Monthly Archives: June 2013

All fun and games until someone mentions the C-word

Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically. The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins, we start to build up new little habitats, to have new little hopes. It is rather hard work: there is now no smooth road into the future: but we go round, or scramble over the obstacles. We’ve got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen.

— D.H. Lawrence, “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”

I have been trying to come up with explanations for the acts of the last 48 hours. Now that the raise in the bus fare has been cancelled, what’s one to do with the flotsam of the demonstrations that are still occurring everywhere in the country? Already there are plenty of people trying to fill in the vacuum – people from the extreme left, the extreme right, political parties of all shades, anarchists, and those who want everyone to shut up everywhere.

And, apparently, there are sectors of the society that are putting the the C-word  in the air.

C for Coup d’État, that is.

***

Everything that has to do with politics in Brazil lives under the shadow of the military coup in 1964. The politicians, the laws, everything is an answer or a result of the weird events that led to the dark night of March 31st, 1964, when one slept in a civil democracy and woke up to see tanks up the main streets.

Of course, the state of near anomie in which Brazil is seized at the moment grants the fear that some group might take the chance for an uprise. There are sectors of the society that miss the military days, of course – especially those that probably didn’t know what it was really like to live under the iron rod. The general disgust for the political parties also add to this fear that things will not turn well. But is there room for a coup?

Well, if you ask my opinion, which is as good as any, I’d say no. Because, for all that it’s worth, 2013 is not 1964.  By this I mean that Brazil is not the same country it was in ’64, nor is the world. The Cold War is gone and buried; the news spread at the speed of light; image means everything, and for a country so willing to be seen as an international player, the idea of an régime d’exception in charge smacks of Arab theocracies or African blood diamonds – i.e. someone you wouldn’t do business with willingly. Someone you don’t want to be seen with.

Who, leftwing or rightwing or plain wing-nut, would want to throw all the work of two decades away?

***

Another thorny subject: the Confederations Cup and its twin event next year, the World Cup. FIFA apparently threatened to cancel the event, reminding that they didn’t ask Brazil to host the event.

Well, nobody asked the population either: the decision to put Brazil’s name in the ballot came from the higher abodes of power, as usual. Of course people are groaning with the expenses. Was it any other time, that’s all Brazilians would do – anyone who ever had to deal with my fellow country-people know that we’re a whiny bunch when we feel like it. But it wasn’t any other time, as Simon Jenkins, from The Guardian, pointed so well. This time, people want to know where’s the beef.

There is only one thing Mr Jenkins – and the main international media outlets – are missing, though: a bit of historic perspective. Too many skies have fallen since March 31st 1964. This is not only about the money. It’s about where we, as a country, stand now. And in order to grow, I guess we have to put up with different opinions trying to hijack the protest.

Where will it lead, I don’t know. Stay tuned… This promises to get more interesting.

Advertisements

Twenty Cents Less (but so much more left)

No internet connection during the entire day and a clingy toddler to mind – and only now I got the news that São Paulo’s mayor and governor announced that they have cancelled the raise in the bus fares. It’s back to the original price of R$ 3 (US$ 1,46) for the single fare.

Hooray for the people’s voice being heard, huh?

Yes, hooray, and skepticism be damned just this once. I never thought they would back down, but one week’s worth of noise – and some broken windows, graffitied walls, tear gas and international shaming – sure made them think twice. You don’t get 250.000 people on the streets that quick for nothing, I reckon.

But now what?

Now there’s the expenses of next year’s World Cup (I am to find anyone who actually wants it to be hosted here), the voting of PEC 37 (a government project to reduce the investigation powers from the Public Ministry, i.e. the independent public prosecutors), the new stupidity from the local Christian Right group called “cure for gays” (does what it says in the tin).

The public got their twenty cents back, three cheers to that. But something tells me the noise is not ending yet.

Wanted: an explanation

There is no such thing as public opinion. There is only published opinion. (Winston Churchill)

I’ve mentioned on my earlier post that the Brazilian mainstream media is looking for a “proper” explanation for the current state of affairs, keyword here being “proper”. As someone who has worked in newsrooms for a decade (before quitting for the sake of my mental health), I think I can tell you why this confusion is going on.

