HUNTING WHITE ELEPHANTS / CAÇANDO ELEFANTES BRANCOS

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30 April 2014

Very Important Blah Blah Blah

Sometime recently, IOC VVIP John Coates called the Rio 2016 preparations the worst ever. Much is being made of this statement but we need to put it in its proper context and to not take the commentary at face value. 

True, Rio 2016 is behind schedule on everything and as I suggested a few months ago should be called Rio Twentysomething. Building for the Olympic Games never happens the same way twice and never in the same place twice, so the demands and issues that Rio 2016 are dealing with are unique and there have apparently been very few inputs from the IOC to help them figure out how to “deliver”. So now, Gilberto Felli is coming to our collective rescue. The organized, demanding European, swooping in to save the skins of the organizing committee. 

Considered in this context Coates´ extremely unhelpful comments are similar to Valcke´s kick up the arse comments of a few years ago that caused such furor in Brazil. This time, the Lord Mayor of Rio has kowtowed saying that the criticisms need to be accepted but that everything will be done properly for the Lords of the Rings. How will this happen? The IOC and international federations are now sending in their technical experts to whip the undisciplined Brazilians into shape for their party. That this is happening only now is an indication of the lack of this “expertise” before. So, knowing full well how Brazil works, why is it only now that the IOC is sending in their special troops to help out only in 2014? In this sense we must take Coates´ blabbing barb as a self-criticism of the IOC´s lack of understanding about how things do or do not work in Brazil and for their incapacity to get things moving fast enough for their tastes. 

The other element of Coates´ commentary to consider is that high ranking  IOC members have made made no comment (sympathetic, antagonistic, or otherwise) about the recent wave of police violence in Rio. There is no secret that the security apparatus of Rio is being restructured for the Games but when this system fails tragically, there are few notes of concern sounded by the Games alarmists. What is at stake here in Coates´commets is not just the realization of Rio 2016 but the preservation of the IOC´s image and that of their sponsors. Does the IOC trumpet the fact that the Rio State Military Police have contracted the Austrian gun maker Glock to be their official 9mm supplier for Olympic security? Hardly. Death by handgun is not an Olympic pillar, though shooting is an Olympic sport. Coates is hedging the IOC´s reputation by focusing the blame on the Brazilians. 

In the frenetic run up to #WC14 and #Rio16 the existential angst of international sports federations is coming to a frothing boil. The narratives of lateness and unpreparedness are always the same, unless they have to do with places like Germany or London or Sydney. Will the unruly subalterns spoil the party with their ineptness and lack of organization? Will the IOC have their stage properly mounted and the places at the banquet table properly set? Frankly, I´m not concerned. 

Of course, Rio 2016 is late, the projects are poorly conceived and almost impossible to execute, but they have been so since the very beginning. The Rio 2016 Bid Book is a farce of a planning document projected by a public relations team to attend to the utopian fantasies of the IOC (and the sport mega-event industrial complex and their partners in Brazilian industry and government). If the IOC had done their due diligence, if they had people to critically evaluate the bid books, Rio wouldn´t be hosting the Olympics (after having finished fifth behind Doha in the technical evaluation). However, in the realpolitik of the IOC,  the overarching meta-narrative of urban transformation and opening new frontiers for sport blinded them to the realities of what it takes to put on an Olympics in a city as troubled, fragile and contested as Rio de Janeiro. Perhaps that would be an appropriate self-criticism for the VVIPs to take up. 

So, yes, Mr. Coates, we get the message loud and clear. Brazil is slow, maybe even lazy, much worse than those retrograde Greeks! If only Athens had been ready with everything on time their national economy would surely be thriving today and the crushing debt imposed by hosting the Games would have been forgiven. Excuse me if I don´t feel sorry for the IOC, but rather for the Cariocas who will be forced to bear the impacts, costs and burdens of the Olympics once Mr. Coates has gone to Tokyo to talk about how well everything has gone. 

23 April 2014

How did you like the play Ms. Lincoln?

The last World Cup host without a functional first division was the United States in 1994. There were second and third divisions, but no first. In Brazil, none of the CBF´s four divisions started without legal disputes, the state tournaments have become a disgrace and the organizational frameworks of Brazilian sport have rarely been less transparent or more chaotic. Last week, the presidency of the CBF passed from the octogenarian Jumpin´ José Marin (@seeadarkness) to the septuagenarian Marco del Nero. Upon assuming the presidency in an uncontested election, del Nero said that there “would be no changes because things are going very well.” SQN (só que não, “not”, for those putting together a #WC14 Brazilian twitter vocabulary).

