exactly where you are going, you should use taxis later in the evening – generally speaking, the drivers are honest and the fares affordable (make sure they turn the meter on!).

The Rio de Janeiro Metro system is modern, clean and safe to use at all times but is subject to some delays as the city prepares for the upcoming Olympics and World Cup.  It has an English-language website and journey planner which can be found here.

My final piece of advice in terms of safety is a pretty simple one: be sensible. Don’t whip your iPad out while on the bus, stay on well-lit roads rather than taking short cuts through parks or alleyways you’re not familiar with and avoid using your camera on the street outside of established tourist areas.

Do not attempt to enter favelas (slums).  People who live in favelas are very proud people who react badly to foreigners who view their communities as a tourist attraction.  If you choose to take the bus while in Rio then you will pass close to a number of favelas.  These buses are safe but you should not take photographs or leave the bus while passing through.

If you take a realistic view of risks to your own safety when you’re in Rio, you’ll be fine.

The Christ Statue and the Sugarloaf

I’m not going to offer a detailed write-up of either of these attractions as the chances are they’re already top of your list of places to visit.  If you have bizarrely decided to visit Rio without knowing anything about either of the city’s most iconic landmarks then you can find their English language websites here and here.

Both attractions are well worth visiting but, if you’re very short of time, you should prioritise the Sugarloaf over the Christ Statue as you’ll get a much better view of Rio and the surrounding bays from there.

There is a fair bit of walking involved in visiting both attractions so you should consider taking some water up with you – if only to avoid having to pay the rip-off prices the Gombeen men selling water at the summit charge.

Copacabana 

Along with Ipanema, Copacabana is probably Rio de Janeiro’s favourite neighbourhood.  I wouldn’t say it was a disappointing place to visit but it certainly has an air of faded glory about it with many of its more glamorous residents having long decamped to Leblon, Ipanema or upcoming neighbourhoods like Barra a little outside the city.

Copacabana is home to my favourite place in Rio; the Forte de Copacabana (Copacabana Fort).  The Fort is an old military base built on a rock that juts out into the bay, giving you a fantastic panoramic view of the Copacabana Bay, the Sugarloaf, Ipanema, Leblon and a number of islands just off the coast.  When I was growing up the Fort was closed to non-military personnel but is now home to the Naval History Museum and is one of the best places in Rio to take photos of the city’s amazing surroundings.  There is a restaurant and a couple of cafes which are an excellent place to watch the sundown. Don’t miss it.  You can find its website, including prices and opening hours here.

If you want to experience a taste of what Rio de Janeiro must have been like during colonial times, you should head for the stunning Copacabana Palace on the seafront.  A favourite of visiting Russian oligarchs (I too wish I could afford to stay in the Palace’s $5000-a-night ocean view suites), the drinks aren’t cheap but you’ll struggle to find anything matching its opulence and grandeur anywhere else in the city.

Best beaches

Beach culture is entirely synonymous with Rio de Janeiro and it’s more than likely that your plans when visiting will involve a visit to one or more of the city’s famous beaches.

You will undoubtedly have heard of Copacabana and Ipanema, both of which are very easy to reach by public transport and certainly worth visiting your time in Rio.  It is perfectly acceptable to head to and from the beach using public transport (even if you’re covered in sand!), although some bus routes stop a couple of blocks back from the beach.  In the case you find yourself dropped off on a crowded street back from the seafront, just approach any passing person and say the word “praia” (pry-ah) and they’ll be sure to point you in the right direction – which shouldn’t be any more than two or three hundred metres.

One of my favourite things to do is to take a bus to Leblon and to walk along the seafront through Ipanema to Arpoador – a huge rock jutting out into the ocean that acts as an unofficial “border” between Ipanema and Copacabana. It’s a very relaxing walk that will take you along one of the nicest stretches of beachfront in the city.

If you want to give this route a try, take any bus to Leblon, turn your back to the mountain towering above you and simply walk towards the rocky peninsular jutting out into the sea in the distance.  The distance from Leblon to Arpoador is about three miles and can be very leisurely walked in about forty minutes.  You can either take the pavement or walk along the sand itself with the water lapping at your feet.

You could choose to stop off for a swim en route to break up the walk (although you should avoid swimming in Leblon as the water is often quite dirty) but I prefer to wait until I get to Arpoador out of some kind of notion of having “earned” the right to swim after a good walk!

Arpoador is a particularly good place to swim as the rocks have created a small bay which is completely free of the powerful undercurrents that exist along much of the coastline without damaging the ability of waves to form.  If the waves are big enough and you are feeling brave then you can even jump off the rocks into the water – but be sure to time your jump with the arrival of a big wave so as to avoid injury!  It’s also a great place to watch sundown, with many people gathering on the rock each evening to cheer and clap for the sun as it disappears into the ocean.

Personally speaking, I draw zero enjoyment from sitting on a densely-crowded beach with 100,000 (at a conservative estimate) other people fighting for space.  As such, I tend to avoid the beach at the weekend – but that’s just a matter of personal preference.

If you’ve got a little bit longer in Rio, I would recommend that you head a little outside the city to Barra da Tijuca (usually known simply as “Barra”).

One of the wealthiest areas of the city, Barra is home to miles and miles of sandy beaches that feel far less hectic than the beaches in the city.  While some of the beaches in Rio were damaged by unsuitable 1960s tower blocks and land reclamations to increase road capacity, the more modern developments in Barra are far more sympathetically built.   During the week the beaches in Barra are almost deserted, meaning that you can properly relax without crowds of people around you.

While many Cariocas will recoil in horror when you tell them you are intending to travel “all the way” to Barra to go to the beach, it’s actually a surprisingly easy journey that will give you a great overview of the city’s varied social mix (including briefly passing alongside the Rocinha slum and the Barra condominium complex which is home to Ronaldo) and some sweeping views of the sea that hit you unexpectedly as soon as you leave a dark, congested tunnel complex.  Buses 309 (from Centro to Alvorada via Botafogo and Avenida Sernambetiba) and 333 (from Rodoviaria Bus Station to Barra via Avenida Sernambetiba) will get you to Barra in half an hour to forty minutes, depending on the time of day.

If you do visit Barra, my recommendation would be to press the bell to stop the bus as soon as you pass lifeguard post number seven (you can’t miss the posts – they’re located every kilometre along the coast with their numbers painted prominently on them).  Aside from being a nice spot of beach, there are a couple of very nice huts on the promenade that serve excellent seafood dishes.   Buses to return to the centre of Rio can be picked up on the same side of the road as the beach (heading east) and run every fifteen minutes or so.

