Human Rights in Brazil

In Brazil, the almost universal perception amongst the middle and upper classes is that human rights defenders are simply defending criminals…

I spent some time yesterday talking to people from the justice program at Conectas, a collection of organisations that works on the unpopular issue of human rights in Brazil. Conectas also has a global south program that works more broadly in the developing world, and publishes the excellent journal, Sur.

ipbI say that human rights is unpopular, which may sound surprising, but talking to the valiant lawyers and organisers at the Instituto Pro Bono, which provides lawyers to those who can’t afford them, mainly prisoners, and Artigo 1o, which brings civil actions against the state on behalf of prisoners killed or injured by police and prison staff, I was immediately reminded of the depth of the social divisions, and the sheer mutual ignorance of people in different social classes here in Brazil.

In part, I was told, the gap has to do with the experience of the dictatorship that came to and end from 1985. Human rights had grown in opposition to the dictatorship, and once the end came, many wealthier people started to wonder why people still needed these apparently strange and special rights in a ‘free society’. The almost universal perception amongst the middle and upper classes is that human rights defenders are simply defending criminals, end of story. The Artigo 1o staff told me that they regularly receive hate-mail and threatening or angry telephone calls. The Instituto Pro Bono is still battling to have its lawyers even accepted in courts in many states in Brazil. Bar associations are opposing them on the grounds that they take business away from defence lawyers! Neither organisation gets any more than a tiny proportion of its income from Brazil; most comes from the European Union and the USA.

Everything you need to know about what drives Sao Paulo (Nineteenth Century Building in the heart of the city)
Almost everything you need to know about what drives Sao Paulo (Nineteenth Century business federation building in the heart of the city - the other side of the entrance says INDUSTRIA)

Partly too there is a partially Catholic Christian legacy of accepting one’s ‘natural’ social place and waiting for what one deserves after death. However there are also questions of geography. And sociospatial variety leads to different relationships and different attitudes by the ruling classes in different parts of the country. In Sao Paulo, the poorer areas, and the favelas – I was reminded of course that there are both and many, many very poor people are not living in illegal settlements – are largely peripheral. This means that they can be ignored by the rich. Sao Paulo is also a mercantile city absolutely dedicated to making money and many of the rich seem to regard the masses of poor as simply ‘failed entrepreneurs’ whose fate is their own fault. This contrasts with Rio, where rich and poor are thrust right up against each other, with favelas running right into the heart of the city. The poverty cannot be ignored, but instead it is crushed, repressed by the actions of groups like the Autodefesas Comunit√°rias, (illegal ‘community self-defence’ groups).

Welcome to Sao Paulo! ("REVENGE - Intruders will die" says the graffiti)
Welcome to the other Sao Paulo! ("REVENGE - Intruders will die" says the graffiti)

Of course such mass violence does occur in Sao Paulo too – Artigo 1o is currently looking for funding (not a lot in relative terms BTW – please contact me if you have about $6000 US to spare!) to publish their report into the mass battles between police and organisations of ex-prisoners and criminals, which resulted in the extra-legal execution of hundreds of people by the police. However, in general, the staff of Artigo 1o argued, the relationships are different.

(there was a lot more, but I will write about issues around security and surveillance later)

Finding my feet and losing my head in Sao Paulo

It is my firm belief, yet to be disproved, that any urbanist worthy of the name can find a decent bar within 24 hours of their arrival in any city on the world, and preferably less. Read Ernest Hemingway’s Paris: A Moveable Feast. It’s Chapter 1. No-one knew bars like Hemingway. In Sao Paulo, as in Paris even today, it would be impossible to fail this challenge. I found mine this evening right next to a more famous bar at the corner of Sao Joao and Ipiranga which has started to believe its own mythology and therefore lost everything that once made it a bar worth celebrating in song, and I settled in to watch and learn.

I’ve already got so used to joking with barmen and concierges about my poor Portuguese that it’s almost like an icebreaker. The bar was haphazard, white tiles, and giant freezers which got the beer down to an appreciably glacial degree of cool, decent salgados and two grades of chili source to accompany them (hot and really hot – no-one has the first choice, of course).

Bars are human sociality at their most basic, their most primate-like. I once worked on a zoological expedition studying monkeys in Kalimantan, and there is very little I’ve seen in bars that I haven’t seem being done by other primates (apart from the serving of cold beers, which explains most of what happens in bars that you don’t see in monkey groups). The forced-together bonhomie, the silence amongst the mostly male clientele as some particularly fine example of the female of the species walks by (and that happens an awful lot in Brazil), the arguments about sport and politics, the group-dominance by alpha-males – at least in the absence of any alpha-females – it’s all there and it’s all – excepting the beer and the salgados – monkey.

It makes one depressed and optimistic at the same time. You know that anywhere that humans go, somewhere in the universe, there’s going to be a bar just like this. And yet, it makes you wonder whether we will ever manage to solve the enigma of cities, a solution that will bring in those shadowy figures who lurk just beyond the reach of the bright lights of the bar – the stick-thin figure of the beggar-woman who passed me twice this evening, the guy selling lottery tickets at the last minute, the prostitutes and thieves who have been driven to these ends because of the city, because their existence and the existence of the city don’t quite seem to coincide in the same way, the same spacetime. There’s a reason good urbanists need to find a good bar. It isn’t always for the same reasons as everyone else.

