I think I can smell disinfectant and there’s the hint of an echo to our footsteps. The hand on my arm leads me quite gently through several doors and probably passages. The car journey was quite short and judging from the frequent hooting and sudden stops and starts must have been through central Brazilia streets. I know I am in probably not in real danger but it’s my first blindfolded journey and it isn’t growing on me as an experience; the dark and the changes of direction have disorientated me and I am feeling increasingly panicky – and also resentful. I am starting to wish I had no connection with the man I am presumably about to meet, never mind feelings of guilt or obligation. I am supposed to be on holiday after all, admittedly a working one, but the past began to interfere before I even arrived, while I was still on the airship. I was attempting to use the voyage to make progress with my new writing project, a sympathetic or at least fair-minded biography of Cromwell, Oliver I mean, the Puritan kingslayer. I usually get plenty done on long airship flights as
they provide peace, comfort and freedom from interruption but I was struggling for some reason on this one. I wasn’t sure if it was my subject or something more personal that was bothering me, something I hadn’t faced. The words had begun to swim on the page and I had just lost the shape of a clause mid-sentence so I put the laptop to sleep on the cabin worktop and went for a walk. I didn’t need any more coffee and it was too early for a drink so I ambled past the restaurant and bar, caught a few moments of a Quidditch match being played in the three deck arena below and headed towards the forward viewing area – not that I expected to see much as we were halfway across the Atlantic.
As luck would have it, or as my divine destiny ordained if I were Oliver Cromwell, the crystal curve that occupied the whole prow of the airship was filled with a stunning sunset, the western horizon riotously aflame above a darkening sea.
I was going to spend several weeks at a series of lodges in the vast new Brazilian rainforest reserves paying my way with a series of travel/ecological augmented (VR) reality pieces for my agency, partly funded by the Brazilian Tourist Board and the UN Natural Resources Agency. I hoped to have plenty of time for my own writing but I knew I would enjoy the obligatory ecotourism.
I stayed on the level two balcony until the colours were fading away and the sea had disappeared into its night-time blackness. The unravelled clause had by then reassembled itself in my mind and I thought I settled down intending to work until dinner. As I put my hands on the keys the name I had been avoiding, carrying with it the whole history, surfaced; I managed to get the sentence finished but then had to sit back and acknowledge the problem. As far as I knew he was still living in Brazilia, had been released from prison in the early thirties, but that was as far as my knowledge of him went.
There was certainly nothing I could do about it, the past or the future, several thousand feet above the ocean, so I turned my attention back to my novel. At least I knew now what had been clawing at my concentration.
When we’d berthed, I took the lift down through the four decks, walked down the gangway and found myself face to face with a distinguished looking silver-haired Brazilian who introduced himself as an aide to the president. I had been expecting to get some kind of an official reception in Brazilia but not at this level.
“Welcome to Brazil, Mr. Kennedy. The President is very eager to meet you before you head off to the reserves. There is a hover waiting to whisk you to him. I hope you are not too travel weary – he promised me he would keep it short.”
I summoned my most respectful manner. “No, the journey was very comfortable, restful in fact. I will of course be honoured to meet the President briefly. What about my luggage though?”
“That will be transferred to your hotel. Is there anything you need from it now?”
“No, no. That’ll be fine.”
I could see the hover, one of the latest hydrogen powered models, no more than twenty metres away. A few minutes later we were deposited on the roof of the President’s palace.
I had never met President Boldano but I had seen him in newscasts, always in impressive military uniform, much decorated with medals. Standing by his large teak desk in a pale silk suit, the lack of military headgear revealing thinning hair, he looked smaller and plumper but still dangerous; he was smiling at me broadly, too broadly, as if to say he couldn’t care less if I believed the smile or not – and his eyes were narrowed and uninvolved in the smile.
“My dear Mr Kennedy, welcome to Brazil. Forgive me for interrupting your journey like this but I wanted to express my deep appreciation for what you are doing for the Brazilian National Reserves and for my country in general. Our reputation and our economy can only benefit from your work.”
I knew this was true even though it wasn’t the main purpose of my writing
“I will just be sharing my personal experiences of staying and exploring in the reserves,” I said.
“I am sure you will acknowledge the role of the Brazilian people and their government in setting up and supporting this vital work.”