Buying souvenirs

While Rio most certainly has its fair share of tourist tat (think key-rings, embarrassingly clichéd t-shirts and zippo lighters), you can actually pick up some relatively nice souvenirs during your visit.

For a full overview of all the souvenir options open to you, I would recommend that you haul yourself out of bed on Sunday morning (after no doubt binging heavily on caipirinhas the night before) and head to the Feira Hippie in Ipanema.  The Feira Hippie – or “Hippie Fair” in English – is home to the city’s largest collection of arts and crafts; including Brazilian-made jewellery, watercolour paintings, wooden pestle and mortars, carved parrots, bows and arrows, wooden pestle and mortars etc.  There’s something for everyone there – and, even if you don’t see something you like, the fair is worth a visit in itself.

Getting there is fairly simple.  Just take any bus heading to Ipanema and get off at Praça General Osório (pronounced “Prash-ah Zheneh-ral Osorio”) and you’ll see a mass of tents occupying a park in the middle of the square.  The fair is technically open from 07:00 to 19:00 each Sunday but most stall-holders will have packed up and gone home by about 14:00.

While there are many excellent bargains to be had at the Feira Hippie, its prices have risen sharply in recent years in line with both rising incomes in Brazil and an increase in tourists visiting the city.  Feel free to haggle with the stall-holders, most of which will speak enough English to be able to cut a deal with you.

Many of the stallholders at the Feira Hippie take part in a far smaller fair that takes place each weekday evening in Copacabana.  I tend to find that the prices in Copacabana are slightly lower, especially for paintings.  If you want to give this fair a try, then just head for the Copacabana Palace and you’ll see a number of tents filling a large traffic island just across from the hotel.

Where should I eat and drink?

Food is a huge part of Brazilian culture and is something the people of the country are extremely proud of.  Despite a proliferation of American-style burger joints having popped up all over the country in recent years, Brazilian families – rich and poor – still eat the country’s traditional dishes on the majority of days.

“Traditional food” tends to mean some kind of chicken, beef or pork accompanied by black beans (feijão), rice (aroz) and farofa (toasted manioc flour, best used to soak up meat juices).  Fish dishes are also popular, particularly salted cod (bacalao).

With so much open space, Brazil is one of the largest meat-producing countries in the world, making products such as steak and prime rib incredibly affordable.  As an additional benefit, Brazil’s sheer size means that the majority of meat comes from free-range farms where pigs and cattle are able to roam freely without being pumped full of the chemical stimulants we’re used to in Western Europe and North America.

You will find a huge number of what appear to be steak houses wherever you go, although these restaurants will be very happy to serve chicken, pork or vegetarian dishes.  Away from traditional foods, Brazil’s huge Italian (the pizzas in Brazil are widely considered the best outside of Italy), Japanese and Lebanese communities mean that there is always a wealth of food to choose from wherever you go.

While there are bargains available, you should not expect to find particularly cheap deals on restaurants while in Rio.  As a rule of thumb, if a restaurant’s décor is up to the same standards of a reasonably expensive restaurant in Western Europe then you can expect the prices to be virtually equivalent to those you pay at home.

It’s very difficult to give a definitive list of the best restaurants in Rio but I would certainly recommend you consider the following during your visit…

Bar / street food – At the end of nearly every street in the centre of Rio, you’ll see a small bar with a number of plastic chairs outside.  These bars (or “botequins”) are some of the greatest examples of social integration in Rio because, as the evening progresses, they’ll fill up with all sections of society – from the wealthy managing director of an investment bank to the porter who runs his building.  The bars are usually neighbourhood-focussed so entering them can be pretty intimidating as, if it appears everyone knows each other, it’s because they probably do.  If they’re located in a good neighbourhood, then feel free to go inside.  Order an Antarctica Original (a big, ice-cold beer) and a couple of hot pasteis from the food counter.

In the main tourist areas, big efforts have been made to try and emulate the spirit of these local botequins by offering drinks and tasty snacks at very affordable prices.  If you’re minded to give one a try, I can recommend nothing more than to head for Pavão Azul on Rua Hilário Gouveia in Copacabana for a steak and cheese sandwich and some cod croquettes (bolinhos de bacalhau).

A little up the scale from the “rough and ready” nature of botequins, you’ll find similar food and drink at Boteco Belmonte which has branches in Ipanema, Jardim Botânico, Copacabana, Urca, Lapa, Leblon and Flamengo.  Another good option is Conversa Fiada in Ipanema.

Bar Urca – An institution in my family, Bar Urca is one of my favourite places in the world, let alone Rio de Janeiro.  Located in the bohemian Urca district of the city overlooking the Guanabara Bay, the restaurant is split into two parts the downstairs being a fairly informal bar where you can grab some snacks and a beer and take them to eat on the harbour wall across the road while the upstairs is a formal restaurant with bow-tied waiters.  In honesty, both options are excellent.

My recommendation would be to arrive early for dinner and order a selection of pasteis de camarão (shrimp) and quieijo (cheese) (like a small pasty but lighter) and a beer and linger on the harbour wall for a while, watching the sun disappear for the evening.  After a few beers, head upstairs and grab the moqueca camarão a baiana (shrimp stew from the state of Bahia in the north of Brazil).  A portion for two will easily do for three of the most ravenous eaters.  While the meat dishes are also good, you’d be a fool not to focus on fish while here.  It’s a very special place you should not miss out on.

Quadrifoglio – One of the nicest restaurants in the city, Quadrifoglio has three branches: an expensive one and a heinously expensive one.  This is Rio de Janeiro high society at its peak – think customers in remarkably-press white linen suits, imported French wines, smooth piano music, annoyingly quadrilingual waiting staff and immaculate white table cloths.  The food and atmosphere, however, almost makes up from the horror you’ll experience when paying the bill.  The selection of meat and fish dishes, from the Italian-inspired menu is mouth-watering.  The more upscale and intimate of the two branches can be found on Rua J J Seabra in Jardim Botânico while the more fun and upbeat Quadrifoglio Cafés are on Avenida Borges de Medeiros by Lagoa (the view from the new ‘Lagoon’ restaurant complex is not to be missed) and Rua Dias Ferreira in Leblon.

Lapa – If you’re up for a big night out, you certainly shouldn’t miss out on visiting Lapa.  Located very close to the city’s business district, Lapa was for years a largely abandoned and sketchy part of town which was avoided by all by the hardiest of Cariocas.

Thankfully, some shrewd local businessmen seized the opportunity to renovate Lapa’s stunning colonial Portuguese buildings and create an area that is home to some of the city’s best nightlife and live music.  Walking through Lapa, you’ll pass by a bewildering number of restaurants and bars but I’d recommend you head to Rio Scenarium where there’s live music every night until about 05:00.  Feel free to try one of the many street stalls selling beers and caipirinhas.  You’ll find an extensive bar guide on the Time Out website.

