I looked up at the man in the aisle hunkering close to me. His dark face was nervous and full of purpose. I was being robbed again by Rio's world-famous urban bandits! This time on the 472 bus at seven in the morning.
"Money for mafia! I have pistol, give money!"
There was something plaintive about the request, something that reminded me of the sincere guys my age who ride the subways back in the U.S., collecting funds for a brother's surgery or for college tuition. I imagined him under the thumb of his mafia, like the street kids in San Salvador I'd read about who get sodomized if they don't steal two watches a day.
He lifted out of my wallet the showy wad of cruzeiros that totaled around $13.
His menacing backup rang for the next stop. It was my last day in Rio, and just like my first day there months before. Muggings like bookends.
"Brazil has nothing but thieves."
That is the commonplace truism Brazilians repeat among themselves. As soon as the pair of armed mafiosi left the bus, the conductor and adjacent passengers gave me questioning looks that came off terribly. Were they really asking if I'd been robbed? Heavens no!
"Yes. He robbed me," I said. Everybody's face shifted gears into the dull, ironic look that formed every time someone chanted, "Brazil has nothing but thieves."
My interview that morning was with a prominent primatologist, one of the fathers of Brazil's environmental movement. I mentioned my predicament to him, that I was stuck on the wrong side of Rio without a dime because I had been rolled first thing this morning.
He looked at me for a minute. "Do you believe in the death penalty?" he asked with a smile.
"It shows. It's written all over your face. You've got a soft heart and that's why you got hit, because they can tell you wouldn't kill them if you got the chance." Then he listed some ugly crimes for which he believed people should be killed. "You have to give them Fu-zi-la-men-to [the firing squad]," he explained, aggressively syllabilizing the last word.
In January it got out that the Rio Chamber of Commerce favored killing street kids, but with preference that the "cleanup" be done outside the law. What my interlocutor was suggesting was signed policy, a declaration of war.
Among social scientists in Brazil, one of the favorite questions is why the country has no political movements. Blacks don't unite; Indians need rock musicians like Sting to fight for their rights; protests are generally puny; and revolution is absolutely out of the question.
After the 1964 military coup, the MR8 guerrilla group sprang up only to be ground into a pulp before it could claim more than a few hundred members. Years later the movement's leaders would admit they had erred badly thinking that metal workers and peasants would organize as their comrades have done in almost every other Latin American country.
Brazil never had rebels; it only had thieves.
Brazil's European discoverer, Pedro Cabral, initiated centuries of theft. His expedition installed itself in the popular imagination as the sun around which social and economic relations callously gyrate. The Portuguese stole, then the Dutch, French, Spanish, English and finally the slippery Americans.
National politicians, meanwhile, until very recently aspired to the elegy, "Rouba, mas faz," meaning, "He steals, but he gets the job done." The country's debt crisis is popularly considered to be the grandest theft of all, a scam wherein the former military leaders stole borrowed money, allowing foreign bankers to steal from Brazilian taxpayers on the installment plan and call it interest.
Four planes, a bus and a day later I'm speaking Portuguese to a Brazilian on the train between New York and Boston. He confirms his country's flamboyant reputation by exploding into laughter at every turn of the story of his seven tough years in the United States. The tale has everything: sacrifice, betrayal by a woman, uncertain income in a rich but fickle land, and bosses who steal. His answer to his troubles isn't dreams of revolution nor zeal for social reform nor even stoicism. His answer is the renewal of music and laughter, without which Brazil would be a 150-million-strong insane asylum.
Seen as acceptance, this frivolity is maddening to everybody else's sense of progress and justice, and a mockery of suffering in a country with the third-worst wealth distribution in the world. It is the cover-up of carnival. But as a tool for survival it's awesome.
It's a lie that Brazil has nothing but thieves. It has a rare vitality to live through lean times.
John Reid, a free-lance writer, recently returned from six months of travel in Brazil. He wrote this commentary for Pacific News Service.