Saturday, May 28, 2005

Congress. Brasilia, Brazil. Posted by Hello

Background: Government Ministry Buildings
Foreground: Avenue which leads to Congress Posted by Hello


A 1950’s science fiction movie set brought to life. This was my first impression after a short trip to Brasília, the capital of Brazil.

I was also shocked that this modern urban and architectural wonder was built in an incredibly short period of time. Under the command of socialist Juscelino Kubitschek, Brazilian president from 1956-61, Brasília was built in the middle-of-nowhere in just over three years (1957-1960).

The science fiction movie remark is due to the widespread modernist architecture – that is, a rejection of past architectural traditions, tonnes of concrete, and buildings that belong in a futuristic utopia that was imagined 50 years ago.

It is evident that the urban planner, Lúcio Costa, had a clear priority: efficiency and functionality. The city is built with many freeways and roads that lack traffic lights, intersections and sidewalks. A driver’s heaven. A pedestrian’s hell.

The main avenue is lined with countless rectangular government ministries that lead up to three eccentric buildings that are positioned in a perfect triangle. This equilibrium symbolizes the balance of power between the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary. The city is filled with buildings, statues, monuments, etc. that intentionally serve both functional and symbolic roles for the nation’s capital.

For a student of political science, the city’s emphasis on administration is particularly fascinating. I also imagine that architects and urban planners would consider Brasília as an exceptional case study for analyzing what is right (and wrong) with modernism.

Despite being created with the most honourable of intentions and grand ambitions, the 45 year old city suffers from some serious problems.

Its socialist creators aimed to create class-uniting, self-contained residential communities for a city of 500,000 people. Yet in a short amount of time satellite towns popped up in the suburbs – one of which is already larger than Brasilia – reflecting Brazil’s strong social divide in a sprawling city of over 2 million people.

As mentioned, the city is ideal for car owners. Anyone who has to take public transport, mostly the poor, or simply wishes to walk, has to deal with a lack of sidewalks, extensive distances, and a dangerous absence of traffic lights and crosswalks.

The lack of people on the streets gives Brasília a colder, isolated feel. I found the city difficult to associate with what I imagined to be a livelier, colourful culture. And while there is a lot of grass and trees – an abundant 25 square meters per person - the overwhelming amount of concrete, roads and cars, overshadow this well intended initiative.

Admittedly, I was a bit sceptical when I found out that my first trip to Brazil was taking place in Brasilia, and not in Rio or Sao Paolo. Considering that it was a paid work trip, I was definitely not going to complain but enjoy it to the fullest. Moreover, had I not gone to Brasília for work I would have almost certainly not gone there on my own. The fact that one can visit the city’s main attractions in just a few hours made the trip particularly fulfilling.

I have long wanted to visit Brazil. And even more so considering a long rivalry between Argentina and Brazil recently began to evolve into a warm friendship. Although the soccer hatred is alive and well, ties between the two countries have begun to improve significantly, particularly under left-leaning presidents, Kirchner and Lula.

During visits to Buenos Aires over the years, I have personally witnessed the growing integration. Culturally, samba, caipirinhas and Brahma have made a significant impact on Argentina’s pulsating nightlife. Economically, Argentina imports just about every type of product imaginable from Brazil. And politically, growing cooperation has led to ambitious (although farfetched) calls to lead the creation of a South American Union.

Considering that Brazil almost has five times the population, three times the land mass, and over three times the wealth (in GDP terms) than Argentina, it is logical to expect a one-sided integration and influence. It is not surprising that Argentina has shown some concern regarding Brazil’s growing ambition in international organizations, particularly in its quest for a permanent seat on the security council. Argentina believes the seat should be shared between Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay and Argentina (members of Mercosur). Yesterday, Argentina’s foreign affairs Minister was quoted as saying that Brazil’s solo conquest for the seat, and betrayal of the regional alliance, is “elitist and hardly-democratic”. This came after a month or so of sour public exchanges between the two neighbours (Juanson picked up the story back on the 11th).