Steak – Over the past couple of years, a number of churrascarias have opened up across the UK, meaning that the “all you can eat meat” concept is not as new for Brits as it once was.  What will be new, however, is the quality of what you are served in Rio’s churrascarias.  Churrascarias vary widely in terms of price, from pretty expensive to extremely expensive.

Right at the top end of the scale is my personal favourite, the Porcão which has branches in Ipanema, Botafogo and Barra.  A dinner for two would set you back about £100 there – which is ridiculous when one considers the relatively low salaries most Brazilians live on.  Further down the scale, you can’t go wrong with Churrascaria Palace on Rua Rodolfo Dantas in Copacabana or Carretão which has branches in Copacabana and Ipanema.

If you’d prefer to try a steak without the “all you can eat” element, File de Ouro on Rua Jardim Botânico is a superb bet.  The Time Out review explains what to expect there far more eloquently than I can.

Pizza – As I’ve already mentioned, Brazil has one of the largest immigrant Italian communities in the world.   This has given rise to a vast number of excellent pizza restaurants which can be found right across Rio de Janeiro.  My two favourite pizza restaurants are Diagonal Pizzaria and Pizzaria Guanabara, both of which can be found on Avenida Ataulfo de Paiva in Leblon.  Both are extremely relaxed, stay open until 04:00 every day and serve an excellent calabresa (Brazilian sausage) and onion pizza.

Other sources to look at – I wouldn’t claim that the above recommendations even touch upon a fraction of the many excellent places to eat in Rio.  Do draw inspiration from some other sites such as the excellent EatRio.net or the ever-reliable TripAdvisor.

Is there anywhere else I should visit in Brazil?

To answer this question adequately would require several more thousand blog posts.

In a nutshell, though, you should certainly consider visiting the seaside party resort of Buzios which can be reached by bus in about two hours from Rio.  During the summer months, Buzios comes alive as tens of thousands of Cariocas head there to enjoy the open-air nightclubs and fantastic bars and restaurants which line the Rua das Pedras.   Try Takatakata and Chez Michou for starters.

If you’ve got a couple of spare days then you should certainly consider taking the short and relatively inexpensive (about £60 per head if booked a month or so in advance) flight to Foz do Iguacu on the Brazilian-Argentinian-Paraguayan border.  I’ve written a blog post which looks at what you might expect to see in Foz.  It’s one of the best places I’ve ever visited, so you should certainly give it some thought.

What have I missed?

I appreciate I’ve not actually listed any suggestions about where to stay in Rio.  That’s because I stay with family when I’m here so I don’t have a clue.

If you know me and I’ve directed you to this page, please feel free to ping me an email with any other questions you might have and I’ll try and help.

Otherwise, have an excellent trip.

From Buenos Aires to Rio de Janeiro

It has actually been a few days since I arrived back in Rio de Janeiro from Buenos Aires but a combination of spending a couple of days in Terespolis in the hills outside Rio and Christmas has dealt a blow to my good intention of keeping this blog relatively up to date.  Nevertheless, I hope you find my account of visiting Buenos Aires of interest…

After a painless 90 minute boat journey across from the Uruguayan town of Colonia on the other side of the Argentina-Uruguay river plate, I arrived in the early evening in Puerto Madero, the main port in Buenos Aires.  After hailing a taxi, I headed across to my hotel (the affordable, hospitable and comfortable Aldeano II) a stone’s throw from the Argentine National Congress to dump my bags and relax for a while.

Given that Uruguayan cash machines only appear to dispense bank notes of relatively high worth, I was unwilling to take any more money out at the port in Colonia to buy a substantial lunch.  The result of this meant that the residual coins I was able to scrabble together were only enough to buy a measly bottle of water and a rather forlorn-looking croissant.  As such, after a quick rest at the hotel, I was ready to go in search of good.  Having had such a glut of steak while in Montevideo, however, I couldn’t cope with yet another identikit red meat dinner – however delicious they might be.

My mind turned to conversation I’d had with a friend in the summer where he mentioned that Argentina was home to a large community of diaspora Armenians who are hugely influential in economic, political and cultural circles in Buenos Aires.  As such, I concluded, there must be a number of Armenian restaurants in the city.

A quick scan of Google threw up a restaurant called ‘Sarkis’ in Villa Crespo, close to the fashionable Palermo Viejo district.  It was a fairly drab evening outside with some light rain so I thought it safe to ignore the warnings about long queues to get a table and chance it.  Arriving at the restaurant and walking past the fifty or so people queuing patiently to get a table, I walked up to the waiter guarding the front door and greeted him in Armenian (“barev!”), hoping that this brazen approach would be enough to help me skip the huge line.  For whatever reason, it appeared to work and I was ushered to a table in the corner of the restaurant within the next ten minutes.  I muttered a hearty “shnorhakalutyun” (thank you) to the manager.

Having secured a table I was, for want of a better term, hoist by my own petard in that I was handed an Armenian language copy of the menu.  They were either attempting to call my bluff or assumed I was actually Armenian!  Either way, my Armenian menu was quickly swapped for an English version.

In short, the food was exceptional and the service brilliant.  The basturma had a great smoky taste, the lavash was light and fresh and the lamb khorovadz was as good as any I’ve had this side of the South Caucasus.  Eating Armenian food in Argentina might seem like a strange thing to do but I couldn’t possibly recommend ‘Sarkis’ any more.

Free walking tour

There’s no more appealing word than “free” in the English dictionary so, when I noticed that there was a free walking tour around Buenos Aires, I immediately marked it down as something I would like to do.  (If you want to read no further than this, you can find details of this excellent and highly commendable tour here).

I arrived, as advertised, at the Plaza Italia close to the centre of the city as advertised at 11am the next morning and joined a diverse group of other tourists from the United States, Canada and Australia under the statue of Garibaldi on his horse.  We were soon joined by the English tour guide Jonathan who has been based in Buenos Aires for a number of years and conducts a free tour each day, asking only that those who take part are generous in their tips at the end.

While I’d had the chance to explore the city a bit before, it was a terrific way of getting to know the “real” Buenos Aires beyond simply seeing the main squares, boulevards and tourist attractions.

Given that taxi prices are ridiculously low in much of South America (apart from Brazil where, like everything else, they’ve become a rip-off), I’m often adverse to using public transport when a taxi can get you from “A” to “B” for only a couple of pounds.  It was therefore quite an experience to be taken on the British-built Buenos Aires metro system, riding along in the wooden tube carriages and dodging a litany of pick-pockets along the way.