The idea of “free press”in Brazil is new. We only got rid of official censure in the early 1990s. During the military coup years (1964-1985), it was not uncommon to have whole editions of newspapers or magazines hacked off, or cake recipes published on where the news should be. As in all regimes, there are heroes and villains on both sides of the wired fence, but the main point was that, if you knew what was good for you, you put up and shut up and you didn’t question what was going on.

But, as I said, the censure is over. In theory, Publish and Be Damned should be over, right?

Not so much. And here I have to explain another Brazilian particular thing: the TV stations.

***

My father, a doctor who came from a dirt poor family, told me once that, in his youth, whoever had a radio in the street was the king. In his back of woods, newspapers could take at least a week to arrive, so people had to rely on the wireless to get to know what was happening beyond the city walls.

Newspapers were family affairs, openly biased when it came to politics; to a certain extent, they are still so, only the idea of “openly biased” is disguised because, really, who wants to lose readership by admitting they pick up sides?

Radio gave way to TV, and in a country where the literacy levels were low and the printed word was not well distributed, people “knew” what was happening because they saw it on the evening news. The biggest TV station in Brazil is TV Globo, and it has a long back history of shaping facts to fit their views – I am not going to approach the subject, which deserves a post of its own, but you can read more about it over here. Anyroad, the point is, if you have only one big TV station and half a dozen big newspapers, all family owned, all politically biased, does it really matter that there is no longer an official censorship?

Well, it didn’t. Until the Internet came along.

***

On the first two demonstrations in São Paulo, the mainstream press took its usual stance of calling the movement “vandalism”, “hooliganism”, even “terrorism”. Nothing new, nothing shocking if you know how the system works.

However, the police was shooting rubber bullets on photographers and reporters. And the people who had been in the marches uploaded their version of the facts. They had videos, they had pictures – and, most important, they had a platform to show them that did not depend on the mainstream media to be heard. They knew the mainstream press would not hear them, would not see them, would pretend they did not exist. So they did it their way. Instead of using Facebook to upload funny videos or the pictures from the last night out, you had people telling how they were tear-gassed, beaten up, abused.

The police behaves awfully when they want to. Anyone who’s lived or known someone who’s lived in the outskirts of São Paulo can tell you that – if you are a young, black male, you are better off dead nine times out of ten. The difference was, this time around they were  messing with people that knew how to play in this new arena that is the Internet. It’s no longer Publish and Be Damned, it’s more like Damn You We’ll Publish It Anwyay.

The position of the press barons changed literally from one day to the next. When their own employees were getting the stick, and when people simply didn’t give two hoots for their version of the facts, what do you do? A good example would be Mr Arnaldo Jabor, a once film director who now has a radio spot. In his column, he said the protesters were “not worth 20 cents”. Public shaming made him go back on his word and say he had been wrong, that the protests were legit.

To make things worse, there are no political affiliations in the protests. São Paulo’s Mayor is from Partido dos Trabalhadores, a left-wing party. The Governor of São Paulo State belongs to right-wing PSDB. They both got burned. The media doesn’t know what to say – if there isn’t a clear cause, there isn’t a clear leader, there isn’t anything you can touch, on whose shoulders do you place the blame? Where’s the easy explanation you can fit on the top of the news dispatches?

***

Newspaper readership is falling all over the world, and in Brazil as well. And the audience ratings are also diminishing. When I was a child, a TV Globo soap opera could quite easily stop the country – ratings of 70% minimum were not uncommon. Nowadays, I am pressed to find anyone who actually watches something from start to finish. Ratings of 30% for the top-shelf productions are the norm. At the same time, cable TV and the internet downloads are on the rise. People don’t watch the soap opera, but they do watch “Mad Men”, “Game of Thrones” or “Doctor Who”. And of course they have seen the uprisings in the Arab world, in Spain, in the United States.

There is no such thing as “published opinion” anymore, not in the sense of printed words or broadcast words being the one-and-only opinion out there. And these marches are the most vivid sign of it.

