So it's been a year - sue me
Or cut my paycheck. See if I care
Being the Ongoing Tales, Triumphs, Struggles (mostly struggles) and Occasional Adventures of Freelance Foreign Correspondent Shawn Gerald Blore, based in Rio de Janeiro
Shawn on Harpers on Brasilia
There’s an article in the Jan 08 Harpers on the Brasilia at 50 (subscription required http://harpers.org/archive/2008/01/0081879). Benjamin Moser is the author. He’s jumping the gun a bit on the celebration, in that the city wasn’t unveiled until 1960, but ground had been broken so I guess it’s fair. By a curious coincidence a friend of mine, a Swedish journalist, has recently been commissioned to write a book on Brasilia. I sent him a link, mostly as a warning of things to avoid. I hope he gets the point.
Reading the article, the question that looms largest is not, what happened to the Capital of Hope, but rather, where did they find this guy, and why did they choose him to write the article? There are clues: he’s writing a biography of Brazilian novelist Clarice Lispector. Lispector once wrote an essay on Brasilia. Ipso facto, Moser knows something of Brasilia. I was once asked to travel to Sierra Leone and write on child soldiers on much sillier grounds, so what the hell.
And indeed, he starts off with exactly the correct premise: Brasilia is 50. Two generations have grown up there, living breathing parts of a great tribute to political ego, national aspiration and uber-rational architectural modernism. What are they like (or better, how fucked up are they)?
It’s something I’ve wanted to get my little claws into for a while, and so when tidbits come along, I save them up, in clipping folders or misplaced computer files.
Example: In a land of samba, choro, pagode, hip hop, brega and funk, Brasilia kids, alone in all Brazil, crave heavy metal. Not “teenage classic rock” as Moser says. Hard core crash and burn metal. Is it the lack of street life, and consequent social dominance of the shopping mall? The alienating need for automotive transport? That’s my working theory, as yet untested. For teenagers, Brasilia is eerily like growing up in an American suburb. How curious they chose the same form of musical rebellion.
Example: A few years back, some university kids from upper class families pulled an Indian from a bus shelter, doused him with gasoline, and set him on fire. Their reason? They thought he was a vagrant (as if that would explain it). While Brazil in general is a violent place, that kind of irrational mayhem is special only to the capital of Cartesian rationality.
Dunno. It would have been interesting to talk to some of these kids – warped by the world’s most rational upbringing – to maybe find out. Alas, Moser is the least intrepid of reporters. He has some introductions “to people who matter” – presumably not miscreants and metal heads – and when those run dry he just kind of stews. Going out and meeting people without an introduction seems out of the question for Moser, never mind that it’s one of the glories of being a reporter in Brazil that Brazilians will divulge their life histories and intimate secrets to perfect strangers at the drop of a flip flop.
Nor does he seem to know much about architecture. The building’s designed by Brasilia’s architect Oscar Niemeyer he dismisses as “like something Kim Il Sung might have commissioned after a dalliance with Scientology”, observing that each “has some gaudy gimmick tacked to its façade.” Now I have my issues with Niemeyer, as does anyone who’s observed or experienced his buildings. But to dismiss him as one of those gimcrack modernists who endlessly replicate the same box then decorate it with some fancy bauble is to be guilty of simply not looking very closely.
Moser complains too of Brasilia’s scale, and posits its connection to Niemeyer’s supposed hero worship of the dictator and the Strong Man. He may have a point about the city’s scale, but he’s blaming the wrong man. Niemeyer just designed the buildings. The master planner, the uber mind who determined Single Use Zoning and slashed the intersecting Monumental Axes across the virgin landscape, was a meek and mild urban planner named Lucio Costa. But though single-handedly responsible for creating the vast and alienating scale that Moser so decries, Costa, poor man, rates nary a mention. Perhaps Moser could dig up no quotes by Costa speaking favourably of Castro or Stalin.
Summarizing then, Moser’s not much of a reporter, while his attempts at architectural criticism mostly show his own lack of understanding of architecture. What’s left? Fortunately, quite a lot.
