Bows and Arrows

The Anglo-Saxon world is consumed by the upcoming US mid-terms. The rhetoric has escalated to psychobabble, America seems more divided than ever, and for many, two years of Trump seem like two centuries.

I’m betting that on November 6th, US common sense will resurface and trounce Trump. But I’ll tell that story on November 10th.

There is, however, a far more important election for America in the upcoming days—tomorrow, to be precise—and that is the second round of the Brazilian presidential election.

To the gringos, as people of South American descent lovingly refer to US anglos, this election merits a brief shrug of the shoulders. Brazil? Weird language, weird music, weird ball game.

To South and Central America, and to the European originators of those societies, this is a critical juncture. In my book Clear Eyes, I describe how Columbus first reached the Indies, and just as important, what happened when he got back. In The India Road, the great circle route taken by Vasco da Gama is the same one Pedro Álvares Cabral sailed to discover the true cross—Vera Cruz was the first name given to Brazil. There is ample evidence that Vicente Yañez Pinzon, who had sailed with Columbus, made landfall in Brazil three months before Cabral, and then headed north to Venezuela—his voyage took him through the Amazon estuary, which he aptly named Mar Dulce, or Freshwater Sea.

However, there is also evidence as far back as the mid-1490s that the Portuguese were well aware that Brazil existed, but a country with 1.2 million people, overcommitted in Africa and focused on exploring the East, simply could not spare the manpower to colonize the Americas. The strongest circumstantial evidence for this was the Treaty of Tordesillas—the Portuguese negotiators forced a shift in longitude to the west, which placed Brazil into the Portuguese half of the newly divided globe.

The relationship between Brazil and Portugal is much stronger than the ties between the US and UK, perhaps because a war of independence was never fought—the tide of migration has oscillated between the two nations: in the nineteenth century, many Portuguese went west in search of fortune, in the late XXth it was the Brazilians who fled east from a failing economy, then it was Portugal’s turn again during the 2007-2012 austerity period.

In 2018, the tables are again turned and Brazilians are fleeing the violence in their society, a reflection of the corruption and lawlessness of life in their home towns. They flock to one of the safest countries in the world—the fourth safest, to be precise. As an aside, the others are, in ascending order, Austria, New Zealand, and Iceland—out of the top five, eighty percent are European, and out of the top thirty, two-thirds are European.

Only two American nations make the top thirty-one: Canada and Chile. Those escaping from Brazil are doing so for the same reason that a caravan of Hondurans and Nicaraguans are headed for the US—they cannot deal with the (often state-sponsored) violence in their societies.

I asked a Brazilian waiter recently for his predictions—”estou torcendo por Bolsonaro,” he said, with a wry smile. Like many Brazilians abroad, he is backing the former army captain who publicly praised the imprisonment and torture of impeached former president Dilma Rousseff, and lamented in parliament that her torturers hadn’t finished the job.

Bolsonaro (best pronounced in English as ‘bows and arrows’) is running against a candidate from PT, the workers’ party. Lula, the historical leader of the PT is presently in jail on corruption charges, and his party is about to get hammered.

Bows and Arrows will be a president in the vein of the recent populist wave: Duterte, El-Sisi, Trump, you get the picture. For Brazil, which lives with the ghosts of military dictatorship, this is not good news—but it’s what you get when decades of lawless corruption translate into endemic violence and a fractured society.

The campaign for the second ballot has taken fake news to the ultimate level—Brazilians are big on chat, and they took to social media like a lush to bourbon. The internet holds many surprises, and one has been the astronomical growth of WhatsApp.

WhatsApp usage as a percentage of the population (graph courtesy of Statista).

China does its own thing, and (speculatively) Germany is on there because they have the tightest pockets on the planet, but over half of the 209 million Brazilians are on the app. Some of this is driven by cellphone charges, but a lot reflects the simplicity of combining video, audio recordings, text, and just plain chit-chat. Penetration in the US is only six percent—whereas Facebook penetration is sixty-two percent, which is why the Russians had so much fun with it in 2015.

The WhatsApp stats show how much developing countries use it: India, Indonesia, Mexico, Turkey… and Brazil—now that’s volume!

In Brazil, WhatsApp has been abused more often than a reporter at a Trump rally, and, rather like those rallies, much of the material that it circulates is fake. Each WhatsApp group can have a maximum of 256 members, but nothing stops those members also joining another group. If twenty members do that, the message will reach about five thousand people. And if those twenty were members of different groups, one hundred thousand people get the message.

Brazil has one hundred and twenty eight million registered WhatsApp users. A recent study by two Brazilian universities analyzed 347 public WhatsApp groups prior to the first round of the election. The groups were monitored over a one month period—overall they had eighteen thousand participants.

The study found that one hundred thousand images were circulated, along with seventy-one thousand videos, thirteen thousand audio clips, over half a million text messages, and ninety thousand links.

A Brazilian fact-checking agency called Lupa, which collaborated in the study, reviewed the fifty most popular images circulated among these groups.

Only four images were true.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

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