Fluminense, whose principal sponsor is UniMed, was saved from relegation because their lawyers convinced the CBF´s sports tribunal that a smaller team should be sent down because the CBF (having just received millions for a UniMed sponsorship) hadn´t informed that team about the status of a player that was sent on as substitute in the last fifteen minutes of the last game of the season. The Portuguesa directorship fought a bit, and then capitulated. Last week, a fan filed a law suit to continue the battle for permanence in the first division and as the first round of the second division was into its 15th minute, someone walked legal papers onto the field and the Portuguesa coach took his team to the locker room. The fans were not pleased. This happened in the same stadium where Vasco and Atlético Paranaense organizadas tried to kill each other at the end of last season [ed: thanks to the anonymous comment at the end of this post, the plot is revealed as much more complicated than I describe here and also involves Flamengo and millions deposited in Portuguesa bank accounts. Follow this link to a timeline (in portuguese) of the events]. 

There were also legal battles to determine which teams would play in the 3rd and 4th divisions. The CBF manipulated and massaged the tournaments into the form and format that best serves OGlobo and the sponsors. The season will be cut into bits by the World Cup, players will be sold to Europe, Asia and the Middle East in August, attendances are miserable, the stadiums are privatized and sanitized, the football is terrible, the rich teams close ranks within the CBF, there is no transparency, kids are regularly and ritually abused in the youth systems and the October presidential elections may depend on Neymar´s 4th metatarsal. The state of football in the country of football frustrates and depresses in equal measure.

Brazil continues to struggle with the legacy of the 1964-1985 dictatorship. All dictatorships are necessarily anti-intellectual and the evisceration of public education continues to resonate in the halls of power. It is almost fair to say that the leaders and elites of Brazil were educated not to be critical, progressive thinkers and did not develop the necessary skills to deal effectively with complex problems. They also carry with them a very anti-educational cultural perspective that is reflected in the media, in the public education system and in the knee-jerk violent reactions to public crises (aka, send in the shock troops). This is not to suggest that there are not Brazilian intellectuals but rather that the fetishization of a president with a fourth grade education because he is “of the people” is an indication of the level at which most public discourse occurs.

This week I returned to the Favela do Metrô, 500 meters distant from the Maracanã. When I last wrote about Metrô in 2011, the community was under attack from the city government, supposedly to clear the way for a FIFA parking lot. The city behind its internationally acclaimed (sqn) mayor dissimulated, sowed discontent, bulldozed and left the wreckage behind. The majority of residents were eventually able to move into decent public housing across the tracks, but only after years of delay, a lack of transparency and immensely tiring and emotionally draining fights. Now, returning to the place where I once gave an extension course from the nearby university, there are growing piles of trash and a fetid crackolândia. Most readers will never have visited a crackolândia and I do not recommend it. It is the end of the line dominated by young drug traffickers that have no education and less interest. The burned out shells of humans carry deadened eyes that would reveal the depths of despair if one could bear to look at them. The Brazilian reaction to what I am writing will be:  “You feel sorry for them? Take them home.” Thing is, many of these people had homes before the government destroyed them in the name of progress. Worse, there is no project to turn the area into something with even marginal utility for the World Cup. It is simply destroyed and left to fester.

As the saying goes, if you´re not outraged you´re not paying attention. The World Cup is one of the great collective cultural experiences that we as humans have managed to put together. However, the use of the tournament to consolidate wealth and power at the expense of the cities, countries and people that host it must come to an immediate end. The business model of the World Cup creates notions of distinctiveness and religious fervor at the same time that it thrives in vacuums of responsibility and regimes of exception.

For example, FIFA is parading its trophy around the world as if it is a religious object. Only heads of state and world cup winners are allowed to touch it. Seriously. People buy into this hokum but never ask who the poor sot was that put the trophy on display, or why. The entire World Cup can only come into being because Brazilian elites signed laws giving the shop away to FIFA through the Lei Geral da Copa. FIFA isn´t responsible for stadium construction, yet their demands drive the architectural projects which are heralded as “sustainable”. The cities and states aren´t responsible for the scope and scale of the projects because they have to meet FIFA demands. The federal government can´t intervene in the running of the national football leagues because they would be sanctioned by FIFA. And around we go. There is neither credibility nor accountability, just rentability.