***

Of course, there is a part of me begging for some skepticism, and I’ll duly take some. The press barons are quick to change sides. Will they be quick to adapt to what appears to be a new order? Or will they just wait for things to return to normality – the political and social apathy for which the Brazilians were so known for?

As with all other things, we’ll have to wait and see.

 

Total Tally (a quick post)

250.000 people in 11 marches in the main cities in Brazil.

100.000 in Rio de Janeiro and 65.000 in  São Paulo, according to the latest numbers.

There were people in the roof of the Congress building. In the roof! It took five hours to get everyone out.

The mainstream press doesn’t know what to do with the information. There are no main political parties attached to the marches. Everything is organized over the internet. Theso called indolent middle class is in the thick of it, in the streets. It is not what they were used to have.

Hell, it is not what I am used to see either, and I have seen some weird stuff before…

More in a moment – my son is calling.

“And you shall see that thy son will not shy away from the fight”

That is the part of Brazil’s National Anthem that always brings shivers down my spine.

Which was the verse my next door neighbour – hardly a young man – sprayed on a bedsheet and placed on his window this afternoon.

And the verse which was repeated ad nausea in the demonstrations.

São Paulo had 30.000 40.000 people on the streets. Apparently calmer than the previous demos – no rubber bullets and no tear gas this time. No such luck in Belo Horizonte or Ro de Janeiro, from what I have been reading. I am still checking the facts, will write a better report tomorrow,. I read the crowd invaded the Senate building in Brasilia, but that isn’t exactly a mighty feat – other demos have taken that route before. But it is still meaningful, nevertheless…

But this blog is about Sampa, and in Sampa things are going wild. They even managed to make Largo da Batata look beautiful for the first time in its existence!

Image

To quote again the National Anthem:

You shall see that thy son shall not shy away from battle

Nor does he, who loves thee, fear death itself.

***

My husband, The Brainy Bloke, mentioned that there isn’t a clear objective for the marches anymore. “It’s just a yell. But that will be heard by the political class: the society is more than fed up and temperature is rising”.

 

I can only hope so.

Tagged , ,

The Scenario

When São Paulo is pretty, it’s prettier than anything you can imagine. But when it’s ugly, it’s downright coyote ugly. And Largo da Batata, where today’s demonstration starts, is probably one of the ugliest places in the entire State.

I happen to know the place well, having worked just four blocks away, where the gentrification begins and the place changes name to Vila Madalena, the famous bohemian spot. What to say about it? The close to non-existent sidewalks, the seedy”American Bar” establishments (Sampa’s classic euphemism for strip club), the loud music coming from every other store trying to get your attention but only making you dizzy and praying for some silence.

And the bus terminal. Largo da Batata is a sort of a river delta, if you allow me the image, where the traffic from the main commerce streets, like Teodoro Sampaio and Cardeal Arcoverde, meet up an important avenue, Brigadeiro Faria Lima. It’s a hub for buses from all over the city, and, recently, a brand new Metrô station.

It’s where the workers meet the well-to-do, if only for a glancing moment; it’s a very busy spot, crowded night and day. Considering the protests have begun because of R$ 0,20 extra for awful services, there is no better place to demonstrate how awful the public transport is by concentrating on a place that showcases the cause better than a thousand words. 

Largo da Batata has been through an expansive refurbishment, mainly because of the new Metrô station. But it still is one of Sampa’s ugliest places to be. When it rains, it sometimes floods. When it’s sunny, there’s no shade. The buses come and go and if you are lost, you are LOST in capital letters because there is little to no information on the itineraries or timetables.

The TV crews are there since early morning awaiting the spectacle. The last news inform us that the police has agreed to withdraw the use of rubber bullets and to “respect” the route defined for the march, as long as it doesn’t clog up the traffic on Paulista Avenue, as it has happened last week.

Also, nobody will be arrested for the possession of vinegar. I am taking this part of the news as a joke.

***

In the words of a poster I’ve seen: “Vai. E se der medo, vai com medo mesmo”.

Which translates as: “Go. And if you feel afraid, go afraid anyway”.

Safe

A couple of friends have emailed me asking if my family and I were “safe” during this week of riots.

