HUNTING WHITE ELEPHANTS / CAÇANDO ELEFANTES BRANCOS

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21 December 2011

End of Year Report

2011 comes to an end without the promised bang of divulged documents, lawsuits, popular uprisings (though there was an excellent dossier detailing abuses), gnashing of teeth and death by papercut. Maybe at this time next year we can all get our millennial dander up as high as the notes on the Legadômetro, but for this year everything in Brazil is sliding relatively quietly into the delicious do-nothing months between xmas and Carnaval. There is no shortage of material to comment on, however, and I’ll use this last post of the year to properly shut things down.

Transportation. It’s a mess and getting messier. The city is in a permanent state of near-paralysis and has one of the most fragile transportation systems in the world. In early December, a bus caught fire in the Linha Amarela tunnel which links Barra to the Zona Norte and shut down traffic in both directions for more than three hours. There continues to be no map of the city’s bus system and one never knows when a bus is going to arrive or if it will stop to let you on.  It frequently takes me an hour and a half to travel from Rio to Niterói, 3 km as the papagaio flies.

The smallest accident on the Rio-Niteroi bridge or on the perimetral clogs the city like a vegan after eating a cheesesteak. The projects underway in the Zona Portuaria have made the main transit avenues so unreliable that the ferrys have received a 50% increase in traffic. This is unfortunate because they are not equipped to handle the volume. The concessionaire, Barcas S.A., can’t manage to train pilots or maintain the boats with the inevitable result: two weeks ago a fully loaded ferry crashed full-steam ahead into the docks injuring more than a hundred people. As if to reward the company, the state government approved a massive increase in the fares. The state secretary of transportation really should be made to water-ski behind the ferry for a day and then to eat a kettle of raw Guanabara Bay mussels.

Air travel is quickly becoming the only viable means of transport in Brazil, even within the cities themselves. Rio’s proposed BRT lines will not attend current or future demands, nor reduce the need or desire for cars which are the principal problem. The innumerable construction projects are detonating what mobility there was.  If one has the luxury to be strategic about where, when, and how one moves about the city, then bicycle is by far the best option except that one inevitably takes fantastic risks in doing so. The city just put in, for the third time, one of those bike share programs and people seem to be using them, but without a larger bike-orientated transportation plan what’s the point? Ah yes, it looks good and Barcelona does it.

The Metrô linha 4 project is taking more form and looking more and more idiotic as time goes on. There are reports that the recently opened General Osorio station will have to be closed for 8 months for reforms. Most ridiculously, in order to convince the wealthy residents of Leblon to go along with the project, those who have their garage parking eliminated during construction will have personal, public servants to park their cars, carry their groceries, and generally help out with their lives. In addition to closing multiple public spaces indefinitely, the project is going to make traveling by metro even more difficult for those who live in the Zona Sul. Why? The Trans-Oeste BRT is going to pack the new metro line full in Jardim Oceânico in Barra in the direction of the center, so that by the time the trains get to Leblon-Ipanema-Copacabana-Botafogo, they will look like sleek sardine cans.

Sport. João Havelange was forced to resign from the IOC before he was kicked out. Despite his shame, he received standing ovations at soccerex and is still viewed as some kind of cantankerous, a-political saint. He’s an embarrassment to sport and society and should be prosecuted to the full extent of national and international law. His favorite phrase had long been, “I don’t do politics, I do sport.” This rang particularly hollow when he was running around the world courting votes or when he was glad-handing with dictators. Now his favorite phrase is, “just leave me in peace.” Sorry João, let’s hope those ISL documents come out before you exit through the trapdoor. I think Nem is looking for a roommate.

Tricky Ricky Teixeira has caught some of the same bug that his ex-father in law has, and has relieved himself from various CBF and World Cup duties until the end of January. While one has to admit that he doesn’t and has never looked particularly well, the “health reasons” excuse just before incriminating documents were meant to be released is pathetic at best. The vice-president of the Piauí Football Federation has called for his imprisonment. Let’s hope that gets some legs.

The Brazilian Olympic committee decided to make the fort at the end of Urca the base for the Brazilian Olympic Team for 2016. I wonder if anyone asked the residents’ association of Urca what they thought about having their principal access to their neighborhood clogged with news trucks, security forces, athletes’ buses, VIP limos, etc. for the months leading up to and during the Olympics. Don’t want the Brazilians to arrive at their events? It would be almost as easy as shutting down the Linha Vermelha.

The gap between the best football in the world and what we see in Brazil was exposed in stark detail in Barcelona’s 4-0 thrashing of Santos in the final of the World Club Championship. Brazilian football is decades behind in management practices and mired in the export-minded political economy of a banana republic. Barcelona’s total football is not just about football, but about the creation of a life-world for its players. While the players are perhaps savagely competitive, there is an educational and social structure at Barcelona that does not throw their injured or less-talented prospects back into the murky waters of the labor-market like so many ill-caught fish. Of course F.C. Barcelona has its problems, but one cannot argue with the beauty and dynamism of what they produce on the field. The most disappointing part of the game was seeing the line of FIFA safados handing out the trophies. A gaggle of corpulent, self-important stuffed shirts, smirking all the way to the bank. You too, Platini, shame on you.


