Houston Chronicle – by Mihir Zaveri, Susan Carroll and Ben Tavener

HOUSTON/SÃO PAULO — Sandwiched between U.S. and Texas flags, the Brazilian banner waves outside a set of discolored tanks and pipes at the site of a Pasadena refinery. A sign marked “PRSI” – for Pasadena Refining System Inc. – hangs over chain link fence with razor wire that surrounds the compound that dates back nearly a century.

From her porch, Hilda Perez and neighbor Lorie Soliz can see that refinery across a grassy field and train tracks – its glowing flares and sulfurous fumes are familiar. Both friends remember four years ago when an explosion there rocked the neighborhood and a giant flame rose into the sky. “There’s always something going on over there,” said Soliz, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1992.

But they didn’t know that their hometown refinery – owned by Brazilian state-run oil company Petrobras – has become a flashpoint in an explosive political scandal abroad.

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SÃO PAULO — Two court rulings in two days have raised the real possibility that Brazil’s already beleaguered president, Dilma Rousseff, could face impeachment proceedings.

The most immediate challenge comes from Wednesday’s ruling by Brazil’s top audit court that the government manipulated its 2014 accounts. The court said the book-cooking was aimed at covering up a widening fiscal deficit in order to justify maintaining social spending ahead of Rousseff’s narrowly-won reelection last October.

Rousseff summoned ministers to a meeting on Thursday to discuss the judgment’s implications.

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Anadolu Agency

SÃO PAULO — Brazil’s Supreme Court on Friday released the names of senior politicians it has authorised prosecutors to investigate for their alleged roles in a multi-billion-dollar corruption scandal at state-run oil giant Petrobras.

Supreme Court minister Teori Zavascki granted investigations into 47 politicians, including 12 acting senators and 22 acting deputies, under Operation Lava Jato, or Car Wash, that is probing the vast alleged kickback scheme.

Some of Brazil’s top politicians — including acting and former congressional leaders, senators, deputies, ministers, governors, and even a former president — could now face prison sentences, if tried and convicted.

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São Paulo’s 17th Annual Parada Gay sent seventeen Carnival-style floats down the city’s central Avenida Paulista with the slogan “Para o armário, nunca mais!” – a defiant message warning that the LGBT community would “never go back in the closet”.

The show provided a reliably friendly atmosphere, with dance music, colourful costumes and plenty of glitter, feather boas and flesh on show.

Politicians attending the event included LGBT campaigner Deputy Jean Wyllys, Minister of Culture Marta Suplicy, and São Paulo mayor Fernando Haddad.

Protesters made a fresh appeal for controversial government figure Marco Feliciano to quit his human rights role.

Click to see full image. Visit my Flickr page to view the full album.

TV in electronics shop in Curitiba, photo by Ben Tavener

A TV for R$103? Take a closer look…

If you’ve lived in Brazil for a while, you’ll know the scene: you walk into a shop and an unbelievably cheap price leaps out at you. R$100 – $50 or so – for a brand new laptop. Wow!

But what you’ve failed to see is the little “15x” next to it. That computer is actually R$1500, possibly plus a down payment.

Parcelamento – paying by instalment – is Brazil’s preferred way of making expensive purchases, and certainly sellers’ favourite way of convincing people they can afford them.

You find it everywhere: from pricier electrical goods – laptops, cameras, TVs – to flights.

You can either pay in one lump – à vista – or you can divide the cost into more manageable chunks or parcelas, sometimes available at no extra cost. But customers often end up paying more for the instalment option, which usually involves five to ten monthly payments.

For example – the TV pictured above is R$1,090 if paid in one go, but R$1,545 if paid in 15 monthly instalments. But what do you see? R$103.00! Wooo!

More temptingly, you can even buy a car this way, and they’ll give you up to 60 instalments – five years – to pay it off.

No wonder there are practically more cars than people in Brazil these days – particularly after the government dropped the IPI tax on them and made getting a loan ever cheaper (something I’ll touch on again later).

Now a study by Ibre-FGV – Instituto Brasileiro de Economia – says some 58.2% of Brazilians are using their monthly salary to pay off “instalment debt”, although the survey also showed most debts were short-term: 78.4% had repayment plans of six months or less, and only 10.1% had taken out plans for twelve months or more.

The report concludes that most people are coping, but there are a small number of people who are diverting over half of their income to this type of debt – and some who are in over their necks, whose outgoings exceeds their earnings.

Unsurprisingly, it’s the more vulnerable families with less disposable income that opt for this method most often.

Some Brazilian friends of mine explained why they take advantage of paying in instalments. They say it’s because it’s the only real way of getting their hands on products quickly that otherwise they wouldn’t have the ready funds available to buy outright.

“What about using a credit card?” you may ask.

Unfortunately, credit is expensive in Brazil. In a recent survey by ProTeste, credit cards in Brazil were recently found to be typically in the region of over 320% APR – unthinkable to those in the UK or America where our cards are usually subjected to 15-25% APR.

And for a long time – particularly over less stable economic times since the global downturn hit in 2008 – the man with his hands on Brazil’s pursestrings, Finance minister Guido Mantega, has done everything he can to encourage Brazilians to spend.

He has rejigged cars, gadgets and other “must-haves” into cheaper tax brackets, made bank loans cheaper, and Brazil’s key interest rate, the Selic, is now at a historic low of 8.0%.