Another highlight of the tour was visiting the Abasto neighbourhood where the famous tango singer Carlos Gardel has lived and where an entire industry has grown up around his memory, including bustling theatres and shops selling tango outfits, as well as the numerous street murals commemorating his life.

In Abasto we also learned about the legend of Gaucho Gil, a legendary figure in the country’s popular culture who has come to be regarded as a saint by many Argentines.

To explain Gaucho Gil’s story in a nutshell, he was a farm-worker on the estate of an extremely wealthy widow with whom he gradually entered into a relationship.  The wealthy widow was said to be obsessed with Gil, much to the annoyance of both her brothers and the local police chief, who had designs on the said widow.  In a fit of anger, the police chief ordered Gil that he must leave the village and never come back or else he would pay with his life.  Gil then spent the subsequent twenty years living a nomadic existence in various parts of Argentina, performing various Robin Hood-style acts as he went.  Gil eventually grew bored of this existence and returned to the village.  When the police chief found out that he was in town, he immediately went to confront Gil and order his to leave.  In the meantime, Gil had heard on the grapevine that the police chief’s son had been taken violently ill that day.  Upon encountering the police chief on the road, Gil told him that if he were to say a prayer for him, the son’s life would be spared.   The police chief had not heard of his son’s illness, rubbished Gil’s suggestion and slit his throat, killing him.  Upon returning to the village, the police chief found out that Gil had been telling the truth and immediately said prayer, repenting for what he had done.  His son was then automatically resurrected and the police chief spent the rest of his days letting everyone know about Gil’s saintly credentials.

The Catholic Church has refused to beatify Gil, yet this has not stopped many Argentineans holding him in very high regard.  After having it pointed out to me, I noticed that a large number of cars and shops have red ribbons tied to them; the official mark of Gaucho Gil, modelled after his bandana.  There are many shrines (such as the one pictured) around the country and prayers can be offered to Gil for any reason, including calling upon him to heal a family member or bring you wealth or praying for bad fortune to fall upon your enemies.   If Gil was to be formally ‘adopted’ as a saint by the Catholic Church, his ability to conduct ‘dark’ acts would be muted.  As such, many are content to see his ‘saintly’ status remain in limbo.

Plaza do Mayo

As our tour guide Jonathan told us, no visit to Buenos Aires is complete without a visit to the Plaza do Mayo.  The square contains some of the most famous buildings in the city, not least the imposing Metropolitan Cathedral and Casa Rosada (“Pink House”), the seat of the Argentine Presidency.

The most interesting thing about the Plaza do Mayo from my point of view, though, is the ongoing presence of the ‘Mothers of the Plaza do Mayo’, a group which sprung up in the late 1970s in opposition to the military dictatorship to demand answers from the government about ‘disappeared’ loved ones.  The number of people murdered by the Argentine military junta that ruled until 1983 is a matter of some debate but estimates suggest the number may be as high as 30,000, of which 9,000 remain unaccounted for.

Each Thursday at 15:30 the ‘Mothers of Plaza do Mayo’ continue to gather in the square to demand action from the government of the day to do more to investigate the fate of their loved ones.  By pure coincidence I happened to be in the square at the time, so was able to witness the incredibly humbling spectacle of many, mainly elderly people marching and holding up pictures of loved ones whose fate remains unclear (read: whose bodies have never been recovered).  Given the age profile of the crowd, I can only conclude that many thousands more parents have gone to their grave never having received answers from the government.

While on the square, I also had the chance to hear about another group, the ‘Grandmothers of Plaza do Mayo’.  It is said that, under the military dictatorship, 400 pregnant women who opposed the regime were allowed to give birth to their children and murdered shortly after; their babies being handed to supporters of the regime.  Having constructed a DNA database of all 400 of these women, the group allows those who have doubts as to whether those claiming to be their mothers really did give birth to them to have tests to establish whether not they were the children of one of the 400.  If they are found to be, the people who raised them can face trial for the kidnapping of a child and being accessories to murder.  To date, a total of 107 cases have been identified.  I cannot think of a more chilling discovery to make than that of those you had always thought were your parents having been complicit in the murder of your birth mother.

San Telmo, Puerto Madero and Recoleta

Aside from the serious nature of Plaza do Mayo, Buenos Aires is a terrific place to socialise.

San Telmo is amongst the oldest neighbourhoods in the city and, along with Puerto Madero (of which more in a moment), my favourite part of Buenos Aires.  After stepping out of the crowded Plaza do Mayo, you are within seconds transported to quiet, shady streets lined with historic buildings housing bars, restaurants and artists studios.  To my mind, it’s one of the most European-feeling parts of the city with a distinctly colonial feel.  Walking around San Telmo, you get some insight into how it must have felt to live in Buenos Aires at the turn of the 20th century when Argentina was seemingly-irreversibly on the up and the country ranked 6th in the global league table of most prosperous nations.  It is one of the few parts of town where genuine thought and care appears to have been put into maintaining historic buildings, as opposed to letting them decay.

Not far from the colonial-style San Telmo is Puerto Madero, Argentina’s main port.  While it remains in active use as the main terminal through which people and goods enter and leave Argentina, the most historic part of the port has now been given over to tourism.  Speaking to friends who visited the city twenty years ago, they described how the port area was considered a squalid and dangerous area of the city.  Thankfully, the regeneration of the area means it is now home to the best hotels in the city and a string of upmarket restaurants catering for tourists and the elite of Buenos Aires society.  As the photos below show, it’s a fantastic place to go for a walk but, if you intend to eat, make sure you bring credit cards!

No trip to Buenos Aires would be complete without a visit to Recoleta, a historic part of the city which is home to the famous cemetery that provides a final resting place for Eva Peron.  If you haven’t been to a Catholic graveyard in South America before, then it’s quite an astonishing sight.  While in the UK we are used to seeing relatively simple gravestones, even for the most significant of historic figures, the mausoleums constructed to house the graves of the Argentina elite are on an unmatched scale of grandeur and pomposity.  Sadly, my camera ran out of battery half way through visiting the cemetery but I managed to capture a few shots which I hope underscore this observation:

   

Political pygmies and social inequality

For most part, Buenos Aires is a middle-class city with living standards that are comparable with most European cities.  I would say, however, that the feeling of gaping social inequalities is stronger in Argentina than any other country I’ve visited in South America with the exception of only Brazil.

The whole city has a slightly uneasy air about it.  Upon first glance, Buenos Aires has a sense of style, sophistication and self-confidence not seen elsewhere in South America with immaculately-maintained tree-lined avenues and expensive boutiques dominating the centre of the city.  Upon slightly deeper examination, it’s clear that the city is crumbling; architecturally and socially.

