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A purely analytical perception...


BRAZIL

AN ACCIDENT WAITING TO HAPPEN

 

 

BRAZIL, AN ACCIDENT WAITING TO HAPPEN

 

A REPAST IN RIO

 

The people of Brazil speak a strange language, that of Portuguese, a language hardly spoken by many in the world. Many people ask, “How could those from such a gargantuan country speak such a dinky tongue? We have come to the conclusion that it is time you knew the real facts. It seems that in the year 1500, a Portuguese fleet commanded by Pedro Alvares Cabral was headed for India and during the voyage somehow made a wrong turn and arrived unexpectedly in Brazil. 

The fact that Brazilians are stuck with this almost unique language has not been particularly helpful to them in the pursuit of international commerce. Primarily because of the fact that Brazil was somewhat isolated from the rest of the global economy, some of its practices became more ingrained and although faulty, were harder break than others. For example, Brazil was the last country on earth to make slavery illegal. However, there were more slaves in Brazil than any other country on earth, which accounts for the fact that nearly fifty-percent of the current population is black.

 The enforced migration and conversion of so many people have created a strange melting pot in Brazil. On one hand, there is practically only one religion practiced here, Catholicism. Sure, there is a small percentage of others but it’s no different than every other Latin American country. However, there is a certain mysticism in the Brazil religion that does not seem to exist anywhere else in the world. The people seem to dance to any number of different drummers and pay homage to all of them simultaneously. A great majority of blacks believe in “something called candomble, a form of Afro-Brazilian worship that is extremely popular today throughout Brazilian society. candomble and other related beliefs hold that spirits from beyond possess energy that can influence a person’s everyday affairs. People believe that they can communicate with the spirits through trained mediums.” ([1])

      “The Portuguese shipped in an estimated 3.6 million Africans to Brazil over four centuries, as they believed the local Indians were too weak to work. First arrivals came from the Congo, Angola and Mozambique in 1570. Known as “Negros Bantos”, they worshipped ancestor spirits and were spread along the coast of Maranhao, Pernambuco and Rio de Janeiro. Many of these slaves managed to escape, and lived in communities called kilombos. The slave came into contact with Indian elders and witch doctors and took part in spirit session where they received both Indian and African ancestor spirits. Indians showed the Africans their gods, taught them their myths, and in return, Africans shared knowledge on medicinal herbs, and summoned spiritless the Indians had never seen or heard about…” ([2])

 Brazil is slightly larger than the United States and has the world's fifth largest population ([3]), coming right after Indonesia. “Its economy is larger than those of Russia and India combined. During the period from the turn of the previous century until 1982, no other country on earth showed faster economic growth than did Brazil with the exception of Japan. Brazil’s consumers are the fifth-richest in the world, with an annual per capita income of $6,350. They are the world’s second-largest buyers of cell phones, and they account for two of every five Latin American surfers on the Internet.” ([4]

The country has been blessed with all of nature's bounties ([5]) and could be virtually self sufficient should it ever put its mind to the task instead of concentrating on political adventurism and graft. Moreover, boding well for the future is the fact that Brazil regularly alternates with China as the world’s largest receiver of foreign investment. ([6]) Furthermore, Brazil boasts of the most beautiful women and the most stunning scenery in the world and they may well be right on both counts:

“Here in Rio, photographers have their pick of exotic locations: the  famous Christ the Redeemer overlooks the city; cable cars run to Sugar Loaf Mountain; the white, sand beaches of Ipanema, Copacabana and Leblon are full of women in thong bikinis and bronzed boys pumping iron in golden sunshine; and by night, the moon and stars of the Southern Cross illuminate the waters of Guanabara Bay.” ([7])

 However, the economy here is one of the most inefficient on earth and in terms of flexibility, it trails even the intransigent nation of Afghanistan by a considerable margin. There seems little desire or for that part ability of Brazil to technologically join either the 20th or the 21st centuries. Moreover, the World Bank recently granted Brazil the distinction being the country with the greatest disparity on earth between the rich and the poor. It has been said that only 4% of the country’s population purchases 100% of the microwaves, VCRs and other consumer durables.” 

