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Buenos Aires

Raúl Alfonsín Foulkes in 1983 <em>Picture: Revista Semanario</em>

Raúl Alfonsín Foulkes in 1983 Picture: Revista Semanario

Those who know me know that I am not from these parts. Like many, however, I have been in a kind of swoon since the SNP’s electoral triumph, the like of which I had not experienced since … well, an election far away and long ago.*

It was October 1983, and Argentines were throwing off the shackles of military power in the wake of the Falklands War. The military regime’s impending exit was not, as Margaret Thatcher and her Tories (wet and dry) claimed, directly a result of defeat by the British Task Force the previous year.

In fact, Argentines had been rioting in the streets, Arab Spring-style (sans Facebook and Twitter, but with stones), for days before the occupation of Port Stanley on 2 April 1982. I know this because I was tear-gassed in the streets and was there when heads were battered.

The military regime, though in even more obvious rigor mortis after their humiliating defeat, stayed true to the Argentine armed forces’ traditional commitment to preserving the nation state, and suddenly, there I was, months after the war, summoned to help man an electoral desk at the Schule Alemán (German school) in the Buenos Aires suburb of Lomas de Zamora.

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This was not a paid position. As I recall, the instructions received through the post explained that the appointment was a great honour, but if I didn’t appreciate the honour and failed to turn up on election day, I could spend up to two years in jail. So this was both a civic right and a duty: it was democracy, force-fed, and it was great.

I remember every instance of that day: the paraplegics who came to vote for the first time; the very elderly who still remembered what democracy was about; the young people and middle-aged, also voting for the first time; the parents explaining to their children what they were doing before entering the cuarto oscuro (dark room), as it was known.

After 10pm we had to count the votes there and then, but someone had left the window open, the piles of ballots were scattered across the classroom in a gust of wind, and we had to start counting all over again. Did we care? No, this was democracy, and we hadn’t had much of it in our lives.

When it was over, I found a cousin waiting for me outside, three sheets to the wind, shouting “He’s done it! He’s done it! We’ve won!”

Who had done it? Against all the odds (for even the US embassy had been sure a Peronist victory was on the cards – hence the Americans’ endless receptions for and sucking up to Peronist figures before the polls), it was Raúl Alfonsín Foulkes of the Radical Party, who was to become Argentina’s first president of Scots descent, deeply despised by the US as a “socialist”.

Alfonsín was a prominent human rights lawyer at a time of vicious human rights violations by the military and atrocities by left- and right-wing urban guerrillas with whom they were locked in a terrible “dirty war”. My grandmother seemed unaware of the significance of Alfonsín’s victory. She remembered Raúl only as a “little boy running around the yard” in her, and his, hometown, Chascomús, on the Pampas.

Yet her grandfather had donated the land on the Pampas on which the first “Rancho Kirk” – a thatched-roof, white-washed adobe building – had been built in Argentina. A Scots church stands to this day on that site – and Alfonsín was a product of that Scots community, his mother a member of that kirk.

Alfonsín’s legacy is one any Scot would be proud of. He opposed Argentina’s occupation of the Falkland Islands; on taking office he pledged “100 years of democracy” for Argentina; he vowed that the demands of the International Monetary Fund would not be considered over the right of the people not to starve; he faced down the last military revolt by the Carapintadas (Painted Faces); he jailed former junta leaders for human rights violations; and he tried to introduce social welfare reforms, only to be voted down by a belligerent Peronist Congress, intent on preserving trade union control over health and benefit schemes introduced by Perón and Evita in the 1950s.

What I remember most vividly, however, is the wind of freedom that suddenly blew through the streets of Buenos Aires: the blossoming of buskers and street artists, and the right of people to say whatever they wanted to say.

And now, in Scotland, I find the same rush of the democratic pulse of a nation at ease with itself: it has found a way, for now at least, out of the wasteland that Britain became after Thatcher’s cold shoulder, John Major’s anachronistic appeal for a decidedly English “return to basics”, with gin and tonics and cricket on the common – and Tony Blair’s savage, pointless war in Iraq, the stigma of which will plague Labour forever.

In Argentina’s time of peril, a Scot came to its rescue. Before his death in 2009, Alfonsín was honoured by the unveiling of a bust in his image at Government House in Buenos Aires, by President Cristina Kirchner, a Peronist. Who would have thought?