Model of Brasilia's LEED certified stadium
The Cup. This is the official line of thinking regarding the stadium projects. 1) Stadiums are not viable economic projects because ticket prices in Brazil are too low, therefore, 2) The “only way” to sustain stadiums is through international shows and increased points of sale, turning fans into clients and stadia into shopping malls 3) though being over built for the World Cup, don’t worry, the stadiums are now being planned for use after the events to guarantee their economic viability 4) the stadium projects should be constructed to attain the highest possible LEED certification to highlight Brazil’s commitment to “sustainable development” (even though Brazil doesn’t have a company that manufactures the technology required to attain the certification and all of the contracts will have to go to foreign companies) 5) the most important thing that the stadiums will do will be to project the city to international audiences therefore the cost isn’t entirely relevant. Booooooo, hisssss. How are those stadia in South Africa doing? Useless. White. Elephants. Unless, of course, you believe the NYTimes which had the gall to show the Green Point stadium in Cape Town as a symbol of that city’s creative economy. Bullocks, bullocks, bullocks.

Brasilia's Mane Garrincha taking form
The naming of Ronaldo Fenômeno as the mouth piece of the World Cup is meant to attract investments and divert attention. As was to be expected, Ronaldo knows how to use his foot, putting it squarely in his mouth by saying “You host a World Cup with stadiums, not hospitals”. Nice one. Actually, Ronaldo, hospitals are a major component of a World Cup, but let’s leave that for next year.

The Law of the Cup that has been such a bone of contention between FIFA, the federal government, and civil society was not voted on, again. The details of the law are of interest to those of us working on the structure of the event, and once it is passed we’ll give it a good look and analyze the conflicts, delays, and players that brought it into being. For now, FIFA is going to have a big, empty stocking that may not be filled with as much money as it would like in 2014. Does anyone actually think that FIFA needs more money or that it is an effective steward of football? Que se vayan todos.

Brasilia's aborted VLT project
After a visit to Brasilia, I was both relieved and saddened to learn that Rio de Janeiro is not the only city that is going through some major problems with transportation, stadium construction, corruption, and incompetence. The World Cup organizing committee in Brasilia is going to put a few leisure-oriented bike paths along the axis monumental but will put the bike racks about a kilometer away from the stadium, in the middle of a grass-covered open space. The proposed light rail system linking the airport to the stadium (more or less) went ahead without approval, destroying an existing traffic interchange. There are no plans to either fix the interchange or to complete the rail project, which was very, very poorly designed in the first place. As I wrote earlier this year, the World Cup was born in obscurity, is being run out of a black box, and is going to end up in the courts. It will be a hell of a party.

UPPs, Milicias, Traficantes, oh my. Rocinha and Vidigal were occupied / pacified without so much as a “by your leave”. As ever, real-estate has boomed and people are trying to make sense of the new dynamics. The circumstances under which these two critical neighborhoods were occupied were strange in the extreme. It appeared as if the either the entire architecture of the drug trade in the Zona Sul was dominated by one person (Nem) and that he had a critical, unimaginable security and information meltdown or that the new boss is just like the old boss but with weapons and training paid for with public money. The security situation in Rio continues to boggle my mind. It’s big business, unevenly distributed, unequally applied, and a determining factor in just about everything that happens in the city. The milicias in the Zona Oeste continue to have a fantastic and phantasmagoric influence on the city and state governments, whose levels of depravity, arrogance, and misanthropy are reaching ever greater heights. It’s not safe to sit around in public space where the UPPs are active. There are always fingers on high-caliber triggers. This link is to a story of a man shot while in playing samba in Mangueira, just across from the Maracanã.

Meanwhile and perhaps encouraged by the marketing of the illusion of security, record numbers of foreign tourists are coming to Brazil. How many? 7 million in 2011. That is around 600,000 a month, exactly the number that is expected for the 2014 World Cup. How is it again that the World Cup is going to increase Brazil’s tourist numbers and establish tourism as the ever expanding base for urban economies? It’s not and it won’t. As I have repeated time and time again, international tourism in Brazil is not a major source of revenue or employment. 7 million tourists is only slightly more than the Dominican Republic receives. This is an insanely expensive country, there is little or no tourist information (for instance, the last time I came through Galeão in Rio the only English language tourist information was produced by “Rio for Partiers”), and mono-lingual gringos are going to have a tough go of it. Not to say that Brazil isn’t wonderful or that tourists shouldn’t come, just that it is neither easy nor cheap nor close to the major centers from which international tourists depart.

