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Lula attempts Mideast diplomacy

The President sticks his head into the Middle East peace process, annoying more than helping. A new poll shows that the upcoming presidential election will be a close one. The GDP has its first year of negative growth in over a decade. Interest rates are still low for Brazil, but they are the highest of the major countries. Protests erupt in Rio against a proposed bill that would divide oil revenues evenly among the states. A famous, beloved cartoonist is murdered. And Lula is fined for campaigning for his successor before the official election season.

Top News:  Lula made a somewhat ill-fated trip to the Middle East to try to insert Brazil into the peace process. Brazilian foreign policy has been under domestic criticism recently, as Lula’s I-want-to-be-everyone’s-friend-(and-maybe-U.N.-Secretary-General-to-boot) routine has been criticized on a number of occasions, such as during the harboring of the deposed Honduran president in the Brazilian embassy, Brazil’s refusal to support sanctions in Iran, and smiling photos taken with the Castro brothers just after a Cuban dissident died in a hunger strike. Lula spoke to both the Israelis and the Palestinians, telling them he was “born with the peace virus," but it seemed to fizzle a bit; among other things, Israel does not appreciate Lula’s warm relationship with Iran.

A new poll showed Jose Serra, the favorite in the not-yet-started presidential race, though he's losing more ground to Lula’s chosen successor, Dilma Rousseff. The poll, from the polling group Ibope, showed Serra up 35 percent to 30 percent, his lowest margin ever. There was also great interest in a new question on the poll, which asked not which candidate the person supported, but whether he or she would support whoever Lula supported. Turned out a whole bunch of the folks who answered yes also then said they supported Serra, which obviously means the electorate has a bit to learn.

In other election news, the current vice president, 78 year-old Jose Alencar, who has long suffered from cancer, will likely run for senate from Minas Gerais. An amusing note: Brazilian candidates must also name a substitute who would take their seat should they die or resign, and Alencar said he would name his son – the only person guaranteed not to hope for his quick demise.

One of Brazil’s most famous and beloved cartoonists, the man known to everyone as Glauco, was shot and killed along with his son on March 11, as they stood outside their house. Glauco was also founder of the Ceu de Maria Church, part of the Santo Daime sect that uses the hallucinogenic Andean herbal mixture ayahuasca as part of its rites; his killer was a troubled young man named Carlos Eduardo Sundfeld Nunes, 24, who was a member of the church and suffered from delusions, including being convinced he was Jesus Christ. “Cadu,” as he is known, was caught at the Paraguayan border and jailed; he admitted to the killing and very creepy pictures and videos were widely broadcast by the Brazilian media.

Money: The 2009 numbers are in, and things could certainly be worst. Let’s go to the scoreboard. Three positive quarters followed a very poor first quarter, and Brazil’s economy finished the year in statistical stagnation, with GDP ringing in at -0.2 percent. That’s the first year of negative growth since 1992. Hidden inside that number were figures that varied widely across sectors: industrial production fell 5.5 percent; services grew 2.6 percent, family consumption was up 4.1 percent and government consumption was up 3.7 percent. Exports, down 10.3 percent, were topped only by imports, down 11.4 percent.

The Copom didn’t touch the Selic, which if you’ve been reading these reports long enough (or clicked on the links), you know means that the Central Bank committee didn’t touch Brazil’s benchmark interest rate, still at a long-time low of 8.75 percent. But it’s widely believed that that rate will go up when they meet in April. Fans of usury, though, can still keep on the “We’re number 1” foam thumbs, because despite its “low” rate, Brazil has higher real interest rates than any other major country.

February held good job news: a net 209,425 formal sector jobs were created, more than any other February since records have been kept.

Rio wants its oil money. A massive protest was held in the oil-rich state’s beach-rich capital city against a bill in the federal legislature that would redistribute Brazil’s oil royalties. Currently, states with oil (and that’s mostly Rio and its neighbor, Espirito Santo) get a large chunk of the money coming in from companies. The new system would divide that chunk equally among the states. Rio stands to lose billions of dollars if the law stands.

Elsewhere: Bureaucracy in Brazil is just awful, but sometimes all that record keeping really comes in handy. Brazil cross-referenced data of federal and state and local employees and found that 164,000 people held more than one full time government job. An amazing 54,000 held more than two, as in three, four or five. “These people are totally busted,” said Lula. (Actually, he didn’t, but he must have been thinking it.)

Lula was fined 5000 reais (just under $2800) for campaigning on Dilma’s behalf at a rally last year. No campaigning is allowed before the official presidential race begins in July, and the parties are constantly complaining that the other side has crossed the very hard-to-define campaign-rhetoric threshold. Most cases brought to the country’s electoral justice system do not end in penalties.

And finally, a new study cited by Folha de Sao Paulo (but not online) has found that Brazilian children aged 7-17 are now taller than Americans by a fraction of a meter. (Luckily, many American children don’t know how to measure in meters anyway.)