I can say I am in a comfortable position, living relatively removed from the centre of action. My son’s day-care centre is just a few blocks away from my home, which is also my office. On an ordinary workday, my world is confined to two miles between my house, the school and eventually the supermarket, the bakery, the haberdashery store. Pretty boring at times, I’ll concede, but I have had my share of adventures before and I must confess I am not willing to go into the fray again.

Does that mean I am safe? I guess so. 

But then there’s another factor.

I know Paulista Avenue, where most of the riots have happened, like the back of my hand. I was born in a maternity ward nearby; I studied at a college there; I met my husband there; my first and last office jobs were there. Thus, I know that when there are protest marches, Paulista Avenue is the last place on God’s good Earth you want to find yourself at: there aren’t many escape routes once the police close the nearby streets and the subway entrances.

I have friends working and living in the routes of the marches. Some are involved in the demos; some only want to go back home at the end of their shift. So, to answer my friends’ question: yes, my family is safe, but my mind is still reeling with worry.

***

There is a poem running through my mind this entire Sunday – The Second Coming, by Yeats (that I always, always mistake for Eliot’s The Wasteland – don’t ask). I know the opening verses by heart: 

    Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world (…)

Are these riots “mere anarchy”? I don’t think I know the answer to that. My husband, a brainy bloke, thinks this is the result of structural failures – the faulty economy meeting a generation that did not know inflation and lack of democracy like my parents’ generation, or indeed my very own generation. They see the Arab Spring, the Spanish demos, the Occupy Movement, and wonder “what’s in store for us?”

So. Safe. Tricky word. Yes, my family is safe from the tear gas clouds, the trampling, the rubber bullets. But we’re still here, in Sampa, and we’re all waiting to see what’s next.

For the moment, off to bed go I. The kid’s asleep, and so should I. 

Before the Storm

São Paulo is eerily quiet on Sundays. Bereft of the traffic and under grey skies, the streets at the city centre look like a scenario of an atomic winter movie. People usually stay home, or go visit the relatives for lunch. Away from the busy trading centres, the stores are closed and you can hear the wind blowing dust in the asphalt.

The aftermath of the week’s demonstrations can be seen in the shape of graffiti on the walls: “R$ 3,20 is robbery”, “fascist police”, “There will never be love in this f***ing town ever again”, a pun on a hit song called ‘Não Existe Amor in SP’ (There is no Love in SP). Some ads regarding the Confederations Cup on the bus stops have been defaced as well.

Speaking of the Confederations Cup… It began yesterday with Brazil playing against Japan at Mané Garrincha stadium in Brasília. Mrs Dilma Rousseff, the president, was of course present. And was throughout booed by the crowd – I don’t know whether that got across in the international broadcast. Everyone in a position of power was pretty much booed off stage at the opening, including Mr José Maria Marin, the president of the Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF in Portuguese), accused of being an ally of the former military regime, and whom is as unpopular as the plague in the country.

The fact that Mrs Rousseff was arrested and tortured during the junta years, and that Mr Marin was present at her side on the opening game, must have been the biggest elephant in the presidential tribune. There was a herd of elephants present, enough to make the place a savannah of awkward situations: the Mané Garrincha stadium, recently refurbished at a big cost, had throngs of empty seats all over; there were demonstrations outside the stadium and that the police, again, reacted with tear gas.

In the end, Brazil won three-nil, and it was an entertaining game all in all – Neymar’s first goal was indeed a thing of beauty like I haven’t seen in a good while. But try as we might, the most pressing subject wasn’t football but the newest protests against the bus fares booked for this coming Monday in São Paulo.

Driving around the city centre today, I noticed the famous stillness before the storm forming – in the graffiti walls, in the messages circulating over the social media sites (what to bring and what not to bring; phone number of lawyers helping the cause; what to do if approached by the police), in the cover of the weekly magazines still focusing on the damaged caused by the riots on the traffic and the general peace of the city, but unable to hide the fact that the uprising has some popular back-up, especially among the younger set – and that the so-called Salad Uprising was spread to other countries as well.

Whatever comes, we will have to deal with it. Tomorrow is going to be a heck of a busy day.

