Saturday, June 14, 2014

Before World Cup, Forced Removals of Salvador, Bahia Residents

You’ve probably heard about street protests in Brazil around the World Cup. But what exactly are the protesters’ complaints? One critique that hasn't reached the global media, but has been much discussed via word of mouth, is the following. In pre-World Cup preparations, Salvador's government conducted illegal removals of residents, sometimes to sanitize an area of poor residents. I had occasion to have a little glimpse of the “after” effect of such removals, and I'll share what I've heard from friends in the World Cup host city of Salvador.

In Jan. 2014 in Salvador, Bahia, I observed firsthand evidence that the government had cleared the area of poor residents. My hosts, Dalila Pinheiro and her partner, Sereno, were driving us along the low road that hugs the border of the Bay of All Saints. Salvador is divided into what locals call the high city and the low city, Cidade Alta and Cidade Baixa. There is actually a geographical fault that divides the two parts of the city, making the high city rise quite abruptly over the low, like a castle overlooking lowlands.

As we drove on the low road, Sereno (yes, it does mean Serene—his parents raised him in a hippie alternative community on the edge of Salvador) pointed out notable features.

Sereno gestured far up toward a structure jutting out from the steep escarpment above, and connected by a thin, high column to the lower city. This is the Elevador Lacerda, at 236 feet high the main transport between high and low city. The Elevador transports people to and from the Plaza Cairu to the Plaza Thomé da Souza, where a central market is located, and major free concerts take place. A week or so later, I would hear Brazilian pop giant Daniela Mercury play in the lower plaza.

Elevator seems a strange word for what is, since every other elevator I’ve known has been inside a building, guarded in its core. This elevator is 236 feet high, a stand-alone, straight up and down column. From its well-fortified base in the upper hillside, a long “hallway” juts straight out, in width and depth mirroring the column it adjoins, forming in shape something like half a picture frame.

Later that week after New Year's 2014, when I was up at the top of the Lacerda, waiting to go down to the Daniela Mercury concert, I stood in line with hundreds of others, the line filing through the upper hallway, surrounded on both sides by glass. The line is enough of a fixture that a small stand sells coffee, soda, and snacks for your wait. To the left was an orange smear over the Bay of All Saints. Dimly perceived was the fact of boats in the bay. The view was less than clear, as the slightly tinted glass was greased with swipes of what must have been a day of body parts nudging nearer to the would-be spectacular view.

Driving now with Dalila and Sereno below the Lacerda, I followed his finger as he pointed up the steep hill toward it. Beneath the form of the signature structure, a green lawn adjoined its base, running in length perhaps an 1/8 of a mile.

The lawn cued my U.S. self, trained to see green lawn around public edifice—say, a capitol building, a stately Frank Lloyd Wright-designed public garden—as a mark of the distinguished quality of said edifice.

“Nice!” I thought, as I craned my neck up toward the wall of the upper city edged by a swath of green unusual in Salvador.

If I’d thought a moment, I might have wondered: In a city crowded with poor, where every meter is contested and used territory, how would such an unfenced section of lawn have come about, here in the center of Salvador?

The unasked question found its answer in the next moment. Dalila explained that the government had expelled the poor families who had been living in crowded buildings, which were razed. The relatively tidy green, to which my U.S. self responded as a marker of beauty and social order, in fact indicated the opposite, an unseemly uprooting of families, many of whom had been living in the spot, growing community for generations. These families had been on this spot in the descriptions of novelist and son of the city Jorge Amado, who wrote his famous novels on the city and its denizens.

According to my friend, Salvador resident, writer and activist Alex Simões, the residents were removed in the middle of the night from their houses. He cites about 70 persons being removed from their houses in the area around the Ladeira da Preguiça, made famous by Brazilian classic singer Elis Regina. A ladeira is a very steep street, a kind of alleyway. The city government claimed, as pretext for the residents’ expulsion, that the path moving through the community had been unsafe and filled with crack users. My friend, poet Nilson Galvão, also a Salvador resident, adds that he heard that some of the people removed in the middle of the night were taken to shelters. Alex reports that some others are in very simple hotels (probably our equivalent would be SROs or boarding houses), which, for now, the city is paying for.

After this first wave, uprooting families who had lived in the area for generations, the city implemented other actions to clear the area. I was shocked to hear from Alex Simões that the city arranged for a big truck to go through the streets, literally washing, with high force water jets, the streets. Anyone living on the streets was literally washed away. As Alex ironically noted, "Solution: no beggars in the city center." And then, quickly were put on the city's books two ordinances that allow for dozens of buildings to be appropriated "for public ends." Public use for these cleared-out buildings has yet to occur, leading Alex to suspect collusion between city government and private hotel companies, which have long wanted to create a hotel zone of this area.

Dalila reports that, since I visited, even more removals have occurred around the general area of the Avenida Contorno, near to the Marina Bahia. The removals include the Ladeira of the Mountain. When I told her I couldn't find much online to do with the removals, she noted that this is not by chance, as the media channels in Salvador have observed a blackout on the theme.

These removals in Salvador are part of a larger trend of pre-World Cup actions. According to the Portal Popular da Copa in an article dated March 4, 2014, on that day in the 22nd session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, Giselle Tanaka, from ANCOP (National Articulation with the Public Committees of the Cup), would present briefly on forced removals made in the context of preparation for the World Cup and for the Olympics. ANCOP would ask the Council to demand that the Brazilian government stop all forced removals of people, make a plan to give removed residents reparations, and a plan to guarantee human rights in the future in unforseen removals by act of nature. To read more in Portuguese, click here.

Later that week in Jan. 2014, after I heard Daniela Mercury play a night concert on the Plaza Thomé da Souza, packed body to body (most of them taller than mine), I was grateful to push through the crowd to stand in line to be elevatored back. Once securely back in the Plaza Cairu, I took advantage of the sudden availability of extra oxygen, not returning right away to Dalila and Sereno's apartment in Santo Antônio Além do Carmo, but tarrying a bit on the ramparts to the side of the Elevador Lacerda. With the other night lingerers, citizens of Salvador and Brazilian tourists, I leaned against the stone wall and looked out across the distance to the little lights of small boats in the Bay of All Saints.

And every so often, which is to say often, I looked down the steep incline to the lower city, where new, white lights illuminated the bright green lawn below, impeccable as a park.

Thanks to Dalila Pinheiro, Alex Simões, and Nilson Galvão for their reportage.