Letter From - Summer 2006

Rio: Feckless and Reckless

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By Alan Peter Ryan

June 1, 2006


Scandals are a way of life in Brazil, where reports of government corruption or stolen public funds barely last a day or two in the news. One story, however, just won’t go away. It involves a baroque web of misdirected and stolen funds, nepotism, incompetence, indifference, arrogance, denials, and finger-pointing. Early in the story, a senator was trying to explain away a suitcase full of U.S. dollars confiscated at the São Paulo airport. In March the finance minister was forced to resign. In April corruption charges were brought against more than three dozen people, including government officials and the president’s longtime closest adviser.

The future of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, known as Lula, and of his Workers’ Party is at stake.

No matter what the numbers say, Brazil is standing still economically. Companies curb spending and hire new employees only with reluctance. Prices creep upward every day as consumers cut back on expenses. Nearly every store window in Rio de Janeiro advertises a sale, and the largest retail chains lure customers with special offers, free shipping, and delayed payments without interest. (Brazilians pay monthly credit charges about equal to what U.S. consumers pay in a year.)

“Look at the absurdity!” is a frequent heading on Brazilian Web pages, which are alive with criticism, mockery, shocking revelations, and petitions. Biting cartoons and jokes about Lula and his minions fill Brazilians’ e-mail in boxes. One widely circulated message details the kitchen expenses at the presidential residence, listing quantities of food and drink that could not possibly be consumed by even the most hedonistic of heads of state. The gastronomic profligacy is presented in the context of Lula’s major national campaign for Zero Hunger. The program resulted in the brief appearance of cardboard collection boxes in the post offices. My own post office once had a big box that contained a few canned goods and a couple of bags of rice and beans, but there has been little other evidence of the program at work. According to the e-mail message, the only place in the country where the level of hunger has truly reached zero is the presidential palace. Another frequent e-mail details the high salaries and allowances of senators and congressmen and the increases they plan to award themselves, plus such perks as immunity from prosecution.

Brazilians, who readily admit that they have long since lost the capacity to be indignant, accept all of this. They have 500 years of oppression behind them, of subjection by colonial masters, by the senhor de engenho (the master of the sugar plantation, i.e., the lord of the manor), by various forms of dictatorship including a military one that ended barely two decades ago, and by a massive, corrupt, inefficient, contradictory, and incomprehensible bureaucracy.

Of the present crisis, many Brazilians say privately that the Workers’ Party has made such a mess of things, and the mess is so obvious, that the party knows it cannot be elected again in the foreseeable future. And so the party, which has filled the government with its own faithful members to an extent that no ruling party ever has before, is taking full advantage of its limited time in charge of the coffers of gold. The next election is October 1, and if they don’t get the goods now, the thinking goes, they won’t have another chance to redirect public funds into party treasuries and private pockets or to place friends and family in positions of authority that will last beyond Lula’s term. Those jobs, not coincidentally, will provide generous income and retirement benefits to friends and family for decades to come.

But Brazilians say what they think only in private. The Internet offers them, or seems to offer, anonymity, and so they embrace it as a forum. There is hardly anywhere else to act alone, to exercise any influence, or to hide from the modern senhor de engenho who has always looked over their shoulders, steered them by the elbow with one hand, and picked their pockets with the other.


Hardly anywhere else except in their cars. On the road, Brazilians—and especially Cariocas, the people of Rio de Janeiro—seem like entirely different people. Rio de Janeiro is the “marvelous city,” a tourist mecca of great natural beauty, and the public face of the country. People here are easygoing, laid back, and friendly, and the Portuguese they speak is old-fashioned with formal courtesies. You would imagine they drive their cars in a manner consistent with their apparent personalities, but they do not. To understand this, keep in mind three things.

