Drive-by orchids

Street orchids in Rio de Janeiro.

The Copacabana district of Rio de Janeiro is almost a pure grid. The longitudinal streets parallel to the beach carry heavy traffic and support only a few trees struggling against the diesel fumes. The shorter transversal streets are much quieter, and many have fine and quite luxuriant street trees, all of course the property of the city. Rua Anita Garibaldi is one of these streets near to Lu and me. Several of the trees support this:

The orchids have been planted by the inhabitants, and it´s become something of a competition between the blocks of condo flats. A few are in pots, but most are rooted normally in the tree bark. They look like florist´s hybrids to my unskilled eye rather than species, but that doesn´t seem to faze them.

Orchids in the cold North are iconic hothouse plants, and thought of as fragile as well as exotic. The CIA´s famous Cold War counterintelligence chief James Jesus Angleton hybridised orchids as a hobby, and as a rather obscure metaphor for his work. Did his orchids represent the KGB moles he saw everywhere, or his own equally obsessive and parasitic mole-hunters? But on their own tropical turf, or rather bark, orchids are the tough opportunists their way of life requires.The complex flowers target specialised pollinators: these will be harder to find in urban streets than congenial habitat, so don´t expect orchids to spread spontaneously to other streets. Calls to Angleton´s ghost on the question whether the seed of hybrid orchids is viable were not returned.

Brazilians are not famed for the sort of ostentatious civic virtue that leads Dutch housewives to sweep the pavements (AmE: sidewalks) in front of their houses, which traditionally have no curtains in the front windows hiding the family´s virtue and cleanliness from passers-by. Significantly, the concierges in Anita Garibaldi do sweep the pavements. I don´t want to read too much into a localised street orchid competition, but it is a good sign when our instinctive striving for status is channelled into such positive-sum games as, er, epifights.

Oscar Niemeyer

Oscar Niemeyer, great Brazilian architect, died on 5 December.

Oscar Niemeyer died on 5 December, at the age of 104. Whatever you think of his work and politics, he had an amazing run. He was working until 100, and gave perfectly lucid interviews then. His first marriage lasted 76 years; he remarried at 99. He lost his only daughter when she was 82.

Niteroi museum, 1996 (N aged 89)

I go along with a conventional view that he designed some lovely buildings, but was as useless a town planner as the rest of the masters of the International Style. Continue reading “Oscar Niemeyer”

Supporting the arts

Of course government should support the arts.  Unfortunately, as soon as we try to reduce this prescription to specific practices, it gets extremely messy.  What level of government should give what to whom, under what conditions? What government programs, other than writing checks, matter?  The New York Times offers a Room for Debate forum that assembles a bunch of arts advocates, plus a Cato Institute small-government ideologue, for a conversation that consistently, and typically, ignores many of the most important realities and constraints affecting this sector.  Why do smart people leave their brains at the door and get all mooshy and soft-headed talking about art?  Hats off to the Times for running a piece on this important topic, but shame on all the authors for an almost unrelieved collection of fact-free posturing and noodling.  Not that they are unusual in this regard: reading most of what’s written about this issue could make a cynic think none of these people cares enough about art to actually think carefully and do homework.  Sorry; arts policy doesn’t need wooly sentiment, pointing with alarm, doe-eyed begging and whining, or charity-case condescension; it needs the dignity of serious thinking that treats artists and their audience as grownups.

Continue reading “Supporting the arts”

Bandit cable

Thre cable TV service run by crimunals in Rio´s favelas was much cheaper than its legal successors.

Last month the Rio police, supported by marines in armoured cars and a cloud of TV cameras, stormed the Rocinha favela, unopposed by the drug traffickers. Behind the media theatre, the policy of reoccupation seems to be working. Police stations are followed by social services. Tourists and banks are venturing in. Shopkeepers don´t have to pay protection any more. The favela dwellers are delighted to be freed from the rule of mobsters, right?

Up to a point, Lord Copper. They now have to pay for their electricity instead of stealing it from the street lighting cables. Tough. They also – and here I have much more sympathy – have to pay a lot more for TV. As air reception is very poor on the steep hillsides, TV was supplied over an illegal cable network, the gatonet, controlled of course by the drug gangs. The going rate was 15-30 reais a month for up to 120 channels, including the free-to-air ones that carry telenovelas and football, and hacked paying film channels. I´m quite impressed by the bandits´ technical achievement here.

A gatonet office in Bangu favela

are now being offered the service by legal providers for twice the price: 40 to 80 reais. The minimum wage in Brazil is 543 reais a month, and many favelistas will be living off less. 10% of their income just for TV!