“My readers are already well aware of that, sir, but I will of course give credit where credit is due. I will be focusing on actual encounters with several endangered species but the crucial nature of the preservation of their habitats will certainly be made very clear.”
I understood the purpose of the interview perfectly. Boldano’s government received vast grants from various organisations, most from the UN, to set up and maintain the reserves and to refrain from levelling the rainforest for commercial purposes. He wanted the reassurance that this arrangement would continue and his government would go on being supported internationally despite its unpopularity at home. I would also of course be advertising the ecotourism the country needed.
The interview was over once I had more or less promised, yet again, to lavish praise on Boldano for his unselfish efforts on behalf of the world’s endangered species and the climate. Then the hover took me straight to the roof of my hotel – no immigration formalities for me!
It was a well-known irony, even scandal, that a regime as corrupt and occasionally brutal as Boldano’s should be receiving so much money, expertise and and diplomatic favour from around the world. It was of course an exchange for its cooperation over climate change and the preservation of the Amazon biosphere.
He was not a man to cross. Several of his opponents had been imprisoned on trumped up charges of corruption or sexual misconduct; some had simply disappeared. It was a kind of moral blackmail that kept him in power – fail to support me and the trees will start burning again.
My friend and fellow activist Federico had been charged with passing classified information to a foreign power. He and I had worked together to build a powerful opposition to the exploitation of the rainforest and to promote the idea of international cooperation over the reserves. Federico was an ecologist who had become a popular politician. When Boldano realised that opinion had turned too far against him and Federico himself was becoming popular enough to be a danger he did two things: adopted all of Federico’s (and my) plans as his own and had Federico arrested.
My activities and my friendship with Federico made staying in Brazil inadvisable and I returned to the UK. The rest of the world and I had little option but to accept Boldano as an environmental saviour; he made it clear that any attempt to interfere in Brazil’s internal affairs, particularly his treatment of opponents, would mean an end to cooperation. For the agencies, the UN and our audience the Amazon Basin was more important than a Brazilian politician’s freedom.
Now this unexpected attention from the president, this lionising, had left me feeling even worse about the past and Federico but I was faced with the usual dilemma; any attempt to put things right, to visit him or publicly acknowledge the vital role he played in forcing Boldano’s hand, could mean trouble for him, for me and even for the reserves.
Still I had been thinking of contacting him discreetly, if I could find a way, though I didn’t know where he was and anyway I thought he might easily refuse to see me. I had only just placed my small travel case on the bed in my hotel room, meaning to get out a change of clothing and then have a shower, when the phone rang. It turned out to be an absurdly cultured voice from the British Embassy asking
me to come in to discuss a ‘personal security issue’.
“What do you mean by a security issue? I haven’t got time for this. I’m travelling on early tomorrow,” I said, thoroughly irritated.
“I can’t discuss the matter over the phone I’m afraid, Mr. Walters, but I was asked to say that it would be helpful to us and to yourself if you could come in before you leave Brazilia tomorrow – at your own convenience.”
“At my own convenience. Don’t you lot go home around lunchtime?”
“If you would just name a convenient time, somebody will be here. We could send a car if you wish.” The voice showed no reaction to my sarcasm.
In the end I gave way, partly out of curiosity, and an embassy car picked me up after lunch. At the embassy I was quickly ushered into a small office and asked to wait. After only a few seconds a tall, fit-looking, silver-haired man in his sixties strode in and shook my hand vigorously.
“Mr. Walters, thank you for dropping by,” he said, with a trace of a Yorkshire accent I thought. “I’m John Kerr, political and environment brief here.”
‘Political and environmental brief!’ I realised Kerr must be the senior minister, second only to the ambassador. I was becoming thoroughly spooked by the attention I was receiving and he must have noticed this.
“Interesting times in Brazil, I’m afraid. The Boldano government isn’t that secure any more. I believe you have already seen the President.”
“Hovered off straight from the airfield, yes. It was a bit of a shock – so is this.”
“I can imagine. Let me explain. Your visit is important to him, both symbolically and practically. Pressure on Boldano is mounting, both internally and internationally. Here unemployment is high and rising, infrastructure is either outdated or inadequate and foreign investment, apart from in the reserves and ecotourism, is not happening owing to his unsavoury reputation. He’s hanging on, relying on the moral highground of the reserves – and the cash they bring in of course”
I didn’t feel that I was learning anything new here.