Today, to my mind, Alex Salmond strikes the same chord among Scots as Alfonsín did among Argentines all those years ago. Alfonsín knew what Argentines were about, even if they didn’t – but, most of all, he knew which way they should be heading. He was eventually undone by hyperinflation, the scourge of his time, and by a disloyal opposition – but he was an honest man who by then had made his mark and had laid the foundations for a lasting democracy, a fact for which all Argentines are becoming increasingly aware and grateful.

Alex Salmond and the SNP face a not dissimilar challenge here. Of course, there is no military regime, no repression, no desaparecidos, but Scotland seemed to have lost its way – until now. Even leaving aside the question of independence, the task of building a new nation, or rebuilding one on ancient foundations, should not be beyond the reach of the SNP. Not with its majority, not if it senses, as I do, something in the air – as Raúl Alfonsín Foulkes did all those years ago in Argentina.

* Far Away and Long Ago, by William Henry Hudson, is a masterpiece of life on the Pampas in the 1840s. “One cannot tell how this fellow gets his effects; he writes as the grass grows…” – Joseph Conrad.

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US troops heading for Afghanistan

US troops heading for Afghanistan

Who’s the enemy again?
The United States will not withdraw from Afghanistan, but efforts to find a way out of the morass will continue.

President Barack Obama had hoped to bring the bulk of troops home by the end of next year, but that plan is now firmly on the back burner. Though a “surge” of US troops has made headway in Kandahar and Helmand, with several al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders being picked off by US drones, the Obama administration is concerned that the Afghans are still nowhere near being ready to run the country on their own.

In fact, US policy in Afghanistan seems to be in disarray. A complete withdrawal by US troops looks unlikely to take place before 2014 – which is the date David Cameron and the Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, have been insisting on for a British pullout.

With growing public confusion over why US troops are there in the first place, Obama seems to have dropped the term “nation-building” and returned to the original reason for the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan: ie “to fight al-Qaeda”. The trouble with that is, US forces are actually fighting the Taliban, which – as the top US intelligence officer in Afghanistan reported earlier this year – seems to be distancing itself from al-Qaeda as it tries to portray itself as a nationalist movement and viable alternative to the corrupt and unpopular government of President Hamid Karzai. In fact, the US believes the Taliban already has a government in waiting, with “governors” in most of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.

In putting the emphasis back on al-Qaeda, the Obama administration may be leaving the door open for some kind of accommodation with the Taliban, but that looks increasingly unlikely to happen. With the US looking for a way out, the Taliban may feel it doesn’t need to negotiate with Karzai – it can bide its time.

Meanwhile, Pakistan remains the biggest thorn in America’s side in the Afghan dilemma: is it playing a double game, stringing both the Americans and the Taliban along? That is increasingly the view of some in the Obama administration, who are angry that Pakistan hasn’t done more to eliminate al-Qaeda “safe havens” on its territory. But don’t expect a US build-up of troops in Pakistan – that won’t happen, though US incursions into Pakistani territory may escalate.

Third time unlucky?
Israel won’t bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities. Why not? Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu is thirsting for action, and, as we now know from Wikileaks, even Saudi Arabia would like someone to sort out Tehran (though that is an intra-Muslim sectarian thing). But the United States knows that if Israel were to bomb Iran, it would be blamed and dragged into a war. Israel became the first country to bomb another country’s nuclear installations when it attacked Iraq in 1981, and it bombed a suspected nuclear plant in Syria in 2007, but the fallout from a similar attack on Iran would be infinitely greater. The US has too much to lose, and so does Israel.

It’s the euro, stupid
The EU will not follow Brazil and Argentina in recognising Palestine within its 1967 borders, as the latter recently did (more Latin American countries are to do the same in 2011). Both South American countries enjoy good relations with Israel, so it doesn’t follow that anti-Semitism was behind their decision. Argentina, though it once shared nuclear secrets with Iran, doesn’t have much time for it now, accusing Tehran of being behind the 1993 bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires and the bombing two years later of a Jewish centre, also in Buenos Aires.

While Latin American countries are taking an increasingly independent line on foreign policy, the EU prefers not to step on Washington’s toes, especially when it comes to Israel and Palestinian independence. That isn’t the main reason recognition has been put on the back burner, however: the EU is far too busy trying to save the euro and therefore its own existence.

Problem child
Don’t expect China to slap down its problem child, North Korea. Not that it wouldn’t like to: Kim Jong-Il’s brinkmanship has been worrying Beijing for some time. It would like to confiscate North Korea’s nuclear toys and is instrumental in getting Pyongyang to the negotiating table in the Six Party Talks (North Korea, South Korea, US, Russia, China and Japan), mainly because it doesn’t want South Korea and Japan to acquire nuclear weapons themselves.

