23 March 2013

Beyond Incredulity

It may be that the readers of Hunting White Elephants are growing tired of the bad news coming out of Rio de Janeiro. I too, am weary of reporting and analyzing the daily acts of brutality, ignorance and aggression that the coalition of interests running the Games, Cup, State and City are raining down upon an all-too-passive population. For years, I have been pointing out the obvious, trying to make some sense of the disaster. It turns out that what I write here, say there, teach and publish generally may result in um grande zero because the rot has sunk so deep into the hearts and minds of Brazil’s classe dirigiste that there is no escape. Yesterday’s violent occupation of the Aldeia Maracanã was yet another clear example that could have been avoided with even the minimum of decency. 

Let's talk this over. OBobo photo. 
There was widespread and arbitrary use of tear gas and pepper spray. According to one eyewitness report, as the Military Police were negotiating with a group of indigenous people over the Aldeia wall, one became visibly upset, took out his spray and fired it into their eyes in the middle of the conversation. Evicting an unarmed group with chemical warfare and shock troops is a tactic taken from the pages of Columbus’ diaries.

Journalists were hit with both pepper spray and tear gas, manhandled by the MP, and had cameras broken before being shoved onto the median of a busy highway. The State Government simply does not care about how they appear in the press, national or international. When the ball is rolling for the Confederations Cup, no one will remember what happened on March 22. One hopes that the national and international press corps that were brutalized yesterday will remember that they have colleagues who cover sporting events as if they happen in de-contextualized space.

There’s much more but there’s other work and emergency meetings to get to on a Saturday morning.  

The new Rio de Janeiro State Secretary for Sport and Leisure (SEEL), whose name I hope to never write down, said in an interview this week that: “The place for Indians is in the forest. That’s why we’re protecting the Amazon, isn’t it?” This charming fellow gives me a cheek-full of saudade for his predecessor, Marcia Lins, who obtousely managed to not respond to any of my requests for information about the Maracanã for three years. 

The tactics of the MP here are neither new nor restricted to Rio or to Brazil, but their consistent and constant application to clear urban space for the implementation of privatization schemes is what is clearly marking Rio de Janeiro as an Olympic and World Cup host city. The same happened in Mexico '68, LA '84, Seoul '88, Barcelona '92, Atlanta '96, Athens '04, Beijing '08, Vancouver '10 and worse things are happening in Putin’s Sochi '14. The IOC and FIFA never make pronouncements about this kind of thing, remaining high on their Swiss perches holding moralistic discussions among themselves about “reform” and “transparency”.  Light me another torch, please, it’s cold out here in the American wilderness.

12 March 2013


One of the problems and benefits of living in a non-native place is that there is the temptation to criticize without assuming responsibility. These criticisms tend to flow more fluidly from wealthier to less wealthy places (without wanting to use the word “developed”), consolidating pre-existing power dynamics with the danger of haughty righteousness and colonialist indignation ever present in the commentaries. Most societies have barbarous practices that need to be called out so that they can be changed. Sometimes, heinous acts such as bombing wedding parties with drones, activating a presidential kill list (it`s not called the executive for nothing!), or handing over trillions to bail out banks, reflect a perverse zeitgeist from which we need to fabricate a collective emergence.

On Sunday, three nearly simultaneous incidents may reflect the general state of things in Brazil. I hope that they are isolated, perverse incidents. They all speak to something terribly wrong.

In Rio, three adolescents between 11 and 14 were walking along the sidewalk near the posh Jockey Club. Apparently there had been some kind of theft inside the club and two or three members of a private security firm started after the boys. The older boys managed to jump the wall into the Jockey Club. Alan de Souza, 11, did not. Alan was taken in a van up near the Vista Chinesa where he had all of his fingernails and toenails pulled out before being shot twice in the head. One of the suspects in the torture and murder of an eleven year old boy is a member of the Rio Military Police. The story has disappeared from the headlines.

In Sao Paulo, a 21 year old was driving home from partying all night and was doing zig zags in his car along Avenida Paulista. As he was playing about, he ran into a 21 year old cyclist on his way to work. The collision severed the cyclist’s arm, which somehow ended up in the car. The driver did not stop to see what had happened, but sped away. Eventually he stopped, found the arm in the car and…threw it into a canal! He later turned himself in. Protesters on bikes filled Avenida Paulista on Sunday.

Back in Rio, there was an exhibition of a Formula One car on the Aterro do Flamengo. The event drew tens of thousands of people and also had as part of the exhibition other Ferrari cars zipping about. Eventually, one of the Ferrari drivers lost control and crashed into the crowd, hospitalizing three and terrifying many others. A multimillion dollar car taking up leisure space on the weekend is questionable. Cars doing tricks at 300 km\hr while people crowd against the road with no protection is begging for tragedy.

I don`t know exactly what these three events say about the value of human life and dignity in Brazil, but they will hopefully stimulate some critical self-reflection, prosecutions and high-profile court cases. 

