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Almost a year ago I write a piece for Time magazine about how poor construction and Rio’s lack of oversight may have contributed to the tragic collapse of a building in the old centre that killed several people.

Mayor Eduardo Paes sarcastically attacked me for suggesting such things and local newspaper O Globo defended the city against outside criticism. (See my blog here.)

Well, today O Globo has a front page story about how the city’s buses can’t use the brand new bus lanes built for the Olympics because they are falling apart. (See O Globo’s picture below. Link to the story is here, in Portuguese.)

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The BRT bus lanes were completed in the middle of last year and are one of Rio’s main public transport projects ahead of the 2016 Olympics.

Experts quoted in the story blame poor construction for the potholes and said it was probably done cheaply to save money, even though the costs of maintenance are much higher once completed.

It’s infuriating, not to say scandalous, that public money is so repeatedly wasted in this way.

As I wrote in the Christian Science Monitor last year, there is

“ongoing concern about construction and infrastructure in South America’s biggest nation – and the world’s sixth-biggest economy. Even at the highest levels, Brazil’s infrastructure projects are routinely late, poorly built or over budget, or all three.”

With the World Cup just 17 months away and host cities rushing to get stadiums and infrastructure projects completed those warnings are more and more salient.

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At least 28 of the 47 shopping centres in Sao Paulo are operating illegally because they do not have the proper permits to function, according to an investigation published on the front page of the Folha de S. Paulo newspaper today.

Some were built where or when they shouldn’t have been by construction companies, others did not get the proper documentation and permissions before opening and others don’t have the required number of parking spaces.

This news comes just days after it was revealed there are 45 obstacles along the flight path to Sao Paulo’s Congonhas airport, one of the busiest in Brazil. The obstacles range from buildings that are too high, to trees, to a hospital and – surprise, surprise – two shopping centres.

The point here is this: If we can’t rely on the state or the city to enforce laws designed to protect us – and in the case of the airport save lives – then who can we rely on? Why were these buildings allowed to be built?

And now that we know they are illegal why haven’t they been closed down?

I wrote this story in Time magazine in February about a building in Rio that collapsed, killing several people inside. It was reported that authorities had looked the other way while granting building or work permits on the building and I said this in my story, prompting Mayor Eduardo Paes to publicly criticize me (as I reported in this post).

There’s a clear connection between not following the proper building procedures and tragedies like the one in Rio.

Don’t people who pay bribes and the officials who take them or overlook the law get that?

Every year Time lists its 100 Most Influential People In The World.

The 2012 list is out today and there are a record three Brazilians on it, entrepreneur Eike Batista, President Dilma Rousseff and Petrobras CEO Maria das Graças Silva Foster.

Everyone can find fault with the list – how is that guy on it and where is so-and-so?!? – but that’s part of its appeal.

Time editors choose who makes the list and there are often heated, last-minute discussions over who makes the final cut and who gets bumped.

But the coolest thing about the list is how famous people write short essays about those chosen.

This year, Barack Obama writes about Warren Buffet, Bill Gates talks on Salman Khan, Mia Hamm lauds Lionel Messi and, ahem, Cristina Kirchner even writes about Dilma Rousseff.

We managed to convince Eduardo Paes to give us his opinions on Eike Batista and the Rio mayor wrote a lovely piece that captures their friendly relationship but most of all, their mutual love for Rio.

The whole list can be found here but here’s Paes’  ode to Eike:

“I have the best job in the world. I wake up every morning energized at the thought of running Rio de Janeiro, the most exciting city on the planet. Our beloved Cidade Maravilhosa(Marvelous City) is going through an extraordinary era of positive change and social development — and as one of its most treasured adopted sons, Eike Batista, 55, has helped us shape the renaissance. He might be Brazil’s richest man and the world’s seventh richest, bringing vital investment to our city from oil and mining, but his most valuable asset is his commitment to Rio’s legacy. In 2009 Eike bolstered our successful bid for the 2016 Olympics, and since then he has partnered with us on municipal projects like the cleanup of the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon. His initiatives, besides helping fund a children’s hospital, include the revitalization of the city’s Marina da Glória, which will be home to the Olympic sailing events, and the establishment of Escola Social de Vôlei, a nonprofit organization that promotes social inclusion in the favelas through sports. Eike and I may not agree on which of us has the best job in the world, but one thing we certainly agree on is that Rio de Janeiro is the best place in the world.”

