Archive | August, 2010

The Beach and the end of Inequality

30 Aug

Well, perhaps not the end of inequality, but the beach certainly is something of an equalizer. Although the beach has its classes and groups, it is the closest Brazilians come to indiscriminate association.

Greg and Carolina share a kiss at sunset

Where brown met white and sun dipped into the sea...

Perhaps you have a few class indicators, like a pair of sunglasses or a fancy bathing suit, but except for some very informal segmentation it’s often difficult to tell rich from poor, poor from rich. Conversations and activities among strangers intermingle.

Carolina and I observed one little fat white kid playing with a frisky group of black kids, evidently from different class sets. Even though the black kids called the little white one “gordinho,” (little fatty) he served as a half effective obstacle in front of the imaginary goal. His dramatic dives in the shallow water made the gang laugh. He was even invited by one of the kids’ mothers to grab a sandwich and a cup of coke. Unfortunately, he submerged the sandwich in a pool of seawater (but took a bite before it was summarily confiscated).

If you have not been to a busy Rio beach, it is an experience not to be missed. Not only for the diversity of people, but for what they’re selling on the beach, to walk close to the water and witness the heaving mass of multitone bodies gathered where land meets sea.

Rio’s Unfortunate Police Force

29 Aug

Carolina and I were eating our breakfast at a little joint we favor for mixto quentes com ovo (ham, cheese and egg sandwiches) and açai. Today was a busy Sunday, and late-morning there were quite a few people trying to put in their order for açai and salgados. Up walks a police officer, a short black fellow, buds in front of a few people and shouts at a kid behind the counter to put a few things in a bag. The kid looks at him with a mixture of fear and acquiescence, and does as he’s told. Carol pointed out the scene to me. Afterward she said,
“I bet he didn’t pay. The police in Rio do this sort of thing all the time.”
I was curious about whether this indeed was the routine petty extortion I hear so much about. So after finishing my meal I went to the kid behind the counter.
“The policeman who was here, does he pay?”
“No…he doesn’t pay…” the kid responded.
Then the manager jumped in.
“Yes, he pays, he pays,” he said with some urgency.
Carol and I walked away knowing that the kid had told the truth, the manager had told what was safer to tell.

Even though we have had few encounters with the police here in Rio, they have not been pleasant. While we were looking for an entrance to a Botofogo soccer game, Carol went up to a couple of policemen leaning leisurely against their vehicle. As she came close they looked her up and down, their mouths slightly open, making no attempt to disguise their sexual intent. Carol was disturbed.
“Imagine them, police, wearing a uniform and hired to serve the public, acting like a couple of jackass adolescents.”

If Rio is to overcome crime, perhaps those in charge of this task should first stop acting like criminals.


26 Aug

No jeitinho to make this baby street-legal?

For Gringos to write about certain words in the Brazilian vocabulary has become somewhat cliché. “Saudade” is probably the most recurringly discussed word, a term combining the idea of nostalgia and a fond recollection. A Brazilian might say s/he has “saudade” for his family when s/he is away from home. Perhaps the second most spoken about word is “jeitinho,” loosely translated as “a way” and usually used in the sense of “a way of making it work.” Very often it means, “using informal means to circumvent officially established protocol.” In this sense, jeitinho is frequently used as a euphemism for corruption, and Rio de Janeiro is often thought of as Rio de Jetinho by other Brazilians. My wife experienced a telling confrontation with a particularly insidious type of jetinho the other day. She went into a photocopy shop to pay for a few business copies.

“How much do you want me to put,” asked the girl at the cash.

“What do you mean?” replied Carolina, half knowing, half perplexed.

“What is the total you want me to put?”

“Well, it cost 6 Reais. Why?” Carol asked

“Because, some clients want me to give the bill a little jetinho.”

My ethical warrior, Carol, was revolted by the incident. For people to be collecting more money in reimbursements than they are owed is telling, especially for something as standardized and menial as a photocopy. One jeitinho, zero direitinho.

Brazil: Culturally Self-Possessed.

19 Aug

I admire Brazil most for its self-possession. Its culture is uniquely distinct and, as I will write about next entry, it even follows political and economic policy that is out-of-step with the dictates of first-world orthodoxy. For the most part, the country’s self-possession is accidental– it’s the sole Portuguese-speaking country in the Americas, and its large population and young median age allows its large market and wealth of human resources allows it to be more self-contained than other countries.

One of the reasons Brazil is unique is that it does not have a role model to emulate, as do other countries in the region. The rest of Latin America is Spanish-speaking and looks for cultural references in the hispanic U.S., especially Florida, Texas, New York and California. Brazilians don’t look to the U.S. to the same extent. Proportionately few Brazilians live there and it’s relatively farther away than 80% of other Latin American countries. Spanish-speaking countries also look to Spain, a not insignificant country with a vibrant culture and sizable economy. Portugal…well, it’s no cultural or economic powerhouse.

