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Foreign Correspondent

Being the Ongoing Tales, Triumphs, Struggles (mostly struggles) and Occasional Adventures of Freelance Foreign Correspondent Shawn Gerald Blore, based in Rio de Janeiro

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Sao Paulo shuts down, the PCC, and Rick Salutin

I wrote a letter to Rick Salutin the other day. The Globe's token lefty had a throwaway graph or two on the violence that shut down the city of Sao Paulo. I, alas was in Buenos Aires when the PCC gang decided to shut down Latin America's largest city. I was surprised how little interest there was in the rest of the world. Two wire pieces in the Globe. About the same in the NY Times. SOme 200 people died, about 50 of them cops or prison guards. A city of nearly 20 million ceased to operate. And no one north of mexico notices. Anyway, Rick's well meaning throw away graphs were as follows:

Klein issues warning on sharing the wealth," read yesterday's Globe headline. At last, someone got to the nub. We're gonna miss Ralph when he's gone. It's always about sharing the wealth -- or not.

All the recent economic discussions evade this: The report on ending poverty, the one on rejigging federal-provincial finances, the Globe articles on fiscal imbalance, arguments over equalization. They debate how governments should spend their money. But governments only funnel social wealth, which is created by the joint efforts of individuals. Underneath is another battle. Economic issues are basically social. The key is always: How does a society choose to distribute its wealth?

In other words, it's about distribution and redistribution; the struggle for the pie, in its fixed, expanding and contracting parts. This is sometimes known as class conflict. The latest Bush tax cuts in the U.S. dole out (i.e. redistribute) $70-billion, and 87 per cent goes to the 14 per cent of households at the top; 22 per cent goes to the 0.02 per cent earning more than a million a year. This reallocation of the pie toward the upper strata has been the main result of "liberal" reforms everywhere.

What do you end up with? Sao Paulo. I know it's hard to remember because it happened last week. Gang leaders of a group called PCC inside prisons set off riots because they didn't want to be transferred to distant prisons where they'd have a harder time running their outside crime operations. Brazil has had enormous upward redistribution of wealth. Crime gangs are a way to steal back some of what was stolen, er, redistributed. I'm not justifying it, I'm saying it's what you get. Police in Rio in the 1990s had death squads that dealt with child poverty by eliminating it in a literal way. Maybe some of the kids who survived decided they'd better get organized, and ended up in gangs like the PCC.

I thought he had a point, so I sent him a letter. Here it is:
From: Shawn Gerald Blore [mailto:sb@shawnblore.com]

Sent: Mon 5/29/2006 10:45 AM
To: Salutin, Rick
Subject: Sao Paulo gangs and wealth distribution

Hi Rick,

I'm a Canadian journalist based in Rio de Janeiro. I write for the Globe occasionally, when their limited interest and budget permit. Read your comments on Brazil, upward wealth transfer and organized gang violence with interest.

Your analysis of Brazil as a polity where the government exists to transfer wealth upwards was dead on, though your speculations on the origins of Sao Paulo's PCC gang were a bit off. Brazil's large scale criminal gangs actually got their start during the 64-85 dictatorship, when the military had the bright idea of jailing its political prisoners in the same maximum security prisons it used for murderers and drug dealers. (There's a recent movie that dramatized this: Almost Brothers or Quase Dois Irmaos in Portuguese)

The revolutionaries taught the criminals all the tricks of urban revolution they had picked up in training camps in Cuba and elsewhere: how to put together a large scale organisation in the face of state repression, how to implement command and control structures, the intricacies of cell
structure, revolutionary discipline, and even class solidarity.

The last, admittedly, was quickly jettisoned by the criminal gangs, though empty revolutionary rhetoric still forms part of the vocabulary of Rio's largest gang, Commando Vermelho (Red Command).

Of course, empty rhetoric is also now very much the stock in trade of the revolutionaries, many of whom after leaving jail went on to found the PT (Worker's Party).

In its 25 year existence, the PT preached a different kind of politics. It would put an end to the corruption that forms such a large part of the upward transfer of wealth in Brazil, and transform the country for the benefit of the vast poor majority.

In 2002, in his fourth try, Lula won the presidency and the PT came to power. But somewhere along the line, likely after losing the third presidential election, Lula and the PT had changed inside. Once in office, the PT happily began looting the coffers of government agencies and crown corporations, transferring the money through phoney bank accounts and dodgy money dealers to political allies and party bagmen, using the tens of millions of dollars so stolen to pay off debts from the last election, to put together a war chest for the next election, and to
defray the costs of the upper class lifestyle that they as members of the political elite had come to expect.

The rank and file party members who might have complained about such behaviour had mostly been bought off. The Brazilian president has some 25,000 patronage jobs at his direct disposal within the federal bureaucracy. Most of these have gone to PT party functionaries.The party, in the words of a Brazilian sociologist, has gone from a vehicle for the transformation of Brazilian society, to a machine for the social advancement of party cadres.

Lula - who polls show will be re-elected this fall - has demonstrated that even a poor shoeshine boy can grow up to be president, provided he agrees to join the club, join the elite, and play by the rules they've laid down.

The money that was stolen could have been transferred downwards: to public schools - which are a disgrace - or to public hospitals, or to water or sewage or nutrition or community centres or a million other things the poor need. Even prisons. Instead it got transferred upwards to a new political elite, all the more avaricious in that they've only just tasted the spoils of government.

Which, as you pointed out in your column, at least in part explains Sao Paulo. There's no direct causal link between PT corruption and the decision of the PCC gang to shut down the fifth or sixth largest city in the world. The PCC, and the PT, and Brazil's other (equally venal) political parties are all simply fighting for their share of the distribution of wealth, with the tools they happen have at hand.

My $0.02 for today.

Enjoy your column. Keep writing.


I don't know what I expected. Have to say I was a tad disappointed in the reply, though.

From: "Salutin, Rick"
To: "Shawn Gerald Blore"

many thanks for your very generous, immensely informative response. i'll know a little more than i did, when i go at this subject in the future.


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