In Brazil Christmas cheer falls flat in crisis-hit Rio

It can be hard to remember that just four months ago Rio de Janeiro was hosting the Olympic Games.

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Things are so tight in Brazil's party city of Rio de Janeiro that would-be Santas are feeling more ho-hum than ho-ho play

Things are so tight in Brazil's party city of Rio de Janeiro that would-be Santas are feeling more ho-hum than ho-ho

(AFP)
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The Grinch -- in the form of devastating recession, giant corruption and unpaid salaries -- has stolen Rio de Janeiro's Christmas.

Things are so tight in Brazil's party city that the traditional giant Christmas tree on the lagoon has been canceled. There aren't even municipal holiday lights in the streets.

And in shops, would-be Santas are feeling more ho-hum than ho-ho.

"It's a really flat Christmas. People are not energized," said Daniela Santiago, 41, searching for children's presents in a store that sells cheap Chinese-made toys and decorations. "Most of my friends and family are feeling down."

In Brazil's "Marvelous City" Rio de Janeiro, the main topic of conversation isn't Christmas, but crime and what everyone simply calls "a crise" -- the crisis play

In Brazil's "Marvelous City" Rio de Janeiro, the main topic of conversation isn't Christmas, but crime and what everyone simply calls "a crise" -- the crisis

(AFP)

Unemployed since she lost her human resources job, Santiago lives with her mother, a school teacher who hasn't received a full salary since September.

It can be hard to remember that just four months ago Rio de Janeiro was hosting the Olympic Games.

Today in the "Marvelous City" the main subjects of conversation are crime and what everyone simply calls "a crise" -- the crisis.

"A crise" is shorthand for Brazil's crippling recession, the near bankruptcy of Rio's state government, investor flight, nearly 12 percent unemployment, and a corruption scandal tainting politicians all the way up to President Michel Temer.

Customers at a hairdressers in Copacabana "talk about the crisis all the time," said barber Jorge Almeida, 41, who said his sister-in-law, a doctor, is another of those state employees who haven't been paid for two months.

Estimating that business was down 20 to 30 percent compared to the last weeks of 2015, Almeida said: "Haircuts are taking second place to what's really necessary -- like food."

Beach blues

Rio's New Year bash -- a party that sees about two million people pile onto Copacabana beach for the midnight countdown -- is also feeling the blues.

The city said Monday that the gigantic fireworks display, one of the most famous around the world, will be pared back by 25 percent: down to 12 minutes from the normal 16.

Leandro Souza, 28, who lives in the favela da Mare complex, one of the most violent in Rio de Janeiro, dresses as Santa Claus to distribute gifts to the children of the community on December 17, 2016 play

Leandro Souza, 28, who lives in the favela da Mare complex, one of the most violent in Rio de Janeiro, dresses as Santa Claus to distribute gifts to the children of the community on December 17, 2016

(AFP)

At one of the beach chair rental huts, manager Elaine Maria Silva, 29, said the usual pre-New Year's buzz is missing.

"There's still no (music) stage set up. Usually by now it would have been," she said, surveying Rio's most popular stretch of sand, which even on a weekday morning teemed with sun worshippers, joggers and swimmers.

The most dramatic holiday absence in Rio this year is the 174-foot (53-meter) Christmas tree structure usually built on a floating platform at the Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas, site of this August's Olympic rowing and canoe events.

Bradesco Seguros, the company that used to pay for the tree and its spectacular lighting, warned city hall that it could not foot the whole bill this year. By November, with no other sponsors joining the party, officials confirmed there was no hope.

"It used to be a big event," said Fabio Ferreira de Souza, 40, who sells drinks by the side of the photogenic lagoon. "Now with no tree, there's no one coming."

Economists say Brazil should slowly climb out of recession in 2017, but few Rio residents feel optimism. Meanwhile, the corruption-fueled political mess in the capital Brasilia is only intensifying.

Jack de Haan, longtime owner of the Raul Jewelry store in Copacabana, recalled that Brazil was on a roll when he immigrated here from Holland 30 years ago. Gradually, though, the country failed to match its promise.

This Christmas period, he said, is "terrible."

"Last week I sold nothing. Five days selling nothing with such a beautiful shop," de Haan, 63, said, his melancholy words at odds with the glitter of the Brazilian topaz, agate, crystal, and other semi-precious stones he sells.

"It's a shame... Politics, corruption -- if it wasn't for that it would be a different Brazil."

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