HUNTING WHITE ELEPHANTS / CAÇANDO ELEFANTES BRANCOS

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28 February 2014

Shocking Normalcy

I wish that I were so creative as to make up the stories unfolding in Rio and Brazil for the World Cup. I was criticized a couple of weeks ago for failing to see the humor in the Visa advertisements that featured Imperial Stormtroopers on the beach with the slogan “Everyone is welcome at the World Cup”. Two days ago, OBobo, South America´s biggest waste of cellulose and the paper of record for Rio´s Zona Sul, pinched off this gem above the fold. This is the new uniform of Rio´s Mega-event Shock brigade. There were, as often happens in USAmerican papers when invading Oil/Banana Republics, fawning descriptions of the weaponry, training and mandate of the stormtroopers. It would be comical if it weren´t so terrifying. Please, if you are going to the World Cup, do not wear black, don´t bring anything to cover your head and bring your running shoes. As long as you consume in the right way, in the right places, and with Visa, everything will be just fine.

Speaking of consumption, there was a national furor this week about the “poor taste” that Adidas demonstrated in producing t-shirts for the USAmericans that highlighted the desire of foreigners to ravage Brazilian women. Tudo bem, agreed, the t-shirts were horrendous and heads should be rolling at Adidas (which it should be remembered has been FIFA´s principal partner since the 1980s). But if we look at the way that Brazilians represent Brazilian women to themselves and to others, it would appear that Adidas was only following the disgusting lead of classic machistas like OBobo´s Ancelmo Gois. In his daily column, Gois always publishes, every day, hundreds of days per year, photos of women that he finds attractive. His comments might as well be accompanied by an icon of a drooling mouth. One slobber for pretty, three slobbers for gostosa.  Every year this middle aged white man has a competition to see who will be the “Mulata do Gois” . Beyond the idea of a black woman as a sexualized possession of those with more power and privilege, the general sterotypes propagated by Gois, OBobo, and Carioca society in general towards women make it completely normal for a multi-national corporation to market the place of Rio and the people of Brazil as objects of consumption. If Brazilians are shocked by the marketing of the “natural beauty” of Brazil to foreigners, they should take a step back and consider how they represent themselves to themselves (with a tip of the hat to Andrew Downie).

The Utopia of Rio in 2014
As if to confirm my infinite posts about how Rio is a city that needs a smart system to watch it fall apart, the heavy hand of the mayor has again fallen on the resident population. The genie of urban planning has been let out of the bottle yet again, reorganizing all of the vehicular traffic in downtown while eliminating second and third options at the time of greatest road closures because of Carnaval. The mayor is trying to make things so bad in Rio that if and when any of his hare-brained transportation projects get done, they will seem like improvements on  the hideous conditions the projects themselves have imposed.


Put this on repeat: Rio does not have the conditions to host its own population, much less mega-events. When urban systems are stressed out, they break. When one breaks, others are compromised. The metro broke yesterday. There was a two hour traffic jam on the bridge. The BRT Transoeste is a disaster. A broken sewage line in Copacabana closed traffic. Murders, thefts and petty crime are on the rise. Is it any wonder that the federal government is investing R$2 billion in the World Cup security apparatus? The closer we get to the Cup the more local populations will be treated as insurgents / rebels. Rio de Janeiro might be turning into a Death Star that holds its own people in tortured poses while it reconfigures urban space to maximize the flow of capital into private hands. 

18 February 2014

Curmudgeonly feats of observation

For the first time in a long time, I sat down to watch some football on a Sunday afternoon, Vasco x Flamengo. I have gradually distanced myself from both Vasco and football after the death of a youth footballer at a Vasco training ground in 2012 and from Brazilian football in particular because it is so irresolutely corrupt that it´s hard to enjoy. There is also the really low quality of the games, meaningless competitions and insanely high ticket prices to go to stadiums where the threat of police violence is on a par with the lack of institutional concern for the paying fan. Watching games on tv forces one to listen to the kind of lowest common denominator commentary that actively kills brain cells and corrodes whatever capacity for tactical analysis that I once had. In short, the more I have come to know about and experience Brazilian football the less I care. This is a profoundly difficult existential condition and one that I thought I could rectify on a Sunday afternoon on the couch, watching one of the world´s famous clássicos.

The game was at the Xaracanã and was played at a breakneck pace. The Brazilian championship used to be much slower, but now the ball pings around the midfield randomly until someone gets control for long enough to get hacked down. There is no space left on Brazilian football pitches. In this latest deform the Maracanã playing area was reduced by 16%. Once of monumental proportions, the Maracanã´s pitch would only be the 8th biggest pitch in England. Not incidentally, the field size reduction was mirrored by a 16% capacity reduction (89,000 to 76,525). Not that it matters: there were only 13,000 paying customers in a metropolitan area of 13 million on a Sunday afternoon. Those present were treated to a very emotional game that had a very little technical or tactical quality, but generated some hugely troubling moments during and after.