“I don’t see what use I can be in all this. Why am I here?”
“Are you still in touch with Federico Garcia, the man you once worked with?”
“No, sorry, not for years.”
That checked him for a moment. “He is still a key man in the organisation of opposition to Boldano. He keeps a fairly low profile, but we think he is the quiet leader who unites the various groups and gives them targets and aims.”
“That sounds like him. Where do I come in?”
“We’re afraid the whole thing may blow up and cause an unholy mess. Boldano still has control of the army and police, marginally; some of them are pretty fed up with him, but at the moment he would still be able to use them to put down an uprising and he wouldn’t hesitate to do that. There would be bloodshed. The UN and other international supporters couldn’t continue funding his government in those circumstances. If the money then stopped coming in Boldano would almost certainly remove the environmental protections and allow the rainforest to burn, both out of revenge and to curry favour with the big agricultural and timber conglomertates.”
“Federico wouldn’t risk any of that happening. I would trust him to find an effective non-violent route. Aren’t there elections due in a few months?”
“Yes, in February – deferred from two years ago when Boldano declared a state of emergency due to a supposed communist plot. I’m afraid he’ll use the present activities of the opposition as an excuse this time.”
“What have they been doing?”
“Just the usual: demonstrations against corruption and unemployment, a lot of social media campaigning, some legal cases brought – but they’re too successful – the demos are huge, the internet is lit up with calls for him to go, the judiciary are showing signs of independence and there has been some violence – and he knows he would lose a fair election now.”
I didn’t like the way things were going.
“I’m not prepared to intervene in Brazil’s politics, if that’s what you’re asking,” I said angrily. “And I’m certainly not going to try to stop Federico getting rid of that pig Boldano.”
The diplomat was unruffled.
“What we were hoping you might do was tell him that we will make every effort to ensure that the elections are carried out on time – and fairly – and ask him if he can restrain any overenthusiastic supporters from providing Boldano with reasons for cancelling them.”
“How can you or anyone guarantee fair elections here?”
“Off the record I’m not speaking to you on behalf of only the UK government. Other players, including the UN, have been in behind the scenes discussions with us and with various leading Brazilian figures. Federico is more difficult to approach, being both elusive and highly suspicious, with good reason. We needed someone whom he is likely to trust and as you are a UK citizen it was agreed that I should approach you.”
“I’ve no idea where to find him.”
“We have a contact who we believe can arrange that, though it may be a bit cloak and dagger.”
“I can see there has been some planning behind all this. You realise he may, probably will, refuse to speak to me. I wouldn’t blame him.”
“But you’ll try!” Like a fool I nodded.
So here I am, a brawny hand on my elbow, blindfolded, still panicky but apparently arrived wherever I’m being taken.
A voice I know says “Take it off him now” in Portuguese and then, “Patrick, apologising for this dreadful way of meeting would be hypocritical; things in Brazil are very strange at the moment and our fear is real. How are you?”
Federico looks older, obviously, even thinner than I remembered but still with that intensity of expression, as if focused on some distant goal. He also looks tired.
I glance around before replying. The room resembles a small news office, two rows of work-desks with computers and telephones divided by a central aisle. I, Federico and my escort are standing at one end, next to a large, battered photocopier.
“I’m OK. Recovering after this most unpleasant mode of travel. How are you?”
“Surviving,” Federico says pointedly. “What do you want?”
“Could we talk privately? I have a high level personal message for you.”
Federico nods at them and the two heavies withdraw.
“OK!” he says, smiling. “It is good to see you, whatever you are doing here. Who sent you?” “Somebody high up in the British Embassy, Kerr – but said he was speaking for many, including the UN.”
“I see. Deliver your message!”
“They’re worried that Boldano will use your demos and protests as an excuse to cancel elections. They are asking if you will agree to be a restraining influence.”
“Why should they care?”
“The reserves, they think the reserves may be lost if there is serious trouble here, if they’re unable to continue supporting Boldano. ”
“You don’t think that may have occurred to me, to us?”
“I am absolutely sure it has but it’s a difficult balancing act.”
“You don’t say. Are they offering anything?”
“Guaranteeing free and fair elections.” “Do they think they can manage that? Seriously? Do you?”
