Saturday, February 21, 2009

Rio's New Mayor Launches Blatant Class Warfare

The AP ran a disturbing story (courtesy the LA Times, though I originally read the article on my Wii news channel, which will probably merit a blog post of its own in the near future) about the new tactics and policies of Rio's new mayor, Eduardo Paes.

Eduardo Paes, the fresh-faced 39-year-old mayor who took office on Jan. 1, is energetically trying to reverse Rio's reputation as an anything-goes city where savvy citizens learn early that some laws exist only on paper and can be safely ignored.
But the mayor isn't giving up his campaign, even as more than 700,000 visitors crowd the streets. "We have to give a shock of urban order to the city, an organized posture, to recover authority and better conserve public spaces," he explained during the mayoral race.
"A shock of urban order" sounds rather extreme and authoritarian, perhaps, but let's see what his plans are. Who is Paes going to go after first?
His first targets have been the countless providers of what many citizens consider to be useful — if illegal — services in Rio's informal economy.

From men who sell boiled corn in the streets, to boys who demand coins to safeguard cars from thieves, to women hawking ice-cold beer from small coolers on Copacabana beach, hundreds of these workers have felt the pinch.

"I've been selling books here for 40 years," said Rubem da Consigao, 71, a wisp of a man whose small folding table held 100 used volumes in the posh Ipanema neighborhood. "Then last week, the police came, said I didn't have a vendor's license, took my books and said they would burn them. This country is full of thieves — if they take the bread from my hand, there is going to be one more."

Many such workers say they have been hassled by police. Almost all say they have little choice but to keep working illegally. [...]
Ah - going after people who harmlessly sell books, beer, or corn on the street! How brave! It's genius! Everybody knows - all of Rio's problems come from its informal economy!!! And who could argue with Paes's logic?
"Paes has said that Rio lost its luster long ago by allowing little crimes to tarnish its reputation: "I've never lived in the Marvelous City," he has said, invoking one of Rio's old nicknames."
Sarcasm aside, it should go without saying, but by appealing to the "Marvelous City" he never had, Paes is also appealing to the worst kind of elitism and repression of Rio's poor. Implying that the "Marvelous City" ("Cidade Maravilhosa," Rio's nickname) can only exist when street vendors are removed from the scene is patently, vulgarly, and quite frankly, unrealistically expecting to just wipe the face of poverty from the city of Rio. In effect, it's saying, "The city can only be beautiful when we keep the favelados and the poor in their own neighborhoods" where, let's not forget, they can easily find themselves victims of police occupations and violence.

Rio's facing a lot of problems, and certainly, some of the more major problems (like police corruption and the violence in the favelas) are, as the article points out, not within Paes's jurisdiction. However, concentrating his emphasis on street vendors and others who are involved in the informal economy not out of any huge entrepreneurship or search for the thrill of illegal activities, but for the simple reason that they are trying to make ends meet, is not only revolting, it's unrealistic. These efforts reveal Paes to be one of the most blatant elitists willing to wage obvious class war on his own city that I've ever seen any politician anywhere pull (as well as the micromanager's micromanager). The fact that he has no social program responses to offer alternatives to street vendors beyond "fines and/or jail" just makes it that much worse.

It should also go without saying that basing your "cleanup" program on Rudy Giulani's campaigns of the 1990s is a terrible idea - Giuliani oversaw, among other things, impunity in escalating police violence and an extreme widening of the income gap in a city that now has 1.5 million of its 8 million residents (that's 18.75%) living below the poverty line, due in no small part because of the Giuliani/Bloomberg policies of the last 16 years.

But hey - at least Paes isn't hiding his true colors.