The country may even be more bizarre than even that; in this country, more people watch television than can read. The United Nations reported that Brazil ranked 125th in the world in health care. No matter how hard the Brazilian Government may try, there just doesn’t seem to be enough money to provide even the barest of essentials to its people. Brasilia is Brazil’s capital and it started in life as a planned city. One would have thought that with the resources Brazil had its command that they could have created a haven on earth as their capital, instead, winning an election in Brazil and being to sent Brasilia is something many politician believe is akin to a Russian court sentencing a prisoner to hard labor in Siberia.

 “…The 36-year old national capital, a planned city thousands of miles into the interior of Brazil, is widely seen as a dull backwater and a city-planning version of a white elephant. Brazilians themselves usually act like being sent to Brasilia is a kind of a prison sentence. Even Communications Minister Sergio Motta, the president’s right-hand man, recently growled to reporters, “Brasilia is terrible – everyone there is either a lobbyist or a hustler.’ And indeed, it can often seem like Brasilia is the end of the earth. The landscape features high-plains scrub – deforested for farming in the 19th Century – embraced by Montana-sized big sky. The town seems permanently under construction, at the same time that constructions have already begun to decay.”  ([8])

 However, if you can stand the dullness, this city that was for some odd reason created thousands of miles from the nearest ocean was built to bring creator comforts to the people that were running the country. Air quality is great, prices are reasonable, space is available in quantity and the indigenous population enjoys the good but the very quiet life. Crime other than those indiscretions committed by politicians is almost non-existent. However, I guess you could find the same type of life Siberia as well.

 Corruption Rears Its Ugly Head

 Statistically, from the point of view of corruption, Brazil is not the class dunce by any stretch of the imagination.  As a matter of fact, according to Transparency International the folks out of Germany that rate the corruption index in each of the world’s country’s, Brazil places strangely high; in 1999 it was ranked 45th alongside of such stalwarts as Malawi, Morocco and Zimbabwe. However, as a citizen of Brazil you would probably find Transparency International’s findings hard to fathom. “In less than a decade, more than 300 huge scandals have been exposed. 

Accused of corruption, President Fernando Collor de Mello stepped own in 1992 ([9]). Almost 20 National Congressmen have lost their seats for bad behavior and worse. A couple of businessmen have been jailed.” ([10]) This indeed is the country in which a congressman explained his accumulation of a $51 million fortune by saying he had hit the lottery 24,000 times. ([11])

 The story of Fernando Collor de Mello is of particular interest, because originally he was a man of the people and many believed that held the destiny of the country within his hands. He came from a poor area of the country, the state of Alagoas, and soon went into politics. He read a lot and followed the American Presidency avidly. He was appointed mayor of Macceio, the state capital of Alagoas at the age of twenty-nine. Collor ran for president of Brazil in 1988 and was elected in a runoff. His campaign was oddly enough partly patterned after those of both John Kennedy and Richard Nixon, a rather mysterious combination. However, if anything Collor was a student of politics and believed that if you played your cards right, you could get away with anything. He subscribed to P. T. Barnum’s description of the public, there is a sucker born every minute.

 Early in Collor’s term of office, his reign was nicknamed “Brazilian Camelot” but from the time he entered the presidential office he seemed to become overly obsessed by the American President George Bush, the hero, the student, the highly decorated war veteran, the flyer and the president. Collor quickly switched from a Kennedy aficionado to a lover affair with Bush; and seemed to attempt to copy all of his exploits. 

As orchestrated, all of these actions from the young (38), handsome and rugged president elect seemed to play exceeding well to the Brazilian people. After all, he was a refreshing change from the string of dreary politicians that had ascended to the office by political acclamation, not a vote of the people. Collor was the first popularly elected Brazilian president in over thirty years.

 He ran on a ticket deriding graft and corruption and told the people in no uncertain terms that he would ride the criminals out of town on a rail.

 “Collor promised to wake up Latin America’s sleeping giant, open its borders to trade and dump the crooks who riddled the ranks of civil service. ‘Whoever steals goes to jail,” he roared on the stump. No one-least of all Collor himself-objected to the inevitable comparisons between Brazil’s handsome young president and John Kennedy.” ([12])

 However, his admirers were in for a bizarre surprise, upon entering office, one of the young president’s first acts was to seize 80 percent of all of Brazil’s private bank deposits. Whatever was behind this strange action never fully came to light but he said that it was his way of fighting hyperinflation. Nevertheless, in spite of his attempts to palliate a horrendous situation, hospitals immediately filled with folks that had suffered heart attacks and numerous unfulfilled suicides. 