Moser seems most at home in the world of books and of the mind, and he does an admirable job tracing the development of the idea of Brasilia, and showing the meaning of this new capital for Brazilians and Brazilian society - the desire to start afresh, forget the injustices of the past, cost what it may in freshly minted grievance. Moser does an equally exemplary job showing how this Fresh New Start was but one of many such, endlessly repeating, doomed by the very manner of its implementation to reinforce all the bad old habits of the ancien regime.
There are some quibbles to be made here as well. Located just down the street from where I live in Rio, the central aisle of the Positivist Church of Brazil has pretty much the same orientation as every other building on its block – due north – which means it’s pointing more at St. John’s, Newfoundland that Notre Dame de Paris, but whatever.
As Moser accurately points out, Paris was the lodestone for all Brazilian intellectuals, architects and urban planners prominent among them. Costa actually tired to tried to camouflage Brasilia’s Corbusian inspiration, claiming that the two intersecting lines came to him as if in a vision (The quote will follow, if I get around to looking it up). Verbiage aside, the plan was pure and vintage Corbu, with only the slight modification of a curving north-south axis (the airplane wing) to set Costa’s design apart from Corbu’s perfect cross.
Curious that sometime after Brasilia was completed, the fixation on France shifted, not to anything native, Deus me livre, but to the next great source of civilisation: the United States (and more specifically, Miami). The apogee of this new desire, curiously also planned by Lucio Costa, is the Rio de Janeiro neighbourhood of Barra de Tijuca, with broad sidewalk-less streets, countless 4x4s, and gated air-conditioned malls named America, New York, and Downtown.
Barra too was supposed to be a new start. Building Barra was supposed to be a chance to eliminate all that had gone wrong in Rio, starting with favelas. True to form and tradition, no one gave the slightest thought to where the poor and working class would live. Alas for Brazil and for Barra, out of mind is not out of sight.
In other places, the latest urban planning theories try to integrate the poor and working class into a neighbourhood’s fabric, with modestly priced housing salted carefully in amongst the pricier bits of real estate. These are called ‘mixed neighbourhoods.’ 20% is considered to be the magic number. Kept to this proportion, the poor learn from their social betters (and attend their public schools), while the middle class feel both a smug sense of noblesse oblige and the frisson of funky that comes having real live workers (look, mom, a real live butcher) in their midst.
None of this was ever even considered in the next New Start called Barra. The poor were still needed in the neighbourhood – who else would work as maids and doormen, staff the fast food outlets and shops in the mall? But their homes would have to be elsewhere, though where that elsewhere was never specified, except in the negative. A series of wide lagoons were dug or deepened to surround the fresh new bastion of the future like a moat. Wherever the workers would live, it wouldn’t be here.
And so on the waste land just beyond the lagoons, the poor settled once again on the margins of the future. One of these poor communities has recently become modestly famous in the outside world, the subject of a Oscar-nominated feature film.It’s name? Cidade de Deus, the City of God.
Just flew back from the Amazon, and boy are my arms tired. Ba-dum-bah. Actually, it’s my bank account that’s feeling weary. Everything in the Amazon is such a long way from everywhere, doing any kind of story there involves ridiculous amounts of time and money, most of it for travel.
For freelancers, travel presents a perilous allure. No fancy expense accounts for us, at least not most of the time. So if you’re going to go tramp about out there in the field, you have to make it pay. Sensible enough. But there’s a catch. How do you know what’s out there, and more importantly, how do you sell what’s out there, before you’ve been out there?
There are two routes out of this dilemma: the pre-sell and the flyer. We’ll take the flyer first, in Part I, and get to the pre-sale in the next post.
Essentially, with the flyer, you just go and hope. You’ve done your homework. You know there’s something good out there – an issue that you think needs tackling, a situation you’re sure will yield good material – but you haven’t got enough information to turn it into a compelling narrative, with characters and tension and violence – something you can sell to an editor. But you will.
For me, southern Para is such an area. For those not up on their Amazon geography, the Amazon rainforest is divvied up among a number of Brazilian states (plus about 6 other countries, but for the moment they don’t count). Each of the states has a slightly different history, and different settlement patterns, and all this affects what happens to the forest in each state.
