Friday, December 18, 2009

Eduardo Paes Determined to Destroy Rio de Janeiro through Useless Policies and Class Warfare

This past February, Rio de Janeiro's mayor, Eduardo Paes, launched the first step in his efforts to "clean up" Rio by banning beer vendors on the streets during Carnaval, a drastic and useless move that I hoped would be temporary. When I went to Brazil in June, I had a chance to see just how ugly and damaging Paes's clean-up efforts had become, undoing much of the harmless and enjoyable street life in Rio. Apparently, it has officially become Paes's goal to strip Rio of all of the harmless activities that one finds in public spaces, as he now has launched his assault on the most sacred sites in Rio: the beaches.

Under rules aimed at bringing order to Rio's famous beaches, ball games are among the undesirable activities being curtailed or banned as the city that will host a World Cup and Olympics within seven years seeks to clean up its act. [...]

The beach is just the latest target of a city-wide campaign to bring order to Rio, where traffic and other rules are often seen as optional. Though in place for nearly a year, the effort gained urgency with Rio's selection as 2016 Olympic host.

Rio state this month hired former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who takes credit for cleaning up the Big Apple, to help advise it on the Brazilian city's crime problems. Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes recently told Cariocas, as Rio residents are known, to stop being such "pigs," referring to their habit of leaving piles of garbage on the beach.

The man in charge of carrying out the new policy, public order secretary Rodrigo Bethlam, said the beach's central place in Rio life made the battle for order there crucial.

"The beach is an emblematic place. If we can succeed in organizing the beach, it means we can organize the city," he told Reuters

This is just ridiculous in so many ways (and keep in mind - we're talking about soccer in Brazil - this isn't just some passing hobby among a handful). Firstly, the beaches are in fact public spaces, meaning they are for use by the public. The notion that playing soccer on the beach (in areas that are informally designated as athletic areas) is somehow "disorderly" and cutting into the power of the state is absurd. Secondly, the idea that if you can organize the beach, you "can organize the city" is stupid beyond description. The beach is in no way representative of all of the non-beach aspects of the city - it is a place of leisure for most, and business for an handful. It is not the financial district. It is not the favelas. True, you do get to see the wide income gap play out on the beach, but solving the "problem" of people playing soccer or volleyball on the beach does nothing to address that income gap, nor to address the issues of murderous police, the drug trade, the enormous gap in wealth, or the troublesome and often disgusting racism and classism of Rio's elites and middle class. Cleaning up the pollution on the beaches is a great idea, but again, has nothing to do with pick-up games of soccer. And it's not like there's an absence of space - while the beaches do get crowded on hot weekends, Copacabana and Ipanema alone are 9 km (about 6 miles) long, and Rio has over 50 miles of beaches.

In other words, this is yet another effort on Paes' part to A) "clean up" the city through absolutely useless gestures that accomplish no real good and detract much from the quotidian in Rio, and B) are specifically targeted towards the middle- and upper-class cariocas who lament how the beaches have become so "dirty" in the last decade or so, as the poor from the northern zone had increasing access to the richer southern neighborhoods in Copacabana and Ipanema. It's the worst kind of "high-modernism" one can find - the state's efforts to control everything end up stripping daily life of all of its harmless joys, all so the state can impose its presence in an obvious way that does nothing to deal with the actual substantial economic, social, and political problems facing a city (or country). Paes could use his office to try to improve the social conditions in the favelas and build up a beneficial state structure; instead, he makes sales of beer on the streets illegal at Carnaval. He could try to end the impunity police face as they enter favelas and kill indiscriminately; instead, he wages a war on beach-front soccer. The uselessness and stupidity of this is just mind-boggling.

And the useless enforcement goes beyond just soccer, touching everything that makes beach life enjoyable in Rio:

Among other cherished beach freedoms being withdrawn are sales of food on skewers such as shrimp and cheese that are hawked by entrepreneurs plying the sands. No longer will beach-goers, known here as "banhistas," be able to bring coolers for drinks or play music on stereos.

The main targets of the new policy are the hundreds of "barracas," or huts, that dot Rio's beaches, renting out deck chairs and selling everything from beer to barbecued meat.

Often emblazoned with their owner's name, they are colorful, if chaotic, fixtures of beach life that laugh in the face of sanitation rules but have their own loyal following.

Under the new rules, names or advertisements are out and they must accept being outfitted with all-white tents and equipment that, while smart-looking, are somewhat bland.

You want to eat on the beach? Sorry - that's no longer an option. You'll have to go to one of the high-end restaurants on the beach-front (restaurants that, not coincidentally, the poorer segments of Rio's population who come from the northern part of the city cannot afford). You want to rent a chair to sit on? Sorry - the guy who has a little tent and rents them out isn't allowed to do that anymore. Bring your own (which won't fit on the buses, again meaning that if you're not from that neighborhood, you're out of luck). Are you gay, and do you want to join other gay individuals in their own section of the beach? Sorry - the tents and flags that the gay community set up so others know where to find them aren't allowed, either. In short, Paes, in his increasingly ego-maniacal effort to control Rio, has launched blatant open class and cultural warfare, all in an effort to strip Rio of its vibrancy in the name of "order."

Fortunately, the people have begun overrule Paes on this one.

They are putting in place their own law, but it's wrong," said Marcel Damasceno de Matos, a 39-year-old who said he has worked his patch of Ipanema beach for 10 years.

"I have customers from the United States and other countries who come back year after year and look for my name. Now there's going to be a lot of confusion."

Still, in a country with no shortage of laws but a glaring lack of enforcement, not everyone on the beach is convinced that the shock of order will end up being so shocking.

"The law exists, but you're in Brazil," said Bernardo Braga, a 26-year-old model and student who was playing "keep up" on the Ipanema seafront.

"You just have to walk along here to see all the rules being ignored."

I already hope cariocas elect him out of office at the end of his term (which, unfortunately, is not for another 3 years). He has made it clear that important changes in the social and economic landscape meant to actually better the lives and existence of cariocas is not on his agenda. Instead, he is intent on imposing the state on the most mundane and harmless aspects of life, driving many out of their livelihoods, while issues like police violence, the drug trade, and disparities in wealth continue to plague Rio.