Medical teams were forced to work around the clock for the next several days in attempts to resuscitate many of the stricken while undermanned hospital emergency rooms soon became overwhelmed as people streamed in, claiming pains in their chests. Untold numbers of legitimate citizens of Brazil died over that inconceivably thoughtless action. Thus, Collor entered office with more than a bang and he went straight down hill from there. You ask that after an introduction like that one, how could go any further down? Just wait.

 He started taking massive bribes almost on his first day in office and soon had accumulated all the correct accoutrements he thought should go with the title, president of Brazil. Homes in Paris, Jewelry for his wife and the Dionysian gardens of his Brasilia residence that cost over $2.5 million. If anything, Collor was certainly dedicated. Nothing stopped the man from what he felt was his anointed task, the accumulation of every damn penny that he could get his hands on.

 Well, apparently the president hadn’t counted on one small item. You see he had a brother, whose wife the president had greatly desired. It seems that Collor had made a number of overtures in that general direction and the word had eventually gotten back to his loyal brother, who by this time was breathing fire. First presidential brother, Pedro soon started telling it all. Pedro announced to all that would listen that Collor had set up a “clout-for-sale” organization that was being run by his Fairas, his campaign treasurer. He went on to say that the organization was taking in millions and sending it abroad. The people were stunned, “we knew the guy was nasty, but moving graft out of Brazil is not cricket,” they chirped.

 As you well can believe, Collor twisted and turned and blamed his brother for everything known to man in order to avoid the inevitable. However, when it was pointed out that Collor who had always worked for the government, and who never had reported taxable earnings over $30,000 a year, the entire scenario came to a screeching halt. It was pointed out by investigators that over $200 million had passed through the president’s hands in a very short period of time. Most of it was earmarked for offshore banks and elegant real estate in foreign countries.

 He did the only thing that he could do under the circumstances. “Toward the end, the president consulted clairvoyants and spiritualists. He burned candles in his bedroom window to ward off evil spirits. . By August 1992, thousands were marching in the streets demanding his resignation. The case against Collor is contained in 39 volumes and dozens of appendixes that form two stacks over six feet tall. 

The defense does not contend that collar didn’t get the money, only that the government cannot prove its case.” ([13]) In the meantime, it has been brought out that Collor’s labor minister was illegally receiving $3000 a month from the Sao Paulo state electric company and Police have accused one of Collor’s top fundraisers of paying gunmen to kill a state trooper he suspected of having an affair with his wife. ([14])

Collor left the country in ruins. He was followed by politicians who gave their constituents even more of the same. He was followed into office by Fernando Henrique Cardoso and a number of his associates have been getting the royal “heave ho” over problems of their own creation. In the midst of economic miseries coming from Argentina, the economic slowdown in the United States, political problems in Peru and defaults in Ecuador, “Brazilian Senator Jose Roberto Arruda announced on Thursday (4-18-2001) he would step down as head of the government bloc in the Senate to defend himself against accusations of tampering with a voting panel.” ([15]) It seems that the senior senator had merely asked employees of the senate to tamper with the results of an election by a secret panel in vote to impeach a sitting senator. In the meantime on another front, once again, corruption charges are being heard all over the legislature and it will soon spread into open warfare leading to even more serious investigations.

 Judge Nicolau dos Santos Neto was accused of being directly involved in illegally elevating the costs of the construction project and is now a fugitive from justice. Further investigations implicated former senator Luiz Estevao[16], who was expelled from the Senate in late June due to evidence he took part in the fraud through his construction companies and because he lied in his testimony before the parliamentary commission….The acknowledgement that a judge accused of corruption had assisted the president’s office revived the issue and sparked new suspicions … Prosecutors from Brasilia and Sao Paulo hope to question the former presidential adviser, who recently purchased an apartment in Rio de Janeiro for an estimated $1 million.”  ([17])

 And to cap off this currently sorry state of affairs, “Party boss Magalhaes has threatened to blow the lid on corruption within Cardoso’s party…” ([18]) It now appears that there is another $700 million that is missing from the treasury’s almost barren till. Things were not always so tense in Brazil. There was the time when the Folha de Sao Paulo, a large newspaper in Sao Paulo published a report that Cardoso was using undue influence to attempt to change the outcome of a $19 billion privatization. 