Para state, which encompasses the mouth of the Amazon river, is a vast and lightly governed no man’s land, where ranchers claim millions of acres for their own on the flimsiest of pretexts, where slave labour is used to clear the forest and sawmills operate in flagrant defiance of the law. A place of epic stories, in short.
So I had a general destination, and I had a news peg – Brazil’s new forest management law. I did not have a specific destination and a specific situation, but 2 out of 3 was good enough, at least this time.
I teamed up with a colleague to cut expenses and we flew from Rio to Belém (Cost of the flight, about US$300). I checked in with my contacts there – a crazy wire service photog, the PR guy at Ibama, the federal environmental agency, one of the state prosecutors trying to bring some order to the chaos. Two days worth of chatting in all, but out of this came a specific target – one that illustrated all the things I wanted to cover in the Amazon – violence, death, environmental rape, and endless government corruption.
We rented a truck (US$60 per day) and set out for our story. A week later, we had it – a lovely, dramatic scam-filled story illustrating everything wrong with all the new Brazilian government approaches to conserving the rainforest. Bad news for the forest actually, but a great story. Call it the Great Amazonian Lumber Scam. I’m going to leave out the details until I get this published, but suffice it say, though we had to flee town at sunset because my colleague had flipped out and begun screaming accusations at a local rancher/politician who also happened to control the local police department (I’ll do post on this later, I think, called Choosing your Travel Companions), I had everything I needed for a great story.
I just have to sell it. To that point, I had ponied up the plane fare (say $300), ½ the truck rental (say $400), hotels ($300), plus booze, food and incidentals ($500). Say a total of around $1500, plus I still had to pay for the flight home. So I have to sell it in a way that makes up for the capital outlay.
A good glossy magazine would be the best option; newspapers pay so little that even selling the piece to three or four of them would only just cover my expenses. The best scenario would be sale to a high paying glossy, followed by re-sales to various papers.
Of course, if I’ve gambled wrong and no one cares about this story, I’m out the expenses and the 2 weeks in the field it took to dig this info up. That’s the danger of the Flyer. Get it right, you get material no one has. Get it wrong too often, and you go broke.
I’ll keep you posted on the fate of the Great Amazonian Lumber Scam as it progresses. When the story appears, I’ll link to it here, and keep track of sales as I go on. We’ll have a record here of whether this flyer paid off.
Next up, Part II: The Pre-sell.
Here is Rio I recently bought a house, and have discovered as all homeowners have throughout recorded history, owning a home is mostly a matter of buying things and fixing things. According to my older home-owning brothers, this is not a process that never ends, entropy of course being ceaseless. But engaging in the traditional home-owning duties presents particular challenges in Brazil.
Brasil is not a land of do-it-yourselfers. It’s another of the perverse legacies of slavery. In the Iberian tradition there was no premium put on personal competence, and no Protestant valuation of honest labour with one’s own hands. On the contrary, the work of mere mechanicals was seen as degrading, as beneath the dignity of a fidalgo. And all this was back in Portugal.
In Brazil, according to Boxer and Roberto Mattos and others who’ve written on the colonial Brazil, even competent Portuguese craftsman – blacksmiths, brickmakers, carpenters – would within a year or so of their arrival on these shores have bought a couple of slaves and ceased all work with their hands.
In Para, where Africans were unavailable, the settlers resorted to long expeditions up the Amazon to capture and enslave native Indians. The Jesuits, who were attempting to convert and settle the Indians, complained about the raids on their missions, but the colonists responded in genuine bafflement that they simply had no alternative. The Jesuit fathers reply that they could always do the work themselves made them no friends. Indeed, the outraged letters of protest back to Lisbon at this outrageous suggestion contributed directly to the expulsion of the Society of Jesus from all Brazil in the late 1700s by the Marques de Pombal.
Slavery was abolished here in 1888, but thanks to a vast underclass labour remains so cheap, and the subtle social injunction against manual labour so strong, that few men in the mostly white Brazilian middle class know one end of a socket wrench from another. Most don’t even own a decent set of tools.
