Opinion, by Michael Royster

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – The Curmudgeon quotes Matthew 23:23-24: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! [Y]ou have overlooked … justice, mercy and good faith. Blind guides! You strain out a gnat, yet swallow a camel!” The Curmudgeon has long believed that today’s Brazilian Congress is almost entirely composed of the modern-day equivalent of scribes and Pharisees—lawgivers in matters theological and dietary.

Michael Royster, aka The Curmudgeon.
Michael Royster, aka The Curmudgeon.

Recent proof lies in the myriad of machinations over the scandals surrounding Petrobras — specifically, the proposals to create Parliamentary Inquiry Commissions (CPI’s).

Centuries-old Jewish dietary laws prohibited eating numerous types of animals. The smallest of those proscribed was the gnat; the largest was the camel. Law-abiding Jews placed a cloth over jars into which wine or water would be poured, lest a gnat fall in and make the liquid unclean.

Down the ages, straining out gnats has become a synonym for concentrating on small sins while ignoring larger ones—eating camel meat, for instance. And so we have the spectacle of the CPI’s. Four have now been proposed (don’t ask!) and all focus on the gnat—the purchase of a refinery for US$1.2 billion — rather than on the camel—the construction of a refinery for US$20 billion.

The “gnat” refinery (located in Texas) is operating at a hundred percent capacity, and is processing 100,000 barrels per day (“bpd”) of oil. The “camel” refinery (located in Pernambuco) has not begun operations, and will only reach full capacity at the end of 2015.

The original budget for the “camel” refinery was US$2.5 billion, with a projected capacity of 200,000 bpd. The “camel”, like the Bactrian, would have two humps — one would be Petrobras, the other Venezuela’s PDVSA. Petrobras would pay only sixty percent of the total cost — US$1.5 billion — in exchange for 120,000 bpd: roughly, a “gnat-like” cost for its hump.

As it happened, PDVSA never joined the venture, and never put a penny into the “camel” which, like the Dromedary, now has only one hump. That hump holds US$20 billion of Petrobras money. That is eight times the original budget, and sixteen times more costly than the “gnat”!

The Congressional Scribes and Pharisees don’t care about the Pernambuco camel; they only want CPI’s to discuss the Pasadena gnat. You are entitled to ask: “Why?” The Curmudgeon has a possible answer, and it’s not very nice—jingoism! The recipient of US$1.2 billion from Petrobras was a Belgian company, whereas the recipients of the US$20 billion from Petrobras have been Brazilians.

Some Scribes and Pharisees believe that Petrobras was “outsmarted” by the Belgian gnats, gleefully pointing out that President Dilma had approved that decision. Yet, Scribes and Pharisees agree that Petrobras somehow “outsmarted” Venezuelan “camel driver” Chávez, since nobody (other than Lula) ever wanted a partnership with him.

The elephant in the room, of course, is corruption. There may have been corruption involving the Pasadena gnat, possibly benefiting the Belgians. There has almost surely been corruption involving the Pernambuco camel; if so, it has only benefited Brazilians—entrepreneurs and the politicians whose election campaigns they munificently support.

Mixing metaphors, the Abreu e Lima Refinery in Pernambuco has become a Pandora’s Box, which the Scribes and Pharisees will keep most tightly locked during this election year.

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!)


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