The politicians were up in arms and denied the papers story to the hilt. However, these political wags were in for a surprise, it so happens that the newspapers had made 46 transcripts of conversations between Cardoso and others relative to the bidding for Telebras, a telecommunications giant located in Brazil. To further embarrass the protesting politicians the newspaper then had the tapes played radio and TV. Magically, Senate president Antonio Carlos Magalhaes immediately came to Cardoso's aid by stating that "There's no involvement of the president whatsoever." This was a little hard to swallow when you consider the fact that  literally everyone in the country had heard the damning tapes firsthand. But this is the way things are done in Brazil, deny, deny, deny and then the people will forget. That is the motto. 

"Delivering a new blow to a government reeling from a looming energy crisis, Mr. Magalhaes accused President Fernando Henrique Cardoso of tolerating corruption, lamed the energy crisis on the government and claimed social conditions had not improved. He said: "Healthcare is poor, the roads are in terrible condition; this is the situation in all sectors of the government." FT.com Financial Times, May 31, 2001. Geoff Dyer

 This is a strange country where the Central Bank has made a regular practice of lending money to bankrupt, corrupt and mismanaged private banks. However, in defense of this obtuse practice, many of these banks have at their helms, friends and political cronies of the former Brazilian President, Fernando Henrique Cardoso. The total amount involved in the lending has now been estimated to come to an astounding $7 billion dollars and the current government has officially determined that there isn’t a darn thing that they can do about it and worse yet, none of the money can be repatriated. Maybe if the put these ex-bankers on the rack, they would cough up a few reals.

In addition to its other duties, the Central Bank is supposed to be monitoring the country’s other banks and has on more than six-hundred occasions determined that something was definitely askew with one of its flock. However, in spite of the six-hundred cases brought to their attention, only six have resulted in any action whatsoever. It is interesting to note that as in the United States, when a bank goes wrong, the Central Bank acts as both the trial judge and the executioner. Usually the offender is closed by U.S. Marshals overnight and another bank is by this time handling the accounts.

 Can you see the Federal Reserve System of the United States sending a economic swat team into an American Bank that is believed to have violated banking regulations and walk away empty handed. “Sorry sir, we were told that you were under funding by $2 billion, we find you are only $1 billion undercapitalized. Please forgive the interruption and we apologize profusely.” You bet! It could be that the FED may someday make this kind of mistake, but probably not in my lifetime. These folks just don’t pull that trigger in a vacuum. For the Brazilian Central Bank to have only brought to the bar of justice, one percent of those believed guilty as a result of their own investigation, defies both the laws of physics and those of gravity as well. With a system like this, there is little wonder that the Brazilian Banking system has become probably the most undercapitalized in the world. (Including Japan)

 But corruption in this country is pervasive and unusually, it begins at the top, not at the lower echelons as in other countries. However, if there is not a major change in the way the system operates, when talk of an investigation begins, all of the politicos line up solidly behind it, giving media speeches to the public about how soon the rotters will be found out and thrown out of office. It is usually the rotters that give the persuasive speeches. Nevertheless, in spite of all of the good words, the end of the investigation will result more wasted taxpayers money. The system used by people in high office to cover up these sorts of things up is usually terribly efficient. The only way that anything ever gets accomplished in Brazil is by total accident.

 A Congressional Inquiry Commission was formed in Brazil to investigate how pervasive that drug dealing was in the country. What they found was something else again. “The commission began its investigations without any publicity in late August (1999) but received nationwide attention when it began to accuse other Congressmen of laundering money, associating with death squads and drug smuggling. Federal Deputy Hildebrando Gomes, a member of the lower chamber of the National Congress was expelled and handcuffed in front of TV cameras immediately after being questioned by his former colleagues. The commission’s inquiries spread to almost all Brazilian regional states, where at least 25 local politicians are suspected of having links to drug dealers.” ([19])

 However, the construction industry in Brazil offers politicians a wonderful opportunity to skim their fair share of vigorish with little risk. For the first time in the history of the country, the Brazilian Senate started talking about removing one of their brethren from office for his extensive construction shakedowns in projects within the capital city itself. Luiz Estevao, a man who firmly believes that charity begins and ends at home was simultaneously both a construction tycoon and a senator; the kind of situation that seems as though it would create a major conflict of interest in other countries. Like letting the rat guard the cheese, it appears that Estevao was able to steal enough from the construction of the Region Tribunal of Labor headquarters in Sao Paulo to set him up in great style for the rest of his life. However, what created the public outcry was the way the project was handled. 

