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Back to an out-of-the-way
Brazilian village



Jonathan Power

April 8th 2004

LONDON - There is a widely held opinion abroad that Brazil never had the chance of profoundly changing for the better- shedding its widespread poverty and dire income distribution- until Lula (President Luiz Inácio da Silva) came along last year. This is not entirely false, but neither is it entirely true. Brazil has long made a kind of progress- in the last century it was second only to Taiwan as the fastest growing economy in the world- but it has been appallingly uneven.

Part of the story of contemporary Brazil is clear to the eye in this small village of 7,000 people in the arid north east, along with the Amazon the poorest part of this vast country. Twenty five years or so ago I used to come to Pilõezinhos regularly when I had a close friend living here, Valéria Rezende, a radical, grass roots-stirring nun, part of the Catholic Church then wedded to liberation theology and the overthrow, or at least undermining, of the dictatorship that ruled the country in the 1960s, 70s and early 80s. But until today I haven't been back for 17 years.

It's still the same sun-beaten village square with loaded donkeys and the houses of the richer peasants built in simple Portuguese colonial style with their yellow and blue facades and roofed with red clay tiles. It's still the same coconut and banana groves and behind them the homes of the landless on the hills behind, rudely built from sticks and clay. Rising into the mist are the orange groves, the sisal estates and the sugar plantations of the latifundiario, the large landowners who from far away- from Recife or even Rio- still give the orders and take away most of the money. At first sight its haunting beauty is the kind of place Gauguin would make famous. At second sight it is a Picasso mask.

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When I used to visit, every day a child died in Pilõezinhos. The undertaker lived in Guarabira, a nearby market town, half an hour away along a road, ravined and potholed that was barely navigable by the twice daily bus. In his shop were the stacked layers of children's coffins: blue with white crosses on top. More often than not the children went alone to the cemetery to bury their companions. Fathers often only heard of their children's deaths when they got back home on their annual holiday from the building sites and factories of Sao Paulo, a week's journey on the back of a truck.

I wrote at the time that I felt "the will to live in Pilõezinhos is slowly ebbing". (See IHT of July 2nd and 7th, 1977.) I remember an old man on the bus telling me his landlord had said that this was the last year he could rent his small piece of land. His landlord was going to put down the land for sugar cane to fabricate ethanol then being pushed hard by the government as a substitute for high priced oil.

Today there are a few more houses and a couple more streets. But the square now has half a dozen cars and a batch of motorcycle taxis that can spin a passenger to Guarabira on a new metalled road in barely five minutes. There are two small supermarkets, a bank, a post office, two dispensaries selling generic medicines and an agricultural advisor, marketing advice and new seeds to the peasants. There is a clinic with a resident doctor who tells me that the children very rarely die these days. Next door there is a primary school bursting with young, happy faces and copy books open at a map of Europe which they have just drawn. (I remember last time, out walking with Valéria, a peasant asked her what was that I was talking. He had never heard a foreign language before and did not know that such a thing existed.)

I am invited in by the deputy mayor. Her house has a flush toilet and running water. She tells me half the village has these facilities.  She takes me to the village's pride and joy- a little town hall, a converted shop front, with a simple square of tables for the elected councilors and six rows of chairs for those who want to see how democracy is done. 

Seventeen years ago Pilõezinhos seemed struck by the somnolence of exhaustion.  Even the religious festivals were no longer celebrated. Today the streets are full and the shops are bustling.

"So all this happened before Lula became president?" I ask Valéria. She smiles at me, amused at my naiveté. "Lula has been on the scene and pushing this country hard for nearly 30 years", she says, "And we in the Church did our bit too".

As we drove away I add: "and all without a shot being fired. Not bad!"


I can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172 and e-mail:


Copyright © 2004 By JONATHAN POWER


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