In Brazil, it is not just who you know, but who you get run over by that counts. The latest case to demonstrate this is that of Thor Batista, the 20-year old son of Eike Batista, Brazil’s richest man.
Still little more than a pimply-faced youth, he previously featured largely in the society pages. At a recent investors’ meeting, though, his ebullient father called on the heir to his oil and mining empire to introduce himself to the assembled fund managers. And within weeks, Thor was in the headlines again – for killing a cyclist while driving one of his father’s sports cars. He claims that the accident was not his fault.
The man who died, Wanderson Pereira dos Santos, was a labourer who was riding his bike along a highway in a Rio suburb when he was struck by Thor’s car.
The difference between the lives of the super-wealthy Thor and the penurious Wanderson could hardly have been greater – a common contrast in what is still one of the world’s most unequal societies. Wanderson’s family, who live in a shack, said he was riding his bike along the side of the road on a grocery run. Thor was driving a Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren – a vehicle so expensive in Brazil that it incurs auto taxes in the state of São Paulo of nearly R$93,000 a year.
Pictures showed the Mercedes’ broken windscreen and scratched up bonnet. Thor, who passed a breathalyser test and denies he was speeding, posted on Twitter a photo of himself. covered in splodges of blood, apparently taken straight after the accident. Thor and his father have waged a vigorous Twitter campaign protesting his innocence, claiming the cyclist inadvertently swerved in front of traffic. A report in Globo newspaper alleged Thor had committed several previous traffic violations, including for speeding.
“I ordered my lawyer to get in touch with the family guaranteeing that I would provide assistance and pay for the funeral,” Thor tweeted. His father complained that his son was being subjected to trial by media and said the courts would decide.
The odds are, however, that whatever happened that night, Thor will not see the inside of a prison. Brazil’s slow and tortuous legal system means that such cases can last years, if not decades. Mr Batista hired a former justice minister as Thor’s lawyer. “Only a bad father would not hire the best lawyer to defend his son,” he tweeted.
In Brazil, accidents like Thor’s, in which the wealthy are accused of running over the poor, are not unusual. In São Paulo state during the carnival festivities in February, a controversy erupted after the son of a wealthy family killed a three-year-old girl while riding a jet ski. In that case, the media accused police of obfuscating the investigation.
These issues are not confined to Brazil. Across the developing world, in which the rich tend to be at the wheel and the poor on foot, similar cases abound. In Mumbai, rich kids and Bollywood actors occasionally run over labourers and poor families, who sleep in the open in their thousands beside the city’s highways. In China, a storm broke out last October after the allegedly drunk son of a deputy police chief was accused of trying to get away with killing a poor farm girl while driving his car by citing his father’s name.
In Brazil, at least the families of the victims are normally paid off, prompting a black joke that being run over by someone rich is like winning the Mega-Sena – Brazil’s lottery. Such black humour is a sticking plaster concealing deeper public outrage. Everyone knows that for the families of the deceased, no sum of money will bring back the dead.
When President Dilma Rousseff visits Washington next week she will doubtless discuss how to increase trade with the US, which tends to buy more advanced Brazilian stuff, such as commercial jets.
After all, both countries are looking for ways to boost industry amid a flood of cheap manufactured imports from China. Beijing, in turn, buys few Brazilian products other than commodities such as iron ore.
But wait. It seems China has finally thrown Brazil a bone. It plans to buy 300,000 Brazilian donkeys a year from the poor north-east. The locals no longer need the animals, a regional icon affectionately known as jumentos, now that they can access credit to buy motorbikes instead.
Unfortunately, this hardly promises to be a value-added business. The unlucky animals will be ground up to become an ingredient in China’s food and cosmetics industry.