While repeated waves of Peronist Presidents have issued lofty pledges to address these problems, a quick visit to the square in front of the National Congress very clearly indicates the lack of progress they have made.  No more than fifty metres from the Congress, the square is home to semi-permanent tent city filled with homeless people are downtrodden to the point they don’t even bother pestering tourists and the prosperous Portitos who pass them by for money.

The conflict over the Falkland Islands is, in 2012, considered by many in the UK to be a long-ago fought conflict of little significance today.  In many respects, though, the combination of arrogance, aggression and petty nationalism demonstrated by General General Galtieri and his military junta in 1982 has characterised Argentine politics ever since.

Looking at the country’s most recent leaders, we’ve witnessed the Presidencies of the supposedly ‘reformist’ yet ultimately vainglorious Carlos Menem, the gombeenism of the late Nestor Kirchner and the ludicrous Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner who not only cooks the books to hide the country’s spiralling inflation rates yet resorts to demagogic nationalism to bolster her popularity.  Her ‘door-stepping’ of David Cameron in a corridor at the G20 to discuss the status of the Falkland Islands was not the actions of a respectable head of state but rather those of a 1980s union official.

While the stellar growth of the Brazilian economy has kept Argentina’s economy afloat for the past few years, international financial institutions steer resolutely clear of investments in the country as a result of its decision to default on its debt obligations in the late 1990s.  With Brazilian economic growth projected to fall to only 1% next year, tough times lie ahead for Argentina.

I pity the people of Argentina – a proud, educated and passionate people – that they have allowed themselves to be ruled by such pygmies.

Without prejudice

While Foz do Iguacu, Asuncion and Montevideo were all places I was visiting for the first time, I had the change to visit Buenos Aires three years ago and had already seen many of the city’s main tourist attractions.   I’m extremely glad I came again though as the trip was a great opportunity to get to know the city well and go beyond some of the more establish tourist trails.

One question I was repeatedly asked by friends when returning from Buenos Aires for the first time and expect to be asked again was whether or not there is any residual resentment towards the British with regards to the Falklands War.  While I’m sure there is the odd person out there who harbours a grudge, just as there are some dinosaurs in the UK who still spew hatred against Germans over the Second World War, I’ve never encountered anything other than generosity and kindness when in Argentina.  This is true for everyone else I’ve spoken to who has had the chance to spend time in the country, so don’t let any fears in this respect put you off.

From Montevideo to Buenos Aires

I had read before coming to Uruguay that the country’s citizens deeply resent either their country or their people being compared with Paraguayans.  Without wishing to enter into a debate about the merits and disadvantages of each country, it would be easy to understand their dislike for such a comparison for no other reason than the two people have nothing whatsoever in common.

The easiest way to compare the two would be to say that Paraguay is, like Brazil or Colombia, an explicitly Latin American country in respect of its culture, customs and ethnicity of its people while Uruguay is, like Argentina, an isolated slice of Europe rather uncomfortably stranded at the fag-end of South America.

In many respects, the rather European and comparatively opulent style of Montevideo made it seem a little unremarkable when compared to the “wild west” nature of Asuncion.  It was, however, a very pleasant place to spend a few days, even if it did an certain air of familiarity to it.

The Old Town and Port

Having arrived into town quite late at night and being unable to get to sleep as a result of the prehistoric conditions in my hotel (of which more later), I had a relatively slow start to my first day in Montevideo.

After a late breakfast and few plans as to what I was actually going to do with the day, I made a rough plan to go and see some of the city’s tourist attractions.  Given that my hotel was located just off one of the city’s main roads, I decided to take a walk around the area near my hotel in order to do some people-watching and soak up the atmosphere.   This turned out to be quite a good plan as my random wanderings led to me, after just a few minutes walk, to the city’s set-piece square, the Plaza Independencia:

   

     

Before coming to the square I had already concluded that there was relatively little about Montevideo that could be described as particularly Latin American.  Sure, there were a few traders dotted around the edge of the square selling traditional goods but the majority of the buildings – from the glass-edifice of the President’s office to the peculiar Palacio Salvio – would not have been out of place in Europe.

On the western side of the Plaza was a large ornamental gate which marked the formal entrance into the city’s Old Town; a pleasant mix of modern boutiques, souvenir shops and cafes with shady terraces that looked like highly agreeable places to spend a few hours.

Eventually, I came to the square that was home to the City’s Metropolitan Cathedral.  While I always enjoy visiting cathedrals when on trips – if only to look at their astonishing architecture – I was particularly keen to see how the building compared to that I had seen in Asuncion.  The two buildings could not have been more different.  While Asuncion’s cathedral had an almost Protestant air to it with bare white walls, sparse decorations and seemingly-acres of open space, Montevideo’s was the very epitome of how you’d expect a Catholic church to look.   An imposing grey structure with thick walls to keep the building cool during the ravages of the Uruguayan summer, the floors were covered in ornate tiles and its ruby red and marble walls were covered in elaborate monuments to saints and fallen heroes from throughout the country’s history.

A few minutes on from the cathedral I came to the city’s port district.  After a couple of wrong turns that took me to a part of the seafront filled with crumbling buildings that was clearly not intended as a place for tourists to visit, I found myself back on the main thoroughfare.  While the port itself is largely devoid of charm, largely because it is active use as the main means by which people and commercial goods made their way between Uruguay and Argentina, its surroundings are well worth a visit.  I was particularly taken with the Mercados do Portos, a former fishmongers’ hall which is now home to twenty or so bars and restaurants serving a delicious range of fresh fish and barbequed meat dishes.

After a couple of hours of rest back at the hotel, I returned to the Mercados do Portos in search of dinner.  As it was a Monday evening and very, very few tourists appeared to be around, a lot of restaurants had taken the opportunity to cut their losses and close early.  I was more than a little sceptical about those places that were still open; concluding their elaborate décor and the warm welcome I received at the door for so much as looking at the menu in the window would result in their being tourist traps with disappointing food and extortionate prices.  Nevertheless, I settled on a place called El Peregrino.

I shouldn’t have been so cynical.  El Peregrino was, in a word, outstanding.  Controlled by a craggy-faced old-timer with a name like Giovanni, Mario or Serafino, I was immediately handed a platter of cheeses, chutneys and garnishes which could never easily have served as a meal in themselves.  Indeed, Giovanni looked a little disappointed when I only wanted the Uruguayan Ham platter as a starter.  He quickly perked up when I ordered a steak which he enthusiastically claimed was “from his brother’s farm”. (I am sure this comment was deployed for marketing purposes and his brother actually works in the kitchen, along with the rest of the extended family but anyway…).  Without going into too much further depth, the food was remarkable and the bill, at £25, outstanding:

   

Full of steak and fuelled by the type of joy de vivre one can only get from a good bottle of Argentine Malbec, I retired to bed a happy man!