First, Brazilians, so soon after the crushing military dictatorship,haven’t gotten over the habits of silence and caution. A restaurant in my neighborhood, for example, provides a card you can fill out to rate the quality of food and service. The choices are Excellent, Good, and Reasonable. Reasonable? To a Brazilian, food and service—or anything, for that matter, from dishonest government to incompetent repairmen to the unreliability of telephone and electric services to the terrifying crime rate—that other people would rate somewhere between absolutely unacceptable and criminally culpable, makes the Brazilian shrug and call it “reasonable.” But I doubt that anyone has ever checked that word on the card—or even filled out the card at all. Brazilians don’t like to leave behind evidence that might come back to haunt them one day. They prefer anonymity.

Second, these are people with little history of being responsible for themselves. Someone else has always pulled their strings and made their decisions, from the first colonial masters and the senhor de engenho to the royal court to the banks to the suffocating bureaucracy of today. Brazilians are, in fact, treated like adolescents, and they often act accordingly. They don’t deny that they want to have a good time away from the prying eyes of masters of any sort where they don’t have to think about consequences.

Third, members of the growing middle class are caught in a bind. They skate along on a veneer of First World comfort, hungry for the signs and symbols of success that mark their passage out of poverty. They make shocking wages—I know a trilingual executive secretary who earns less than U.S. $5,000 a year—but desire all the trappings of affluence: computers, DVD players, cell phones, digital cameras, and the rest. And they crave cars. In the past 15 years, with rising prosperity, many people in the middle class have acquired cars—new cars. There is no market for used cars among the middle class in Rio. A shiny new car is the great gleaming symbol of success.

Now imagine a driver who has always had someone telling him how to live, who accepts disorder and lawlessness and barely perceives them as such, to whom any sort of bad behavior seems reasonable, who is not in the habit of thinking about the consequences of his actions, and to whom an automobile is still a very new toy. This driver feels truly indepen­dent only when he is settled into the comfortable little world of his or her car, takes hold of the wheel, and hits the road.


Rio de Janeiro is a city of one-way streets, many of them narrow, many twisting around empty lots of long-demolished buildings and hills that were leveled decades ago, and all inadequate for today’s volume of traffic. Street signs, like building and house numbers, are often hard to find or nonexistent. There is little street parking, commercial garages are expensive, and public garages are few. Traffic moves fast. For all practical purposes, there are no safe spots to stop and orient yourself, and there is no time for second guessing; merely trying to go around the block can bring you suddenly to a dangerous neighborhood you hoped never to see.

It’s every man for himself. And every woman. Think of it as a contest—a fierce one. Gone are the characteristic Brazilian smiles, the congeniality, the easygoing personality, the casual tardiness. In their place is total indifference to the most basic rules of the road, the ones dictated by common sense. Lanes? They mean nothing, even on a road where some trace of paint still remains. The Carioca driver who pulls up to three full lanes of traffic does not see three lanes of traffic. He perceives two golden opportunities (the spaces between those lanes) or maybe even four (counting the spaces at the edge of the road, perhaps augmented by a little of the verge or even the sidewalk) to inaugurate a new express lane for his personal use.

It’s deadly for a driver to leave a car’s length of distance ahead for every 10 mph of speed. On a typical road—say the Avenida das Américas that runs the full length of suburban Barra da Tijuca—if a driver leaves a space the equivalent of the length of five cars, 10 other cars will come swooping in to fill it. Carioca drivers, like a force of nature, abhor a vacuum. If a timid (i.e., a cautious) driver waits for a suitable opening before entering a road filled with fast-moving traffic, drivers behind him will come around on both the right and left sides and plunge right in.

Drivers change lanes without warning if there appears to be a slim chance of advancing a little faster. When approaching a red light—red lights are observed under certain circumstances, of which more anon—drivers speed ahead to secure the forwardmost opening, even if the pursuit means crossing two or three lanes, and even if it is on the wrong side of the road. A driver planning to turn right at the next corner will try to secure the position closest to the stop line, even if it’s in the leftmost lane. He’ll then edge forward and, just before the light changes and in front of oncoming traffic, zoom across those same lanes he has just crossed a moment before.

