Friday, 13 May 2011

Slavery, economic apartheid & barbecue protests

123 years ago today Isabel, Princess Imperial of Brazil signed the Lei Áurea, or Golden Law in Rio de Janeiro and thereby ended a phenomena which to a large extent has formed and influenced the Brazilian population and society we have today. That phenomena was slavery. And perhaps unsurprisingly for a country which left it that late to abolish the practice and which only did so, long after its independence from colonial Portugal and at a time when it by in large no longer needed slaves (cheap European workers were starting to fill the gap) the great inequalities left behind are still clearly visible today. Some of them are quite shocking to the outsider:

One of the first things you notice when in São Paulo is that there is an incredible gap in the wealth of its inhabitants and that society is effectively divided into economic strata. Of course there have always been the haves and the have nots, and this not the place to descend into socio-political theory, but in São Paulo it feels more like the have everythings and the have jackshits, pardon my language. Evidently it is somewhat more complex than this and there are many strata but what is really interesting is the way in which, even residing in close proximity, sharing the same city, the same resources, the upper ones have virtually no contact with the lower ones. The “uppers” do not even contemplate the use of public transport, they don’t move outside of “upper” districts, and certainly don’t socialize with anyone other than other “upper”. Obviously the “lowers” primarily for economic reasons don’t use private transport, frequent upper districts or socialize with uppers and in many buildings to avoid the uncomfortable situation of having to mix with somebody of a different social echelon architects specifically build separate entrances, separate lifts, separate gateways. The recently departed president, Lula, called it “economic apartheid” and there are some who read in racial undertones (skin colour gets lighter as you work your way up the echelons) although my gut feeling is that economics is indeed a far greater factor.
But as much as the theory is interpretable and arguable the practice is stark and blunt. A curious example I have to hand is the recent protests in the very clean-sounding “upper” neighbourhood of Higienopolis described by Mark Kobayashi Hillary in Computer Weekly. As is well known São Paulo has desperate transportation problems, a huge overdependence on private vehicles and an urgent need for improved public transport infrastructure (shhhh what do you mean, how on earth are they going to host the World Cup?!). Fortunately the new line 4 is already under construction and partially open and there are plans for a line 6 which runs from Vila Clarice to Anália Franco passing through Higienopolis-Mackenzie. Yes this is where we come back to the “uppers” and the “lowers” because the residents of Higienopolis are up in arms at the prospect of having “lowers” reach their neighbourhood through the horrors of an efficient public transport system. So whilst in other parts of the world there would be protests at the lack of access to public transport in your neighbourhood in São Paulo we have reverse protests whereby the residents try to block any plans to build a station in the affluent parts of town. As Hillary calls it this is a full scale reverse class war which has made the local administration succumb and reroute the line. I have heard similar stories of re-routed buslines so that bus stops are kept well away from high-end shops and restaurants of another “upper” neighbourhood, Itaim Bibi.

Now, no post is fun without a good finish so let me know your thoughts on this Facebook event which plans to host a huge street barbecue and party tomorrow afternoon outside the main shopping mall in Higienopolis complete with street food, street music open to all residents (upper and lower) of São Paulo in order to create a semi-spontaneous event so large the authorities will have to respond to the event manifesto: a full investigation into the cancelling of the metro station and a formal response from Governor Geraldo Alckmin. I just checked and there are 54,000 attendees. Now that's a lot of burgers amd sausages….

Maybe they are preparing for tomorrow's barbecue..

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