eyes on the U.S.

How Brazilians Help To Keep Miami Afloat

Brazil has overtaken Canada as the top foreign source of both tourists and property buyers in the Florida city, which has been suffering through the real estate and financial crises.

The Miami Tower shining Brazilian colors...
The Miami Tower shining Brazilian colors...
Sonia Osorio

MIAMI - Although the Portuguese language has yet to conquer this multi-cultural city, Brazilians still feel very much at home in Miami.

“There is a love affair between Brazilians and Miami, which has helped the economy in both places,” says Rolando Aedo, executive vice-president of the Greater Miami Office of Tourism and Conventions.

In 2012, Brazilians overtook Canadians as the main international tourists in the city, and also overtook Canadians in the acquisition of real estate. Around 690,000 Brazilians visited Miami in 2012, an increase of 8.8% over the previous year, and they are estimated to have spend $1.5 billion.

“This has been very important for us: Tourism has helped the overall economy and Brazilians are at the center of tourism in Miami, in real estate, in commerce and they are opening businesses,” says Aedo.

A year after the beginning of the recent financial crisis, the unemployment rate in the Miami-Dade County was around 12%, construction was in free fall and the foreclosure rate was up.

Miami is relatively close to many main Brazilian cities –separated by an eight-hour flight – and there is a large number of flights between Brazil and Florida, which has contributed to the “intense influx of tourism that we see now,” according to the consul general of Brazil in Miami, Helio Vitor Ramos Filho.

There are currently 123 weekly flights between Brazil and Florida, and the consulate says the number of flights will rise before the end of the year.

The economic growth in Brazil is also an important factor in the rise in Brazilian tourists, since today more Brazilians have the means to travel internationally than 10 or 20 years ago. Favorably currency exchange rates also make international travel more attractive for Brazilian tourists.

According to Aedo, the impact of Brazilians on Florida’s economy has been “incredible,” and he predicts an explosion of Brazilian tourists if the U.S. approves Brazil for the visa-waiver program. The Brazilian consul concurs: “If Brazil were included in the visa-waiver program, there would probably be an explosion of Brazilian tourists in the United States. The visa requirement is still an obstacle for many potential tourists from Brazil, since in Brazil obtaining a visa means additional costs related to having to travel domestically just to get the visa, which can increase the overall cost of a trip substantially,” explains Ramos Filho.

Whether or not Brazil can join the visa-waiver program is up to U.S. authorities, so the Brazilian diplomats can’t know if Brazil has a chance at getting visa-free travel this year. However, the subject is often discussed by diplomats from the two countries, and progress is expected over the course of the next couple years.

On a positive note, the Brazilian consul highlighted that the U.S. has reduced the wait time for a visa for Brazilian visitors, which he said has resulted in an increase in the number of Brazilian tourists in the U.S.

For sale

Brazilians’ buying power has helped another pillar of the Miami economy – real estate. In 2011 they overtook the Canadians as the largest group of international buyers in the city.

Liza Mendez, the incoming president of the Miami Real Estate Agents’ Association, said that Brazilians represented 60% of the international buyers in Miami last year.

Ramos Filho concurs that there has been an increase in the number of Brazilians buying property in Miami, a phenomenon he attributes to the 2008 crisis and the resulting drop in prices throughout Florida. Some Brazilian cities were also hit by the real estate bubble, which he said made Miami, with relatively cheap prices, even more attractive.

According to the available numbers, 61% of these Brazilian buyers purchased condominiums, and 42% bought the properties to be able to spend vacations there.

“The impact has been very positive, because it has helped make the real estate industry more dynamic. They continue to come, because the Brazilians are strong, and that creates domino effect in the restaurants and the shopping centers,” says Ramos Filho.

It is possible, though, that this trend will not sit so well with the tax authorities in the U.S. in Brazil. Most Brazilians buy their properties with cash, at an average price of between $200,000 and $299,000, “A little bit more than other international buyers,” according to Mendez.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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