In the first half, Vasco´s octogenarian signing Douglas curled a lovely free kick that bounced off the underside of the bar and into the goal and then out again. The linesman, trained and paid to stand on the line to see that ball enter, didn´t see it and the goal wasn´t given. Fine, people make mistakes, the game continues. A bit later, Vasco scores, one nil. A few minutes after, Flamengo´s Elano curls a lovely free kick that could have entered the goal or not, but this time the goal was given by the linesman. One one at half time. This was not the correct score, but whatever, these things happen in football. The major problem was the violence with which the Vasco players took up the issue with the six man referee crew. There was so much pushing and shoving and yelling and real, vibrant anger that the Military Police rushed in to protect the refs. This was no surprise to anyone. Yelling and screaming and threatening are normal ways of dealing with things one does not like. Of course it is not just Vasco that does this, but it should be hugely embarrassing behavior for professional athletes to engage in. But in a country where UFC / MMA is the fastest growing sport, what does one expect?

The day after the non-event, in a tournament that means almost nothing, the referee (who teaches physical education in the public school system) is receiving death threats, has had his children´s names and photos published on fayce, his address revealed and is having his second job limited. The violence of Brazilian society appears to be growing every day and is taking its worst toll on the most vulnerable people. This referee can be made fun of, can be put into a lesser division, can have his eyesight examined, but death threats? He´s a working class public school teacher, not a mensalero!  If Vasco hadn´t lost the game through their own lack of tactical nous would there have been as much recrimination from the supposed Vasco fans? Is a person´s life and well-being really worth points in the Campeonato Carioca? The CBF hasn´t offered to keep the goal line technology installed for the Confederations Cup and FIFA doesn´t have much interest in putting chips in footballs, so the threats to human life for not seeing what should have been seen will continue.

Today, February 18, may be a turning point in Brazilian history. We will find out if the Curitiba World Cup stadium has the chance of being ready (my guess is that the hassle of reorganization will overcome construction delays). We will also likely find out the extent of the damage of the fire at the Cuiabá stadium. The former we can attribute to a lack of managerial capacity on the part of Atlético Paranaense. The latter story is more sinister as it may be the case that the construction firm, the World Cup secretariat of Matto Grosso state and a few other officials, knew of but did not publish a report that a fire set by a disgruntled employee in October had caused structural damage to one of the stands. The official report, obtained by Brian Winter of Reuters last week, claims that there was extensive structural damage to the supporting pillars.  The contractor and government officials deny this. One can imagine the scenario: big fire, massive damage, tight deadline. The organizers don´t want to admit that the damage is more than they could repair and even though the lives of 10,000 people in the stands might be at risk, the risk of not having the Cup would be even greater, so let´s just pretend that report doesn´t exist. This is the kind of violence that eats at the core of Brazilian society. If it is indeed true that this report was buried so that capitalist expediency could again take precedence over human life, it is then fair to assume that this is not an isolated incident in Brazil´s World Cup preparations.


12 February 2014

The Cup of Cups

The Brazilian executive branch has launched an ad campaign to convince Brazilians that this will be the Best World Cup ever. Using the hashtag #copadascopas, the attempt to put a positive spin on negative news, exorbitant spending and unfinished projects is the latest sign of the creaking Brazilian governmental apparatus. The new marketing campaign replaced “Patria das Chuteiras” (poorly translated as Country of Football Boots), which carried with it a cultural memory of the use of football to prop up the military dictatorship during the 1970 World Cup. Most of the marketing campaigns for the 2014 World Cup are in poor taste. The Visa commercials that are spreading across the country like foot fungus are particularly terrible. These are taking up ad space at bus stops, public transportation and other public spaces.

Mr. Burns= Blatter or Marin?
The ad says “todos são bem-vindos na Copa” – everyone is welcome a the World Cup. The Simpsons ad is disturbing for a number of reasons. There are no women in the lineup. The “workers” are all in radioactive suits with the nuclear plant steaming away in the background, while Mr. Burns is in his suit and tie. Here, we could surmise that Mr. Burns is CBF president Marin and that the workers are the LOC employees protected from the poisonous effects of the work they are carrying off? Or we could assume that Brazilian cities are so toxic, that only tough working class men in protective suits ( or those who have the wealth for quick escapes) can survive? Or it could mean that to come to the World Cup, middle class visitors should have their gas masks ready to confront the other group presented on the Visa commercials.

This second ad is as horrifying as it is ill considered. It is doubtful that anyone using this kind of propaganda could not know what the word “stormtrooper” means in the context of sports mega-events and the control of urban space. This is especially true given the events of the Copa das Manifestações. Stormtroopers are everywhere in Brazilian cities these days. Of course, public security is a
Drones and Shock troops!
necessary component of these events but putting an ad like this all over Brazilian World Cup host cities is basically saying to the Brazilian public that they should prepare themselves for the arrival of Imperial Forces who will act with extreme prejudice against "rebels". 