Given this complicated relationship, upon arriving in Brasilia I immediately made an effort to see how Argentina and Argentines are viewed. The response I got was generally negative, but almost always accompanied with some laughter, as if revealing that this rivalry is a relic of the past. Indeed, everyone I met was incredibly friendly and extremely tolerant with my horrible attempts at portuñol. Some also joked about not advertising the fact that I am Argentine, and instead playing the Canadian card.

The most memorable part of the trip was meeting a couple of people, of about my age, who work at the UNESCO office. They not only spoke perfect Spanish and had already initiated inspiring careers, but they also took time out of their busy lives to show me around the city. They demonstrated that you cannot simply judge a place by its architecture or natural scenery, but by the openness and generousity of its people.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

This isn't a real cop - it's my friend Gomez. If he were real, you would know, because he would be asking for a bribe... Posted by Hello

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Cromagnon (a synonym for corruption).

The word Cromagnon was meaningless before December 30, 2004. After a fire that left almost 200 youngsters dead in a Buenos Aires club called Republica Cromagnon, the term became a buzzword synonymous with tragedy, death, and corruption.

A night before New Year’s eve celebrations, a concert was held by a group called the Callejeros. Generally, the band holds concerts in outdoor or large enough venues that allow for the use of flares. Cromagnon was considered so unsafe for pyrotechnics that the Callejeros pleaded with their groupies that if a flare was lit, there would be a disaster.

A few moments into the show, someone lit a flare that engulfed the entire ceiling in flames within seconds. The ceiling was covered in a plastic net that produced flames and smoke that instantly converted the club into a gas chamber filled with over 1,500 youths.

If such a tragedy had occurred in North America (indeed, a similar tragedy did take place a couple of years ago in a Rhode Island concert which left almost a 100 dead), the pursuit of ‘justice’ would be fairly straightforward: the club owners, organizers and band members would investigated. Charges and lawsuits would ensue.

However, in a country were corruption is as widely practiced as fútbol, the question of justice is far more complicated.

Indeed, many consider the case of Cromagnon to be a test of Argentina’s ability to leave its corrupt past behind and become what people call a ‘serious country.’

Investigations have revealed that many deaths could have been avoided had four out of the six fire exits not been chained shut to avoid people from sneaking into the concert. Several babies and children were among the dead as a makeshift nursery was created in the women’s washroom. The club was overdue for a fire hazard inspection. Not surprisingly, many flaws in the city’s inspection services have surfaced.

Most Argentines have channelled their outrage into calls for punishment. Many not only want the club’s owner behind bars, but government leaders as well. I am probably in a minority that is more interested in knowing what concrete measures will be taken to prevent another Cromagnon.

At times, I have been shocked by how much the sadness and rage produced by the tragedy has been sensationalized and politicized. Cromagnon consumed so much of the media that a tsunami which killed over 200,000 people was not given the attention it warranted.

In an emotionally charged atmosphere filled with powerful figures joining the masses in calls for a narrow definition of justice, that is, one of revenge and retribution, I wonder if Argentina is ready to resolve its crises and conflicts in a serious manner.

Despite the incredibly slow pace, I believe the government is on the right path.

In what has been a painful process for families and friends, it took the state about five months to bring criminal charges to officials. So far, about 10 police officers and inspectors have been charged, along with the club’s owner and security chief, who face murder charges. The owner is also guilty of bribing officers to turn a blind eye from what became murderous concert venue.

Aside from tracking down those directly responsible for what happened, the city also took a deeper look at the problems with Buenos Aires’ out-of-control nightlife.

Realizing that countless clubs and bigger bars were violating many building codes, fire regulations and were also bribing officials, the government decided to shutdown ALL clubs and bars with dance floors for a minimum of two to three months while inspections and changes were made.

Since reopening, I have noticed that clubs are no where near as crowded as they used to be. Fire exits are easy to spot. It's almost impossible to enter a club past 4AM. And my 15 year cousin constantly complains about how hard it is for her and her friends to go out dancing.

If you know Buenos Aires, then you know that this is significant progress...

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

My second home: San Lorenzo's Nuevo Gasometro Stadium Posted by Hello

Fútbol fanatics

It is said that Buenos Aires is home to more sports stadiums than any other city in the world.