Things are different where I come from of course, where the ancestral ideal is Jefferson’s hardy yeoman farmer, capable of growing grain, brewing beer, splitting rails and crafting solid lasting furniture, all from his own lands, all with his own hands. On my Canadian side the ancestral archetype is actually the protestant Scots farmer, too damn cheap to hire someone when he could just as well fix it himself; either way, knowing your way around a tool set is highly valorized.
I’m not a complete captive of my upbringing. I will hire others to do work I could do, if it saves me time I could put to use on my writing. But that too presents challenges in Brazil.
For example, upon moving out of my apartment, I was required by my lease to have the place repainted. Fine. It’s a two-bedroom apartment, 1000 square feet, and a friend of a wife’s who lives in our local favela put me in touch with his brother-in-law who said he could do the job for R$700 (US$315), paint and supplies included. Considering the paint costs about R$250/US$110, I thought this a pretty good deal. The painter had a partner. I reckoned it would take the two of them about 2 and a half days to three days to do the whole place ( by which their take per day would be about R$85 (US$38) or about US$4.75 an hour). Not bad by Brazilian standards.
It took them a week. Two guys. Two bedrooms. One week. What did they do with the time? I have no idea. I had reckoned on normal Protestant capitalist thinking to spur them along. It’s not like I was paying them per day or hour. The faster they worked, the more they got paid for their time. But that is not how Brazilians think.
The patron wants this done. He doesn’t pay us much. Fine. We won’t hurry. (Eventually I had to resort to calling and yelling at them to speed things up.) And we won’t do a good job. I arrived to inspect the finished product, I discovered they hadn’t painted the outside of the front door. (you said inside). They hadn’t done the window frames (you said walls) and while they had painted the outsides of the doors of the bedroom closets, they hadn’t bothered with the inside (you said paint the inside of the apartment. The closet doors aren’t inside).
Two guys. Seven days. Half the stuff left unpainted. What had they done with the time? When I shared this story, I discovered countless others had painter stories. My landlady says when she hires painters, she personally supervises most of the process and , and has them do it over until she gets the result she wants. A Dutch friend of mine hired the son of a acquaintance to paint her living room. He took weeks. She finally told him do it by the end of the week, or I’ll do it myself. He laughed at her. How would she paint. That was manual labour. She couldn’t possibly know how. He showed up a week later to pretend to work again, only to find she had carried out her threat. Gringos can do work.
This bizarre attitude to work I also put down to slavery. In colonial times, the attitude was, yes, you own us, you can force us to work. But there’s no advantage to us to work fast, and there’s no benefit if we work well. So we won’t. Not unless you watch us. And force us.
The inefficiency of this system was one of the reasons slavery came to an end. Before he went on to design Central Park, Frederick Law Olmsted was a journalist, and one of his more interesting commissions was to go and report on the South and the “peculiar institution” of slavery. His reports were lengthy and wide-ranging, but one of the most interesting passages he compares the cost of a paid-wage day labourer in New York with that of a hired out slave labourer in the South. The day labourer cost about 1/3 less, and did a better job. Just one of the reasons the South lost out to the North.
Alas in Brazil, the attitudes toward work have lived on long past abolition. The patron doesn’t pay much, but he can’t make us work hard, or well.
When I moved into my new house I came face to face with the previous owner’s penchant for scuffed white walls and fluorescent lights. The lights I could change. The walls? I could again hire painters. The cost would be about the same. But then I’d have two guys hanging out in my house for a week, pretending to do work.
I did it myself. Took me day and a half, working alone. Considering what I can make in a day, it might have made better sense economically to hire the painters. But I actually like painting. And I did a better job.
While I painted, I discovered other things that needed doing. Cracks in the cement patio. Light fixtures not working. Dry wall peeling from water infiltration. These two, I would have to fix. So I stopped in at a local hardware store to pick up some plaster and a bag of sand and a couple of kilos of cement.
The owner and I chatted a bit first. He admired my motorbike and commented on my accent. I gave the customary compliments to Rio women (to which he agreed), and the customary complaint about Rio violence (to which he also agreed). We were friends, which in Brazil is the essential pre-requisite to doing business.