Walk to the river-front

I must confess that, after a day in Montevideo, I was beginning to run out “tourist attractions” to visit.   I was starting to get a bit bored.   Rather than let this developing sense of boredom develop into a sense of full-scale apathy that could have seen me kill the remaining couple of days aimlessly surfing the internet, I found a map of the city and decided to go for a long walk in order to see a bit more of the place.

The most logical route I found which would allow me to cover a lot of ground and also get to see as much of the famous river promenade as possible. NB: I say “river promenade” but, for all intents and purposes, it is a coast-line.  The river plate (“Rio de la Plata”) that runs for 290 miles between Uruguay and Argentina which, at the mouth of the river, reaches a distance between the two countries of 140 miles.

After having spent much of the past two weeks grappling with the searing heat, the fresh breeze coming off the river was a more than welcome arrival.  The mixture of breeze and slightly overcast day meant I was able to cover a huge amount of ground without so much as breaking a sweat.  At half-kilometre intervals along the promenade were posts marking the distance walked; something which encouraged me to set myself a goal of covering 10km before dinner.   My route was as follows:

If you’re in Montevideo I would strongly recommend following the same trail in order to ensure you cast the net a little wider than just the river-front areas closest to the city centre.  Indeed, the parts of the river-front closest to the main port have very little charm about them with a string of rather unpleasant high-rise buildings providing the backdrop for what is essentially just a long slab of concrete abutting an expanse of murky, brown water.

It’s only when you’ve walked a couple of miles along the riverfront that you come to a string of very pleasant parks, yacht clubs and a string of memorials commemorating Winston Churchill, Mahatma Ghandi and the victims of the Holocaust and Armenian Genocide:

   

   

After having covered ten miles on foot, I didn’t feel like walking back so jumped on a bus back to Plaza Independencia that cost less than £1 and took about half an hour.

Don’t stay at the Hotel Austral

Before I mention Colonia – a beautiful port town that links Uruguay to Argentina – I just wanted to give a dishonourable mention to the place I stayed: the Hotel Austral (or “Hotel Awful” as I mentally nicknamed it).

To be clear, I should have known it would be bad.  After all, it was only £25 a night.  But I didn’t realise it would be that bad.

Before I launch a full-frontal assault on the establishment, let me first highlight some of its positive points.  Or rather it’s only positive point.  The Hotel Austral is supremely well located, literally a stone’s throw from most of the cities main thoroughfares and less than ten minutes walk to both the Old Town and the riverfront.  There are some excellent cafes, bars and ornate squares just seconds away.  If you’re somebody who can overlook almost anything negative about a hotel as long as it is well situated, then the Hotel Austral is the place for you.  The breakfast, particularly the freshly-squeezed orange juice, is also very pleasant.

However…

If you are fond of even the most basic of creature comforts, such as having running water in your bedroom that doesn’t have an unwholesome pong to it or a mattress that doesn’t look like a relic recovered from the top of Mount Ararat after an archaeological expedition to recover items that were onboard Noah’s Ark, then this isn’t the place for you.

After checking in, I headed up to the room in the gloriously retro lift which involved having to both close the door behind you and close a wire-mesh gate before it leapt, with surprising speed, up to my fifth floor room.  Except it wasn’t “retro”, the lift just hadn’t been replaced since the mid-50s.

Entering the room, I was almost overcome with a smell of mustiness and damp.  Thirsty, I turned on the tap in the bathroom to encounter the aforementioned pongy water which smelt like a mixture of gone-off eggs and one of those sulphurous health spas luvvies adore going to.

I dumped my bags and marched downstairs to request a bottle of water, only for the duty manager that the hotel “doesn’t stock those anymore”.   Exasperated, I resolved to try and find some clean water somewhere.   Anywhere.  Eventually, I found my way to the breakfast room on the first floor where, through a glass door, I could see a water cooler.  Salvation!  Treading carefully, I managed to pilfer a jug from the unlocked kitchen attached to the room, filled it and carried my precious Amber Nectar to my room.  Each morning, before I left the hotel for the day, I hid the jug in my suitcase so that it wouldn’t be collected by a cleaner.  Each night, I performed by ritual of forcing my way into the breakfast room in order to access something the United Nations describes as a fundamental human right: clean drinking water.  You shouldn’t have to do that in a hotel, even when it only costs you £25 a night!

I probably ought to have read the reviews of the hotel more closely before booking.   I also should have avoided reading the reviews of the hotel after I had already checked in, for one of the reviewers mentioned a horrific experience of having been woken in her room in the early hours covered in bed bugs.  While I am sure I suffered from nothing other than mosquito bites during my time in Montevideo, the very thought of them possibly being present in the hotel led me to conduct lengthy, Google Image Search-led investigations as to what could have caused the bites.  This sense of irrational paranoia meant each of my three night’s sleep were interrupted several times by me abruptly turning on the lights to check whether or not I was under attack by nocturnal carnivores.

For the sake of your ability to drink clean water and broader mental health, don’t stay at the Hotel Austral!

Visit Colonia

There are several ways to reach Buenos Aires from Montevideo.  The first and fastest option is to take a 45 minute plane journey across the river plate, yet this also the most expensive.  The second is to take roughly a three-hour boat trip from the main port into the centre of Montevideo directly to Puerto Madero in Uruguay.  It’s a relatively expensive journey, costing roughly £50.  The third and by far the cheapest option is to take a bus a couple of hours across the country to the port of Colonia and to then catch a passenger ferry to Buenos Aires from there.  I went for the third option, largely because it allowed me to spend a couple of hours outside of the confines of metropolitan Montevideo to see a bit of the Uruguayan countryside from the bus window and a few of the sights in Colonia.

The bus journey itself is perfectly pleasant, stretching through the Montevideo suburbs and through some damp-looking countryside that reminded me of the Welsh Marches before ending up at Colonia’s bus station.  Thankfully, the bus station isn’t miles from the town centre as it is most South American countries but within a couple of minutes walk of both the Old Town and the passenger port where you can pick up your ferry to Buenos Aires.