From a construction point of view, the project had already become a disaster due to the fact that while it has been under erection for over eight years and has had its budget increased numerous times through questionable political maneuvering, it now appears to be coming in at three times the originally estimated price with no completion date anywhere in sight.

 Interestingly enough, the judge who presided over part of the investigation of the case was ordered arrested and he fled the country to avoid prosecution; two men who were supposed to be the owners of the project are in prison and it now turns out that none of them had anything to do with admitting their ownership of the project. Investigators after much searching found out that it was our friend Estevao all the time that both owned and operated the project. Aside from losing his Senate Seat, a police investigation is well underway and it appears likely that Estevao may wind up spending a substantial time in jail for his actions.

 “Estevao claims he is the victim of “incoherent accusations” and false rumors spread by his enemies. He pointed out that he won by a substantial margin in the Federal District with 460,000 votes, a far better showing than the other two senators elected in the same round of voting. “ ([20])

 While we can certainly understand Estevao’s point of view, we are at a loss to figure out what his statement has to do with the case against him. His seems to have been caught red handed, lying about his ownership of the project, jacking up the construction price numerous time to be able to steal more money and becoming the first Brazilian Senator to ever face impeachment and now he seems to think that his argument showing how he had bought and paid for an election is going to help him in this is literally incomprehensible. But then again, in Brazil, you never really know for sure.

 Moreover, this wasn’t the first time that Estevao came to the public’s attention for what can be characterized at best, as strange practices. The former president of Brazil, Fernando Collor de Mello, when faced with a long jail term, directly accused Estevao of giving him a bribe and what better source could you have than from the horse’s mouth. However, in this country, people often are blessed with short memories and that incident happened eight years earlier, or maybe the people thought that those who knew how to bribe others may be more effective in getting things accomplished and it was for that reason that he was elected senator. Who can tell?

 Brazil has become a massive exporter of foodstuffs and natural resources and the country imports almost nothing primarily because of the fact that the national government has set tariffs inconceivably high, in an effort to protect and promote local industry. Brazil, interestingly enough does 25% more of its trade with Europe than it does with the United States. Moreover, during the year 2000, investors from Spain invested more in Brazil then did those investors from the United States. This statistic is rather startling when you consider the fact that Spain is hardly one of the richest countries around. There are also plenty of investment opportunities in Spain, which literally remains a third world country while part of Europe and the EU.

 Whatever the reason, a balance of exports over imports combined with foreign investment in Brazil should aid up to a really healthy economy. When you aid the massive amount of tourism to the mix, you should have already reached the end of a great story.  However, this is only the beginning. We are talking about a country goes in and out of inflationary and recessionary cycles like a confirmed drunk between binges. Organized crime, (Brazil leads the world in non-military deaths from firearms, with nearly 27 per 100,000 inhabitants) ([21]) strikes, economic disasters and bureaucracy are rampant and the country’s natural resources being destroyed at a pace previously unknown in the world’s history.

 As we have pointed out, one saving grace for Brazil has been its tourist industry, which is multifaceted; the country has magnificent cities abutting on the Atlantic Ocean and the Amazon River Delta, which attracts attention in every geography book. Tourists bring substantial hard currency into the country and it is critical that Brazil constantly shows only its best face to the world’s travelers in order to maintain its spot as a premier destination. Tourists, particularly flock to the country around February, which is the height of the Brazilian season as it is at this time that the pre-Lenten Carnival goes into full swing. 

We all are well aware that nowhere is the celebrating done in more earnest than in Rio de Janeiro, a city blessed by fabled natural beauty where throngs consider it almost mandatory to visit the 124 foot high statue of Christ the Redeemer (Corcovado) which overlooks this magnificent city and its harbor. Reveling goes on at all hours of both the day and night. With all that celebrating going on, who could not want to be part of it?

