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 Brazils 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 Brazils 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, Ive been here a week but I havent
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 Ive
heard the stories about all the murders and kidnappings that go on here."
Whoa, I thought. I dont think Ive 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 youre 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
Paulos poor neighborhoods. Then there are the stories about São Paulos
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 Brazils 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 citys 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 Meliás 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, its
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 ones 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
cant 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, "Im 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 Brazils most powerful bureaucrats to one of the governments
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
governments finances got another jolt last week with the agreement that Brasília
will acquire São Paulo states 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,
Brazils richest region, deserves such treatment, is a little hard to understand.
Then again, Brazils public finances are labyrinthine, almost intentionally
untransparent as they mask grotesque priviliges for the governments elite
collaborators. Which brings me back to Brazils image problem: the city of São
Paulo. While it is on the citys side that is often a clearing house for
Brazils 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 1930s,
was taken by the citys 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.