Red lights are grudgingly observed only during daylight hours. After dark, most drivers slow down slightly, but just slightly, to check conditions at intersections, knowing that a full stop when there’s no other traffic in sight can be dangerous. A driver obeying a red light is likely to be rammed from behind by someone who would have no reason to expect the sudden stop. People ignore red lights at night, Cariocas say, because there is so much crime and violence in Rio that it isn’t safe to stop. The point is inarguable.

By day, the roads are an obstacle course of beggars on crutches and in wheelchairs and peddlers selling all manner of merchandise, most commonly snacks, candies, and boxes of fruit. Ragged boys make a show of juggling in front of the cars at stoplights and then asking for money. One man displays his blind mother. A woman nurses her baby. Then there’s the legless man who deftly navigates his wheelchair from car to car, holding out one hand. They all mill among the cars brought to a standstill by heavy traffic or red lights.

Everybody-–beggars, peddlers, pedestrians, and drivers-–must beware of motoboys, the deliverymen who ride scooters and motorcycles. Like a plague of killer bees, they are deadly and inescapable. They slip between speeding lanes of traffic on straightaways, along sharp curves, in the long tunnels—everywhere. They glide through red lights in daylight hours. They swerve from one lane to another in front of onrushing cars. If there’s no opening right in front of them, they go up on the sidewalk and roar past the jam.

And there are the buses. Rio’s roads are choked to death with buses, grinding and roaring through every street, thousands of buses from numerous competing companies, many with duplicate routes, great herds of buses whose numbers are made possible by government graft and kickbacks. But there are few bus lanes. Buses go where they please. And they please to go everywhere. Let three or four of them congregate at crazy angles, like horses drinking at a trough, across two or three lanes at a popular bus stop in a busy street, and the typical car driver simply swerves around them and speeds off in solitary triumph.

But drivers in Rio survive. Lawless, fearless, feckless, and reckless, they are absolute experts behind the wheel. They themselves say, and with justice, that if you can drive and survive here, you can drive anywhere in the world. Every safe return home is a victory of courage, conviction, wit, skill, ingenuity, and pride. And they don’t have many other victories like that.


Brazilians live on the edge of financial disaster, mostly without savings, the high cost of credit out of reach, using but distrusting banks, and falling back on the old habit of spending what they have before it’s devalued or the government catches them by surprise by freezing bank accounts—as one new president within living memory did on his inauguration day. The government extracts taxes on everything, including ordinary checks, and gives back little in return. Meanwhile, vast sums of government funds simply disappear. For Brazilians, it is the way life is.

Occasionally, however, life can be another way. On New Year’s Eve, for example, a million or so Cariocas traditionally gather on the great curving beach of Copacabana to watch the fireworks display over the water. Afterward, everyone tosses flowers or other gifts into the ocean waves as an offering to the goddess Iemanjà, who will not only keep you from drowning in the following year but will bring you good fortune as well. In this crime-ridden city, criminal incidents at this huge gathering are virtually nonexistent.

On February 18, when the Rolling Stones gave a free concert on that same beach and Mick Jagger was striding and strutting with the Copacabana Palace Hotel as a backdrop, the official reports said that 1.2 million people gathered on 1.2 kilometers (about three quarters of a mile) of the beach and adjacent roadway. Everybody had a good time and nothing bad happened. And Carnival time goes the same way each year. On the rare occasions when they have a common purpose, Brazilians can do everything right.

There is a genuine and powerful collective unconscious at work among Brazilians. They do not pride themselves on diversity, as Americans do, but on unanimity. Well, of course they do. There isn’t much room for diversity among the passengers on a leaky boat with a captain and crew who can’t seem to steer a steady course.

That sense of unanimity, combined with the way they use the Internet and the way they drive, suggests the possibility of another way of thinking, harder and fiercer and more determined and sharpened by a degree of exper­tise combined with courage that they don’t otherwise display. One of these days, if the government pushes them hard enough, Brazilians are going to unite and drive their cars right through the front doors of the bureaucracy.

Alan Peter Ryan is a novelist and journalist. A former New Yorker, he now lives in Rio de Janeiro, where he is a survivor of the traffic.


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