However, things are not always idyllic here in Rio as they appear. Picture the surprise of travelers from all parts of the globe, when the tourist train they were riding in Rio was suddenly boarded by armed bandits wearing cowboy style clothing. In typical Wild Western fashion the thieves blockaded the tracks with trees and when the motorman slowed the train to avoid a collision, they boarded the train and threatening passengers with physical injury by brandishing knives and handguns. The robbers moved quickly through the cars taking whatever valuables the victims were carrying while other revelers “in season” partied just yards away thinking that this was just part of Rio’s carnival. The theft encompassed people from a literal United Nations of tourist: encompassing revelers from Denmark, Holland Canada, Japan, France Spain, Austria, the United States and Israel.

 No prejudices was shown by the holdup men as everything valuable that the riders were carrying that had the slightest value was quickly separated from them. Moreover, at first, many of the slightly inebriated passengers thought the daring robbery was just a gag and went along with it until they realized that the thieves were in deadly earnest about their mission. Some Brazilian historians noted that the robbery bore many of the earmarks of earlier American train robberies conducted by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Can you envision riding the Mickey Mouse railroad train in Disneyland and having characters dressed up like Minnie, Goofy and Donald Duck accosting you and demanding all of your money? 

 The then Rio de Janeiro Mayor, Luiz Paulo Conde, was horrified that word would spread about the train robbery and tourism, a staple for the city would suffer. However, the Mayor, if he were up on his history, would have been aware that Butch and Sundance never robbed the same train twice. However, while it may not be common knowledge in the rest of the world, incidents like these are everyday occurrences in Brazil and literally no one is exempt from the most brazen criminals on earth. However, we have a little secret for you; it did not take the mayor of Rio de Janeiro very long to get this message.



[1] Out of this world, in Brazil: The mystical and the bizarre find fertile ground in South America, Tracey Eaton, The Dallas Morning News, 8-17-1996.

[2] The Origins of Candomble, Gringoes.com, 4-27-2001.

[3] 165 million people

[4] Trade: Brazil’s Brush-Off, National Journal, Bruce Stokes: 4-14-2001

[5] It is the world’s largest exporter of cane sugar (seven-million people are employed in this industry, a major force in the export of hides and cattle and a serious competitor in the export of most grains as well as steel.

[6] Cracking Crime in Brazil. (Industrial security) James Wygand, Security Management, Information Access Company 7-1-2000.

[7] A Model Country, Linda Diebel, The Toronto Star, 11-2-2000

[8] Letter From Brasilia, The Frontier Wanes in a Backwater Capital, Patricia Aufderheide, Newsday, 10-6-1996

[9] In 1992, an investigation ultimately led to the impeachment of then-president Fernando Collor de Mello, after he allegedly took kickbacks. Several high-level administration officials and friends of Collor were accused of criminal wrongdoing, but only one major player served jail time and only for a few months. The Washington Post, Brazil Probe Uncovers High-Level Corruption, Stephen Buckley, 11-25-1999.

[10] In Brazil, an oblique clean-up begins, The WorldPaper, USA, Carlos Castilho, 1-1-2000

[11] Brazil’s Bright, Shining Knight goes on Trial, Kerry Luft, The Chicago Tribune 12-6-1994

[12] Brazil’s Bright, Shining Knight Goes On Trial, Kerry Luft, Chicago Tribune, 12-6-1994

[13] Ibid

[14] Scandals, Fraud Making Life Tough for Brazil’s President, Ken Silverstein, The Associated Press, 5-5-1991.

[15] USA: Wall Street edgy over widening Brazil corruption probe, Hugh Bronstein, Reuters English News Service, 4-19-2001

[16] Luis Estevao de Oliveiera became the first senator in Brazilian history to be ousted from the body for his role in a major corruption scandal. EFE News.

[17] Politics – Brazil; Corruption Probe Turns to Presidential Adviser, Mario Osava, Inter Press Service, 7-12-2000.

[18] Brazil – Corruption, Brazilian Congress Mired in Corruption Scandal, Eduardo Davis, EFE News Service, 4-21-2001

[19] Ibid

[20] Corruption-Brazil: Senate Prepares for First-Ever Expulsion, Inter Press Service, English News Wire, 6-22-2000

[21] Deliver Us From Evil, Mac Margolis, Newsweek International 7-30-2000.

 

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