São Paulo has long been a second home for me. I lived here in the 1970s under the military dictatorship – a period of fierce repression, press censorship, disappearances, but also a time of great hope and excitement as a new independent trade union movement emerged, under Lula’s leadership. And so began the long process of building the PT, the Workers’ Party, which culminated in 2002 with the election of Lula as President of Brazil, on his fourth attempt.
I can’t walk the streets of São Paulo without remembering those days – all the protests, the marches, the police spraying us with tear gas, people being arrested. For me, as a result, São Paulo symbolises resistance, the emergence of new social forces, political change. With all these powerful memories, I have long defended São Paulo as a vibrant, exciting city, rebutting those who say that violence, traffic congestion and noise have made it almost uninhabitable.
So how am I reacting today, coming back after an absence of several years? São Paulo is still changing. Finally the streets have proper, dedicated bus lanes, giving public transport priority over private cars. Hallelujah! It was something implemented by the PT mayor, Marta Suplicy – widely regarded today, at least by people on the left, as the best mayor the city has ever had. The municipal market has been renovated and the middle classes now come to shop at its stalls, which are overflowing with fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, beans and other pulses.
The city’s biggest book shop, Livraria Cultura, in the Conjunto Nacional on Avenida Paulista, has grown even bigger, taking over two more shops and buzzing with life, particularly in the evenings. It feels like a New York bookstore, with its coffee shop and reading areas with comfortable armchairs and cushions on the floor. And the books too have a foreign feel – so many in English, the latest publications on business management, computer technology, Western culture. Piles of J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy, in English, are selling well; a somewhat smaller pile of the Portuguese translation of Fifty Shades of Grey,apparently not selling so well. It is a bookshop for the globalised São Paulo elite. But what about books on Brazil, I ask, the new books that have come out about the military dictatorship? Books about Brazilian society? I am directed to a small shelf, hidden away at the back of the store.
It was election time when I arrived, in the run-up to the municipal elections. Most of my petista (PT supporting) friends are voting for PT candidates, but with a notable lack of enthusiasm. Coincidentally or not – and most petistas think not – ten Supreme Court judges were deciding this week whether José Dirceu, a former top adviser to Lula, played a key role in a corruption scandal known as the mensalão (something like a ‘monthly sweetener’). If a majority of the judges find him guilty – as they almost certainly will – then Dirceu may well face prison for the second time. In the 1970s, during the military dictatorship, he was imprisoned and then exiled as part of a deal between the government and the ALN guerrillas, who had kidnapped the US ambassador. Even though some hardliners in the PT believe that Dirceu has been framed, the affair is making everyone in the PT uncomfortable, because there is little doubt that real crimes were committed in the mensalão operation.
But it’s the difficulties in everyday life, not politics, that are concerning me most. To start with, the noise – the interminable roar, day and night, of traffic. I’m staying with a friend who has a beautiful, spacious flat in a fine 1940s building, with a lovely marble entrance hall, an old-fashioned lift. Gorgeous. But it’s on the 9 de Julho, once a quiet avenue and now one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares. At night, I close my window in a fairly ineffectual attempt to reduce the sound of police sirens, buses, cars. And then I’m forced to open it again as the room gets so stuffy. So up and down I get as first the noise and then the heat hits me. Not surprisingly, studies show that people exposed to constant heavy traffic noise in São Paulo have lost 38% of their hearing.
In the mornings, as we have breakfast at the back of the building, I can sometimes hear a few sabiás (thrushes) valiantly competing against the din of the traffic. Now and again there’s the readily recognisable call of a lone bem-te-vi, the onomatopoeic name for the bird known in English as a keskidee. When I lived here before, I used to hear dozens of them each day.
It’s not as bad here, however, as it is in a nearby building where another friend has a wonderful old-style apartment, just off the Avenida Paulista and opposite the Maksoud Plaza Hotel, which has just installed a helipad on its roof. The sound of the helicopters as they circle the hotel before landing is absolutely appalling. If the number of helicopters landing at the hotel increases, she says, she’ll have no option but to move, being forced, no doubt, to sell her flat for a heavily discounted price. Some 500 helicopters are licensed to fly over the skyscrapers here; with press reports suggest that the city has overtaken New York and Tokyo to become the helicopter capital of the world.
But it’s the violence that has shocked me most. As I was looking down on the road below my friend’s 6th floor flat one evening, I witnessed TWO assaltos – in both cases women were pushed over and had their bags snatched. My friend reassured me: “It’s only like this on Sunday evenings, when there are few people in the street. They’re not armed.” But I’ve changed my behaviour: I leave credit cards, passport, driving licence and so on in the flat, keeping in my bag just the money I need. So one adapts …
Do I feel tempted to move back to São Paulo? For the first time since I left, my answer is a reluctant no. Elsewhere in Brazil? For the moment I’m reserving my judgement.
Eric Hobsbawm was widely known and much loved in Brazil, perhaps more even than in the UK. A host of warm tributes have been published in the press. One writer ended his piece by saying that, when he was recently in London, he had attended Hobsbawm’s last birthday bash, and he’d asked Hobsbawm if he’d been excited by the emergence of the Occupy the City movement in London. “Yes”, replied Hobsbawm, “But it’s no good without a festa.” Ha! Ha! Even though it’s widely known that Hobsbawm loved getting together with friends, it seemed to me a weird reply. But then, what’s the English for festa? Party, of course. I have an idea that Hobsbawm may have meant something quite different.
As expected, the Supreme Court found José Dirceu and the former president of the PT, José Genoino, guilty in the mensalão affair. Dirceu and Genoino still maintain their innocence, but the damage to the reputation of the PT is serious, as the PT governor of Bahia, Jacques Wagner, told the newspaper O Globo. A further judgement on whether Dirceu was the organiser of the whole operation is still to come, probably just before the second round of voting in the municipal elections.