 

I will never forget the first time a politician shouted at me.

I was in Haiti and the Prime Minister came on the phone to vigorously deny a story peddled by his aides.

Even though I knew I was the victim of a trial balloon that went awry, I was still quite young and being shouted at by the Prime Minister freaked me out.

It felt particularly bad because the man at the other end of the line was the only Haitian politician I ever respected.

I realised I’d better develop a thick skin – and quick!

I recalled that story today after the Mayor of Rio slagged me off in this piece in O Globo. The Rio paper ran an article about my story in Time magazine that criticised the city for the lack of maintenance that helped bring about the building crash that cost 17 lives and the death of a man from an explosion in the city’s drains.

In response Eduardo Pães made the crass comment: “The Americans have been jealous since Chicago didn’t win the right to host the Olympics.”

Sometimes you know when the piece you’re writing will be controversial and prepare yourself for the backlash. But Pães’s reaction took me by surprise because my piece was so innocuous. It simply stated that:

“Two tragic events have underlined Rio’s need not just to invest in new hotels, venues and transportation but also to take drastic action to shore up the city’s crumbling infrastructure.”

Thankfully Cariocas understood and agreed. To  my surprise, the comments that came after the story were mostly positive.

The vast majority agreed that the city needs more oversight and more investment in maintaining its infrastructure. And several people criticised Pães for his childish comments.

My thanks to them for understanding.

 

After spending a week in Rio seeing old friends and celebrating the New Year, I got back to work today on an unusual project.

Monocle magazine are doing a special pull out section on Rio de Janeiro. It’s the third such city survey they’ve done, following on from Madrid and Tokyo. A team of Monocle writers from London and New York – including editor Andrew Tuck – are in the city to meet with officials and research the good and the bad of the Marvelous City.

They already met with Mayor Eduardo Pães and were highly impressed. Pães took office last January under a bit of a cloud. He was seen as colourless technocrat with little ideology, a fact underlined by his record of swapping political parties half a dozen times in his short career. (That is usually the sign of a politician who sees a better deal for himself under another political godfather.)

However, Pães has confounded a lot of people with his energetic first year in office. Rio had become a lawless city where petty crime – such as illegal parking and playing football on the beach – went unpunished. It was spiralling slowly out of control.

Pães cracked down on all sorts of these infractions, as I wrote about in this Monitor story in March, and he gained the confidence of Cariocas by doing so. Rio is still a long way from being a serious city but for probably the first time since it lost its capital status in 1960 it looks to be on the up. In winning the right to host the 2016 Olympics it has an identifiable future goal and investment will flood in. There is a new sense of optimism about town.

The aim of the special Monocle survey is to focus on and explain that change in fortunes, as well as serve as a guide for high-end tourists visiting the Marvelous City. Look for it on newstands in February.

What is it about Brazilians that makes them so thin-skinned?

This is a question I have pondered many times. It came up again today after Robin Williams joked on Letterman that Rio won the right to host the 2016 Olympics because Chicago sent Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey and Rio sent 50 strippers and half a kilo of cocaine. Robin Williams is a comedian. He made a joke.

However, Rio Mayor Eduardo Pães didn’t see the funny side. Pães reacted nastily, calling William’s words those of man betrayed, or “dor do corno” in Portuguese. (Telling a man his wife is cheating on him is considered one of the biggest insults in Brazil.)

The smart – not to menion the classy thing – to do would have been to laugh it off. After all, Rio won, the city can afford to be magnanimous. Also, why bring more attention to the issue? Let it go.

But Brazilians are incredibly thin-skinned. When Burger King made a joking reference to Rio as the place gangsters flee to, Brazilian publicists designed their own campaign to slag off London, as I wrote about in this Christian Science Monitor story back in June.

And of course, there was the by now legendary Simpsons episode that made fun of Rio. Not getting irony, or not being worldy enough to know that the Simpons make fun of everyone, Brazil’s president protested and the Rio Tourism Board threaten to sue.

The Brazilian response, I think, comes because for years the country was never taken seriously. When foreigners joke about tiny bikinis, or violence, or samba, or football or any of the typical Brazilian stereotypes, locals feel belittled.

They shouldn’t. They should learn to laugh it off. If Brazil is going to be a world player they can expect more such attention. And their leaders should learn to take the moral high ground.

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