Although some China watchers say Beijing has only limited control over how the ailing Kim behaves, it is more likely that it could pull the rug from under his feet at any time – it just doesn’t want to live with the consequences. What Beijing fears most is instability in North Korea and the possible chaos that might follow if the regime collapsed – it has a nightmare vision of a flood of North Korean refugees spilling uncontrollably over the border and doesn’t want to do anything that might precipitate that.

Mafia state forever?
US neo-conservative Robert Kagan thinks Russia, far from being a democracy, is an “autocratic” state, but is he being too kind? Wikileaks cables released last month quote a Spanish prosecutor, José Grinda González, as telling US officials that Russia is a “virtual mafia state” in which “one cannot differentiate between the activities of the government and organised crime groups”.

Oddly, a think tank linked to President Dimitry Medvedev – whom everyone in Russia believes plays second fiddle to his prime minister, Vladimir Putin – warned earlier in the year that freedom, law and order and therefore democracy itself had not been consolidated in Russia. It even called for the scrapping of the FSB, a suggestion that, since Putin used to be a member of its predecessor, the KGB, would seem to pit the two men against each other.

So, does Medvedev want to clean up before Russia is cleaned out? Russian politicians have been paying lip service to democracy for so long now that ordinary Russians would be forgiven for feeling sceptical.

Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s offer to “publicly” help resolve the dispute between Argentina and Britain over the Falkland Islands may have raised eyebrows in London, but critics of Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner were surprsied that she visited Buenos Aires at all.

“We want very much to encourage both countries to sit down [and negotiate],” Clinton said after a meeting with Kirchner at the Casa Rosada in Buenos Aires on Monday night. “Now, we cannot make either one do so, but we think it is the right way to proceed.

“So we will be saying this publicly … and we will continue to encourage exactly the kind of discussion across the table that needs to take place”.

Clinton, whose visit to Buenos Aires had been unscheduled, gave no details of how the Obama administration would persuade Britain to negotiate with Argentina over its current oil exploration programme off the Falklands.

Mrs Kirchner said her government was seeking to negotiate “strictly within the framework of UN resolutions. We do not want to move away from that in any letter whatsoever, any comma, of what has been stated by dozens of UN resolutions and resolutions by its decolonisation committee.

“That’s the only thing we’ve asked for, just to have them sit down at the table and negotiate. I don’t think that’s too much, really, in a very conflicted and controversial world.”

The two women are said to be friends, going back a long way, when Kirchner and her husband and predecessor, Néstor Kirchner, were known as the “Clintons of South America” – those were happier times for the K couple, as they are also known these days.

But the Argentine president has criticised US President Barack Obama for not living up to Latin America’s expectations, particularly in his handling of last year’s coup in Honduras. Though Kirchner and Clinton were to have met briefly in Montevideo during Monday’s inauguration of new Uruguayan President Jose Mujica, Buenos Aires was not on Clinton’s itinerary as she embarked on a good will swing through Latin America that was to take in Uruguay, Chile, Brazil, Costa Rica and Guatemala.

The conservative Argentine media, which despises Kirchner, had made much of the fact that she was to be snubbed.

So, why the sudden change of plan?

Ostensibly, the visit to Buenos Aires was brought about by the Chilean earthquake. Clinton is to meet Chile’s conservative president-elect, Sebastian Piñera, next, but Piñera and outgoing President Michelle Bachelet are busy working together in the wake of the massive quake that hit the country four days ago.

The stopover in BA set the rumour mill going again. Does the United States have an eye on Falklands oil? Does the “special relationship” between Britain and the United States still exist?

President Obama’s failure to openly back Britain in the dispute has been described as “feeble” by British hawks, and with some form of “change” in the air in Britain, it has not been lost on them that Obama thinks David Cameron a “lightweight”.

What, they wonder, if the United States thinks there are new special relationships to be made, which might lead to a stronger foothold in Latin America? Other countries, including China and Russia, have gained influence in the region after years of neglect by the Bush administration.

Still, Clinton’s visit may have amounted to nothing more than recognition by Washington of the fact that on May 25 Argentines will be celebrating the 200th anniversary of the start of the revolution in the United Provinces of the River Plate that led to the overthrow of Spanish rule throughout the Americas. It is a sensitive moment, for all Latin Americans, to be drilling for oil in the South Atlantic.