To my surprise, I came across an academic study that not only confirms this statement but also presents some impressive figures: "If we only count stadiums within the Federal District of Buenos Aires there are 18, but if we expand the range into the province of Buenos Aires just ten kilometres the number quickly increases to 35. Six of these stadiums (Boca Juniors, River Plate, San Lorenzo, Velez Sarsfield, Racing Club, and Independiente) have capacities of more than 50,000...."

The author of this study also asserts “that one cannot fully understand the culture of Buenos Aires and Argentina without having at least some understanding of what happens in the stadiums.”

I couldn’t agree more with this statement.

As far back as I can remember, I’ve been a fairly devoted fan of North America’s major sports. Unfortunately, the concept of professional soccer in Canada is an oxymoron. Being an Argentine by birth has carried with it the obligation of being a life long soccer aficionado.

As the most widely played and watched sport in the world, soccer reaches a level of fanaticism that is absent in North American sports. One only needs to attend a soccer game to understand that fútbol means much more to Argentina than hockey does to Canada, and much more than Baseball and Football do to the US. Probably only Brazil has a similar, if not greater, obsession.

I come from a relatively non-religious family - unless you consider fútbol to be God. In line with two generations of Filmus males, I was baptised a Club Atlético de San Lorenzo de Almagro fan before conception.

My family, like most fútbol fans, can be considered moderate followers (I’ll address the fundamentalists in a bit). My father has recounted stories of going to the stadium with an umbrella to avoid being urinated on when walking below the stands. Recently, my great uncle’s ashes were buried behind the net on the field belonging to his beloved Argentinos Juniors fútbol club. These and other stories are all too common in the world of fútbol loyalty.

Since arriving in Buenos Aires, I’ve attended almost every San Lorenzo home game in what has been one of their worst seasons in history. Last weekend I witnessed a shocking San Lorenzo victory over River Plate that ended a 15-game winless streak.

While I enjoyed the euphoria that came with beating one of the best, and thus most hated, teams, I will admit that I didn’t mind going to the stadium to watch my team lose. The creativity, passion, and vulgarity expressed in the heckling and hissing was an event in and of itself. During the 15-game winless streak, I watched passionate San Lorenzo fans get progressively angrier and louder, bringing them to the brink of violence.

San Lorenzo’s once popular coach was forced to resign after the 14th winless game. It is said he would have resigned earlier had he not been paying off the barra bravas (hooligans) to support him. During this alleged agreement which lasted a few games, most of the stadium's heckling was directed at the players themselves, the opposing team, the referee, and at times, the team’s president. However, the coach’s decision to finally leave demonstrates that money can buy you very little impunity when you are losing in the crazed world of Argentine fútbol.

In the days leading up to this last game, it was rumoured that if the team extended their streak to a 16th game, violence would be deployed to get the attention of executive board. Out of precaution, I sat with my uncle and grandfather in the upper deck seats – far removed from the box office seats belonging to the team’s directors. Luckily, San Lorenzo pulled off an incredible upset and violence was averted.

When a team is performing poorly or is playing against a hated adversary, the prospect of violence is greatly elevated. The barra bravas (hooligans) are often led by fanatics who are essentially mob bosses that are involved in the many lucrative branches of organized crime. Extortion is often used against one’s own players and coaches in order to extract bribes in exchange for ‘protection’. These hooligans widely consider violence to be an appropriate way to demonstrate support for one’s team. They often see games as battlefields, and target the opposing team’s fans as if there was an irreconcilable personal hatred between them.

This fanatical “us-versus-them” mentality is most blatantly expressed in the Boca Juniors and River Plate rivalry. Probably more than half of the country’s fútbol fans pledge allegiance to either of these teams who have dominated the league for about a century.

From a sociological perspective, these adversaries represent much more than just fútbol hostility inside a stadium. These opponents also symbolize the important divide between the haves and have-nots in Argentine society.

