HUNTING WHITE ELEPHANTS / CAÇANDO ELEFANTES BRANCOS

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26 February 2013

Passando dos Limites / Going too far

The monthly salary for a public school teacher is around R$1600. I do not know people who work harder with fewer resources to do society`s most important and least valorized work. I can only imagine the complete indignation and revolt of public school professionals when the announcement came that the city government spent more than a million reais (US$500,000) to buy 20,000 copies of a board game to be distributed to the city`s schools. The game, presumably, will become an obligatory element of the curriculum. The game is called Banco Imobiliário Cidade Olimpica, or Olympic City Monopoly.

What are the UPPs about again?
It is difficult to know where to begin criticizing the idea that schoolchildren be indoctrinated with the ideology that the public places and spaces of the city be treated as mere commodities used to accrue personal wealth and power. We could begin with the fact that only the current administration`s projects are highlighted in the game, giving the impression that the mayor, governor and their cronies have produced the urban landscape since taking office. We could also highlight the fact that arbitrary monetary values are assigned to public places, eliminating any and all conception of use value for those that have paid for these things (the public) and transforming every element of the urban into something that can be traded on the open, deregulated market. How about the “sorte” (luck) card that says: “the value of your home increases after the favela in your neighborhood was pacified, receive R$75,000”. Paulo Freire is turning like a rotisserie chicken in his grave.

Just when I was starting to lose the hard edge of permanent pessimism, the perverse pedagogy and poor taste of the mayor took physical form in the public space of Copacabana Fort. In the fort, which is a federal property, a private club has opened to attend to the beautiful people [sic] of Rio`s Zona Sul who can no longer tolerate the hoi polloi and undifferentiated tourist mass of Ipanema and established a clubby off world inside the fort. Veja`s coverage was nauseatingly apologetic: “Club attracts high class clients in search of vip treatment and the experience of sharing the beach with people of the same profile”. A mere R$250 gets you into the club that has a pool, discreet waiters, blaring electronica, hot tub, R$5000 bottles of campaign, R$80 face towels and a lax security force that ignores the clouds of pot smoke drifting off the dance floor. If you are surprised that rich, white Brazilians are able to smoke weed bought in favelas inside a military fort while the favelas themselves are occupied by the military, then you clearly haven`t spent enough time playing Banco Imobiliário.

A few weeks ago I reported on the judicial victory of the Aldeia Maracanã. During the negotiations the government had offered to work with the Aldeia in some regard in order to maintain the site as a part of Brazil`s indigenous heritage. Incredibly, but unsurprisingly (another of Rio`s characteristics is that you are not surprised at being shocked), the brain trust of Rio 2106 and the State Government announced that the indigenous people would be expelled and the site transformed into an Olympic museum with all profits acruing to the IOC! Huh? This is the same set of intellectual heroes that have programmed the destruction of an Olympic swimming pool and an Olympic training center in order to prepare the city for the Olympics. It is a sadly transparent attempt to turn a judicial defeat into a victory. 

These paradigms of competency in public planning have also determined that the facilities constructed for the 2007 Pan American Games are almost completely inadequate. You know the situation is dire when OGlobo starts criticizing the R$1.6 billion that will have to be spent on the 2007 facilities to make them viable for 2016. To wit: the velodrome is being destroyed, the aquatics center will only host water polo while a temporary diving center will be built at the Copacabana Fort (someone better get rid of the rich potheads first), the basketball arena will only be used for gymnastics and every other installation will have to undergo massive upgrades. Of course, there is still no budget for the 2016 Games, and even if there were why should the public pay any more attention to it than the Games organizers themselves? 

A series of fires have occured in the Autodromo de Jacarepagua, site of the future Olympic Park. These are not ordinary fires but massive conflagrations of discarded tires. The toxic smoke has infiltrated the Vila Autodromo over the past weeks, creating a health and environmental hazard. This could be another manifestation of the pressure tactics used by the government to encourage people to leave their homes or at least to reconsider their negotiating position. When there is not grave incompetence in public administration there is likely malice and vice versa. Somtimes it is both. 

Evidence to support this last statement came from the Largo do Tanque this week where a series of forced removals occurred as the municipal government races to complete the Transcarioca BRT before the World Cup. The reports from Tanque are as disturbing as they are tragic. There is evidence that agents of the municipal government are negotiating the price of homes with the residents as the bulldozers circle the house. This is not the “key for key” policy dictated by Brazilian law and international statutes but rather an underhanded and divisive approach to eliminating social resistance to the invented needs of massive urban interventions. A few years ago there were a series of signs along Flamengo Beach that spelled out the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Those signs, along with the rights, have disappeared in the Cidade Maravilhosamente Especulativa.

