Brazil: Daslu is a posh multi-brand department store in São Paulo, known as the "fashion designers mecca". The only problem is that millions of inhabitants of the neighboring favelas will never have the chance to set their feet in
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Sao Paulo favela (photo: André Cherri)

Voyage to South America – Part 3

PUBLISHED IN |  Mar 28, 06

SAO PAULO. Ronaldo arrives by helicopter. Naomi Campbell drops in a couple of times a year to freshen her wardrobe. Michael Schumacher, the Formula 1 champion, does victory laps here. Welcome to Daslu, the fashion temple of Sao Paulo and a mecca for Brazil’s rich. With all respect to Milan, Paris and New York, none of them can boast a luxury department store on this scale: 17,000 square meters on five floors. It’s as though all the prestige stores from Madison and 5th Avenues in New York had been packed into one building – Armani, Gucci, Emilio Pucci, Prada and Louis Vuitton – along with jewelry stores such as Cartier, Stern and La Perla, and also household goods, cosmetics, perfumes and chocolate shops.

The entrance evokes a palace. A narrow, gleaming white walkway with a barrier at its beginning separates this new-world estate from the rest of the city. If you make the trip through the streets of Sao Paulo to Daslu very fast, you can even avoid seeing poor people, even though their numbers are legion. Indeed, there is an even better way to keep from seeing this: In order not to upset Sao Paulo’s wealthy with sights of brutal poverty or with annoying traffic jams, the Daslu management has built a helipad on the building’s roof. This is a place where you go shopping by helicopter!

Meticulously trimmed miniature trees lead to the main structure. Everything is clean, orderly, cultivated. Green plants in large clay pots line the underground parking lot. The parked cars have to breathe clean air in this city, which is something that does not hold true for “the people” – meaning the poor. The rich of Brazil call their country Belindia, meaning a small island of the First World. And what a First World it is, with the infrastructure and quality of life of Belgium, where everything can be found in the midst of a Third World sea, like that of India.

Whichever way you look at the scale of inequality in the country, the picture looks bad. According to a ranking of 124 countries by the World Bank, Brazil is in 117th place in terms of the equality of its citizens, alongside El Salvador, the Central African Republic and Sierra Leone. (Israel, by the way, is in 49th place and the United States is 92nd.) The overall income of the top percentile is higher than the total income of the five lowest deciles. The top decile is 85 times as wealthy as the lowest. Twenty-five percent of the population, or about 45 million people, earn less than a dollar a day, and 40 percent do not have sewage systems in their homes.

The difference is that Brazil, unlike the African countries with which it is ranked, is not a poor country. Brazil exports planes to China and builds submarines and satellites, yet it still has slavery. Only recently was it revealed that a member of parliament had slaves in his home. (This was illegal, of course: Slavery was abolished here 120 years ago.) Brazil takes pride in having one of the world’s most advanced electronic voting systems – what happened in Florida in 2000 will never happen here, they say – and it uses ethanol for fuel to protect the environment. Nevertheless, in the harsh areas of the northeast, children still eat dirt, as they have done for hundreds of years.

Shopping in the nude

Avenida Paulista in Sao Paulo (photo: Fernando Stankuns)

Avenida Paulista in Sao Paulo (photo: Fernando Stankuns)

There is no better place to witness these disparities than at Daslu. A young saleswoman offers luxury accessories for cigarette and cigar smokers. Behind her are huge windows that do not even try to hide the favela – a slum neighborhood, 600 of which are scattered around the city – which is directly opposite. The saleswoman is the daughter of a diplomat, and spent two years in Singapore studying English literature for her bachelor’s degree. Here, not only the clients are rich: The sales staff are also from wealthy families. This particular young woman prefers Singapore to Sao Paulo. It’s noisy and dirty here, and there are a great many poor people. Perhaps we are interested in Cuban cigars or maybe a lighter? She has a Zippo for $100. But there are also super-luxury lighters – Dupont, for example. It’s a bit tricky to use them, the mechanism is a bit awkward, but the design is elegant. A few gold stripes on a silver background. The price is revealed by tilting the lighter slightly. Shock: NIS 10,000.