The gatonet was provided by murderous outlaw kleptocrats, but their legal Brazilian counterparts are in this area even worse for the poor. My (non-poor) daughter in Lille pays 30 euros a month (72 reais) for 20-megabit ADSL (the slow offer!), 100 free TV channels and many others at a reasonable a la carte charge, and unlimited phone calls in France.

It´s not I think an accident that there are no low-power repeaters on Rio´s many hills to provide decent air TV reception, or that the municipality has not simply taken over the seizedgatonet and run it as a very profitable public service. There are TV satellites over Brazil, but owned by Globo and Sky (from which we buy a poor-value package). The selection of free-to-air channels is very thin. In Europe the TV satellites are owned by Astra, a Luxembourg corporation independent of the TV networks it carries, including Sky´s encrypted ones and FTA ones from the BBC, ITV, and Germany. There must be a profit opportunity in Rocinha for pirate satellite TV using hacked second-hand Sky receivers.

Brazil has the typical second-world problem of governance. It seems to lack a professional higher civil service; ministers are free to staff their fiefs with party cronies, which helps explain the high level of corruption and the serial scandals in Brasilia. In state capitals, it doesn´t even become a scandal. A technocracy can be a force for competition if it´s given a mandate. The European Commission is unideologically power-hungry, so it´s super-statist in agriculture (inheriting French policy) and strongly pro-competition in electricity and telecoms (inheriting German policy).

Lacking technocrats, it would still be possible for Brazil´s vigorous democracy to provide checks on monopolists. But the Brazilian left is typically soggy on competition. Partly it´s ideology; if you demonise all capitalists, you lose the ability to discriminate between useful and exploitative ones, and this continues when you make your peace with them. Partly it´s the organisational base: for the PT, the unions, representing a labour elite, many working for public and parastatal organisations. Monopolists can offer safe jobs with good wages. (A necessary but not a sufficient condition; see Amazon´s sweatshop warehouses.)

It´s possible for a right-wing party to be pro-competition, if it has a liberal ideology (in the European free-market sense) and a base representing small business, like Thatcher´s Conservatives or the German Free Democrats. If the losing conservative candidate in the last Brazilian general election, Jose Serra, had such a vision, he certainly didn´t articulate it.

Which brings me to the Republicans, another party of businessmen. GOP policies clearly only reflect the interests of big monopolistic corporations, not small ones. On credit card fees, the GOP backs the extortionate fees of the Visa and Mastercard duopoly (>2% per sale against 0.5% in Europe) against the interests of retailers, garage owners and Joe the Plumber. It opposed public works in a recession, a lifeline to small construction companies; and Obama´s moves towards universal health care, an obvious interest of every American employer. How many minutes a week does a Danish employer spend worrying about the health insurance of her employees, and how many staff does she pay to handle it? Zero.

Thomas Frank, in his famous What´s the matter with Kansas?, noted the ¨false consciousness¨ of Republican American workers who vote their cultural biases against their material interests. Does not the same apply to Republican small businessmen?

Safety nets: hammocks or trampolines?

A ropewalk in Rio illustrates the liberatinrg power of a safey net.

A fable about a safety net.

Catacumba park in Rio is a replanted hillside overlooking the upmarket Rio lagoon. It was once occupied by a favela forcibly demolished in 1970 for the greater good, they said. It includes a (paying) adventure trail, with a longish rope walk at two levels: a high one for adults, paralleled by a low one for children, only a metre off the ground. Users of both have to wear a Serious hard hat and a harness clipped to a safety line. The attraction is a success with middle-class parents and children, though it costs too much for the poor. For some reason when we were there the customers were all small girls (footnote).

This got me thinking about safety nets more generally. Continue reading “Safety nets: hammocks or trampolines?”

These are not the revolutionaries you have been looking for

Dilma Rousseff carries forward the other revolution.

Dilma Rousseff, elected President of Brazil last year as Lula’s handpicked successor, has survived her first sleaze crisis (and now the second). They won’t be the last, as sleaze has apparently become the grease that prevents the Brazilian polity, emulating the USA’s veto-rich dual separation of powers on both geographical and institutional axes, from seizing up entirely.

The crisis involved the unexplained enrichment of Antonio Palocci, the Minister of the Casa Civil – roughly White House Chief of Staff – and former Finance Minister. Dilma did not put her own credibility on the line to save him, and he went. In the reshuffle, she also changed the Minister of Institutional Relations, responsible for negotiations with the two houses of Congress. These are generally seen as the two most powerful ministerial offices.

Here are the old and new lineups:
Antonio Palocci – former minister of the Casa Civil

Luiz Nóbrega de Oliveira – former minister of Institutional Relations

Gleisi Hoffmann – new minister of the Casa Civil

Ideli Savatti – new minister of Institutional Relations

On the conventional left-right dimension of politics, Dilma in power has consolidated her Social Democrat conversion or sellout (take your pick) from the militant and violent hard left where she started her political life. She even sent an effusive birthday message to Henrique Cardoso, the 81-year-old conservative predecessor of Lula, and invited him to dine with Barack Obama. Commentators don’t read any significant policy shift in the reshuffle.