“I asked the same question. Apparently there have been discussions with ‘leading figures’ – I suppose in the army and police – you know the sort of thing.”
“And now it’s my turn – through you.”
That sounds unlike him, sarcastic, even bitter.
“I didn’t put myself forward,” I say.
“Patrick, I understand their reasoning and I’m glad it’s you. You can tell them I am doing my best to keep things under control but I need something more than possibly undeliverable future guarantees.”
I have thought about this. There is something I can do. It isn’t much, but I have personal reasons for hoping that Federico will see it as helpful and agree ti try my plan. I explain.
The first ‘day’ of VR reached a very wide global audience, as expected but the Braziian component was rather small. The series was using the ‘inner voice’ technology so that my commentary on what I was seeing seemed almost to belong to the experiencer’s own thoughts, though of course they could always take the gear off and switch to the audio channel if they preferred.
The highlight of this first ‘day’ was an encounter with a family of golden lion tamarins, which we were very lucky to arrange. On the way back to the lodge there was another encounter, apparently by chance, with Federico, who seemed to be wandering at random in the rainforest. The VR switched to the audio channel and we greeted each other as old friends who had worked together to set up the reserves. I then explained that I had actually invited him to join me for the rest of the series, both because he had in depth knowledge of the reserves and to give a different, less eurocentric perspective.
This had the effect of greatly increasing our Brazilian audience. In little chats in the gaps between animal watching we fe d in enough of the history to make it clear that Federico had been the initiator, negotiator and planner in the setting up of the reserves.
Our conversations had to be over the audio channel; the ‘inner voice’ tech obviously couldn’t be used for conversations and was anyway for anything other than factual information, particularly politics. Even so the strong sense of personal involvement and identification with the walkabout experience and with the accompanying commentary probably gave us an unusually sympathetic audience for our little chats.
On the next to last day I mentioned Federico’s treatment by Boldano:
“You were actually in prison for a while, weren’t you? How did that happen?”
“Someone got the wrong end of the stick. They saw my reaching out for international support as unpatriotic, as treason.”
“Seems a bit extreme!”
“That’s what I told them at the time, but they weren’t listening.”
“Do you think things are better now in Brazil, for human rights and basic freedoms I mean?”
“I think we still have a long way to go.”
We left it at that. At no time in the series did we mention Boldano by name but even so I was expecting to be whisked off by hover and deported at any moment. The broadcasts went out under the logo of UNNRA and the Brazilian Tourist Board, so carried some weight; the content and strategy had all been approved by Kerr and presumably by UN diplomats and key Brazilians as well. We held our breath.
We seemed to achieve our limited aim. Many leading members of the popular opposition were reassured by the implied public criticism of Boldano by such a powerful agency. Anyway the protests and marches were more peaceful and less frequent. There were of course agent provocateurs of Boldano’s among the demonstrators but they were unable to create enough chaos to look really bad. There were no general strikes or acts of sabotage, no stoning of the police or militia, who were in general themselves reasonably restrained, not being sure who their masters would be in a couple of months.
In the last broadcast, just after a stunning, extended close-up of river dolphins, I asked Federico again about the state of Brazil and he gave a brief, pungent summary of the major problems – very similar to Kerr’s but from an insider’s experience – unemployment, lack of foreign investment, decaying or missing infrastructure, state corruption and Boldano. He said he was sure elections would bring a better future.
By the time this last broadcast went out I had left Brazil and Federico had come with me in temporary exile – more cloak and dagger stuff organised by Kerr, who seems to enjoy it. We travelled as a gay couple, ecotourists who had been staying at one of the lodges – what happened to the actual couple I don’t know.
Boldano did try to postpone the elections on security grounds but he had by then lost crucial support, especially in the army. They warned him that not holding the election would lead to an emergency situation in which ‘they couldn’t guarantee his safety’.
He has lost the elections now and gone into exile. A considerably more liberal regime is taking over, which will make it far less embarrassing for the UN and others to fund the reserves and more attractive to visitors. I hope our broadcasts helped a little but they certainly served to assuage my guilt over Federico and helped rekindle our friendship.
He can’t stand as a candidate in Brazil until he gets a pardon for that absurd conviction but I understand that process is already under way. In the mean time he and I are trying to get the UK government to set aside more wilding areas – let’s hope we don’t run into trouble again.