Just about every item here can throw one into shock. Velvet sofas wait enticingly for weary shoppers. There is even a large sofa in the elevator, and on one of the mirrors in the elevator a plasma screen broadcasts the daily specials: A Dolce & Gabbana T-shirt, for example, has been reduced to a mere NIS 1,500. Huge chandeliers from Italy adorn the boutiques where, as though just to be provocative, only four ties are on display.

On the women’s apparel floor there are no dressing rooms and the clients walk around in the nude. They try on jeans, bras or nightgowns of transparent green fabric. At the entrance to every boutique is a stone sculpture of a dog – a warning to men that entry here is barred to them. Still, if you don’t know the rules, you can suddenly feast your eyes on tanned Brazilian buttocks a second before an assertive saleswoman charges forward and expels the intruder. If you get tired again, you can stop for a moment at the champagne bar and choose from among hundreds of bottles. You can also choose a luxury cruise on a yacht. Ah, actually not: It turns out that the yacht itself is for sale. And there are also helicopters – real helicopters – and motorcycles and sports cars. In short, everything the average Brazilian can afford.

Impossible megalopolis

Sao Paulo skyline (photo: Shelley Bernstein)

Sao Paulo skyline (photo: Shelley Bernstein)

It’s hard to be wealthy in Sao Paulo. In the past three decades this city has, like its seaside sister, Rio de Janeiro, lurched out of control and like a cancerous growth turned into an impossible megalopolis. The airport, which in the 1960s was in the suburbs, is located in what has become the heart of the city. Metropolitan New York exceeds Sao Paulo in population, but there is really no comparison between the two. Sao Paulo, with its 20 million residents, has no center. It is made up of a patchwork of neighborhoods that were added to the city over the years, without any planning. Even the veteran residents find it difficult to navigate here. An ordinary taxi ride, not in rush hour, can take an hour and a half. The city’s area, spread over the map of Israel, is the equivalent of a rectangle whose corners are Haifa, Tiberias, Beit She’an and Hadera. And that is just the urban core, without the suburbs. And with the spiraling population growth, mainly of poor people from the interior of the country who have built the favelas – crime, too, has multiplied. Sao Paulo has one of the highest crime rates in Latin America.

A local friend tells offhandedly how he was kidnapped three years ago in the middle of the city. It was no big story, no headlines in the papers. The kidnappers took him to an ATM and demanded that he withdraw all the money in his account. It worked with the first card, but the second card got stuck, maybe because he was so agitated. Furious, the kidnappers beat him up right there, on the street, and broke his glasses, then used the broken glass to cut him and left him bleeding on the sidewalk. That is known here as an “express kidnapping” – a very common phenomenon.

In Sao Paulo you must not hail a cab, just like that, in the street, because who knows where the driver will take you. Here you must not drive with your car windows open, not even on a main street like Paulista Avenue, not even at 2:30 in the afternoon. Who knows? A motorcyclist is liable to pull up alongside you, stick a pistol in the window and demand your money. It’s best to drive with closed, tinted windows, so that no one can see you and you can’t see anyone. It’s also preferable not to walk on the street. In fact, the safest place is the mall, where you can walk to your heart’s content, hour after hour. Against this background, it is clear that the wealthy residents of Sao Paulo, those who buy at Daslu, are increasingly enclosing themselves in fortified, heavily guarded islands.

The data for the continent are astounding: According to the World Health Organization, the murder rate in Latin America is 27 times higher than it is in Europe. Murder is seventh on the list of causes of death, right up there with chronic diseases, as compared with 14th place in Africa and 22nd globally. Some people are getting rich from the rampant crime. Already today there are 400,000 personal security guards in Sao Paulo, three times the number of local police. The city has the second-largest fleet of private helicopters in the world, second only to New York. Now there is a new trend: building an underground bunker below one’s house, as protection against burglaries and kidnappings.