The tensions are palpable in Brazil as the #WC14 rumbles towards us. Buses are burning in the suburbs and in Copacabana. Dozens were killed in Salvador when the police went on strike. The poor, expelled from their homes, see even the churches close their doors to them. The middle classes are being squeezed though rent and daily living price increases. Traffic jams and high taxes are the existential condition in Brazil. Public works that could have brought long-term benefits are fragmenting neighborhoods instead of creating wide-reaching mobility networks. The militarization of cities is happening in concert with the privatization of public spaces. It´s not all the fault of #WC14 but nature does abhor a vacuum.



18 April 2014

Countdown to crazy

The World Cup is approaching like a meteorite that we cannot shoot out of the sky. Everyone is in panic mode and there are palpable tensions in all of the World Cup host cities. No one knows how this tournament is going to work, if the airports will be able to handle the increased volume, if foreigners will be able to buy flights with foreign credit cards, if there are enough seats in the stadiums (because not even FIFA knows which seats it has sold), if the police are going to go on strike.


A secure off-world in the midst of Salvador
This week in Salvador the Bahia state military police went on strike and chaos ensued. More than 40 people in the metropolitan region were killed over 48 hours and there was widespread sacking of shops and grocery stores. This speaks to the precariousness of civility in Brazil. The governor had to call in federal troops to restore order. If after a decade of economic growth and full employment the only thing standing between generalized homicide and mad dashes for food and consumer goods is the military police, then the social project of Brazil is on the brink of collapse. But have you seen Salvador´s shiny new World Cup stadium?

The more that I think and research the 2014 World Cup, the less important the stadiums become. I have come to think of them as bois de piranha. A boi de piranha is a weak cow that is sent across a piranha-infested river ahead of the heard. The piranhas are distracted from the main course by devouring the sacrifice and the heard passes easily. The World Cup stadia account for less than 30% of World Cup spending. The other projects, most of them incomplete, are what are called “legacy” projects.

The Boi de Piranha in Recife

The Recife stadium project is a good example of this. Built more than 20 kilometers outside of the city center in the suburban city of São Lourenço da Mata (forest), the so-called Itaipava Pernambuco Arena is the leading edge of a multi-billion dollar real-estate vector called Cidade da Copa. The government has invested more than R$2 billion in transportation lines to get between the city center and the Cidade da Copa and the stadium itself carries a price tag of R$529,5 million. The publicly financed stadium has been privatized. The Cidade da Copa reproduces the same kind of spatial and social fragmentation that defined the current wave of Brazilian urbanism, one in which upper-middle and upper class residents live in closed condominiums in car-dependent landscapes. The transportation lines are not for the people that will live in the Cidade da Copa but for the lower-class service sector employees that will work as cleaning ladies, janitors, gardeners and security guards.


Back in Rio governor Cabal Cabral resigned his post so that his second in command could take the reigns and increase his chances of election as an incumbent. The federal military´s occupation of Maré has captured the attention of the international media at the same time that the wheels appear to be coming off the UPP model in some key areas such as Rocinha and the Complexo do Alemão. In places without UPP, the same model of counter-insurgency incursion into favelas continues. In the far wild west of Rio a 7-year old was hit in the leg by a PM bullet and a resident killed. Revolted residents attacked a BRT station and burned a bus in protest. The more we are told that things have changed the more they stay the same.



While I agree with my colleague Brian Mier that there have been significant gains in the overall well being of Brazilian society over the last twelve years, the World Cup may be tearing asunder the last remaining shreds of the Brazilian social contract. The recent events in Salvador are an indication of this. The very idea of the Cidade da Copa is further evidence that Brazilian elites are using the World Cup as a mechanism to distance themselves financially, socially and physically from the people and places that make them rich. The ongoing repression, exclusion and expulsion of the poor in Rio de Janeiro, while historically consistent, is evidence that the World Cup is being used to re-configure urban space to ensure the smooth exercise and accumulation of power.

01 April 2014

Everything is going great



The violence that permeates daily life in Brazil is becoming more visible as if the stresses of preparing for the World Cup are making people, infrastructure and institutions crack. In the past few weeks we have had a series of horrors that I refuse to ignore. A woman (Cláudia Ferreira) was shot in the chest while going to get bread for her four kids. The police that shot her, who between them were responsible for scores of deaths, threw her into the back of their SUV and as they drove away the door opened and she was dragged hundreds of meters down the street in front of her friends and neighbors. There may have been more scandal about O Bobo´s terrible coverage of the incident than the incident itself. 