But as I ordered more and more odds and ends- a tape measure, some wood screws, some light switches - he looked at me ever more puzzled.
“You know what this stuff is for?” he asked
In Canada, to question a man’s knowledge of hardware it to question his competence, and thus his manhood.
“Claro,” I said, tightly. Of course.
“You’re going to do this yourself. You know how to fix things?” Again, with incredulity.
Yes. Again with razors in my voice.
“Here in Brazil, people normally hire someone. But you gringos. You like to do things yourself. “
In my country, I tell him, almost everybody does things for himself. There are even big stores that sell things just for people who want to fix up their homes.
“Yes, yes,” he says excitedly. “I’ve seen that. On television.”
I wrote the screed below about the WSJ editorial as an email to a friend a few days before Brazil's election. Last night the results of Brazil's first round of polling came in. Slippery leftist Lula finished with 48.61% of the vote, just shy of the 50% margin of victory. He will now be forced into a run-off with the second ranked candidate Geraldo Alckmin (41.64%) at the end of October. Lula's fall from some 55% of the vote a week ago has been quite dramatic. Some attribute it to his blowing off a national televised debate. Some say it's a result of a Watergate like scandal that's broken in the past week, in which Lula's close aides were arrested with US$700,000 in unsourced money, trying to buy a dossier containing sleaze and scandal to be used on the opposition candidates. The voters, it is alleged, are punishing Lula for the stench of ongoing corruption.
It would be a truly healthy thing if this were true, but somehow I doubt it. In other returns from last night, Paulo Maluf - the former mayor of Sao Paulo mentioned in the post below, who stole some US$400 million while in office - got re-elected to the federal congress. He got more votes than any other candidate in the country.
The ex-governor of Para state, who stole some US$700 million, also got re-elected to congress last night. As did 7 of the 12 congressmen accused of receiving money in the Mensalão vote buying scandal.
Also returning to office – my personal favourite result – is Fernando Collor de Mello, the ex-Brazilian president impeached and driven from office in 1992 for corruption. The good people of his home state of Alagoas have elected him to the senate.
Brazilian voters don’t punish corruption because after 500 years they have come to expect it as the norm. Even Lula’s PT party, which promised for 25 years to put an end to corruption if they ever achieved power, has proven unable to keep their hands off state funds. So why fight it? Instead, look to elect a corrupt politician who will steer some of the grease your way. Rouba mas faz. Pra mim.
By MARY ANASTASIA O'GRADY
September 29, 2006; Page A17
"Corruption is a regular effect of interventionism."
-- Ludwig von Mises
"Human Action," 1949
As Brazilians go to the polls on Sunday to elect a president for the next four years, most pundits are hedging their bets as to whether Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva of the Workers' Party (PT) can win re-election in the first round of voting.
A serious allegation of fraud inside the Lula campaign has become the main issue in the race over the past two weeks. Added to a host of other corruption charges implicating PT members close to the president in the past year, this latest scandal has the potential to force a run-off.
Lula may well be innocent, as he claims, of any involvement in the plethora of scandals now swirling around his party. But it is also true that if corruption has blind-sided him, he has only his own politics to blame. It has been the life work of Brazilian socialists -- of which the PT are among the most hardcore -- to empower the state, without limits, as an enforcer of "social justice" through the wholesome work of politicians and bureaucrats. Now they are reaping what they've sowed: a system that breeds corruption by its very nature, as von Mises warned more than a half-century ago.
A friend of mine who reads the Wall Street Journal sent me this editorial. It's an astonishingly ignorant piece of work - little miss Mary obviously knows Sweet F. All about Brazil, but what is fascinating is how someone with a few facts, no historical knowledge and axe to grind can come to sweeping conclusions that just happen to coincide with their own ideological preconceptions.
Yes, Lula has run a corruption heavy government. That has nothing to do with his brand of highly market friendly socialism, and everything to do with his being Brazilian. For 500 years, Brazil has been run by elites who looked on government solely as a way of capturing the resources of the state and re-directing this wealth to their friends and supporters. In order to keep the social peace, they would usually toss a few bones to the people in the form of some sort of public works – public squares, parks, roads. "Rouba mas faz" is the phrase Brazilians came up with to describe this phenomenon. "He steals but he does stuff".
