Tristes Tropiques...
by Simon Romero           Week of December 03 - 09, 1999

There are two new luxury hotels in São Paulo, the Renaissance and the Meliá, that have emerged as the stomping grounds of Brazil’s link-up with late twentieth-century capitalism. The Renaissance is a towering structure located in the posh, yet bordering on decadent, district of Jardins. Its style screams São Paulo: massive slabs of concrete, red and black coloring, jutting into the relentless grey sky. It was in the lobby of the Renaissance recently that I had a conversation that startled me into thinking of Brazil’s image problem.

There, sitting in a sofa opposite an executive from one of the largest Internet companies in the United States, I was told of her harried life. This week in Hong Kong, the next in London, and so on. Always on the move, living out of a suitcase, furniture still to buy for that new home outside of Washington. What destinations did she like best? Well, the food in Singapore was excellent but the simple beauty of Sydney really won her over. She had no idea Australia could
be so enthralling.

What about São Paulo, I asked? "Oh, I’ve been here a week but I haven’t left the hotel," she said. "I like the people, they seem sophisticated like Europeans and friendly like Americans. But the city is just so overwhelming. And I’ve heard the stories about all the murders and kidnappings that go on here."

Whoa, I thought. I don’t think I’ve ever spent an entire day in a hotel let alone a week. And I understand the feeling of aesthetic dismay that can come over a person their first time in São Paulo. Landing in the Guarulhos international airport it seems like you’re touching down on a sea of sprawl, the red tile rooftops juxtaposed against grey and white high-rises with little green space in between. The drive in from the airport in Guarulhos, past shantytowns, or "favelas," which have to live with the stench of the polluted Rio Tietê each day. It is not a pretty sight.

These are the first images greeting a visitor arriving in São Paulo, a city which now attracts more foreign visitors than Rio de Janeiro thanks to the record levels of foreign investment during the Real economic stabilization program. Combined with the bizarre wire service dispatches about São Paulo that occasionally make their way into foreign newspapers or onto web news sites, perhaps it is no small surprise the American Internet executive chose to remain in the Renaissence for a week.

There are the uprisings in the juvenile prisons, in which several teenagers either were killed by counterparts or escaped to kill on the streets of the city. There are the mass killings, or "chacinas," which occur in São Paulo’s poor neighborhoods. Then there are the stories about São Paulo’s legendary traffic.

It was in the Hotel Meliá, a structure which seems to have as its purpose preventing guests from having to venture out into the city, that Brazil’s image problem dawned on me again. As a hotel, the Meliá has the accoutrements of any old five-star affair: the shop selling Cuban cigars, the piano bar etc. But what makes the Meliá special is that it is built in the same complex together with a shopping center, with an expansive food court, and the World Trade Center of São Paulo, one of the city’s most exclusive pieces of commercial real estate. So the visitor to São Paulo, if she or he is here to see the local branch of a multinational housed in the World Trade Center, need not bother with the visual assault that accompanied them on their trip in from the airport. Just stay in the Meliá the whole time!

Lawrence Summers, the United States Treasury Secretary, addressed a crowd of businessmen and reporters in one of the Meliá’s conference halls last week. After flying in from Buenos Aires and driving in from Guarulhos, he said, in a humorous tone at the beginning of his speech: "If density of traffic speaks to the degree of economic energy in any society, Brazil has ample economic energy." That is certainly seeing the glass as half-full but, really, it’s
another way of saying the traffic stinks.

Then, later in his speech, Summers again alluded to his drive through São Paulo. Looking out his car window, he said, he realized the importance of investing in one’s people. Summers mentioned investments in areas like education and health care. These are the investments that the Brazilian government, with all the strain put on its finances from misspending on pensions and the outlays that go into servicing the internal debt, just can’t seem to prioritize.

In somewhat of a related display of oneuppance not that uncommon in the São Paulo media, Luiz Carlos Mendonca de Barros, a former cabinet minister and a prominent banker, was quoted in the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo as saying, "I’m a rich man, thanks to God and the interest rates of (Finance Minister Pedro) Malan." Not a bad deal to go from being one of Brazil’s most powerful bureaucrats to one of the government’s financiers, profiting from the same rates that have led the deficit to balloon to more nearly 13 percent of GDP this year.

Of course, not much can be done in the short term to rectify a deficit, and a debt profile, which took years of mismanagement of public finances to create. But the central government’s finances got another jolt last week with the agreement that Brasília will acquire São Paulo state’s stake in Banespa, a state bank, for almost $1 billion. The deal will make it easier to privatize Banespa, ridding the government of one of its biggest headaches. But why São Paulo,
Brazil’s richest region, deserves such treatment, is a little hard to understand.

Then again, Brazil’s public finances are labyrinthine, almost intentionally untransparent as they mask grotesque priviliges for the government’s elite collaborators. Which brings me back to Brazil’s image problem: the city of São Paulo. While it is on the city’s side that is often a clearing house for Brazil’s problems, with many dilemmas delivered on its doorsteps, it is shocking sometimes to wonder why such a wealthy city looks the way it does.

Investments to make São Paulo beautiful and well run, and its people better educated, are scarce because authorities are busy trying to reform public spending, or, it seems more often than not, trying to prop up old structures maintaining the old order. The anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, after spending time in São Paulo in the 1930’s, was taken by the city’s energy but, as almost any visitor still is, shocked by its ugliness. He said in Tristes Tropiques that São
Paulo best typifies the young, booming cities of the Americas which seem to age more the quicker they grow. Shake and stir that thought and what do you get? A week within the confines of the Renaissance.