In another act of daily horror a BRT Transoeste feeder bus came too fast around a corner, lost control, jumped the road divider and killed three children and woman that were waiting to cross. The lack of urban planning and the general insanity of the bus system are responsible for this daily violence that people have to face in Rio. These people died because there are no over or underpasses and there had been no intervention by public authorities to reduce the public risk on what locals called “the corner of death” . When the Brazilian media reports on these accidents they are mostly interested in how long it takes for the traffic to start flowing again. 

Today is the anniversary of the 1964 CIA-backed Military Coup. The violence is getting to the point where I have heard numerous people declare that the only way “to bring order back” to society is to have a dictatorship. It would seem that many are getting their wish as the expansion of military counter-insurgencies continues in Rio.  The saudade for the military dictatorship always comes from the very people who benefitted from it the last time around and who are also benefitting the most from Brazil´s spiraling ascension (or decline) into a well-behaved global economic player. There are, of course, millions and millions and millions of Brazilians that have fought long and hard to bring about democratic conditions and the rule of law, but they are fighting an uphill battle against a rising tide of neo-liberalism. This rising tide has all of the delightful aromas and flavors of Rio´s barely functioning sewage system where when we spoon through the fetid stew we find that there are pervasive notions about the rights of individuals that would be more appropriate under the Talban than the PT. 

Haven´t heard about this one? A study by IPEA showed that 65.1% of Brazilian respondents, men and women, agreed partially or in full that women who dressed provocatively “were asking to be raped.” An anti-rape campaign emerged with the hashtag “I don´t deserve to be raped.” This is a necessary, logical and correct response. However, in a machista, violent, and conservative society the reaction was not long in coming: death threats, rape threats and intimidation forced the organizers of the campaign off social media sites. This was the same week in which reports came out about the daily sexual violence that women experience on overcrowded buses and trains in Brazilian cities. To confirm the general acceptance of this in Brazil, advertisements on the metro are promoting a drink called SYN whose mascot is an alien (read: gringo) that “abducts” Rio´s provocatively dressed, tipsy, black and mulata women. The message: rape away boys, most people think it´s ok. 

The World Cup would be a welcome distraction from the daily violence except that yet another worker has died in São Paulo and work on the stadium has again stopped (gasp!). There will probably be a few more deaths as the time pressures grow. No one is to blame as the World Cup functions like an extensive shell game of interests that leaves vacuums of responsibility, exposing the least protected to the greatest risk. Of course, the “real risk” is to the World Cup which is why the government puts on massive security performances to show foreigners that they are getting tough on crime and that critical infrastructures will be protected. The occupation of Maré this week was nothing more than that. The media in Brazil crowed about how the military were able to occupy the whole complex in 15 minutes without firing a shot. Never mind the year´s long notice that the occupation was going to happen. This triumphalist discourse ignores the fact that hundreds of thousands of shots have been fired in and at Maré over the years and that last year during the Confederations Cup, this same “pacifying” force massacred eleven people (some with bayonets). So while the World Cup will have little or no impact on Brazil´s economy (according to Moody´s), in a country where black kids are three times as likely to be shot as all other groups, it is extremely disturbing that we are spending R$1.9 billion on security measures that will increase the likelihood of their deaths. 

Brazil has come a long way since the end of the dictatorship in 1985, but there are many generations of work to be done to make this a more just and democratic society. Facing the legacy of the dictatorship on its 50th anniversary has to be more than just remembering how bad things were. The national leadership has only taken tentative steps towards truth commissions and is repeating some of the same tactics with their pursuit of draconian laws against social movements and protests during mega-events (including new “terrorist” laws). Part of the reason for the continuity of ideologies between the dictatorship and neo-liberal democracy is that the economic and political agents that dictate public policy in Brazil accumulated their wealth and power under the military regime. Granted, the PT has to work within the given structure but they don´t seem keen to change things as long as they can keep their hands on the tiller and in the till. With the World Cup hurtling at us like an unavoidable meteor it is important to remember that “the political use of football by dictatorships, military regimes and authoritarian governments dos not neutralize the spaces and practice of football for acts of resistance.


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