Thus Brazil is to some extent an island onto itself, self-generative, relying on its own wherewithal for its culture. It is little wonder that when most people think of Brazil they picture a culture of great vitality. It’s a country of self-creation.

Brazil: Carrying its own

#5 Credit: Brazilians Debtor despondency rises by 3.9% Over A Year Ago

14 Aug

Use your coconut to think about that one.

CREDIT CRAZY——The current upswing in consumer debt despondency has much to do with government policy.

First, a buoyant economy has permitted the Brazilian Central Bank to lavish  favorable terms for commercial lenders, who issue credit with some of the highest interest rates in the world. Because profits and legislation permit greater risk, Brazilian banks have been putting credit cards and loans in the hands of the emerging lower-middle class. Unexperienced with credit, many are clueless about how to manage their affairs.

What makes the situation even trickier is the way Brazilians pay for things. One can buy clothing, gifts, even prescriptions, and pay in parcels over several months by credit card or check (e.g. 12 X $47R). Similar to financing, this method ensures that consumers account balances don’t suffer big one-time dents, but at the same time it creates the illusion that more money is available for  purchases, which generate greater obligations and greater potential for despondency.

MUITO CARO—-The second issue is the cost of living. Last entry I spoke about the cost of consumer durables. But as any tourist will agree, virtually everything is expensive. How do we explain all-round expensiveness? Perhaps it’s the explanation I provided about copy-cat pricing: imports are expensive so domestic producers follow suit. Perhaps it’s just a collective greed that has set in during high economic times; the economy is doing well and everyone is demanding more money for everything… I am not exactly sure how to explain the disordinate cost of living here in Brazil. The latter is my “collusion” explanation. As we will see in future entries, Brazil has a long and inglorious tradition of collusive politics. But that story is for another time.

#4 Import taxes (i.e. tariffs)

13 Aug

The price of consumer durables in Brazil is more expensive than in any other large market in the world–hands down.  This does not seem to jive with the plight of the median Brazilian, who earns somewhere around $1000R ($600US) a month (minimum wage is about $550R a month. If anything, purchases of goods that can abet social and economic advancement, such as computers, should be subsidized. Yet Brazil’s tariffs average close to 30 percent on a number of items, items which are even exempted from the regional Mercosur tariff-reducing agreements. Brazilians pay a premium for imports of footwear, motorized vehicles and electronics.

These money-grabbing import tariffs à la 1920s were originally designed to protect nascent domestic industries, which by now should be plenty mature and ought to be left to stand on their own. At the very least, one would assume that goods produced domestically should offer a bargain. But because the price of imported computers is so high, Brazilian companies have opted to maximize profits by undercutting imports only marginally. This effectively means that in Brazil you pay double what you would for a laptop in the US or Canada. If Brazil wants to address inequality, it should start by eliminating regressive taxes, i.e. outdated import tariffs, on educational goods such as computers.

Talking about inequality…

13 Aug

Today’s Jornal do Brasil reports  “47% of the GDP in only 1% of [the country’s] municipalities.” (page A17). Today, 40% of the nation’s poorest municipalities account for just 4.6% of the country’s GDP. Those are some figures to drown in.
Inequality has obviously gotten worse, not better over time. In 1920, the figure for the richest 1 percent of municipalities was 21%, versus more than double, at 47% today. Brazil’s poor may have become richer in absolute terms, but so have the rich– much, much richer.

Things I Could Live Without in Brazil

13 Aug

There are a lot of things I love about Brazil, such as the people, the uniqueness of its culture, and its natural beauty. This is a banal list of things that tourists appreciate about Brazil. But things are a lot different as a tourist than as a resident. When you’re living here, you begin to find things that grate against your sensibility.  There are several infuriating things about Brazil that I might as well get out in the next couple posts or so, right at the beginning of this blog.

Being a political scientist, it’s hard not to critically analyze a country’s faults, so please first be reminded that I think Brazil is a wonderful country with enormous potential.  The main thing that bothers me about Brazil is the same thing I love it for: it’s a developing country with that sense of unrealized potential, beautiful disorder and warmth that developing country’s tend to emanate. For all the hype you hear these days, you’d think Brazil was the first world. But it’s not, and here are a few reasons why:

1. You feel like it’s 1980 on the street and you feel sorry for the temporally disenfranchised masses. If it weren’t for cell phones and the odd modern car, in the downtown of most cities you’d still think you were in the 1980s.  Not in the posh areas; there it’s clearly 2010. But 95% of the country is not posh or modern. They say that Latin America is a “living museum”— it just doesn’t seem to change, and when it does change it’s much the same as before. It’s not just shoddy infrastructure or grinding poverty, it is smaller things too.