But still. The three most powerful politicians in Brazil are now women. Latino machismo has been taking some hard knocks recently. Chile was first to elect a woman president in 2006, then Argentina. [Update: And Costa Rica, with Laura Chinchilla. H/t commenter “Ted from Baltimore”.] But Michele Bachelet and Cristina Kirchner had very strong family reasons for their political careers: Bachelet’s father was a general murdered by Pinochet et al, Kirchner is the wife of a president. This follows the semi-dynastic pattern of Indira Gandhi and Chandrika Bandaranaike. Rousseff, Hoffmann and Salvatti are as self-made and hard-boiled as Margaret Thatcher.

How much does it really mean in the wider society to have women reach equality in electoral politics? I don’t know either. Clearly, the answer includes “something”. Brazilian TV soaps routinely include women corporate bosses – to a still unrealistic extent, mirroring the aspirations rather than the realities of the mass audience.
But the feminist revolution, unlike the proletarian one launched two Victorian decades earlier, has actually won. Even the current US Republican Party, in thrall to a generally reactionary ideology, has no sexist qualms about Sarah Palin or Michelle Bachmann. The objection to their politics from left and right is not that they are weak silly girls, but (in an entirely inclusive, gender-neutral and non-patriarchal way) that they are ignorant and deluded demagogues.

To ward off brickbats and frying-pans from enraged lectrices, I’ll stipulate that the revolution is not complete. Most workplaces do not look like Dilma Rousseff’s Cabinet. See for instance the absurdly and dangerously macho culture of finance. It ain’t quite over yet; but the fat lady is already singing.

Upstairs, downstairs

Why do small Rio flats have separate servant´s entrances?

One piece of trivia I learnt while hunting for a flat in Rio is that even small ones (our budget limited us to about 70 m2) have slave servant´s quarters. Here´s the original floor plan of a typical 2-bedroomed flat, built in the 1950s; but the pattern held at least till the mid-1970s.

The modest space is divided as rigidly as an Edwardian mansion into the master´s and mistress´ area and the servant´s. The maid has her own tiny bedroom (ca. 4m2 ), toilet/shower, washing area, and kitchen – with its own door on to the landing.

Continue reading “Upstairs, downstairs”

War in the slums

Near-war in Rio between gangs and police.

Sorry to break into the American holiday weekend and all that, but in case you´ve not been noticing, the news in Rio is of a near-war with automatic weapons between favela drug gangs and paramilitary police. Death toll variously estimated between 14 and 30.

The clash was sparked whern the Policia Militar moved into the Complexo do Alemão, one of the last favelas to be ¨pacified¨ – note the COIN language. Continue reading “War in the slums”


Brazil could celebrate 200 years of independence in 2022 with a 4,000 km trail.

Brazil has a big anniversary coming up in 2022: 200 years of independence. But it hasn´t started to think about this. For now, all eyes are on the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games. Meeting the demands of not one but two megalomaniac self-perpetuating oligarchies, FIFA and the IOC, will be hugely expensive and time-consuming. Mind you, I doubt it is FIFA insisting that the stadium in Manaus (home to several teams in the Amazon League) be demolished and rebuilt for 47,000. Brazil will only realize in 2016 that there are only six years to go before the bicentennial. This is quite long enough to organize fine parties and plan a park or two, but not, if Brazilians want one, a worthy memorial on a national scale.

The 1922 monument is the giant Art Deco statue of Christ the Redeemer above Rio, then the capital. They didn´t actually finish it till 1931. The absence of a cross makes it a far gentler and more eirenic symbol than a crucifix, and it´s beloved by Cariocas. Still, Brazil has changed a lot since then, and I suggest the country should look for something different for 2022: dispersed, rural as well as urban, green, youthful.

My Clever Plan is an Independence Trail along the Atlantic façade, from the lagoons on the Uruguayan border to the NE corner, Cabo São Roque north of Natal. 73% of Brazil´s population lives in the states it would connect. It would I think work out a little longer than the Appalachian Trail (4,000 km or so), and provide a similar mix of opportunities for family days out and months-long treks for super-fit and slightly crazy enthusiasts.

While the Atlantic façade is hilly, it doesn´t supply such a convenient chain as the Appalachians. North of Rio, you can either go inland and follow the Serra do Espinhão – dry maquis – or, my preference, follow what´s left of the Mata Atlantica rainforest nearer the coast.

Continue reading “Chutzpath”