Parallels
3:06 pm
Fri July 19, 2013

Brazil's Highflying VIPs Face Backlash Over Air Travel

Originally published on Fri July 19, 2013 7:57 pm

Unlike New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who often takes the subway to work, some prominent politicians in Brazil have a far more impressive way of getting around: private helicopters and government planes.

Perhaps the most over-the-top example of the trend is that of Rio de Janeiro state Gov. Sergio Cabral. A recent magazine expose showed that his commute to work is only about 6 miles.

Yet every morning he gets up, takes a chauffeured car to his helipad about halfway to work, and then takes the rest of the trip — about three minutes — by chopper. The cost to the taxpayer of that daily flight, according to the magazine, is $1.7 million a year.

Cabral also used his helicopter to ferry his nanny, his dog and his family on shopping trips and vacations to his country home. When confronted by reporters with the findings, he was unapologetic.

"I'm not the first to do it; others in Brazil do it, too," he said. "And it's OK because of the job I have. I'm not doing anything new. I am transported with my family, I get out of work and go to my country home."

A Common Practice

Indeed he's not alone. Recent revelations showed that the Chamber of Deputies president and social security minister used Brazilian air force planes to go to Rio with their families and friends to watch the final match of the Confederations Cup.

The Senate president was caught using a Brazilian air force jet to go to a wedding in Bahia state. The state governor of Pernambuco was found to have spent more than $2 million in the past 18 months alone on private jet rentals. The opposition wants an investigation.

In Brazil's business capital, Sao Paulo, the uber-wealthy turned to helicopters years ago to escape the traffic below. To get a sense of what these politicians may be experiencing, we went to one of the premier — and one of the busiest — private heliports in Sao Paulo.

It's one of the most luxurious heliports in the world. In the lounge, a family is waiting to be whisked away: The young daughter is accompanied by her nanny carrying a Gucci bag; uniformed attendants ferry the other purchases to the waiting helicopter.

Every day there are some 200 takeoffs and landings here. To keep a helicopter here costs up to $50,000 a month. The actual choppers themselves cost up to $6 million and are tricked out with leather seats and tinted windows.

The people who come here are extremely wealthy, Alex Gama Machado, the flight coordinator, tells me. This is a familiar, safe and closed environment, he says.

A Separate Reality For The Political Class

That's exactly the problem, advocacy groups say. Private travel like this, they say, isn't meant for public servants, even if they can afford it.

Eduardo Militao is with Congresso em Foco, or Congress in Focus, an advocacy group for political transparency. He says the massive protests that took place last month in Brazil started over the terrible state of public transportation.

"People are protesting over public transportation and then you discover the authorities are taking joy rides with public money," he says.

No wonder, he says, the political class doesn't understand what is happening in the country when it is traveling in such a rarefied environment.

Militao says that congressmen and senators already get their travel subsidized — receiving up to $15,000 a month for tickets on commercial carriers.

At a recent protest in Sao Paulo, demonstrators decried the politicians' lavish lifestyles. Eduardo Franca, a 38-year-old government worker, says politicians who waste public money jetting around need to be prosecuted.

"We need to identify the guilty, and punish them as an example," he says.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. In Brazil this week, revelations about excess by government officials fueled street violence in Rio. That's after widespread protests last month, spurred by anger over the behavior of the country's ruling class. Now, a number of politicians are in hot water after pricey travel arrangements became public. Federal prosecutors say that if public funds have been misused, embezzlement charges could follow.

An advocacy group suggests that's just the tip of the iceberg, as NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports from Sao Paulo.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: Unlike, let's say, New York's Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who takes the subway to work every day, politicians in Brazil have a far more impressive way of getting around: private helicopters and government planes. Perhaps the most egregious example, say advocates of the trend, is that of Rio de Janeiro' state governor. A recent magazine expose showed that his commute to work is only about six miles every day, but even that is apparently too much to drive.

Every morning, Sergio Cabral gets up, takes a chauffeured car to his helipad about halfway and then takes the rest of the trip, about three minutes, by chopper. The cost to the taxpayer of that short daily flight, according to the magazine, is $1.7 million a year. He also used his helicopter to ferry his nanny, his dog and his family on shopping trips and vacations to his country home. When confronted by reporters with the findings, Cabral was unapologetic.

SERGIO CABRAL: (Through translation) I'm not the first to do it; others in Brazil do it, too. And it's OK because of the job I have. I'm not doing anything new. I am transported with my family, I get out of work and go to my country home.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Indeed, he's not alone. Recent revelations showed that the Chamber of Deputies president and social security minister used Brazilian air force planes to go to Rio with their families and friends to watch the final match of the Confederations Cup. The Senate president was caught using a Brazilian air force jet to go to a wedding in Bahia state. The state governor of Pernambuco was found to have spent over $2 million in the last 18 months alone on private jet rentals. The opposition is demanding an investigation.

Here in Brazil's economic capital, Sao Paulo, the uber-wealthy turned to helicopters years ago to escape the traffic down below. To get a sense of what these politicians may be experiencing, we went to one of the premier private heliports in Sao Paulo, (unintelligible).

(SOUNDBITE OF HELICOPTER)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And it's one of the busiest. Every day here, there are some 200 takeoffs and landings. To keep a helicopter here costs up to $50,000 a month. The actual choppers themselves cost up to $6 million and are tricked out with leather seats and tinted windows.

This is considered one of the most luxurious heliports in the world. I'm in the lounge, and a family is waiting to be whisked away. The young daughter is accompanied by her nanny, and she's carrying a Gucci bag. Uniformed attendants ferry other purchases to the waiting helicopter.

ALEX GAMA MACHADO: (Speaking foreign language)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The people who come here are extremely wealthy, Alex Gama Machado, the flight coordinator, tells me. This is a familiar environment for them. They can't have this intimacy in other places. This is a safe, closed place, he says. And that's exactly the problem, say advocacy groups. Private travel like this, they say, isn't meant for public servants, even if they can afford it.

Eduardo Militao is with Congresso en Foco, or Congress in Focus, an advocacy group for congressional transparency. He says the massive protests that took place last month in Brazil started over the terrible state of public transportation.

EDUARDO MILITAO: (Through translator) People are protesting over public transportation, and then you discover the authorities are taking joy rides with public money.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: No wonder, he says, the political class doesn't understand what is happening in the country when they are traveling in such a rarefied environment. Militao says already congressmen and senators get their travel subsidized, receiving up to $15,000 a month for tickets on commercial carriers.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: At a recent protest in Sao Paulo, demonstrators decried the politicians' lavish lifestyles. Eduardo Franca is a 38-year-old government worker. He says politicians who waste public money jetting around need to be prosecuted.

EDUARDO FRANCA: (Through translator) We need to identify the guilty, and punish them as an example.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: A warning to the people in power here that it's no longer first class as usual. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Sao Paulo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.