In the case of the mayor of Sao Paulo ( a right-wing capitalist appointed by a military dictatorship that I’m sure during its vicious years in office met with the full approval of the Wall Street Journal), he stole US$400 million, but built a new road and tunnel under the city. In the case of the free market governor of the Amazon, he stole US$700 million, but pushed the development of farming through the Amazon (seen to be a good thing here).
In Lula's case, his government has mostly stolen for political purposes, to finance the party election coffers mostly, and to buy votes in congress ( At least for the first term. In his second term, I expect him and his buddies to start stealing on their own account -last kick at the can and all that) and as for the 'doing things' part, they have vastly expanded the welfare rolls. Given that most Brazilians are poor (a direct result of 500 years of government by non-socialist, non-honest, thieving but market-friendly elites), this is a good way to get elected.
It has pissed off the middle class, who voted for Lula because he promised to put an end to corruption, but the poor love him. Yes he steals, but at least we're getting some for a change (as opposed to the road builders or soy farmers or other already rich people who traditionally receive government largesse in Brazil). So the only thing that's really different about Lula is who benefits from the theft. If the people voted for the right-wing candidate, would the theft end? They don't think so. They'd just be cut out of the spoils.
And would it be better if nobody stole and the government -right wing, socialist, whatever - just tried to run honest programs and fix the stupid country. Yes, that would be better. But apparently in Brazil that's not an option.
Bet you don't see this too often...
Las langostas conocidas como tucuras quebracheras miden entre cinco y 12 centímetros y tienen, según especialistas, la particularidad de ser excelentes conductoras de la electricidad, una propiedad por la cual dejaron sin luz a tres pueblos cordobeses.
El norte de la provincia se ve afectado por una plaga de estas langostas. "Se instalan en los seccionadores de la estación transformadora (de energía) y, cuando se acumulan, hacen un arco eléctrico y provocan cortocircuitos", explicaron Nicolás Lobo, gerente de la Cooperativa Eléctrica de Quilino, y Ricardo Vergara, encargado del sistema eléctrico de la cooperativa, al comentar el corte de luz que sufrieron hace 10 días las localidades de Quilino, Lucio V. Mansilla y San José de las Salinas.
Los técnicos indicaron que las langostas aparecieron quemadas y que al estudiarlas descubrieron que "técnicamente por el cuerpo de las tucuras circula la energía en un 100 por ciento".
Las tucuras habitan generalmente en el monte y según dijo el intendente de Quilino, Víctor Maggi, al periódico La Voz del Interior, aparecieron en la región "hace dos años".
La invasión de las langostas también arrasó con pastos, cultivos y árboles en la zona, por eso, "los productores ganaderos están preocupados", remarcó Maggi. Por sus características, la fumigación se realiza de manera manual y, según el intendente, es responsabilidad de cada productor.
Something is happening in Sao Paulo.
As it turns out, the error on that NY Times report seems to have been with Reuters. No other newspaper carried the story, and about 20 minutes later when I checked Times site again, the piece had been removed. So Toronto either had better access to information than New York, or being asleep at the switch paid off.
KABUL, June 10 (Reuters) - Canadian and Afghan troops killed more than 30 Taliban fighters in the southern Afghan province of Zabul on June 5, the U.S.-led military coalition said in a statement on Saturday.
A joint force engaged over 60 insurgents in the Arghandab district of Zabul. Neither the Afghan nor Canadian troops, who are serving with the coalition, suffered any casualties, the statement said.
An insurgency raging since U.S.-backed forces ousted a Taliban government in late 2001 is going through its bloodiest phase, with 400 people, mostly militants, killed in May alone.
The spiralling violence has resulted from increased Taliban activity, and diplomats and military officials believe the insurgents are trying to spread alarm among NATO governments before the deployment of thousands of extra alliance peacekeepers in the country.
NATO is expected to boost its troop strength to 17,000 from 9,000 by the end of July, while the United States is expected to reduce its force to 20,000 from 23,000.