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13:28, 27 June 2017 Tuesday
10:42, 29 December 2016 Thursday

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Rio's unpaid government workers line up for food
Rio's unpaid government workers line up for food

The state of Rio, which is fighting off bankruptcy, has stopped paying salaries and pensions amid the crisis -- leaving nearly half a million people and their families to depend on private charity.

World Bulletin / News Desk

At the foot of a tall building in downtown Rio de Janeiro, government workers line up for donated groceries, unable to buy their own because their salaries have not been paid.

Inside, on the 13th floor, a food bank set up by a labor union is handing out plastic bags of groceries to help state employees as Brazil struggles through its worst recession in a century.

Celia Moitas Pinto and her sister donated two large bags of food in "solidarity."

Pinto's sister works for the government herself. But she is still getting paid thanks to a court injunction requiring the state to keep paying salaries of employees in the justice system.

She is luckier than her colleagues in public health and education, who have not been paid since November.

"There are recessions all over the world, but here it's been caused by theft and corruption," Pinto said bitterly.

"I'm ashamed to be Brazilian," the 71-year-old added.

Sergio Cabral, the former governor who led Rio during an economic boom that has now gone bust, was jailed in November on corruption, money laundering and racketeering charges.

A judge has frozen part of his assets, ruling he "contributed to the financial crisis devastating the state" by granting undue tax breaks to favored companies during his administration (2007-2014).

Cabral's wife is now behind bars on the same charges.

 'Humiliating situation' 

 The food bank was set up by the justice system workers' union Sindijustica.

Inside its headquarters, some 30 people sorted donated food into piles.

Many wore black t-shirts that read: "The people will not pay for the crisis."

"We put rice, coffee, beans, etc.... hygiene products to lessen our colleagues' anguish and suffering," said volunteer Silvana Soares, a 57-year-old court official.

"They all passed civil service exams to get where they are, and now they find themselves in this humiliating situation."

Rio, which played host to both the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics, has been the state hit hardest by the crisis gripping Brazil, Latin America's largest economy.

Its hospitals are short of supplies, its streets are regularly flooded by government workers demanding their paychecks, and its police force sometimes has no paper or fuel.

Rio's payroll is one of the biggest drains on its troubled finances.

The Rio state government has more than 220,000 employees, plus 247,000 retired government workers. Its monthly wage and pension bill -- when it pays up -- comes to two billion reals ($610 million).

 Paradox city 

 The food bank has collected more than 20 tons of donated groceries and distributed 1,500 baskets since it was set up just before Christmas, said fire captain Marcelo Mata, another volunteer.

He too is still getting paid as an employee deemed vital for public security.

"I consider myself lucky," the 43-year-old said. "But for how long?

"We are living a paradox in this city. We spend money for New Year's Eve fireworks on Copacabana Beach, but behind the scenes state employees have nothing."

Still, those helped by the food bank are touched by the donations.

"We're going through an unprecedented crisis. I give thanks to everyone who's helping us," said Yara da Silva, a 50-year-old nurse's aide.

She is still waiting for her November salary of $320, which the government now says will be deposited in five payments starting January 5.

"But what about December, and my Christmas bonus? It's hard. Very hard," da Silva said.

Outside the building, the long line crept along.

"This is humiliating," said septuagenarian pensioner Maurico Lucas. "I got up at 4:00 am to come get food handouts, after 38 years of work. 

"All because of the government's lack of responsibility."


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Cyprus president seeks peace deal in Switzerland
Cyprus president seeks peace deal in Switzerland

Cypriot president Nicos Anastasiades said Monday he hopes to clinch a reunification deal laying out a new security blueprint for the divided island during a crunch summit in Switzerland this week. Anastasiades will attend United Nations-backed talks at the Alpine Crans-Montana ski resort Wednesday with "complete determination and goodwill... to achieve a desired solution", he said in a statement. He said he hopes to "abolish the anachronistic system of guarantees and intervention rights", with a deal providing for the withdrawal of the Turkish army. The eastern Mediterranean island has been divided since 1974 when Turkish troops invaded its northern third in response to an Athens-inspired coup seeking union with Greece. Turkey maintains around 35,000 troops in northern Cyprus. The so-called guarantor powers of Turkey, Britain and Greece retain the right to intervene militarily on the island. Greek and Turkish Cypriots are at odds over a new security blueprint, but their leaders are under pressure to reach an elusive peace deal. "I am going to Switzerland to participate in the Cyprus conference, with the sole aim and intent of solving the Cyprus problem," Anastasiades said. Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci is also set to attend the summit, which is expected to last at least 10 days. Greece, Turkey and Britain will send envoys along with an observer from the European Union. UN-led talks on the island hit a wall in late May after the sides failed to agree terms to advance toward a final summit. Unlocking the security question would allow Anastasiades and Akinci to make unprecedented concessions on core issues. But they have major differences on what a new security blueprint should look like. Anastasiades's internationally recognised government, backed by Athens, seeks an agreement to abolish intervention rights, with Turkish troops withdrawing from the island on a specific timeline. Turkish Cypriots and Ankara argue for some form of intervention rights and a reduced number of troops remaining in the north. Turkish Cypriots want the conference to focus on broader issues of power-sharing, property rights and territory for the creation of a new federation. Much of the progress to date has been based on strong personal rapport between Anastasiades and Akinci, leader of the breakaway Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. But that goodwill has appeared frayed in the build-up to their meeting in Switzerland. The Greek Cypriot presidential election next February has also complicated the landscape, as has the government's search for offshore oil and gas, which Ankara argues should be suspended until the negotiations have reached an outcome.