Opinion, by Michael Royster
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – This past week, protests about buses have broken out anew, with the Rio Municipal Assembly building taken over by demonstrators. Why all this tumult again?
The reason is simple. Arrangements between the city of Rio and the (privately owned) bus companies are, and always have been, an impenetrable thicket, into which prying eyes are most definitely not invited. There is no transparency, no publicity, no nothing.
What people know is that the municipal bus service in Rio is dreadful — the buses are in wretched shape, almost none of them have air conditioning, the drivers work at least twelve-hour shifts in horrendous traffic and receive no training whatsoever in how to drive or how to deal with customers, meaning the public.
Perhaps the biggest problem is the lack of bus service in the poorer quarters, where people really need them. The bus cartel has effectively abdicated its responsibilities there in favor of vans, which are controlled by criminals and are not a viable solution to the problem.
It has long been alleged that the bus companies are a cartel, an oligopoly, whose members conspire with each other to fix prices and routes and their failure to invest in equipment or training, not to mention the ability to insist on miserable working conditions without any oversight from the authorities.
How can they do that? It has long been known that the biggest campaign financiers of Rio’s “vereadores” (members of the municipal assembly) are… the bus companies! They all contribute munificently to electing their favorite candidates. In return, they get lucrative contracts with no one snooping around into their operations. For years, this quid pro quo has worked most satisfactorily for the bus companies, but most unsatisfactorily for the public.
Last month, a vereador from PSOL (the only ethical political party in Brazil) proposed that the Assembly should install a CPI, or parliamentary inquiry committee; its task would be to investigate the bus companies. Surprisingly, the Assembly voted in favor of the CPI, although the vote was very close.
Unsurprisingly, however, the sly foxes running the Assembly had an ace up their sleeve. In fact, they had an ace, king, queen and jack. They created a committee with five members — but four of those appointed (including the Chair and the Recorder, the two most important positions) had voted against installing the CPI and conducting the inquiry! The fifth member, as a sop to the masses, was the PSOL vereador who proposed the CPI.
Putting the foxes in charge of the hen-house was just too farcical for those who had begun the protests in June, and demonstrators turned out en masse. They managed to get inside the building, and have been most orderly, as their only purpose is to have a serious CPI. The Chamber leadership tried to get a court order throwing them out, but the judge (no fool she) said the people have the right to be present when the CPI conducts its business.
Protesters are there as this column is written, with signs and banners and placards and sound truck and other paraphernalia. The Curmudgeon is wholeheartedly in favor of this protest, even though he knows that there has not been one single CPI in Brazil since 1988 that has accomplished any good thing. Perhaps this will be the first.
Michael Royster, aka THE CURMUDGEON first saw Rio forty-plus years ago, fetched up on these shores exactly 36 years ago, still loves it, notwithstanding being a charter member of the most persecuted minority in (North) America today, the WASPs (google it!)(get over it!)