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September 11th, 2014

Watching The World Cup!

After a seemingly unending wait the World Cup finally took place, and I was happy to help Scottish photographer Jane Stockdale on a project called Watching the World Cup.

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It was great to spend time with old and new friends in Alemão and Maré, although sad to witness the favela population surviving at gunpoint (as usual). Things were especially difficult in the Alemão with daily, unnecessary shoot-outs on the Rua 2.

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Jane’s assistant and local guide Pedro shows her some of the Alemão

Despite this, we had a ball! I even traveled to see England draw 0-0 with the mighty Costa Rica. Great fans, terrible team, a local told me. Still, there’s always time to prepare for Russia…

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In the meantime please visit www.watchingtheworldcup.com for Jane’s photos (these snaps are taken by me) and the full story.

 

Last year I was lucky to be able to visit the Bate Bola crew Fascinação with Vincent Moon, French musicological film-making nomad. The results are in this film, a unique portrait of this untold and unseen aspect of Rio’s Carnival. As far as I aknow it’s the first time anyone from outside Brazil has made a film about the Bate Bola. Vincent’s own description of his film reads: “a rare document on the carnival from the north of Rio, far from the beach and the cliché of ‘la cidade maravilhosa’. Maybe the oldest form of carnival in Brazil, a contest in between neighborhoods, each team dressed in surrealist outfits, mixing various layers of popular cultures, between ultra-kitsch icons and futuristic gladiators.”

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[Photo taken at a teacher’s march in October. “Vandalism is beating up teachers”]

This piece, published this month in the Haldane Society, a British legal magazine, is a follow up to my June piece:

The third consecutive term of the leftist PT [Worker’s Party] government was ticking along relatively comfortably for Dilma Rousseff (ongoing corruption scandals aside) until protests against a bus fare increase in São Paulo triggered similar action across the nation, drawing hundreds of thousands of dissatisfied Brazilians onto the streets in June to protest against a political system they see as corrupt and inefficient. The massive demonstrations came as a surprise to many observers. Brazil is BRICS poster child: a strong democracy and an optimistic emerging economy, ripe for investment and ready for the future. The last time Brazilians took to the streets en masse was back in 1992 to call – successfully – for the impeachment of then President Fernando Collor, the man who froze the nation’s bank accounts.

Rousseff, a former militant involved in organised opposition to the military dictatorship – imprisoned and tortured for her activity – was quick to identify the protests as a sign of the strength of “our democracy” and new “political energy”. The middle class is growing slowly and millions have been lifted out of extreme poverty by social assistance programs initiated by the PT. But as people move laboriously up Brazil’s skewed social ladder, they are hit by the expense of middle class life here, where private health care and private education are standard, given the generally poor quality of public services. In short people might earn more but, while the cost of living rises, they are seeing poor returns from their growing contributions to the public coffers.

Rio, where the largest protests took place, is current focus of national ambition. 300,000 (or one million, depending on who you listen to) came onto its streets on 20th June. Excessive marketing for World Cup preparations and the 2016 Olympics has grated on the population of a city where the cost of living has soared. While there have been notable improvements in public safety, a less violent city is a more expensive city. A principal target of resentment is state governor Sergio Cabral, whose support has plummeted to 8% in his second term of office. Once the initial surge of protests had subsided, demonstrators camped outside his home in the exclusive Leblon neighbourhood until he moved (presumably at the request of influential neighbours) elsewhere. Eduardo Paes, Rio’s mayor, although not unscathed, has weathered the storm with more sagacity, making concessions and inviting protestors for talks.

Although the largest demonstrations were not much short of an outpouring of general discontent, there were some quick victories. Protestors in several cities achieved their immediate goal when local authorities, including Rio and São Paulo, announced a freeze on bus fare rises. In Rio the state government abandoned unpopular plans to bulldoze a school and indigenous museum to make way for a multi-storey car park near the Maracana, future World Cup final venue. Mayor Paes also guaranteed the future survival of Vila Autodromo, a favela that was earmarked for demolition to make way for Olympic development. These achievements seemed unlikely before demonstrators took to the streets.