Sao Paulo Surveillance and Security

Nor surprisingly there is very little surveillance in the area around the hotel, except the old fashioned kind and you better be sure that people are watching you from the little shops and street corners. However when you head down the Av. Sao Joao into the financial district, it’s a different story. I was cautious about taking obvious pictures of police and security guards, let alone the serious security inside the bank entrances (metal detectors, scanners, guards etc.) because I just don’t know what kind of trouble that would bring, but here’s a flavour.

Touchdown in Sao Paulo

The centre of Sao Paulo not a place for those who don’t like the scent of human beings together or being touched and jostled. The streets smell of piss and sweat and there are boys begging and running and men lying in boarded-up doorways or just on the sidewalks, with their dogs or without…

It’s hot and wet and I’m lying on a bed in a hotel which is a good 2 stars short of the 4 that it claims to have, in a neighbourhood in which the only stars you’ll see are if you’re lying in the gutter. And many are.

I’m sorry to go gonzo on y’all but on first impressions that is the way I will have to write it. Sao Paulo is the kind of city that seems to have that effect. I’ve only really come here to talk to a few social organisations and to see Rio’s great rival, but it’s hard to know what to make of it. Flying into Congohas, we cut through the low clouds to the spectacle of this endless sprawl of towers and factories and suburbs and favelas and highways thrown together with as little sense or plan as any place I’ve been in Asia. Like Tokyo or Mumbai it’s just too big to take in or apprehend even from the air, although you can’t avoid the scalar indicators of class divisions – both vertical and horizontal. The airport is one of those which has been drowned in this rising sea of humanity which makes the final descent pass with a feeling of rooftop-skimming alarm, which a slight sideways jolt on the infamously greasy runway surface – a plane skidded out of control here in July 2007, killing 187 people – does little to allay.

We make it safely down. As we are heading to the terminal I see my first helicopter, another reminder of the social extremes of this place where the super-rich just don’t let their feet be soiled by the streets any more and which has the largest private helicopter use outside of New York.A taxi to the centre – they tell me there aren’t any buses though I am sure there are, and I won’t be making that mistake again!. The highway that snakes deeper into the city is hemmed in with rotting stone and concrete and every space that hasn’t been walled off has been reclaimed and is packed tight with self-constructed dwellings in various stages from shack to house. Occasionally huge voids are opened up – precursors to a further gentrification, some new fortified tower condominium – and the archaeology of the city is laid bare: a splash of colonial colour, deco curves and the confident lines of Brazilian modernism, all cut neatly and disrespectfully for some tower block with a European name and not a hint of Indio or African heritage. Brazil might not be an overtly racist culture in many ways, but ‘whiteness’ remains the shade of aspiration…

Then a sharp left off the highway and we are in the old centre. The taxi driver knows the map but he doesn’t know the area, and out path is blocked by a Sunday market. I take a mental note – I’ll be back later. We get to the hotel, which pleasingly is not anything like the priggish image on the website and if it is ‘perfect for business’, it certainly doesn’t look like the kind of business you do with a briefcase… This turns out to be exactly what O Centro is all about. I get out and head back towards the market for a pastel com queijo and a cool caldo de cana com limao, and just to wander amongst the fruit and veg sellers. This place is much more obviously mixed than Curitiba. The faces of the vendors are a whole range of darker shades, the accents more varied, tougher and more incomprehensible!

The toughness isn’t just in the voices of the stallholders though. The is a brash, hard city. The centre of Sao Paulo not a place for those who don’t like the scent of human beings together or being touched and jostled. The streets smell of piss and sweat and there are boys begging and running and men lying in boarded-up doorways or just on the sidewalks, with their dogs or without. Sleeping, drunk, dead – who knows? The market is winding down, an at the ends of the street, amidst the sickly sweet decaying piles of vegetable leaves and squeezed sugarcane pulp, several middle-aged whores work the last few departing customers. They half-heartedly ask me if I want something. I just smile and politely say no thank-you very much, which seems to amuse them. I don’t suppose they get or expect much of that sort of interaction. This sets a theme. There are women working the car parks, women on the street, women trying to entice any likely-looking customers into a seedy-looking film theatre for ‘fantasia’. Turning a corner suddenly the street is full of younger men standing around with largely older guys passing by. It’s only after the second transvestite offers me something else that I realise I’ve entered another kind of business district, which happily filters into a much more ordinary a relaxed set of gay bars and pastelarias. There seems to be some kind of club open, with another very tall transvestite on the door, but the queue outside seems to be mostly teenagers. I’ve only been a few blocks and this isn’t even (apparently) the really lively part of SP…

Cutting back to the Praca da Republica, there’s another much bigger market winding down, this one more of a craft-type affair with lots of wiry men and women selling hats and carvings and a whole avenue of dealers in stones and minerals and, outside the entrance to the Metro, food stalls selling either Japanese yakisoba or cream cakes. Neither appeals, and as it looks like rain, I head into a bar. Sao Paulo against Botafogo is on the TV but not too loudly and no-one seems interested, the beer is cheap and the woman behind the bar is singing to herself so I stay and sip the cold lager and watch the rain come down and the passing beggars and freaks and drunks and I am thinking that I am just a few hundred yards from Parque da Luz where the city has installed public-space CCTV, and it might be the beer but just makes me want to laugh. It just seems so tiny, so pathetic a gesture, how can it possibly do anything to this roiling mass of humanity with its desires and suffering and joy and desperation.

I’ve touched down in Sao Paulo.