Colonia del Sacramento (‘Colony of the Saints’) to give it its full name is a place is one of the most historically significant places in South America with its ownership having alternated on several occasions between Brazil and Uruguay.  Indeed, the Brazilian – or rather Portuguese – influence on the town is very clear to see in the traditional architecture of both private homes and tourist attractions such as the historic lighthouse and Basilica.   My time in Colonia before having to set sail for Buenos Aires was very limited but I managed to take some quick photographs:

I regret not having more time to explore the town and would recommend that if anyone else finds themselves connecting to Buenos Aires from Uruguay, they might consider spending the night before the journey at one of the many very comfortable-looking guest-houses dotted around the Old Town.

As I write this, I can see the Buenos Aires skyline fast-approaching in the distance.  Having been to BA before, I’m a lot more familiar with the city than I have been with other places I’ve visited during this trip.  Nevertheless, I look forward to covering lots of new ground, safe in the knowledge that a 40-mile stretch of water now stands between me and the Hotel Austral!

From Asunción to Montevideo

I don’t really know why I wanted to visit Paraguay.  In honesty, nobody else did either.  In the run-up to the trip, I wasn’t able to find anyone who’d visited before from the UK.  I thought I might be able to pick up some more tips from friends in Rio but none of them had ever been either. Indeed, in her 85 years of living in South America my grandmother told me she’d “never heard of anyone going to Paraguay”.

It would be fair to say that Asuncion is hardly on a par with London or New York City in respect of how much there is for a tourist to do.  Indeed, I realised that I’d been to nearly all of the recommended “tourist attractions” after just a three hour walk around what can only generous be described as the “city centre”.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed the trip and would certainly come again if the opportunity arose.  Prices are extremely low, the local and ex-pat communities are generous to a fault and the city has a pleasant, almost colonial feel to it with its tree-lined avenues, shady squares and plentiful public parks.  If you’re looking for somewhere to get away from things, Asuncion is a safe and relaxing bet.

Here are a few impressions of the city…

(The photo above is of the Presidential Palace)

Quality of life

Asuncion is an exceptionally long way from anywhere.  With the exception of the eastern city of Ciudade del Este some five miles away on the Brazilian border, it’s fairly isolated with the Argentine capital Buenos Aires taking about 18 hours by road, Rio de Janeiro 22 hours and Montevideo 22 hours.

As such, the type of “border hopping” so many of us have grown used to in Europe where we go for weekends in Brussels, Amsterdam and Berlin is impractical.  The city is also relatively poorly served by air, with only a handful of direct flights to major population centres around the continent.   There is, for example, no direct flight to Rio de Janeiro.

Despite this isolation, I’d say that the people of Asuncion enjoy a fairly high quality of life.  The city is relatively run-down but it’s not dirty.  Residential and shopping areas are usually found on tree-lined avenues that provide much-needed shade from the excessive heat, modern shopping malls are popping up all over the city and there’s an impressive array of bars and restaurants to choose from.

One of the most surreal and enjoyable parts of the trip was being invited by a German I met in a bar in the town centre to visit his club, Club Alemane de Asuncion.  While I was aware that there had been significant German immigration to South America, it was nevertheless surreal to sit in the baking forty degree heat in a club created for the German community that was decked out in Bayern Munich paraphernalia and had posters up advertising a monthly Oktoberfest theme night.

Church and state

Before coming to Asuncion, I had been warned that the city’s striking Catholic Cathedral was very often closed to visitors.  Indeed, when I turned up early in the morning the gates surrounding the church were padlocked and its cloisters had a rather deserted feel about them.  Walking by later that day, I spotted an opens side door and decided to seize the opportunity to have a look around.  I was the only visitor, apart from a cleaner who turned up just as I was leaving.

There were two things that struck me about the Cathedral.

The first was its simplicity.  Visiting many Catholic churches in various parts of the world, I’ve grown used to them being rather opulent and grand in nature, with elaborate frescoes and statues of assorted saints filling every spare inch of wall space.  With the exception of wall backing onto the altar, the church felt almost Protestant in its appearance with relatively bare masonry, plain wooden benches and orderly floor tiles.  It was nevertheless an incredibly peaceful sanctuary from the burning heat of the midday Paraguayan sun.

The second thing to strike me was the amount of Paraguayan national symbols found on both the façade of the building and inside the church.  Aside from Serbia, where the Orthodox Church was been intrinsically linked to the notional Serb ethnicity since the days of the Rastko Nemanjic (later Saint Sava) in the late 1100s, I’ve never seen so many national symbols in a church.  The front of the Cathedral has large ‘Republica Paraguay’ crest chiselled prominently into its masthead and a Paraguayan flag sits on the altar alongside religious imagery.

It’s often said that the only thing that stood between dictator Alfredo Stroessner who ruled with an iron fist from 1954 to 1989 and total power in Paraguay was the power of the Catholic church.  I can’t help but feel that the decision of an earlier era of the Catholic hierarchy in Paraguay to incorporate state symbols into religious life stopped Stroessner seizing control of his country’s flag and national imagery for his own PR purposes in the same way as so many other despots have done so in the past – and will sadly do so in the future.

Sitting inside the church, I began imagining all the covert pro-democracy meetings that must have taken place on the pews during Stroessner’s thirty-five year reign of terror.  As I was leaving, I noticed a small plaque commemorating Pope John-Paul’s visit to Asuncion in 1988.  A year later, Stroessner was ousted.  I’d love to know if, as in the case of Solidarnosc in Poland, it was John-Paul’s intervention that gave the democratic opposition the impetus they needed to bring about change.

Brazil is the new US

Visiting Brazil in the early 90s, it was clear that the country was in the grip of a fairly substantial and deep-seated obsessed with the United States.  Shops displayed quality-affirming signs telling customers their goods were ‘made in the USA’, fashion malls and businesses complexes had names like ‘New York City Centre’ and ‘Downtown’ and small boutiques were often branded ‘Miami Style’, ‘Florida Fashion’, ‘Style USA’ and such like.  Furthermore, American flags adorned most retail businesses.  As Brazil’s economy soared during the early 2000s, the country’s obsession with America as the depiction of style, sophistication and aspiration fell away in favour of a new-found sense of national pride and confidence.

No doubt spurred on by admiration at Brazil’s economic miracle, it appears that in today’s Paraguay an association with the country and its attributes is seen as a positive thing.  Walking through Asuncion you encounter, in quick succession, the ‘Brazil Nail Bar’, ‘Brazil Fashion’ and numerous travel agents advertising family tourist packages for holidays to the country’s resorts.  The Brazilian flag flies over Asuncion’s malls in the same way the US flag once did in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo.

Despite its protestations to the contrary, Brazil might not quite yet be a forceful world power but it’s certainly a well-liked regional one.