But while the protestors scored some points, two incidents highlighted the longstanding violence and human rights abuses suffered by the country’s poor. On 24th June, military police belonging to the BOPE special operations unit (portrayed brilliantly by José Padilha in his ultra-violent ‘Elite Squad 1 & 2’ films) killed nine alleged drug traffickers in the sprawling Maré favela complex. One BOPE member also died in this unauthorised operation which left residents without electricity for 36 hours. Then in July members of a police ‘pacification’ unit, based in the enormous beachfront Rocinha favela, took a bricklayer called Amarildo into custody during a routine operation. He has not been seen since. This episode was condemned at the end of August by the Rio branch of the Brazilian Bar Association, which, together with respected local sociologist Michel Misse, launched a campaign to monitor and investigate killings and disappearances linked to police activity in the city. Misse documented 10,000 such incidents between 2001 and 2011. The average of one thousand police related deaths a year in Rio is more than triple the yearly average for the whole of the USA. The national truth commission investigation of human rights abuses under the military dictatorship (1964-1985) counts 540 disappearances for the whole country for that period. Misse’s alarming figures exemplify the class chasm and violence which hamper societal development in Brazil. While the mass marches pointed to the possible existence of a youthful, informed middle class, eager to flex its muscle, the Maré killings and Amarildo’s disappearance confirm that Brazil’s most vulnerable population continues at risk of human rights violations on a daily basis.

On a Friday evening in September I listen to three lawyers who have been voluntarily defending and accompanying protestors detained by police. Carol, Clarice and Natalia tell a story which leaves me depressed. I left Rio for three months just as the protests were beginning, and was enthused by what seemed to be a possible tidal change in public opinion, because for once it seemed that a critical mass of average Brazilians were taking matters into their own hands. I wrote a comment piece for the Guardian where I celebrated the fact that protestors appeared to have avoided attempts by the traditional Brazilian mass media to characterise them as vandals and rioters. Three months down the line it seems that the powers-that-be have succeeded in their goal of criminalising the protestors. Carol tells me that her mother, who leaned out of the window to shout support in June, now sees them as mere troublemakers.

Her mother’s change of attitude appears largely informed by violent TV scenes of clashes as demonstrators face baton charges and tear gas grenades. This began with the dispersal of the massive June 20th march, when military police charged protestors at different points across the city centre. Because of this, the lawers say, the largely peaceful demonstration ended in mayhem. At this point the general public began to dissociate themselves from the protests. I ask about an incident during July. Shortly after the Pope left a meeting at the Governor’s palace by helicopter, a protest outside turned violent. Both demonstrators and police filmed two men in T-Shirts conspiring to throw petrol bombs. Other cinematographers captured images of what appeared to be the same men running behind police lines shortly afterwards. Threatened with arrest, one pulls ID out, waving it at confused ‘colleagues’. These images led to allegations – fiercely denied – that undercover police used violence against other police in an attempt to destabilise the demonstration. Bruno Telles, a 25 year-old student arrested on suspicion of throwing the first bomb, was released when TV images and police statements contradicted each other. It looked like someone wanted to frame him. A backpack containing Molotov cocktails was also found at the scene of the protests. Its owner is unknown. Violent episodes like this led to characterisation of Brazil’s protests as “riots” in the international press (notably The Times).

What happened with the episode outside the governor’s palace, I ask? Was it really instigated by undercover police? The lawyers think it might have been, but tell me the investigation was archived. Really? But didn’t anyone follow up? We don’t know, they say, those were the days when the Pope was visiting – so much was going on. Since that moment numbers on the streets have fallen dramatically, down to a hard core of ‘Black Bloc’ anarchist style protestors, who are mostly teenagers. The state governor has introduced a law – unconstitutional, I’m told – to prevent such demonstrators from using masks to conceal their faces. Public opinion is strongly in favour of such a measure: after all, who wants to let vandals gain the upper hand?

Despite recent social advances, Brazil is still a fiercely unequal society. It registered forty six dollar billionaires in 2013, a 25% increase on 2012, according to Forbes. The protests, and the belligerent State response, reflect the contradictory nature of this emerging power. While a new generation struggles to find its voice and millions are lifted out of poverty, corrupt power structures and centuries-old social conflict continue to hinder progress. It is no accident that Fernando Collor – the disgraced former president impeached after the mass protests of 1992 – holds court today at the centre of power in Brasília, where he is Senator. And while everyone knows where to find Collor, no one will say what happened to Amarildo, and neither do we know who threw the petrol bombs at police outside the Governor’s palace.