Jimmy Carter

Jimmy Carter

Former US President Jimmy Carter has made an impassioned defence of his administration’s foreign policy in the face of a flurry of references to “Carter syndrome” in the US media.

“Carter syndrome” is the term used by neo-conservative commentators to describe President Barack Obama’s perceived weakness in dealing with Iran, Russia, China and other real and potential threats. It derives mainly from the Carter administration’s failed attempt to rescue American hostages held in the US embassy in Tehran during the Iranian revolution of 1979.

An article in Foreign Policy last month likened Obama’s long deliberation on what course of action to take in Afghanistan to Carter’s “Jeffersonian” approach of restraint and withdrawal, to the point where it “is likely to haunt this administration as it haunted Carter’s, most fatefully when he rejected calls to let the shah of Iran launch a brutal crackdown to remain in power”.

In the latest edition of Foreign Policy, Carter says it was up to the shah to implement political reforms and that his administration’s policy in Iran was to help the shah do this “while preventing fanatical extremists from seizing power, but ultimately that could only be accomplished by the Iranians themselves”.

While acknowledging that the Tehran hostage crisis was the major cause of his defeat for re-election, “my decision “to refrain from military action – unless they harmed a hostage – proved to be well-advised. I could have ordered massive destruction in Iran with our mighty military power, but this would have resulted in the deaths of thousands of innocent Iranians, and it is certain that our hostages would have been assassinated”.

Carter points out that as he served as president during the latter years of the Cold War, “mutual assured destruction from a nuclear exchange was an overriding factor in our dealings with the Soviet Union. To avoid a potentially catastrophic military confrontation, we engaged with the Soviets, from a position of strength, in negotiating SALT II in order to ensure constraints and shared reductions in our arsenals … I decided to modernise our deterrent capabilities, knowing that the United States had great advantages over the Soviet Union in nonmilitary competition. Accordingly, I decided to exploit these Soviet vulnerabilities, peacefully and quietly”.

One by one, he writes, his administration reached out to non-aligned countries, “promoting the attractive appeal of peace, freedom, democracy, and human rights. In these places, where US leaders of previous administrations had not been welcome, we established close and binding friendships, thereby weakening the Soviets”.

Defending his human rights policy, Carter writes that “most countries in Latin America were governed by personal despots or military juntas when I took office” but that he had abandoned “the long-standing US policy of supporting and protecting these friendly dictators in the face of human rights and indigenous movements, and within four years a large number of them had initiated procedures or pledged to permit democratic elections, prodded by us and the heroes brave enough to challenge the oppressive regimes. Soon, all of them became democracies.”

Carter stresses the importance of the Camp David Accords, where “we negotiated a resolution to the Palestinian issue and a treaty of peace between Egypt and Israel. Although written commitments to the Palestinians have not been honoured, not a word of the peace treaty has been broken. Tragically, there has been little if any real progress since that time.”

Carter seems proud that the United States did not become involved in military conflict during his presidency, but adds: “I do not consider this a sign of weakness or reason for apology. While maintaining the peace, for ourselves and many others, we greatly expanded our global influence and also protected the security, strength, ideals, and integrity of the United States.”

As last month’s Foreign Policy article mentions, however, Carter’s problem was that, however laudable his stance on human rights may have been, pursuing an ethical foreign policy while trying to protect American business interests at the same time was always going to be a difficult balancing act.

It was almost impossible to implement it impartially. Why, for instance, were Latin American dictatorships pursued by the US for human rights violations during the Carter years, while Saudi Arabia and other countries with similarly repressive regimes escaped scrutiny?

Still, Carter’s robust defence of his presidential record comes as a surprise, as he must surely be inured to criticism by now. Described by admirers as the best former president the United States has ever had, he has come under fire by detractors for alleged anti-semitism. In a book published three years ago (Palestine: Peace, not Apartheid), he said the overriding problem in the Middle East was that “for more than a quarter century, the actions of some Israeli leaders have been in direct conflict with the official policies of the United States, the international community, and their own negotiated agreements … Israeli government decisions are rarely questioned or condemned, voices from Jerusalem dominate in our media, and most American citizens are unaware of circumstances in the occupied territories…”

But Carter could hardly be accused of anti-semitism. In the late 1970s his administration, with Patricia Derian
as US assistant secretary of state for human rights, worked assiduously for the release of Jewish publisher Jacobo Timerman from clandestine imprisonment and torture by the former Argentine military regime.