The involuntary interment of crack addicts and homeless people continues throughout the eastern and southern parts of Rio. Rio`s program of forced interment is widely criticized by health care professionals as doing nothing to solve problems of mental health, physical addiction or the social conditions that produce such large numbers of homeless in Rio. There have been few investigations into the conditions of the internment centers, no data released on how long people are kept, what happens to them upon release or the efficacy of the program in decreasing crack use. Though it might be a stretch, the BRTs are no more a solution to Rio`s mobility problems than is the involuntary internment program a solution to drug addiction and homeless. In both cases human rights are violated while being sold as necessary for the betterment of the city.

The General Osorio metro station opened in 2010, bringing the Metro to Ipanema 35 years after its inauguration. Last week the General closed his doors for 10 months so the extension to the one and only metro line in the state can start. Just to be clear, two years ago the line was extended to Ipanema with the full knowledge that it would have to be further extended for the Olympic transportation project. Instead of planning for that extension without needing to close the station the top-notch intellects at Rio Metro closed the tunnel system and therefore have to pick up where they left off in 2010. In addition to the inconvenience of the closure, the astronomical sums of money and urban disruptions of the Linha 4 [sic] are causing protests and revolt among even the stodgy lovers of the status quo in Leblon.

And finally, the call for proposals for the privatization of the Maracanã was launched on Monday. The companies that are bidding for the 35 year “concession”, IMX and LusoArenas, will have one month to submit their proposals and then a committee comprised of ONE PERSON will rule in favor of one or the other. As IMX was the external consultant that devised the economic feasibility study it looks as if Eike Batista will be able to add another of Rio de Janeiro`s iconic spaces to his Banco Imobiliário. The billionaire with the ten dollar toupee has not been having much luck financially lately, but was recently granted his long-time wish to build a nine-story convention center in the Marina da Glória. The agency responsible for protecting Rio de Janeiro`s architectural and cultural heritage, IPHAN, has once again surfed the wave of privatization. There are likely no cards in the Banco Imobiliário game that represent IPHAN or IBAMA or INEA (environmental regulatory agencies), much less something that would make one pay for an impact study or have to spend money and time consulting the public about the future use of public space.

This Thursday, 28.2.13, the Comitê Popular da Copa e das Olimpiadas is sponsoring a seminar that will treat the Maracanã in all of its symbolic, historical, political and cultural complexity. The seminar will begin at 2pm in the auditorium of the the Associação Brasileira de Imprensa, on Rua Araujo Porto Alegre, 71. More details can be found on the Comite`s site: www.comitepopularrio.wordpress.com

20 February 2013

Counterpoint: Cidade Maravilhosa


Part of Rio`s charm lies in its decadence, grit and difficulty. If the urban system functioned efficiently or were governed competently or justly, Rio might lose something of its essence. The stark topographical and environmental contrasts are reflected in the social divisions and vice-versa. The classic images of favelas cascading down (sometimes literally) the mountains into the high-rise condos, present us with the essential paradox of Brazilian democrapitalism. The transit deaths and traffic jams are a reflection of a long-term lack of long-term planning, itself a reflection of the Brazilian jeitinho and improvisation. Yet the unmistakable character of the city lies in its unpredictability, the chance encounters on the street that lead to 25 chopps (for R$125), the random vegetable vendor singing an aria in the weekly market, or a completely full beach on a Wednesday afternoon. In the city center, layers of urbanism emit a stink of reality that both stimulates and challenges the intellect. Making sense of Rio is as difficult and enticing as the city itself.

An economist friend of mine recently gave me the following bit of analytic advice: “Never ascribe to malice what can be explained by incompetence.”

This phrase cannot be easily applied to the CBF (Brazilian Football Confederation) but it can be applied to the general organization of the World Cup. There are cost overruns and delays and poorly conceived projects all over the place. The majority of the transportation projects will not be completed, nor should they be, as they were projected without any public input. The general incompetence of sport management regimes in Brazil, including the World Cup Organizing Committee, can partially be explained by the absence of sport management programs in Brazilian universities. Ditto for public administration. Put the two together for the World Cup and you can expect confusion, delays, headaches and a missed match or two - but a wonderfully improvised party.