Note: The month of October saw numerous violent clashes between Black Bloc protestors and police in the context of marches by striking teachers. The Blac Bloc protestors were said to have infiltrated the otherwise peaceful demonstrations. I witnessed both police violence towards peaceful protestors and subsequent Blac Bloc vandalism. Numerous peaceful protestors were arrested under new police powers for dealing with ‘vandals’.

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Naples is an uncommonly interesting place. I had only three days to navigate its hilly, winding alleys. Thanks To Zu Toni I had already eaten spaghetti con vongole [a good omen, but that’s another story] and deep fried pizza. So I felt as if I had done the gastronomic thing.

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On day two I stumble across a visual treasure trove of train graffiti, just near where I am staying (the remarkable Casa Corragio). MonteSanto has an underground station, an overground station, and a funicular railway [look it up!]. The overground service, called  Ferrovia Cumana, runs wonderfully rickety trains out to the beaches were Neapolitans can attempt to escape the heat. Outside the station Indians sell groceries, Cape Verdians prop up the bar drinking beer and uniformed carabinieri sip coffee and watch the world go by. It’s a terrific spot. Passing traffic consists of whole families stacked onto a scooter, or solo children on motorbikes. No one is wearing a helmet. Inside the pizzeria there is only one God and there is a framed photo of him above the counter. His name is Diego Maradona.

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The trains in the station look as if they have just returned from an internship at an Indian holi festival. The sides, backs fronts, tops – probably the bottoms as well – are caked in layer upon layer of paint. Pink over silver over black under green smudging into yellow and white, blue or orange. I take one without knowing where it or I are going. Signatures, letters, symbols and words fly by in a thunder of noise and colour. The modest trains only have six doors and two cars each but to me they are Chinese dragons in full flight. People step on and off like human inhabitants of a Roger Rabbit universe.

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On day three I spent my free time sweatily tracking down a Caravaggio painting. Eventually I arrived, paid ten Euros, squinted dutifully at it for twenty minutes and that was that. When I left Naples I felt a sense of loss. When I go back I’m sure the Caravaggio will still be there. The technicolour festival of the Ferrovia Cumana, maybe not. Because graffiti is just a moment in time and space. When it’s gone it’s gone.

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Grazie Tony, Costanza e tutti gli amici Casa Coraggio. Ci vediamo prossimamente!

June 25th, 2013

On The Protests in Rio

A version of this piece, written the night the 3rd large protest in Rio was violently suppressed, was first published by the UK’s Guardian newspaper on 21 June. Hopefully it can help people who don’t really know much about Brazil or Rio to grasp a little of what is happening there.

THE first surprise about the Brazilian protests is that they have taken place at all. The second surprise is their scale. On reflection they should have taken place years ago. The recent hike in bus fares was simply the last straw for a nation tired of being treated like otários [suckers] – as a taxi driver put it to me – by its ruling classes and politicians. Demonstrations in modern Brazil are usually left to small groups belonging to the country’s beleaguered ‘social movements’ and therefore easily discarded by the country’s mass media (in other words the all powerful Globo conglomerate). Protestors depicted as troublemakers, lazy students, leftists, and as rich kids without a cause – by one prominent social commentator in Rio last week – are quickly discredited and forgotten.

This time round Globo and its allies are on the back foot. In Rio, cracks have been showing for some time in the ‘cordial’ facade presented by the city’s leaders to the world. The once popular state governor, Sérgio Cabral, has kept a low profile ever since footage of him engaging in Bollinger Club-style buffoonery in the Paris Ritz emerged in 2012. Images of him cavorting with powerful business associates (known locally as the ‘napkin gang’, because what they sported on their heads during the escapade) enraged a substantial proportion of the electorate. The city’s mayor Eduardo Paes, often recognised as a hard working (if dislikable) politician, has also shown recent signs of strain, becoming involved in an unseemly brawl with an abusive member of the public outside an uptown restaurant last month.