Taiwan looms large

Ever since President Nixon’s landmark visit to mainland China in 1972, the people of the Republic of China (Taiwan) have been forced to endure a process of ongoing humiliation as country after country has switched its recognition from Taipei to Beijing.   Today, only a handful of countries continue to recognise democratic Taiwan as the true representatives of the Chinese people with Paraguay and its six million citizens being the largest of this group.

After spending a couple of days in Asuncion, it’s incredibly clear to me that this is a relationship that successive governments of the Republic of China have heavily invested in on both an emotional and financial level.

Undoubtedly the most significant manifestation of Taipei’s commitment to its relationship with Paraguay is the country’s sparkling new National Congress which was given to the country as a gift from Taiwan.  I rather brazenly walked into the Congress and successfully passed through the security scanners before being stopped by a security guard who pointed me in the direction of reception.  After a brief conversation in broken Spanish, the same receptionist agreed to give me a tour of the impressive building.

 

Financial issues aside, it’s clear the Republic of China has made a genuine effort to invest in emotional aspects of the relationship.  Several plaques and messages of support from Taiwanese Presidents are evident on the walls of the National Pantheon of the Heroes which celebrates the country’s war dead, while the Chiang Kai Shek College continues to operate.

While it’s impractical – however much we may wish it was possible – for large trading countries like the US and UK to ignore Beijing in preference for Taipei, it’s encouraging to see Asia’s most vibrant democracy continue to maintain an outpost of diplomatic recognition in South America.  Long may it continue.

White power

During my visit to the National Congress, I was briefly shown a poster showing the photographs of the country’s eighty Congressmen.  It was striking to notice that, with very few exceptions, nearly all the faces on the poster were as white as mine despite roughly 80% of the population being mixed-race ‘Mestizos’ with native Indian heritage.

Recent examples from other South American countries have shown that the alienation of large parts of the population from the political process can only lead to the election of demagogues like Bolivia’s Evo Morales hell-bent on creating tensions between ethnicities.

The country’s political class – in particular the Colorado Party who had held office successively for 61 years – got a shot across the bows in 2008 when the “red bishop” Fernando Lugo (who is white) won the Presidency on a centre-left ticket that received widespread support from poorer, Mestizos voters.  While the conservative political classes were shocked to lose to the centre-left, Lugo generally focussed on moderate social reforms during his time in office and rejected overtures from Hugo Chavez to join his anti-Western alliance.   Next time they may not be so lucky.

It’s clear to me that, if Paraguay is to avoid falling under the spell of the Chavez/Morales/Correa cabal, political parties of all hues need to do far more to include Mestizos voters amongst their candidates for office.  These efforts need to be aggressive and immediate.

On an election-related note, the city is covered in posters in advance of the Presidential and Parliamentary elections in April:

   

On to Montevideo

Given that everything had gone with complication in Asucion, I had a strange feeling as I dragged my hungover carcass through the sweltering heat of the city’s crowded bus terminal that something was about to.  And so it came to pass.

I had checked, checked and checked again on the bus station’s website and that of each of the bus operators to check that a bus did indeed run from Asuncion to Montevideo on a Sunday.  “No, no, no, Lunes, Miercoles, Sabado!” came the response from a rather gruff lady behind the counter.  “Today go no bus Montevideo!”.  Eventually, I found out there was a flight running a few hours later which, while double the price of the bus, would get me to Montevideo in 2 hours 20 minutes as opposed to 21 hours.  I booked a ticket, headed for the airport and touched down in Montevideo a little after 7pm.

I’ve not yet had any real opportunity to look around the city but it’s worth saying that the city’s airport is the nicest I’ve passed through anywhere in the world.  It’s a genuinely impressive building that looks more like a spaceship than an airport.

After the oppressive heat of Asuncion, pulling out of the airport in a taxi and almost immediately finding myself on a seaside promenade with a cool (I say “cool” but it was probably still about 25 degrees) provided some much needed respite.    I’ve read before that Montevideo has the highest standard of living of any of the South American capitals and this certainly appears to be the case from what I’ve seen so far.

Anyway, after a good night’s sleep I’ll explore the city properly…

(The image above is of one of Asuncion’s amazing Catholic graveyards)

Dilma government refuses to back Syrian opposition

It came as little surprise to me to read this morning that Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has refused join the steadily-increasing number of governments who have recognised the Syrian opposition coalition formed in Doha last week as the country’s legitimate government.

The Brazilian government has instead expressed issued a statement expressing its concern at the worsening violence in the country and called for an enlarged role for the United Nations in solving the conflict.  This stance is sadly entirely characteristic of Brazilian foreign policy over the last decade: abdicate responsibility and continue calling for multi-lateral solutions even when, as in this case, the time for UN-led negotiations has long since passed. Decepcionante…

What makes this decision all the more difficult to understand is that there is a significant number of senior political figures of Lebanese descent currently serving in the upper echelons of the Brazilian government who will no doubt be extremely familiar with the Syrian occupation of Lebanon that was in place for thirty years from 1976 to 2006.  Lebanese-Brazilians a enjoy significant influence of Brazil’s economic, cultural and political life – their ranks including Vice-President Michel Temer, Sao Paulo Governor Geraldo Alckmin and outgoing Sao Paulo Mayor Gilberto Kassab.  Widespread protests by the influential Lebanese community could prove vital to forcing President Rousseff to change tack.

Last December I wrote an article for The Commentator expressing my outrage that Brazil had abstained from a vote on United Nations Security Council voted on Resolution 1973 ordering Muammar Gaddafi to call a ceasefire against opposition rebels and imposing a ‘no fly zone’ over Libya.  What was the Brazilian government’s solution to stop the carnage?  They issued a press release calling for “dialogue” between Gaddafi and the rebels.

In the piece, I argued that the Rousseff administration ought to refocus its approach to international relations in order to achieve a leadership role on human rights issues amongst countries in the new global democratic order.  In light of the country’s refusal to back the Syrian rebels seeking to overthrow the barbaric Assad regime, I’d say the article is as relevant today as it was then:

Brazil’s long-held belief in a foreign policy which actively avoids military conflict in favour of diplomacy need not fundamentally change. What must change, however, is the country’s willingness to sacrifice its own passion for the defence of human rights and democracy in the pursuit of a high-minded yet spineless policy of non-interventionism at almost all costs.

An aversion to sending troops into combat need not result in a refusal to impose trade barriers, cut off Brazilian government aid or to back the international community in UN resolutions condemning tyranny.

President Rousseff must ask herself a simple question: does Brazil want to lead a new global democratic order or continue as a quisling state that stands idly by while the same hatreds and injustices that once plagued Brazil rage on its border and overseas?

You can take a look at the extended piece by clicking here.