This, the government believed, was the best way to see Brazil through those rocky waters: and it paid off. Brazil came through almost unscathed.

However, as UFPR economist Professor Luiz Esteves told me, this is now turning into a mistake, and is something that cannot hold indefinitely.

Brazil and Russia are the two countries that I have truly lived in, other than my native UK. There are many ways in which they are different, not least the weather and the level of optimism.

Sometimes there will be something that happens here in Brazil and I find myself saying, “Wow, this is just like it was in Russia…” – and often the response is, “Oh, shut up. Brazil is nothing like Russia”. I put it down as a coincidence, and perhaps to the two simply not being the UK.

But then there are times when I’m writing stories for The Rio Times or blogging about something and, cross my heart, I type “Russia” and then have to hit the backspace to put “Brazil” in its place. There are, it turns out, many ways in which they are similar. And I’m not talking about the two of them both being members of BRICS (which, quite frankly, are about as related as a fishmonger is to a unicorn).

Décio Sá became the fourth campaigning journalist to be assassinated in Brazil so far this year.

And when it comes to reporting on politics and business, the topics could easily be about either country: fights over oil and gas, political corruption, company backhanders, the massive wealth gap, the growing middle class, and this week… the murder of investigative journalists and freedom of speech.

Last week, an investigative reporter for a paper in Maranhão state, in Brazil’s north-east, who was also a very active anti-corruption blogger, called Décio Sá, was gunned down at a bar in the state capital São Luís by what looks to be a professional hitman.

I’m not sure how many views his blog had before last Monday, but for a someone who was only really known locally, the 6.1 million figure now standing on the visits counter should tell you something.

For some reason, this one really seems to have struck a chord – nationally and internationally. It’s not on the same par yet, but this seems to have the potential to become Brazil’s Politkovskaya – the Russian reporter who criticised Putin and his wars in Chechnya, and was later slain because of it.

Clearly there are differences, but the coverage of this murder in Brazil is pretty much unprecedented, particularly given he wasn’t from Rio or São Paulo, and didn’t write for a national paper.

The media have followed every step – even today’s mass, traditionally held on the 7th day after the funeral. The story has also caught the attention of a number of international news agencies.

Horrifying pictures of Décio Sá’s body, lying at the crime scene, soon started circulating on the Internet.

Décio’s was the fourth murder of a journalist in Brazil in 2012 in as many months. Only one of those has been solved by police, but they’re certainly working hard on this one after the UN got involved – condemning the murder and the “disturbing trend” appearing, or rather in place, in Brazil.

Of those journalists murdered in the past twenty years in Brazil, only 30% of these cases have been solved, leading many to consider these reporters almost legitimate targets that you can rid the world of – with impunity.

The CPJ – Committee for Protecting Journalists – put Brazil as number 11 in its 2012 Impunity Index, which ranks countries by how many of the crimes committed against reporters are actually investigated and solved. Russia was 9th.

Other Latin countries in the rank are Mexico in 8th position, and Colombia at number five.

Whereas Russia very much closes its door and pays little attention to this type of criticism, particularly from what it sees as puny, home-grown meddlers calling themselves human rights activists (and then saying they’re funded by Western nations trying to destabilise the country), Brazil does seem to listen to its own people a bit more, at least to some extent – and it’s likely that calls from Brazilian organisations protecting journalists’ and general human rights will be noted, if not fully heeded – and the same with the flood of comments on Twitter that followed the murder, particularly if precisely why Décio Sá was targeted ever comes to light.

People in Brazil, and politicians and businessmen are no exception, generally speaking tend to care more about what people think about them than those I’ve come across in Russia. That’s just my impression.

This gathering for Décio Sá was only the first wave of recognition: protesters are now due to take to the streets.

Despite the Brazilian police’s woeful track record on finding, and bringing to account, those who order or execute ‘hits’ on tell-tale reporters, this time the Polícia Federal are working round-the-clock to solve the case, dangling a R$100,000 reward – around $52,000 – to loosen the right people’s tongues.

Two men are already in custody, charged with aiding the gunman’s escape, and the police are said to be close to announcing a description of the main suspect they are looking for, after thousands of leads from the public.

Just seven days after his funeral, the Sá case appears to have more leads and suspects than the hopeless, circus-like Politkovskaya police investigation which started after her murder in 2006.

If the public here continue to make their disgust for the murders of investigative journalists, whatever your opinion of them, so publicly known, and if the mass protects promised by his colleagues manage to rouse the public sufficiently, then just perhaps those lurking in the shadows will think twice about ordering that hit next time.

My hope is that the silence and censorship the criminals so desperately wanted unravels in spectacularly ugly style once they are caught, and before another journalist is killed.

The outpouring of grief and upset by people, particularly through social media, saying not only that Décio’s death was a terrible shame, a callous murder and an utter waste of a talented man’s life, but that these journalists are good people, working for the public and the betterment of society, aiming to rid the country of corruption and injustice, is certainly something different from what you’d be likely to hear the mainstream in Russia – where people often seem to view journalists with suspicious, as people working to their own agenda, and probably in cahoots with some “dark side” anyway.

Although Russian journalists have suffered more attacks and many more murders than their Brazilian counterparts, the number of murders already registered this year in Brazil – four in as many months – perhaps means that Décio Sá will finally be the wake-up call Brazil sorely needs.