Boca Juniors, located in the working class south of Buenos Aires, has typically been known as the ‘team of the people’. River Plate, located in the wealthy north of the city, has been nicknamed los millonarios, and is generally supported by upper class porteños. Although the class line is not firmly drawn among the fan base, the hatred is.

A Boca-River game, known as a
superclásico, places the country at a standstill as the stadium literally trembles. Some label it the greatest rivalry in sports – in an elite category of derbies with Madrid/Barcelona (Spanish soccer), Inter Milan/AC Milan (Italian soccer), Yankees/Red Sox (Baseball), Maple Leafs/Canadiens (Hockey) Michigan/Ohio State (US College Football), etc. Undoubtedly, Argentines will refute these comparisons and label this confrontation as the most important sporting event in the universe (outside of Argentina playing in the World Cup, of course)

Two weekends from now is the date of the next superclásico. If I can manage to land a ticket I will have the opportunity to get severe goose bumps from what will undoubtedly be a passionate and profanity laced event - and hopefully a peaceful one as well.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Fountain in front of Congress: Sacred landmark for some, improvised swimming pool for others... Posted by Hello

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Beauty of Buenos Aires

The metropolis of around 13 million people is commonly nicknamed the “Paris of Latin America”. I guess if one considers the spectacular grand avenues, countless plazas, stunning architecture, fine cuisine, thriving nightlife, and its reputation as the capital of psychoanalysis, Buenos Aires has some commonalities with Paris.

That being said, porteños (as Buenos Aires residents are called) are very hospitable and hot blooded like their Latin American neighbours (even if many refuse to admit it). Family and friendship ties are generally valued more than in North America, where rugged individualism and the “rat race” often strain personal bonds. Indeed, for me personally, the best thing about Buenos Aires is being surrounded by incredible people who I am lucky to call family.

After a year in Costa Rica, and carefully observing Tico friendships, I developed the idea that a very strong commitment to one’s family came at the price of devaluing friendship. My experience in Buenos Aires has proved me wrong. Just about everyone I know has kept many close friends from childhood, whom they consider to be very much a part of their family.

Contrasting what I see as pervasive emotional repression in North America, porteños generally have a strong need to be open about their feelings. I’ve overheard many conversations between close friends that sound much like psychoanalytic sessions. I’ve also found people to be quite open about having a shrink and are comfortable sharing the details of their sessions.

I imagine that this emotional openness has better prepared porteños to deal with the recent economic depression. I often ask myself how is it that despite the crisis, that I see people from all walks of life, smiling more, laughing more, hugging more, and kissing more than I’m used to seeing in Toronto (proudly known as one of the “best places to live in the world”)?

The nightlife in Buenos Aires is another phenomenon that I frequently bask in without fully understanding. BA at night is wilder than any city I’ve ever visited or even heard of second-hand.

A typical Friday or Saturday night for young porteños, usually 16 years old until their mid 30s, involves the following:

10 or 11PM: dinner with friends

1AM: pre-drinking at a bar, house or park

3AM: dancing at a club until daylight (usually between 6AM and 8AM).

Back in Toronto, it’s almost impossible to legally buy a drink past 2AM and most bars and clubs close by 3AM. In Buenos Aires, on any given day of the week, there are bars packed well into the early hours of the morning.

This club and bar scene reflects a wide-ranging porteño passion for leisure and entertainment. I am often shocked by how long the movie lines are for mediocre Hollywood blockbuster movies, by how late enormous bookstores are open, and by the amount of theatres on Corrientes (Buenos Aires’ version of Broadway).

There are too many soccer stadiums in Buenos Aires to count, and virtually every male I know, plays futbol 5 with their friends at least once a week. Interest in basketball and tennis has grown tremendously since the country began to produce some of the world’s best hoops and tennis players.

This evening I will be attending for the first time in my life what is probably considered to be the most pure porteño cultural expression: a tango show. Famous Argentine writer, Jorge Borges once said: We might say that without the evenings and nights of Buenos Aires, a tango cannot be made, and that in heaven there awaits us Argentines the Platonic idea of the tango, its universal form.

Given that I have yet to develop an appreciation for dance in any form that does not involve loud music and alcohol until six in the morning, I am looking forward to the experience.