2. Line-ups. Take, for example, the line-up. Latin Americans live to line-up, even to line-up to pay for things. In Cuba, line-ups are a way of life. I remember lining up in Cuba one hot August day in 1998. I had seen so many line-ups in my first few days that I thought I would see what all the fuss was about and try one out for myself. Hungry and exhausted from the heat, I lined up in the shade with the vague notion that this line-up would lead to food. After about half an hour I advanced within two bodies of the door, indeed, a restaurant. But that was it, lunch was over.

Admittedly, communist Cuba is an unrepresentative example. But I am constantly amazed at people’s willingness to line-up in Latin America, and equally amazed at owners who apparently prioritize saving costs on labor over the satisfaction of customers.  In downtown, centro Rio, I saw a line-up of more than 30 people yesterday, just to get inside an office tower that had nothing to do with government.

If I intend to buy something mundane or use some service not offered by a government entity, I will avoid line-ups like I avoid going number two in public places. If I see a line-up of more than say, 6 to 8 people, I’ll go somewhere else or come back later. I think to myself, “if you’re not going to take my money expeditiously I’ll try again later or go somewhere else.” Shouldn’t every business ensure that money is taken from customers as efficiently as possible?

Now having spent a good deal of time in Texas, I know what good service is about. The U.S. may have a lot of faults, but service is one of the country’s high points. Thus,

3. Lackluster service. Brazil is not alone in this category, indeed, it’s hard to find anyone who will say a given country’s service is excellent, except perhaps for those who have visited Southeast Asia.  Service often tends to be lackluster in Brazil, especially outside of the food and beverage service area. Food and beverage servers have the incentive of the tip. I am amazed that service is not worse in this sector, because the standard tip is 10%, Brazilians will not expect to pay more for really good service, and the tip is included in the price of the meal–it’s more of an obligation than an affirming gesture.  Food and beverage service can be really excellent in Brazil.

In other sectors, low morale among customer service personnel can be pinned on a number of factors, probabilistically speaking, of course. For one, low wages and low average educational achievement undoubtedly play a part in sub-optimal morale and high levels of incompetence. Minimum wage is around $500R a month, and although most everyone makes more than minimum wage, a lot people make little more. That’s why it is a good idea to seek out the manager if you have a complicated request. Perhaps a greater contributor to low morale is hierarchical power relations. Some owners and managers treat employees with a lack of dignity, respect, trust and honesty, which saps morale. Granted, this happens anywhere, but the colonizers of Latin America left the region with more rigid hierarchical structures than anywhere else in the world. Skewed power relations are evident everywhere, just look at Brazil’s inequality— the most direct product of skewed power-relations. Governments have tried to compensate for the result of skewed power relations, with the result that they have been either bought off, beaten-down, or become so interventionist as to make business and life extremely difficult. But this is a topic for another day.

Coming up tomorrow:

3. Tax burdens.

4. The price of imports, especially technology imports.

5. Current debt and credit practices.

City of Figuras (Characters)

11 Aug

It has been just less than a week since we moved to Rio and we have lots of color to report.  The vivid characters are everywhere. There is the curmudgeonly furniture seller a few doors down who tried to sell us a desk. Then there’s our doormen. I could have sworn that I saw one of them in a Spaghetti Western, playing the role of a bad-guy Mexican. Out the door of our apartment building and across the street linger the neighborhood’s most devoted beer guzzlers– at the boteca (bar) that sits on the corner of Gomes Carneiro and Visconde de Pirajá. Carol and I even saw a fellow enjoying a cold one at 9:30 in the morning.

The traffic thunders down this part of Visconde de Pirajá, Ipanema. It gets a good start at the Praça General Osório stoplight about 400 meters down the road. By the time the traffic reaches our apartment building, it’s hurtling down the road at 60-80 kms/hour. We have one neighbor who has a particularly antagonistic relationship with the local traffic. He’s about 70 years old, looks like he just crawled out of a cardboard box, dresses in filthy shorts and shirt, his nose is as cratered as the moon from years of drinking, and he moves along at the rate of about a block an hour. He doesn’t walk across the road to our neighborhood bar. He first times his approach, and then he shuffles as  quickly as he can to beat the traffic hurtling down upon him. “Flash,” as we’ve named him, is only one of the more apparent neighborhood characters. There’s also the quiet, wizened locksmith on the Praça General Osório. Approach his little shop perched on the edge of the curb and he’ll agree to come to your house and change your locks for you at $45R and two keys included. The deadpan barman at Sucos 47 on the Praça General Osorio scored highly on our characterometer. When I asked this last figura (character in Portuguese) if he was  Lebanese, he looked at me in mild confusion and told me, “I am cearense from Ceará” (a state in the northeast of Brazil). Wherever he is from, his shop is okay by me; Sucos 47 has perhaps the best Açaí in the city, and a mean misto-quente to boot (ham and cheese grilled sandwich). I’ll say it again, the city’s rich in figuras.