This is all happening in a context where the federal senate is debating a bill that would create terrorism as a crime in Brazil, criminalize protesters and create jail terms of up to thirty years, and in which the media cannot figure out the connections between vigilante justice, military police brutality and persecution of poor and black kids as a systemic element of Brazilian society. When the Corinthians fans lit a flare that killed a young fan in Bolivia two years back, the media was clamoring that the Bolivians had no right to hold these guys in jail because it had been an accident. When a cameraman was killed in Rio this week with a similar flare (supposedly not a bomb launched by the police), there was no investigation into the conditions of his labor (where he was sent out alone and unprotected into a violent protest) but rather a national man hunt to find the person who supposedly lit the flare. The flares, of course, are readily available to anyone who wants to buy them. In short, the stormtroopers are welcome, those who are prepared to survive in a toxic environment are welcome, their bosses can circulate unimpeded in the city and if you don’t agree to the terms set by Visa, stay at home or suffer the consequences. 

05 February 2014

Tired Resignation

It should be clear by now that Rio de Janeiro does not have the capacity to host its own population, much less a never ending series of mega-events. During a week of record heat there have been widespread power outages, water cuts, transportation breakdowns and absurd scenes of violence. All this while Lord Mayor Paes is off in South Africa taking over the the C40 mayors´ conference from Billionaire Bloomberg. The list of insanities in Rio these past weeks has combined with the incredible heat to make me even more irritable than usual when talking about the city. But let´s go by parts.

First, the city has been made hotter and hotter by its horrible architecture, dedication to the car and lack of connectivity with the water. The most recent horror in the infinite list of heat creating buildings is by the recently deceased Oscar Niemeyer. The picture says almost all you need to know about this new monstrosity at the Fundação Getulio Vargas on the Praia de Botafogo. A big black glass box reflects
Hotter than Hades, uglier than sin. 
afternoon sun onto a treeless esplanade of white concrete. The red sculpture out in front is a reminder that Niemeyer was an expert at creating heat islands unfit for human circulation. Even if it were humanly possible to deal with the space, the kind folk at FGV have made sure that no one can enter it by erecting fencing on the access routes and posting private security 24/7. This kind of building and urban design is so common in Rio as to go unnoticed most of the time – but then no one asks why we have power outages after we cut down all the trees and cram ourselves into air-conditioned boxes that cut off external air circulation. I know ol´ Oscar was a decent enough fellow, but he has really made life a living hell for generations of Brazilians. With one of the most iconic views in the world, he opted for a building with no windows! The heat index in some parts of Rio was 57 celsius yesterday.

Second, violence, violence, violence. Brazilians love them some violence. MMA is one of the most popular sports and much like American Football can be considered a cultural representation of how the country functions. Remember when Eduardo Paes had his bodyguards hold back a disgruntled citizen so he could punch him in the face? This is an interpersonal reflection of the obsession with MMA and the normal way that people in Rio try to resolve their anger. Get on a city bus and see what I mean.

Another example? On one of the wealthiest streets in Flamengo there has been increasing insecurity due to a number of robberies committed by young kids. Part of this insecurity comes from the abandonment of the Edificio Hilton Santos which was previously occupied by live people but has been turned into yet another festering element of Eike Batista´s crumbling empire. The area in front of the building is deserted, and poorly lit and overgrown, making it an ideal place to steal cell phones and wallets. Of course, the police are never anywhere to be seen, busy as they are sitting in their cars with the engines running to escape the heat. So a group of middle class vigilantes decided to take matters into their own hands. They chased down a young black kid, stripped him naked, cut his ear with a knife and locked him to a light post with a bicycle lock – around his neck.  The case has been alternatively celebrated or decried in government and media. Just what Rio needs are gangs of upper-middle class men acting as judge and jury over the lives of poor black kids. Oh wait, that basically describes the justice system anyway.

More violence? How about the invasion of a hospital by armed gunmen who robbed patients in their beds! How about the invasion of the Morro do Juramento by the Rio Military Police that left 6 “suspects” dead. The motive was payback for shots fired against the UPP units in the Complexo de Alemão. The Guarda Municipal of Rio continue to beat up street vendors in the city center in preparation for the World Cup.Want more? How about the video showing police beating up a fan in the bathroom of a stadium. Or the 100 Corinthians fans that cut through the fencing around the team´s training site and invaded practice, throttling several of the players. There are widespread reports of inhumane conditions for Haitian workers at the Manaus World Cup stadium. Yesterday there was yet another death on Rio´s BRT Transoeste line.

Add to this the power outages and water shortages all over Rio de Janeiro and one wonders what the city´s top executive is being lauded for in South Africa this week.



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