Released in 1979, Timerman emigrated to Israel, but eventually returned to Argentina because he could not accept Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982. He died in Buenos Aires in 1999, and were he alive today, he would surely thank Carter for his freedom.

Photo: Gilbert House

Photo: Falklands Islands Legislative Assembly

Argentina today called for negotiations with Britain over the future of the Falklands Islands, but said it did not expect to make progress any time soon.

Victorio Taccetti, the deputy foreign minister, said Argentina’s aim was to “sit down with England [sic] and negotiate the issue of sovereignty of the islands and the surrounding seas… we haven’t achieved that yet but we think we will be able to at some point.”

Taccetti’s comments came as the Falklands Islands Legislative Assembly announced that drilling for oil off the islands would go ahead as scheduled, despite Argentina’s warning that it would require all ships in the South Atlantic heading for the Falklands to apply for special permits. Last week a ship carrying drilling equipment was detained by Argentine officials.

Drilling on the Ocean Guardian rig, which arrived in the islands today after a three-month voyage from Invergordon, begins tomorrow 60 miles off the islands. Desire Petroleum, owners of the Ocean Guardian, said no permit had been required for the rig because it had not been near Argentine waters.

Taccetti, speaking to Millenium Radio in Buenos Aires, said the foreign minister, Jorge Taiana, would ask the UN secretary general, Ban Ki Moon, at a meeting in New York on Wednesday to convene negotiations between the two countries. However, he warned that “Argentines have to start thinking long-term, because this is a long-term policy, we can’t expect results today or in a few days time.”

Referring to Gordon Brown’s statement in Parliament that Britain had “made all the preparations that are necessary to make sure the Falkland islanders are properly protected”, Taccetti said: “It’s a good thing that the British have acknowledged there is a controversy with Argentina, because the first step in resolving a problem is to recognise that it exists.”

Playing down Falkland Islanders’ fears of a new South Atlantic conflict, Taccetti said “warfare is nowhere on our horizon, they can rest assured about that, but they must also understand that Argentina will not abandon its legitimate rights.”

In Port Stanley, the Falklands Legislative Assembly issued a statement accusing Argentina of trying to “disrupt the oil drilling… Currently, all the supplies the industry needs are located here in the islands and drilling will commence as planned, weather permitting.

“The Falkland Islands Government has every right to develop a hydrocarbons industry within our waters. The British Government has clearly stated that they support our right to develop legitimate business. The British Government have also reiterated their stance on our British sovereignty.

“It is no surprise to anyone that Argentina is behaving in this way but it is nonetheless disappointing when they do”.

Meanwhile, the islanders were becoming increasingly irritated by the perceived jingoism of some of the British media. “Islanders are reading with disbelief the daily media offerings touting Argy blockades and an impending task force cutting its way towards the Falklands,” wrote J. Brock in the Falkland Island News.

“Students, seasoned by this are calling home anyway to see if their parents, siblings and friends are OK. Still we read articles like the one by Tom Newton Dunn in the Sun about a British military build-up that quite frankly isn’t going to happen.

“Come on, folks, get real. We recognise that things aren’t the best between us and Argentina but why make things worse?”

Photograph: Eric Gaba

Credit: Eric Gaba

We don’t want to fight but by jingo if we do
We’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men, we’ve got the money too,
We’ve fought the Bear before, and while we’re Britons true,
The Russians shall not have Constantinople
(and the Argentines won’t have the Falklands…

A wave of Falklands frenzy may be sweeping the British media again, but in Argentina the government’s announcement that all ships sailing from its ports to the islands will now require special permits has caused hardly a ripple.

Sickened by corruption, a stalling economy and rising crime, most Argentines have more serious issues to worry about than the imminent arrival of a British oil exploration rig in the Falklands.  which President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner appears to be using as an excuse to ratchet up old tensions between the two countries. Besides, the plight of thousands of Malvinas war veterans, most of them former conscripts, is a wound that has yet to heal, and Argentines don’t want to be reminded of what for many was a tragic episode in their lives.

Though less strident in their sovereignty claims than the military regimes of the past, democratic Argentine governments still tend to overstate their case. By the same token, understandably, but regrettably, the Falkland Islanders are not always their own best friends. This is what Phyllis Rendell, Falkland Islands director of minerals and agriculture, had to say last year of Argentina’s alleged attempt to thwart the islanders’ efforts to survive economically:

“The funding [for oil exploration] is so great… they can fly in from wherever…If oil and gas were to be found, oil firms would most likely use floating production, storage and offloading vessels. It’s what they do off Brazil. It would be quite feasible to process the oil offshore and then ship to whichever refinery the companies send it to. It doesn’t have to go to Argentina at all. You can completely bypass Argentina.”