As happened last year with Ricardo Texeira, there is a movement to get rid of the current 81 year old head of the CBF. As Andrew Jennings has recently shown in great and disturbing detail, Jose Marin was rather cozy with the military dictatorship and is one of the old cronies of Havelange and Texeira. Texeiria is piddling around Florida, immune from prosecution. Havelange is trying to live longer than Oscar Niemeyer, his extended worldly tenure holding back any chance of meaningful change in Brazilian football.  Marin is an octogenarian obfuscator who is holding the reigns for the Havelange clan. Like the Pope Nope, it is time these ancient, angry old men made way so they can spend their last years having their income redistributed through the Bolsa Familia program.

Stay tuned for news about the Maracanã which saw a one day labor strike this week. The panicked governor intervened but the terms have yet to be accepted. Now that the deadline is almost here, there is wide speculation that the stadium will not be ready and that the games scheduled for Rio will be moved elsewhere. This is an excellent time to strike again for better wages and working conditions. This week will also likely see the release of the privatization scheme. One hopes that the investigation underway into possible collusion between IMX and the Rio Government in the elaboration of the economic feasibility study will negate any possibility of this coming to fruition. 

08 February 2013

Democrapitalism


For those accompanying this blog and the ongoing saga of uncreative destruction in Rio de Janeiro there is likely little I can report at this point that will be new or unusual. The horrors of administrative incompetence, corruption, and a generalized lack of concern for public welfare in both the public and private sectors occasionally converge to produce tragedies like the one in Santa Maria, RS two weeks ago. In Rio, we are simply waiting for the next disaster to occur. It is only a matter of time. Will the Sambòdromo collapse? Will one of the overloaded ferries collide with a super-tanker? Will a disgruntled member of the Military Police open fire on an unruly crowd? How many people will the BRT lines kill?

In addition to administrative incompetence and fetid cronyism, a collective lack of indignation, willful ignorance and cruel passivity drive the creaky machinery of Brazil democrapitalism. While the fingers can always be pointed in all directions, it doesn`t hurt to start at the top. Reports that indicate Lula, the soon to be disgraced former president, spent twenty million in public money on hotels in one year. Overspending public money on luxury hotels may not be as bad as having a personal kill list, but the repercussions of presidential attitudes across the cultural bandwidth are undeniable. Lula, Dilma and the PT have repeatedly shown that the old ways are the best, that collusion and corruption bring great rewards and that business as usual is best done between old friends.

This last is a lesson that Sergio Cabral and Eduardo Paes have taken to heart and employed to great personal effect in Rio de Janeiro. The brutal disregard for the public welfare reveals itself in dysfunctional public transportation systems, the militarization and privatization of public space, the criminalization of poverty, the unbridling of capital, the pushing of undesirables to the periphery and the pursuit of public policies that do little to improve the material conditions of those who contribute more than 35% of their salaries to the government. For instance, if you want to stop people peeing in the streets, install public toilets, don`t put people in jail. The ongoing fight for the Maracanã  is but one in a long list of obfuscatory collusions with vested interests that are feeding at the trough of the brothers Grimm.  Why no one raises their voices in the direction of Eike Batista is a mystery to me.

In order to gain the bare minimum of public benefit from public authorities a massive fight has to be waged against the very people that are supposed to have the public good in mind. This requires a strong, institutionalized civil society that is, in theory, supported by the government. However, the political zeitgeist in Brazil is one that privileges the private over the public, the individual over the collective, and the powerful over the weak. The turpitude of the Worker`s Party is partly to blame, but exacerbating the problem are the collective desire for shiny new trinkets and a thought bubble floating above the heads of the middle class that reads “it`s better than it used to be so that`s good enough.”

It could simply be that Brazil has raised expectations and is failing to deliver. I personally think that there is no point in comparing Brazil with other places and that things here will take decades if not generations to shift in significantly positive ways. The World Cup and the Olympics were a good opportunity for that to happen, but the chance has been blown.  Yet the constant search for affirmation from outside begs for comparison at the same time that Brazil, and Rio more than any other place, is chronically self-referential, protectionist and fundamentally conservative.

Rio de Janeiro is Brazil`s self-referential epicenter, never more so than during Carnaval. I used to think that the two week binge was a time when people could exorcise the demons accumulated over the past year while dealing with all of the crap that the public authorities and the city itself heap upon the heads of its citizens. It may have been, in the past, a time of ephemeral transformation, when inversions of all kind became the norm. Now, the party seems like just another opportunity to sell the city to itself and to foreigners while putting on a mask of happiness and openness that hides rapacious consumerism and a singular distain for the very people that make the party possible.

My suggestion for those here enjoying the party: Turn the band of the free Antartica hats around and write your own message. Consider it a form of gorilla marketing. 

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