Brazil, the myth of emergence. Brazil’s actual economic growth has not been that dynamic in the last few years. While it is true that the economy has expanded the state controls on the economy are so great and the protectionist measures so strong that the opening of Brazilian markets that would really cause the economy to take off simply hasn’t happened. There is little to no competition in the Brazilian marketplace for essential goods and services, which makes quality low, prices high, and service terrible. The re-distribution of income that supposedly took place under Lula via the Bolsa Familia program appears to have been a token gesture that has had the very positive effect of removing millions from absolute poverty and pushing them into the lower classes or into plain ol’ poverty. Indeed, there has been a general improvement on the national scale towards a more equitable distribution of income, but Brazil remains one of the most unequal countries in the world. This was highleghted by the release of the IBGE report detailing the increase in the percentage of Brazilians living in favelas and informal settlements. Rio de Janeiro, sadly, has been the one state in Brazil that has seen income disparity increase over the last ten years and is the city with the highest percentage and overall numbers of people in favleas. One well-known effect of these dang mega-events (that don’t exist, remember) is that they increase inequality while brining in a large, sophisticated, and permanent military apparatus that acts to preserve and re-enforce the accumulation of capital in its various guises. The more we can pull back the curtain, open the black boxes, say nay to the Trojan horse,  and demand information, the more likely it will be that these events can be used as opportunities to propose and impose alternatives to the current paradigm.

Felizes festas e nos veremos em 2012!

12 December 2011

end of year experiment

Letters from Rio

I went, for the first time, to Vidigal. Vidigal is a neighborhood perched on a lovely slab of granite rising out of the South Atlantic. It was recently occupied by the Rio de Janeiro State Military Police, effectively and immediately removing the presence of the drug trafficking factions. The intersection and meshing of the human and the physical defies neat or facile description, so excuse my failure to convey the totality of the reality, as it were.

Vidigal is large and in an extremely beautiful, strategic, and increasingly lucrative spot. Sitting between Ipanema-Leblon, São Conrado (a very wealthy beach neighborhood) and Barra de Tijuca (where the Olympics will be), Vidigal had been under the control of Nem. Nem lived in Rocinha, and was the most wanted drug lord in Rio, if not all of Brazil. After openly directing the drug trade in both Rocinha and Vidigal, Nem was arrested a few weeks ago , found hiding in the trunk of a car. There was something very strange about the way Nem went down and the Military Police occupied the hills. Even stranger to think that one person had controlled so much territory and kept the state from providing basic services. Nem, the film, coming soon.  (I think I could have shown him a better way to get out of town before the police arrived, but that’s another story).

A few hours prior to heading to Vidigal, I had done some facebook, web-interface, electronic guest list trickery to print out some tickets from a website hosted in San Francisco. I had heard about the “thing” ( I wasn’t sure what it was), from the ragazzi italiani. The tickets told me I was going to a place called Alto Vidigal. From the Praça Vidigal to Alto Vidigal it was suggested to take a combi (VW van taxi) or moto-taxi.

While waiting in line to get the motor taxi, heavily, heavily armed PMERJ forces patrolled the principal street while the party rolled at the Praça de Vidigal, opening onto the Avenida Niemeyer. Death by machine gun was walking around. This is not a light-touch security solution, but rather a full military occupation of urban space: foot patrols, stationed cars, tactical deployments, air support, central command and control. Big dudes, big guns. I didn’t take pictures. 

I hadn’t been to Vidigal before the installation of this UPP, the 14th or 15th in Rio. The “Police Pacification Units” have been occupying favelas in Rio for about two years. Their actions quickly change the security dynamics, which had been previously controlled by drug gangs, City of God-style. They give notice of the occupation some weeks before they roll in, in order to give the bad guys time to skedaddle. Why? If they came in without warning, the gun battles would be pretty extreme and a lot of innocents would get hurt. There haven’t been as many bloodbaths as there could have been.

On the other hand, where are the bad guys going to? There are reports citing an increase in violence in other parts of the Rio Metro Area and in Rio de Janeiro state. Are the bandidos just heading to other parts of the city to continue their trades? Is there going to be a dis-proportional increase in number of  bandidos per 100,000 people in non-occupied favelas? Will the relative value of a bandido be less as there is a glut in the labor market? How does the occupation shift the dynamics of the drug trade? When the Complexo do Alemão was occupied last year, the police found around 40 tons of marijuana. To what degree these disruptions have influenced the price of drugs in the city, I cannot say, but it has certainly changed the dynamics of sale and distribution in Rio.