Imagine how that went down in Buenos Aires.

Meanwhile, here in Britain, we seem to be back in 1982, with the old jingoism to be found here, here, here, and here. (What it was like to work in the Sun’s newsroom in 1982 can be found here).

In contrast, the Argentine media, while reporting the news at length, has been anything but shrill. Writing in La Nación newspaper under the heading “Another chain around our legs”, Vicente Palermo called for Argentine diplomacy that “shows we care that the islanders are free to decide whatever they want for themselves.”

He said Argentina should enter into a “spirit of co-operation” with the islanders in various fields, including the exploitation of resources, tourism, communications, science and technology and the environment.

“On the Malvinas issue there has been too much opportunism and too much silence,” Palermo added. “Official policy is foolish, but so far the opposition has done little to contribute to the development of a fresh policy.”

An editorial in Clarín warned that because of the historical and emotional impact the islands have on all Argentines, British policy in the region required an “intelligent” response. “This issue is of such a delicate nature that it must be managed by the state in such a way that it is not used as a smokescreen for the serious internal problems currently afflicting the government,” the paper said, rather pointedly.

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The bankruptcy of the once great Japan Airlines raises the old question about whether the viability of any company has anything at all to do with whether it is in private or public ownership.

I used to think that among Margaret Thatcher’s greater achievements was the rescue of British Airways from poor state management. I am thinking again. Flying back by BA from Brazil recently, I witnessed a scene that was as close to a spoof airline horror movie as it gets.

Ten minutes into the flight coffee began to ooze out of the overhead lockers, dripping onto some passengers’ heads (replace the coffee with blood, and you’ve got your horror scenario). BA air crew much maligned these days, methinks – struggled heroically to stem the flow with paper towels, rags and tape. “Well, that’s fitting,” said a Brazilian passenger. “At least it’s coffee! We could fill our cups from the lockers…”

“Yes,” said an Argentine, “but this flight originated in Buenos Aires, so it might have been wine!”

The unexplained coffee freebie dried up as the aircraft stopped climbing and stabilized. But what if, some of us wondered, the coffee had seeped into any electricals? Is this what happens when aircraft vanish for no apparent reason?

JAL shareholders are not expected to get much of their money back as the state steps in to bail it out. There’s been a lot of handwringing and apologies already. Like General Motors before it, another one bites the dust. But I can just imagine what Maggie would have said about the dilapidated state of British Airways aircraft if BA were still state-owned.

Sao Paulo traffic: not for the timid

São Paulo traffic: not for the timid

In the lovely grounds of the house where I am staying outside São Paulo toucans frequent fruit trees and humming birds flit among the flowers.

A neighbour’s lion – not a rooster — heralds the start of day by roaring his heart out. This, as it happens, is not a threatening sound at all, and far more dangerous are the neighbourhood dogs, which take issue with anyone attempting to stroll down the dirt streets.

One wishes they would deal with the bizarre religious organisation that has hacked down part of the forest to build a monstrous, Disneyesque seminary-cum-school and church and has been pestering the local poor to wash the seminarists’ clothes for free, for God’s sake (literally). Buddhists have done much the same, further down the road, but they are less in your face than these robed fanatics. An evangelist complex occupies another part of the forest further down the road.

Religious fervour aside, private houses in Cotia are mostly gated, creating an illusion of seclusion from the colossus that is São Paulo itself, home to 11 million (14 million including greater São Paulo). Buenos Aires was built with Paris as a model; here it’s New York, and Brazilians are proud of it. The taller, the bigger, the noisier, the better – and it isn’t going to stop.

In the city and the ring roads around it traffic is a nightmare, where messenger boys see broken white lines as a bikers lane, hurtling at a blistering speed past cars stalled in traffic jams. The biker death rate is high, but “Paulistas” say business would grind to a halt if not for this practice, so the authorities turn a blind eye to it. And how long would it take for the pizza delivery boy to get through if he had to wait?

The local media says that say that if a Dutch plan to charge motorists three euro cents per kilometre driven were implemented in São Paulo, “paulistas”, who cover an average of 30 kilometres a day by car, would have to fork out 28 pounds a month. Would that do the trick? Fat chance – public transport is precarious, and Brazilians love their cars.