Brazilians blame those in power for air failures

( LatWp ) - For months, Brazilians have been using the phrase ``air blackout'' to describe the crisis in the country's aviation system that reached epic proportions this week with the worst crash in the nation's history.

The use of this phrase is no accident. It evokes Brazil's energy ``blackout'' of 2001, when the government imposed emergency restrictions in Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and other large cities in an attempt to curb energy use at a time when long droughts had drained hydroelectric power-plant reserves.

As with the energy crisis, the aviation crisis appears to have raised doubts among many Brazilians about their government's ability to deal rapidly and effectively with an ongoing problem, hold officials accountable for their decisions and punish those responsible.

While much of this week's indignation has been directed at the government of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, some say the problem goes beyond his administration and reflects more fundamental flaws in Brazilian society.

Lula and other prominent officials this week have avoided making public pronouncements about the crash at Sao Paulo's central city Congonhas airport that killed at least 190 people.

However, they have been advancing theories that it might have been caused by mechanical failures with the plane rather than more systemic failures, and some here perceive what they say is an age-old tendency by Brazil's ruling classes to shirk blame.

``The Brazilian state does not acknowledge to any extent the notion of accountability,'' said Roberto Romano, a professor at the Institute of Philosophy and Human Science at the State University of Campinas in Sao Paulo state. ``This happens again and again, and it has been worsened by two dictatorships of absolute power.''

But in the crash's aftermath, Brazilians this week have been witnessing an unusual spectacle. Ordinary citizens have voiced anger and frustration in a very public way that recalls how Americans responded to the Hurricane Katrina debacle. Several exchanges between the media and government aviation officials have been sharp, even antagonistic. Many commentators have been unsparing in their criticism.

``Brazil has been going through an authority blackout,'' political commentator Lucia Hippolito said on a national radio talk show, referring to Lula and Defense Minister Waldir Pires.

She and other pundits have been especially critical of Lula for failing to make a major public statement about the crash. He was scheduled to address the nation on television Friday night.

Opposition politicians, meanwhile, have been calling for the resignation of key officials, notably Pires. As head of the military that helps run Brazil's aviation systems, Pires was at pains this week to argue that he bears no blame for Tuesday's crash.

Brazil's aviation infrastructure has been plagued with chronic flight delays and cancellations, disgruntled air-traffic controllers and a series of accidents and close calls -- including the collision in September of a private jet and a Brazilian Boeing 737 over the Amazon jungle in which 154 people died.

``Please read the law,'' Pires said to reporters at a Friday news conference. ``I'm not responsible for air-traffic management.''

The belief of some Brazilians that their government is more concerned with polishing its image than solving the aviation chaos was underscored by a Thursday incident in which Lula's personal adviser and minister-without-portfolio, Marco Aurelio Garcia, was shown on national television seemingly making an obscene, triumphant gesture in reaction to news that a flawed brake system had caused the crash.

Garcia has since apologized for the gesture, which the opposition Brazilian Social Democracy Party labeled ``an offense to the Brazilian people.''

Robert Ditchey, a Los Angeles aviation consultant and former airline executive, said that the way that Brazilian officials handled the September crash was ``inept.''

Despite apparent evidence that Brazil's air-traffic control system had been at least partially responsible for miscommunication between the two planes, charges recently were filed against the two U.S. pilots of the private jet.

``I was embarrassed for Brazilians in how they handled this,'' Ditchey said of last fall's accident, which until Tuesday had been the country's deadliest airplane crash. ``People in aviation felt this whole thing was an embarrassment and absurd.''

In addition to its long dictatorships, Romano said, Brazil's culture of non-accountability has been partially engendered by the country's highly centralized government structure, in which the federal government receives about 70 percent of all taxes and presidential power has fewer checks and balances than in the United States or Western European systems.

``There is no direct relationship between municipalities and states and the federal government. And this makes anyone who has any kind of position on a federal level unquestionable and unaccountable,'' he said.

What's more, Brazilian politicians can't be sued or prosecuted while in office, even when potential criminal offenses are involved.

``There is this constant taking the blame off the authorities and laying it on the population,'' Romano said.

It remains to be seen whether this week's backlash will alter that equation. But while Brazilians aren't averse to making their dissatisfactions known, converting those feelings into social change is likely to be a much greater challenge.

``I am 62 years old, I have been involved with politics since the 1960s and I see no possibility for this anger to be translated into action,'' Romano said.

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