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The New Brazil: It’s the (Urban) Economy, Stupid

What are Brazil’s politicians doing about their cities degenerating into slums?

December 22, 2003

What are Brazil's politicians doing about their cities degenerating into slums?

It used to be so mesmerizing, all those images of string bikinis on white sand beaches, colossal soccer stadiums filled with samba chanting fans, the carnival, the parties, nightclubs playing the sounds of Antonio Jobim.

Brazil was the steady, modern beat of bossa nova. It was where you drank cachaca (rum made from sugar cane) at night.

And where you picked up a refreshing cafezinho (strong espresso) in the morning.

Movie stars fell in love in the city. Even the hilly slums of Rio seemed romantic in the classic film "Black Orpheus."

And who could not help but be charmed in funky urban high rise apartments by dark, exotic women like the actress Sonia Braga, who starred in the spicy film "Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands."

Brazil was sizzling urban passion. It was where you rediscovered your youth, as a middle aged Michael Caine found in the 1984 movie "Blame It On Rio."

In architecture, Brazil was one of the global centers of modernist design. It actually tried to build one of Le Corbusier's — often called the father of modern architecture — "Radiant Cities."

Brasilia, the national capital, made its chief architect — Oscar Neimeyer — into an overnight global superstar in the 1960s.

It was a futuristic metropolis of great boulevards lined with soaring towers and monumental plazas. But the new millennium has cast a dark shadow over Brazil's cities.

Brazilians from some of the poorest regions in the Americas (especially the north and northeast of Brazil) flood into the cities — turning Rio, Sao Paulo, Belo Horizonte and a half dozen others into "millionaire" cities.

Some 65% of Brazil's more than 170 million inhabitants are now crowded into the southeast portion of the nation. Few nations could absorb so many millions in their cities.

In Sao Paulo alone, there are nearly 25 million people. Five million cars wage daily wars just to move through the streets of a gridlocked downtown. Public transit is a joke.

In 2000, Sao Paulo had one of the highest homicide rates in the world — over 11,000 people murdered in one year, higher than New York City, Los Angeles or London.

The rumblings of an urban crisis grow louder. Films no longer glamorize the exotic beauty and charm of Brazil. Instead there are poor children in the streets, there is death.

In the new Brazil, cities resemble the dark, air polluted nightmare portrayed in the cult noire film "Bladerunner." Movies like "City of God," "Bus 174" and "Central Station" usher in the new reality of urban Brazil — gangs, poverty, gun violence, murder.

In October 2003, the United Nations Human Settlements Program released its report on "the Challenge of Slums."

The report stated that slum populations had increased globally to one billion people — and could double to 2 billion in 30 years. The world's worst slum cities included Rio and Sao Paulo.

Some 40 million inhabitants are now living in those two cities alone.

Close to half of them are in the infamous shantytowns called favelas. It is here that gang warfare, violence, crime and murder mix in places where people try to live on one dollar a day in some of the most expensive cities in the Americas.

"The first lesson Sao Paulo offers is that no city should grow so arbitrarily," says 93-year old legendary architect Oscar Niemeyer, the aforementioned architect of Brasilia.

"The second lesson of Sao Paulo is that its people, and the people of cities in poor countries elsewhere, should have the right to a habitat that is more graceful," he adds.

But there is not much that is graceful these days in the oversized cities. Unemployment reaches as high as 20%. In many neighborhoods, only 10% of the favela households have running water.

So many people have migrated to south and southeastern Brazil that a cash-poor government has been forced into losing efforts to build public housing.

In one desperate attempt in Sao Paulo, the municipality's "Singapore Project" materialized as a series of tall, drab high-rise ghettos alongside the wooden shanties of the poor.

The overpriced and depressing structures have been a huge failure. No one wants to live in them. In the face of all this, the rich are cloistering themselves far away from the "mean streets."

Sao Paulo has become what urbanist Mike Davis calls a "fortress city." Along the city's Pinheiro River — a brown mass of sewage — a parade of sleek, reflective glass, high rise towers pierces the skies.

Here are the luxurious condominiums and townhouses of Brazil's elite upper classes. These towers of wealth have helicopter pads for commuting to work. Their lobbies are guarded by pistol-toting watchmen.

Electronic video security is abundant.

Receptionists greet visitors with a cool, corporate tone, as if they were entering the inner sanctum of a Fortune 500 company's global corporate headquarters.

The urban crisis threatens Brazil's stability and its image in the global marketplace. Problem-solving is a drain on the politicians.

Recognizing this, Brazil's leaders have gone to the global mega-banks for help.

In September 2002, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) approved a $30 billion loan to Brazil, double what it had given the country in 2001.

The World Bank is promising $10 billion in loans over the next three years. The Inter-American Development Bank lent Brazil $9 billion during the last three years of the 1990s.

A big chunk of this money was aimed at housing, health programs for the urban poor, education and micro enterprise stimuli in the cities.

Brazil feverishly promotes itself to the outside world as the country of the future. Its cities are filled with colorful neon signage, huge, high-tech TV screens and colossal billboards.

Speaking of Sao Paulo, one Internet entrepreneur has said that "If there is any city in the developing world that could be called "global", this is it."

But that is a double-edged sword for politicians.

As Harvard Law Professor Robert Mangabeira Unger, a native Brazilian, has pointed out about Sao Paulo: "Aesthetically, it must be the ugliest large city in the world. Fortunately, it is also the most alive."

From President Lula on down, Brazilian politicians must acknowledge that their greatest challenge is to fix the problems of their country's large cities.

They must abandon the tactic of trying to hide the urban crisis behind the hype about the country's high technology and cultural brilliance. The world knows there are slums beyond the samba.