The Move to Rio is Complete

5 Aug

My wife Carol and I just completed a move to Rio from Belo Horizonte, which we managed to accomplish in one car load and one bus load. Carol’s working as a Project Manager on the Petrobras building, charged with making sure the façade goes up expeditiously. I´ll be teaching, writing and looking for opportunities in this lovely, complicated, and exciting part of Brazil.

“Lovely” is clearly the obvious adjective, and “exciting” sums up recent developments  currently reinvigorating the city. Principally, I speak of the Brazilian economic boom , including the new oil finds (the Tupi field off the coast of Rio), and the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics soon to grace this city. “Complicated” is not difficult to understand either. Rio is coming out of a long decline, originally triggered by the transfer of Brazil’s Capitol from the sunny shores of the Atlantic in the early 1950s to Brasilia, more than 1000 kilometers inland. Complicated describes any city that balances beach and business. Complicated also describes the characters on the street here– the Carioca (person from Rio) is generally looked upon with mild contempt by the rest of Brazilians, who see him as a lazy conniver; some even associate him with the unruliness that brought about the 1964-85 dictatorship.

Yet the worldly Carioca is perhaps more grounded in the country’s reality than most other urban Brazilians. After all, the carioca lives the complication of stark inequality in his day-to-day. Brazil has the unsavory distinction of placing among the five most unequal countries in the world, and because of the city’s geography, enormous favelas are within a spitting reach of the richest parts of Rio, including the Zona Sul (south zone), where lie the white beaches of Ipanema and Leblanc, among other posh locales.

Although I’m not super familiar with New York, I would imagine that Rio has the feel of  New York City in the 1980s and even earlier: the stark contrasts of poverty, crime, wealth, and easy-living all daily bump-and-grinding with each other. Cariocas are in-your-face, much the same way as New Yorkers are reputed to be. Montreal, where I did my B.A., is also akin to a Rio– a rawer city than most other Canadian cities because of striking contrasts and perhaps also that French edge.

Despite the Carioca’s less-than-solid reputation, I have found much to like about Rio’s straightforward way, and the general lust for things us moderns value. On my first official day in Rio,  however, my experience was rather mixed. As soon as I emerged from our luxury sleeper bus in Rio, I asked for a luggage helper. I had paid $11R in Belo Horizonte for our burden of 7 bags and suitcases; I expected to pay the same in Rio. I know better, but I let him load the bags before asking a price. I won’t even mention the–negotiated–sum I paid, but even if I did pay fair price–more than double the fee I paid in Belo, for less than half the trip–I got scammed. We could have done the lugging ourselves with little sweat. Our cab driver compensated for the bus station heist– he was a really nice, helpful gent named Ronaldo.

I’d prefer not to dwell on negative episodes, but one that occurred later that day does deserve analysis. I am interested in helping out Real Estate firms in Rio on a very part-time basis. I spoke with one Realtor, who seemed very pleased with the idea. Then I spoke with another, who told me that in order to perform any Real Estate role whatsoever I would have to become an accredited Real Estate Agent. And to obtain the license I would have to do about 20 tests and anywhere from 3 to 6 months of making the trip back and forth to Niteroi, a ferry-ride away. It would also cost about $700R.

But “don’t worry” he said, “if you pay the fee in cash, I have a  friend who will let you take all the tests in one day, and you can copy all the answers[…] you can study later,” he said.  I’m supposing here that the person receiving the bribe is pocketing the cash. I’m also supposing that the bureaucracy is such that many people end up taking the quick route and paying the bribe. The situation is unfortunate on two counts. First, it reinforces what they say about the Carioca, that he always finds a “jeitinho,” a way around things. Second, it illustrates the bureaucratic obstacles that lay the  corruption trap. Complicated, very, very complicated this Rio, and indeed, this Brazil.

Carol and I successfully unloaded all of our suitcases today, but the clutter will take a while yet to deflect. I am happy to be in Rio. Happy for the challenges to come, and grateful for the opportunity to live in the “marvelous city,” blessed by beautiful beaches, people, and a colorful culture. We’ll bring further vitality to this city, Carol and me. We’ll also learn to love the Carioca– but I’m not quite sure about the jeitinho.