Tagged , , , ,

Twenty Cents’ War

Might as well begin by explaining that the public transport service in São Paulo is, by lack of a more refined word, a bit of a joke. The buses are usually late, dirty, hot (only the lines going through “posh” areas such as Paulista Avenue have air conditioning) and crowded.  The subway (known as Metrô), though it’s cleaner than the buses, doesn’t cover much ground and can be just as packed, especially on the rush hour.

11 million people daily, present company included, use this rickety system and make do with it complaining all the way, as one does in big cities. And we pay dear for it: R$ 3 for a single fare (roughly US$ 0,50). It is a lot of money in a city where a snack and a drink in the city centre can cost at least R$ 7. Yep. That expansive.

At the beginning of the month, the Mayor of São Paulo announced the prices would go up to R$ 3,40 (US$ 1,58) for the single fare. Groans and protests followed, as expected. The mayor reduced the raise to R$ 3,20 (US$ 1,48) after an agreement with the federal government. It has to be stressed that the transport services are managed by third parties and subsided by the Prefecture, so any raises to the fares, in theory, has to be amortized by the government, to the happiness of the bus companies and the disgust of the general public.

Did you ever hear that story about the straw that broke the camel’s back? Well, those twenty cents broke the city’s back.

***

It has to be said that public demonstrations in Brazil are still viewed with suspicion. The shadow of the military junta that governed the country from 1964 to 1985 is still around, and any sort of organized march is seen as a threat to security and – the supreme abhorrence to a paulistano – a threat to the traffic. So, anyone thinking of protesting outside Facebook has to face the opprobrium of their fellow citizens and be prepared to face truculence from the police.

Nevertheless, some groups organized a demonstration in the city centre to protest against the raises. It was a mostly peaceful do, according to eyewitnesses. Some excesses have occurred, s in any big movement: trashcans were set on fire, the traffic was disrupted in some areas. The police responded to all that with tear gas and rubber bullets. The mainstream press started to say that the demonstrators were hooligans and that they should not be tolerated, thus commending the acts of the policemen as keepers of the order and the peace.  Two more protests were staged in the same week, culminating with a big fight on Thursday where about 240 people were arrested, according to official numbers.

The official line insisted on hooliganism, but the social media told a different story. Videos of the police shooting on knelt protestors, spraying people’s eyes with pepper spray and aiming at the press swamped the Brazilian Internet services. A reporter from São Paulo’s biggest newspaper was shot in the eye with a rubber bullet. People living in areas close to the fight narrated scenes of chaos and violence. A journalist was ridiculously arrested in possession of wine vinegar (used as an antidote to the tear gas), which prompted the nicknames Salad Uprising or Vinegar Revolution to the protests. Trust the Brazilians to come up with jokes at times like these.

Suddenly, it wasn’t about the twenty cents in the bus fare, but also against the scenario in which the raise in the fare was placed: a world where the World Cup is costing about R$ 33 billion to the taxpayers, and few will be able to watch the game; a place where the buses are expansive, dirty, crowded; a place where the police feels free to let hell break loose, while both the Governor and the Mayor are abroad (in France, trying to bring the Expo 2020 to São Paulo).

There’s another demonstration booked this coming Monday, and I honestly don’t know how things will end.  If one thinks that the Arab Spring began because of a harassed fruit seller in Tunisia, and ended up sweeping the Gulf by storm, perhaps these twenty cents will be the reason to a change in a city not used to stand up for its rights. Or maybe I’m being too optimistic. But I’ll hang on to that for a while.

Tagged , , , ,

This is Sampa

São Paulo. Sampa for the locals, SP in the postal code, biggest city in Brazil. Phone code 5511, the “deathbed of samba” and the cradle of Brazilian rock and roll. Ask anyone in the country and you will hear we are arrogant, workaholic pricks, gluttons obssessed with money. Or that we are trendsetters, surrounded by the best the world can offer.

We cannot conjugate verbs to save our souls, and we believe that ours is the best pizza in the galaxy. We are afraid of rains, we idolize cars, our public transport is rickety. We are formed by immigrants, shaped by the influx of other regions, seasoned in the war against the concrete.

There are 20 million of us. These are some of our stories.