A big party wound up in the Praça: very loud, live music sprayed through speakers wholly unequipped to handle the tone or volume. Saturday night festa, military occupation rolling, a lot of people standing around watching the scene, everyone probably wondering what changes had been put into motion.  On a more banal level,  the moto-taxi ride was fantastic, the motoristas are top notch mountain riders, highly skilled. My first impressions flying by on a motorcycle were that Vidigal is relatively wealthy, with some big apartment buildings, established grocery store and small commerce…a big, vibrant, complex place. I won’t pretend to know much more about it than that, otherwise I’d run the risk of having this piece published in the NYTimes.  The roads were vertical, and well paved. It’s no joke getting trucks and cars up and down. It’s an ever-shifting obstacle course and a nice little adventure on a moto. Arriving at our destination, there was a hand painted sign pointing the way to Alto Vidigal. R$2 for the moto-taxi.

There is a little plaza in front of the Casa Alto Vidigal. Several big, camouflaged military police wielded around. Two Brazilians running the entrance found my name on a list that had been sent to them via my registration in San Francisco and with my printed out ticket, I got R$10 off the R$30 entrance (U$ 12). I handed my money to a young woman behind ceiling-high bars. As I was fitted with an armband, I was asked if I had any drugs with me, you know, marijuana, intimating the effervescent police presence outside. Three weeks ago, no one would have asked that question.

One of the undeniable outcomes of the UPPs is the explosion in real-estate values. Not only does the value of real-estate in the favela increase, but also in the areas around it, which have had a knock-on benefit of improved security. In some cases, there has been a 400% increase in real-estate values. When Rocinha was occupied, some house values increased 50% overnight. Alto Vidigal must have also seen an increase in its value as they pulled a large Saturday night crowd.

View of Vidigal with Leblon-Ipanema in the background
The crowd was predominantly young gringo, which is to say non-Brazilian. There was some Austrain bizarro that looked a mix between The Little Prince and Rod Stewart, here several months early for Carnaval. There was an Annie Lennox, a tight-jeaned German, a self-important and arrogant French film crew, packs of hipsters with their wry grimaces, a foreign professor or two, some gonzo journos, a live sax accompanying the dj, a packed dance floor, a chilly breeze and an incredible view. A third wave of partiers arrived at 3am. This is Gringolândia, a foreign outpost on foreign soil. We were there to consume, our privilege and safety now under the watchful eyes of the military police.

01 December 2011

Mega-events don’t exist

Mega-events don’t exist.

There is no point in using the term “mega-event” except as a convenient placeholder for the impossibly complex, intersecting, mutually dependent and independently functioning elements that come together to produce whatever the “mega-event” is.

Deconstructing the World Cup and Olympics and organizing them into intelligible, digestible bits that can be understood is, perhaps, within the realm of possibility. Understanding the hundreds of millions of moving parts and how they come together to give us something like the 2014 FIFA World Cup is impossible. Pulling on a loose thread may begin to unravel the general structure, but without understanding the whole at the end of the day you’re left with a pile of micro-fibers.

So, let’s stop talking about mega-events and start talking about “accelerated process of socio-spatial transformation punctuated by signature global events”. Not very catchy, I know. How about “vicious circles of creative destruction marked by overlapping sovereignties, deliberately vague responsibility frontiers, and the imposition of homogeneous and globalized consumer cultures”. Perhaps something more pithy? Hmmm…”the normalization of a condition of political exception that generates the compulsory acceptance of a consumptive ritual decoupled from its ontological moorings.” Hard to put an acronym on that.  Oh well. Perhaps my degree in philosophy will come in handy while discussing the non-existent.

It must be because the mega-event doesn’t exist that no one can take ultimate responsibility for the processes it unleashes and the impacts it generates. FIFA can’t be blamed for the transportation infrastructures that cities choose to install. The cities can’t be blamed for wanting to host the World Cup. The state can’t take responsibility for the way that FIFA goes about its business, though they could refuse to get on their knees to bring the event. Sponsors can’t be blamed for the human rights violations that pave the way for their profits.  The security demands of the event attend to the real and perceived risks that the event itself generates. No event, no risk? Or is the risk in not having the event?

I am not trying to hedge my bets here, but trying to make sense of the arguments, displays, discussions and presentations from Soccerex over the last three days. There are billions of dollars of public funds in play. This money, although also fictitious and conceptual, has very real effects and could be put to uses other than hosting a month long soccer tournament. Because no one has ultimate responsibility over the way in which this money is spent and the effect it has, before smashing the Cup on the ground to see what it’s made of we’ve got to continually step back to look at the Cup as an object: an object of desire, a goal in and of itself, a process, a social construction, a symbol, a moment, and a means to various, valorous and nefarious ends. In Brazil, this Cup runneth over with problems, contradictions, intransient bureaucracy, narrow political agendas, nepotism, corruption, graft, conflicting interests, ill-conceived projects, forced removals, rule by decree, a lack of effective urban planning and the funneling of public money to private hands in one of the most unequal societies in the world -  quite a lot for something that doesn’t exist. 

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