Long uncomfortable hours in crowded sweaty buses on congested roads, and difficult access to substandard public health and education facilities, have been grinding down the patience of easygoing cariocas [Rio residents] for years. A modern but stuffed-to-the-hilt underground service, and an ancient and absurdly overcrowded overground suburban train service do not ease matters. With a soaring cost of living – many prices in Rio are now comparable to European cities – rapid gentrification of housing, and favela removal programs shunting the poor out to the most distant of suburbs, the frustration of large numbers of cariocas is understandable. One friend who visited recently, told me of his amazement at London’s public transport system which is open to all. “In Rio use of public transport is a sign of failure – it’s for people who can’t afford better”, he told me wistfully. Lack of confidence in the city’s public infrastructure is near universal. Anyone who can afford to, takes out a health plan, puts their children into private education and sits in traffic inside an conditioned car. At the very least such fortunate people can stay cool, while figuring out the expense.

Rio’s apparently successful public relations exercise to convince the world of its capacity to change has rested on the much-publicised ‘pacification’ programme. This has seen police take control of some of the city’s most famous and violent favelas. Formerly controlled by heavily armed gangs, communities like Rocinha and Vidigal near the exclusive beach districts, and Mangueira, near the Maracanã football stadium, are now patrolled by young police recruits – bringing homicide rates down to zero in some neighbourhoods. In the Alemão favela complex in the north of the city, this process has reduced the number of bullets fired by police in the region from 23,355 in 2010 to a mere 2,395 in 2012. No one can deny that Rio is less violent today than during any period in the last thirty years.

However the logic behind the ‘pacification’ programme adheres to a long-established practice of placing the poor at the root of Brazil’s problems; sidestepping deep rooted matters of corruption and political inefficiency which contribute to the delay of progress throughout the country. As if by magic ‘pacification’ is alleged to restore Rio to a Peter Pan past of tranquility – a time when genteel samba echoed across the hills, before volleys of automatic weapon fire brought terror and sleepless nights to cariocas in the 1980s.

These protests are proof that Rio’s politicians must do more than militarise the city’s most vulnerable communities to make life bearable for all cariocas, millions of whom live in outlying suburbs distant from the media spotlight. This is why they are so important. By focussing discussion on problems of transport and infrastructure, they are forcing politicians to face difficult questions about how they manage the city. The close relationship between the Mayor’s office and Rio’s bus operators is apparent, but opaque.

Having forced the Mayor to back down over the fare increase, a core of protestors are now calling for a parliamentary commission of investigation into the city’s bus syndicates. By maintaining this focus they hope to prevent the movement from disintegrating or morphing into a nebulous anti-corruption exercise. However the events of Thursday night, and attempts by political groups to hijack the protests, suggest this might prove difficult.

The final surprise may be that Brazil’s politicians are forced to address their conduct of public affairs. Meanwhile, for the taxi driver in Rio de Janeiro, the dream of not being taken for a sucker stays alive.

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Postscript:

THIS piece was written on 20 June and things have been moving fast since then. Today, 25 June, the military police killed some 10 people in an operation in the favela of Nova Holanda. At the same time, the city’s legislative assembly gave the go ahead for the investigation into the bus companies. A sliver of a light on a dark day. What must the Pope be thinking about his upcoming visit?

From comments under the original piece:

I’m brazilian and I’m tired of being taken by stupid. I’m tired of lines in hospitals, with no meds, no infrastructure, no beds, people lying on the floor waiting, i don’t know,for God maybe. I’m tired seeing kids without a good school, good teachers, good infrastructure, helping then to become a citizen and not just another “brick in the wall”. I’m tired to pay the taxes and seeing my country accumulate more than ONE TRILLION in taxes and still, give no return to us, no even the enough. I’m tired of being a clown. We need support from everyone. From anyone who still believe that we can change and be BEAUTIFUL no just for FIFA, not just in the “rich parts”, no just for “english see”, but for us, brazilians too.

Amazing your post! The Globo corporate will never write the news like you did. They will always mask the news, changing the line and making the people believe in something is not true. They are trying to stop us. They are saying this is a violent manifest. But it is not. Is just the loud voice of the people for our rights and justice! Thank you! We live in a fake democratic system. Our people don’t have schools and don’t have hospitals. We live in a corrupt government system that think we are suckers, and steals our money in our face!