Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Depressing Effects of Eduardo Paes's Efforts to "Clean Up" Rio de Janeiro

I alluded yesterday to the visible changes Rio's mayor, Eduardo Paes (of the centrist Partido Movimento Democratico Brasileiro, PMDB) has effected in the first 6 months of his administration, and overall, they are extremely depressing. Back in February, I wrote about Paes cracking down on the informal economy in Rio, going after not just guys who sell cans of beer on the streets during Carnival, but people who sell corn, books, sunglasses, whatever. The article at the time made clear that this crackdown was not just some rhetorical move (though it was that, too), but was actually being implemented.

I had actually forgotten mostly about this since February, but the moment I hit the streets in Botafogo (in the southern part of Rio, where I was staying), it was immediately clear how strong Paes had cracked down. Many of the vendors I was accustomed to seeing in their usual spots just weren't there anymore. Sure, I hadn't been around in 15 months, and it's possible (and probable) that a vendor or two would move on or die or have some other reason to not be there, but this wasn't a case of one or two vendors gone - nearly everybody who sold anything on the streets was gone. Sure, near Guanabara Bay, the guys who sold pirated DVDs, video games, and computer software were gone - that crackdown on piracy had begun before I left Rio and before Paes was elected. But others were totally absent, too - a guy who sold hot dogs in the evenings a block away from my old apartment; the guy who sold books near a collection of restaurants; the woman who sold candy from a small cart; the guy who sold corn near the beach front. Not one of them was in their old haunts at any time of the day. And even those who had persisted had to be super-careful. In front of the building where I was staying on this trip, there was always a guy selling sunglasses and small housewares and a woman who sold home-made goods. One day, upon returning to the apartment, they (and a few other vendors) were suddenly running towards me. I was initially confused, until I realized (as they were looking back over their shoulders) that the police must be coming to crack down, and they were off to hide.

There is so much wrong with this policy, and this last anecdote points to one of the biggest problems - people adapt to laws. In this case, I actually admire the intelligence in these remaining vendors picking their spots to sell: the building they were stationed in front was on a major one-way street that could only be accessed by coming up this (multi-mile) street through traffic, or turning onto it from another (heavily-congested) one-way street. That may not make much sense, but what that position did was give these people a perfect location to set up shop and have plenty of time for a warning from a lookout if the police were coming. And that was exactly what had happened - the lookout, stationed on the intersecting one-way street, saw the cops coming and gave the signal, and the vendors bolted. By the time the police car had navigated traffic and gotten a green light to come around to the place where the vendors had been, they were out of sight.

To be clear, while I'm strongly against this crackdown in general, there is room for maneuvering here. While I think copyright laws really need to be overhauled, the Brazilian government writ large has been making some efforts to crack down on software and film piracy (while also insisting that companies like Microsoft need to make products more affordable in countries with lower incomes), so if Paes is involved in that, fine. I have a harder time cracking down on guys who sell sunglasses or fake rolexes, but not for legal reasons - I figure if they want to sell it, and people are willing to run the risk to buy it, then fine. It's not like citizens are compelled to only purchase from these vendors. The crackdown really gets indefensible on people whose income in no way is infringing upon the formal market, though - somebody making some delicious deserts to sell on the street for a low price? An old guy who has a bunch of old books to sell setting up his wares on a (very broad) sidewalk? There is no threat there at all, and cracking down on these people is only depriving them of a source of income, one that is even more needed as Brazil officially enters into the global recession.

And it's not like Paes is genuinely concerned about the actual economic effects of these vendors. He made it clear in his campaign, and in his rhetoric since, that this isn't about boosting the formal economy or even cracking down on contraband. It's about "cleaning up" the city, and, as I wrote back in February, that means only one thing:

[B]y 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.

Rio specifically, and many of Brazil's urban centers more generally, has a rich history of launching "cleanup" campaigns that have only further marginalized the poor (and often racially "darker"), from the 1890s after emancipation and the end of the empire, to the 1920s, when the poor were kicked out of the center of the city in anticipation of the Belgian royal family's visit to Rio in 1922 (the first European royalty to set foot in Brazil since the Portuguese Crown arrived in 1808 when it fled the Napoleonic invasion), to the 1960s and the governorship of Carlos Lacerda. By taking this stance on the informal economy, Paes is only adding his own name to this infamous list of injustices.

And I wish it stopped there, but it doesn't. Paes, in his effort to "clean up" the city, is also cracking down on the little bars that dot the landscape, where you could sit down at a nice plastic table on the sidewalk in the evening and have a nice cold beer (in Rio, quality is determined more by coldness than by taste, a flawed system but one that has its logic based on the heat). It was a wonderful way to spend a night chilling out, and it wasn't like these little bars were occupying the sidewalks out of maliciousness - oftentimes, the "bar" itself was no more than 10 feet deep and 5 feet wide, meaning that they had to expand their business onto the sidewalk if they were to actually have any clients, and they only put tables on the sidewalk once neighboring businesses had closed for the day.

However, Paes has declared that these activities also must go as they are an eyesore on the landscape. Now, I actually lived above no fewer than four of these places, and while it got noisy, it was never so terrible that you couldn't sleep - certainly, the crowds below talking were less noisy than the idiots driving by honking their horns, or the delivery trucks that arrived at the grocery store across the street at 4 in the morning. Yes, the sidewalks would get crowded, and I understand why that would bother some, but it was never like you absolutely could not walk on the sidewalks when these places set up shop. In short, it was nowhere near a major inconvenience, and it afforded not only a great way for inexpensive leisure, but gave Rio a particular vibrance.

That vibrance does not fit within Paes's elitist vision, though, and he has cracked down. Upon walking through my old neighborhood, no fewer than 3 old bars had been closed, unable to remain open in the face of a policy that prejudiced the owners' livelihood over the principle of "aesthetics." The obvious conclusion is that this policy has shut down small businesses (which were a part of the formal sector, not random street vendors), leading to more people jobless and having to find work in an economy that isn't the most favorable right now. But that's not the end of the consequences, either. Many of these little bars provided people who weren't necessarily of means (which is a majority of Brazil) to be able to get together with friends over some inexpensive beers and have a good time. In Rio go to a "bar" like those we have in the U.S., you would end up paying double to triple the price of a bottle of beer that you paid on the street - the "bar scene" in Rio is very much a middle-class/hipster (yes, they have them everywhere) thing to do, and most Brazilians are not middle-class (nor hipsters). Thus, Paes's policies haven't just prejudiced the poor and small business owners in their means of earning income; they've also directly attacked their means of leisure.

As should be clear by this point, I'm fairly biased, but I'm still comfortable in saying that Rio was a much more depressing place upon my visit this time. Much of what had given it its cultural flair - cheap books and good food on the street, hanging out with friends and total strangers on the street and having a cold beer - is gone. This isn't to say, "oh, poor Rio - it's culture is now dead and stagnant," for that's far from the case, and no place has its culture bound up only on things like the informal economy. Nonetheless, a not-insignificant part of the city that I knew is gone (and I didn't even make it into the downtown area, where the informal economy was much stronger). Even walking along the beaches and through other neighborhoods, the streets had a ghostly, more subdued quality about them. Sure, the ocean was still beautiful to look at, as were the mountains. While there, I couldn't help but feeling outrage, frustration, and anger that such an elitist vision of Rio had been so (though not totally) successfully implemented. But mostly, I felt sadness: having seen the effects of Paes's policies in only 6 months, I left Rio feeling that the city hadn't become "marvelous;" rather, it had been stripped of part of what had made it so "marvelous" in the first place.