Jose Barella, a journalist with Veja newsmagazine, relates that this trend began with bulletproofing cars. Then the wealthy erected electrified fences around their homes, and now the buzzword is “panic rooms,” borrowing the title of a 2002 Jodie Foster movie. The underground structures can cost up to $1 million. They were originally built in private homes outside the city, in places that the police cannot easily get to, but as crime surged they began to be “imported” into the city as well. So much so, in fact, that the largest concentration of underground bunkers in Sao Paulo is located in the Morumbi neighborhood, not far from the government offices in the city. The bunkers are habitable for up to a month. They contain water, electricity, communications – everything needed to survive.

Brazil’s rich are thus increasingly insulating themselves in a world of their own, with swimming pools and gyms in their residences, with armored cars, helicopters and security guards – willing to go to any lengths to avoid exposure to the brutal reality around them, which is the lot of tens of millions of their compatriots.

Healthy economy, sick people

Sao Paulo street (photo: Thomas Tribe)

Sao Paulo street (photo: Thomas Tribe)

This was the state of affairs that Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (known as Lula, in a country where adding “Mr.” is considered an affront) promised to change when he was elected president in 2002. Brazil’s social and economic problems, like those of the rest of the continent, did not begin in the 1980s. They were aggravated, though, by the neoliberal economic policy known here as “Washington’s consensus.” Brazil adopted this policy relatively late, in 1994, during the tenure of the former president, Fernando Henrique Cardoso.

The idea was to make the economy more competitive in order to foster growth, which in time would make it possible to break the cycle of poverty and achieve economic prosperity for the whole continent. In practice, customs rates were reduced and other trade barriers were removed, to make possible a flow of capital and goods that would promote exports. “Market-friendly reforms” were introduced to encourage foreign capital investments in the country and to allow a hidden hand to work wonders in the Brazilian economy. For example, wages were cut and greater “flexibility” was facilitated in the labor market – in short, dismissals were permitted – to encourage a flow of capital and desired growth, which would send the economy soaring to new heights. In the meantime, many government companies were privatized, including some in the large communications market, and were gobbled up by Brazilian and Western investors.

The hidden hand indeed worked wonders in the economy. In short order it became apparent that it had perhaps become healthier, but the people had become sick. Worst affected were the working class, both professional and unskilled, which for years had been the classic base of support for the leading left-wing Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers Party, or PT). Some workers lost their jobs, others’ wages were frozen, their on-the-job rights were affected and their status vis-a-vis the employers was weakened. In addition, the level of national public services, such as health and education, deteriorated. The macroeconomic data indicators were also less than impressive: The country’s deficit did not disappear and the gross national product (GNP) grew very moderately. The method, it was universally agreed, had failed.

The election victory of Lula, the leader of the PT, in October 2002, heralded the onset of a new era, with high expectations. However, says Raul Zibechi, foreign editor of the Uruguay-based news magazine Brecha, which covers Latin America, “economically there has been more continuity than change.” Despite Lula’s promises, Brazil did not sever its relations with the International Monetary Fund. Lula is continuing the tough budgetary policy of his predecessor and maintaining a high interest rate, in an attempt to keep the lid on inflation. Nevertheless, as in other countries in the region, the change in social-welfare policy has been apparent. Lula launched several projects, of which the most important are called Zero Hunger and Bolsa Familia (Family Grants). The two projects are intended to rehabilitate the poorest of the poor, those who earn less than $2 a day. Within the framework of the first project, the state – yes, the state, not parties like Shas or charity organizations – transfers budgets to cities and to acutely poverty-ridden regions. The second project transfers funds directly to the poor families by means of a magnetic card they receive.

The two programs are intended to assist 11 million families (about 45 million people), and to date have reached eight million. The two main conditions families must meet are to send their children to school on a regular basis and to visit clinics regularly for vaccinations.