08 March 2013

Piscinão do Derby

O Bobo photos
Good news! It turns out that the planned demolition of the Julio Delamare Olympic Swimming complex will not have much of an impact on the training regimes of Brazilian swimmers and divers. In a move that can only be described as blindingly prescient, the swimming complex has been moved into the Maracanã itself, making the stadium more of a multi-use arena than ever. In 2016 we will see the very high dive from the top of the new roof as well as synchronized car-floating and perhaps the staging of naval battles or exhibitions of indigenous fishing techniques. Perhaps the Joana and Maracanã rivers that flow past the stadium could be sites for hydro-electric dams that could provide electricity for the stadium. This will be the greenest Games ever! Our World Cup runneth over! Did anyone else hear the chorus of angels shouting “pega mijão!” to São Pedro on Tuesday night?

O Bobo photos
For those unfamiliar with the basics of fluvial geomorphology, I offer the following bon mot: water flows downhill and gathers at the lowest elevation. Swamps are swamps precisely because they are low-lying basins that accumulate water. The Maracanã lies between two rivers in a swampy low-lying area with a very high water table. Thus, in order to have adequate drainage for the stadium it is advised to elevate the structure as much as possible. This is particularly true for the playing field.

The reform deform of the Maracanã for the Pan American Games lowered the playing field by 1.50 meters, pushing it ever closer to the high water table. The latest reform deform has compromised even more the drainage capacity of the stadium. We saw in 2010 how an ordinary rain can destroy access to the Maracanã and it is a measure of the clear thinking of the deforms undertaken that more than a billion reales have been spent on a stadium that cannot withstand a tropical downpour in a tropical city.

Of course the problem is much greater than the stadium itself, which suffers from the same problems as the rest of the low lying areas of the city. But have a look at these pictures and make up your mind as to whether or not these problems can be solved by June 2 when Brazil plays England here. 

Meanwhile in Cuiaba, the police are preparing for the World Cup by beating up university students...

07 March 2013

Video about urban realities in Rio

Worth watching as a good primer for what is going on in Rio as it "prepares" for the World Cup and Olympics

06 March 2013

The MAR and the mar

The Rio city government recently invested R$80.000.000 in the MAR, Museu do Arte do Rio. Mar is also the portuguese Word for ocean. To run the MAR, the city pays one million a month to Brazil’s biggest media company to run the museum and they still charge admission to city residents (though not on Tuesdays when it is open to everyone for free).  It is a lovely museum, perfectly situated in front of the cruise ship passenger terminal at Pier Mauá. In a future post we will take up some of the surprisingly progressive and interesting elements of the MAR. 

After a visit to the MAR, I left Flamengo to take some precious house guests to the international airport, some 24 kilometers distant. Just after hitting the road, the skies unleashed a Biblical torrent. The city closed down as nearly every important highway flooded, all public transportation came to a halt, trees crashed, power outed and the city reeled from surging sewage.

The body count was relatively low: 4 dead 2 1 missing. One of the dead was a Polish woman who had the temerity to lead against a light post in the Largo do Machado and died from an electric shock. She had just moved to Brazil with her husband.

In addition to the smaller roads in Catete, Gloria, and the typical inundation of Tijuca and the Praça da Bandeira, Avenida Brasil, the main east-west highway flooded at its strategic entracnce that brings together traffic flows from the south and from Niteroi. The meters` deep fetid stew completely engulfed cars and stranded traffic on all of the elevated highway system leading to the north and west of the city. There was no way forward and no way back. We were stuck without moving for three hours. A sign over the entrance to the bridge to Niteroi kept taunting us with a sign that flashed “Fluxo Bom” (good flow).

The brilliant idea of the city government is to take this elevated highway (which was the only option to get to the airport as trees had fallen over the access to the Santa Barbara tunnel, trapping cars inside), and put it below sea level as it runs alongside the port area. I have been railing against this idiocy from the beginning, but demolishing Rio`s port-area elevated highway to put it underground in a city that is prone to flooding is attaining lofty heights of quixotic skullduggery that not even my forked pen can reach.

Fortunately, I was in a car on my way to the airport after having spent a day at the museum. There were tens and hundreds of thousands who had worked long days, had crammed into non-air conditioned buses with no toilets, no way off, no food, no drink, and with no relief of the traffic in sight. My 24 km trajectory to the airport took 4 hours, something that I could have done with a kayak, paddleboard, skateboard, bicycle, or walking quickly.  Others didn`t get home until 3 or 4 in the morning only to get up and retrace their steps. Why is it that there is no plan to put public transportation to the international airport?

I desperately wanted someone to come by with their Euro-American clipboards to ask all of the people stranded in traffic or stuck in the metro or wading through sewage to ask which is the happiest city in the world…

The long and short of this post is that we have just spent 80 million to build a museum called MAR, but relatively nothing on dealing with water movement within the city itself. These are the kinds of perverse priorities or “unlucky realities” that don`t show up on the Mayor`s ill-conceived Monopoly game, but that have hugely negative impacts on the lives of Cariocas and visitors. 


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