Blue Angel


A financial journalist goes behind the statistics and the capital
flows to the effects on the people of Rio’s slums, and profiles one woman’s work on the
children’s behalf.
By Kevin Rafferty

The view from Christ’s outstretched arms is truly breathtaking: the craggy Sugar Loaf
Mountain sits in its glory in a shining sea covered with boats at anchor, many equipped
with navigation and satellite devices capable of sailing to the ends of the earth, On
land, the hillsides are neatly dotted with apartment blocks and smart houses; way below,
on the golden sands, the beautiful people sport their glistening, bronzed bodies as they
play volleyball, gently swim or relax in deckchairs as if taking part in a competition for
the season’s skimpiest bathing costume. An untidy touch of color is provided by ragged
sellers of balloons, hats, suntan lotion and knick-knacks. For all these reasons Rio de
Janeiro has been called the most beautiful city on earth.

Too bad that the statue of Christ cannot turn round to look at the other side of Rio,
at the ugly squalor that has spread and spread, the brutal face of poverty. He might weep:
favelas (shantytowns) that a few decades ago were an eyesore to the sun-seekers of
Copacabana beach have been removed, and their poor inhabitants have been forced to make
their dwellings further and further out. These days, as you drive away from Copacabana,
parts of Rio have become an endless slum. True enough, these are not the makeshift
bird’s-nest hutches of Bombay, Delhi or Dhaka. Most of them are brick. Some look
substantial, but you do not have to go far to see poverty and to appreciate how ugly it

Yvonne Bezerra de Mello understands that better than most. She is an artist and
sculptor who has an apartment overlooking the Sugarloaf. Yet she spends much of her time
in a slum apartment about 40 minutes drive from Copacabana where she offers some shelter,
a place to play and a wholesome meal to the young children of the neighborhood. It is
simple, a place to call a temporary home, a place to find attention and affection, a
chance to get some simple schooling and to learn a few creative skills.

One of the people assisting her is a teenage girl, Elenice Nogueira, a budding artist
whose talent has been shaped by the two years she spent on Rio’s streets. The bare brick
walls of the apartment are brightened by her giant pictures of teddy bears, bees,
butterflies and other friendly animals, as she gives the younger children their first
painting lessons and they daub their pieces of paper boldly and brightly. Her own
paintings depict a much darker side of life on the streets, showing violence, guns, drugs,
beatings by police.

She also manages a gentle black humor, showing children tussling with dogs for bones
and scraps of food, or a child sleeping on the street at the feet of Christ’s outstretched
arms, wearing a Christmas hat and with a stocking hung hopefully for more than a stony
glance. Both de Mello and Nogueira profess themselves Christians but they have deserted
Catholicism, even though the Church still claims the vast majority of Brazilians as its
children. De Mello recently had a sharp encounter with the Cardinal Archbishop of Rio, who
refused to shake her hand because she had committed the mortal sin of divorcing her
Swedish husband and marrying again.

Many of the cardinal’s flock are living in irregular unions far more brutal and
destructive than divorce. De Mello demonstrates the point in her slum house that is the
haven for up to 100 young children. One young boy of eight with a shaven head clings to
her lovingly, longing for the affection that his parents never gave him—but he has to
be handled carefully, because if he doesn’t get affection he is likely to turn violent. A
skinny girl of 12, turning into a woman, is watching the cook—for her de Mello’s
house is a shelter from her father who forced her into prostitution. Just 10 yards down
the road sits a man whose wife left him and their five small children when he began to
rape young girls.

De Mello visits an apartment round the corner to try to persuade a mother that her
daughter should be allowed to undergo a simple operation to correct an ugly facial defect;
the entire house is in darkness apart from a constantly flickering television. Here the
mother lives alone with her six children, fathered by three different men. In this favela
it is unusual to find settled family relationships, rarer still to come across a legal
marriage. Violence is never far from the surface and de Mello says that she has to make
daily accommodations with the drug dealers who dominate many of the favelas.
Walking through these areas is a scary experience, especially as one is constantly watched
by men who have no regular jobs and who are quick to drown
their sorrows with cheap hooch when they have some money.

There is a twin tragedy here. Internationally, Brazil has benefited from the injection
of billions of dollars into its economy over the past few decades, both in aid and in
foreign investment. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have been important
supporters and the policies that they advocated helped to cure rampaging inflation which
threatened to undermine all the limited economic progress made. "Hyperinflation was a
serious cold that threatened to turn into pneumonia", according to a manager of one
non-governmental organization. But he added sharply that the arrest of inflation was not
sufficient to restore the economy to health. "What we have got now instead is
economic cancer", he remarks.

Though Brazil is Latin America’s biggest economy, it is vulnerable, he explains, to
what is happening in the rest of the world, even events in Asia. `We are not responsible
for the crisis there and it is seemingly remote from our concerns. Yet the flow of money
that international financiers can move around in minutes is so great that we are in the
frontline and our currency and economy can quickly come under threat." Such threats
led to the Government’s brave decision recently to devalue the Brazilian currency, the
Real. The players on the local stock market thought the shock treatment worked and the
market rose even as the real slumped from 1.21 against the United States dollar to 1.80
and below. But the cancer continues to ravage the real economy. Short-term interest rates
are more than 30 per cent, discouraging investment. Money has continued to leave Brazil.

After the loss of $45 billion in reserves since last August, only $35 billion is left
in the kitty, of which $9 billion is from an IMF support package. Policies of market
liberalization and globalization promoted by the US Treasury, the International Monetary
Fund and the World Bank have exposed Brazil to the chill winds that blow from the rest of
the world. Even at the best of times before the Asian crisis, when Brazil was growing
relatively fast, neo-liberalism did not create enough jobs to pull people off the streets.
Now poor people have still less to comfort them. Economic growth has begun to fall, only
slightly as yet, but it will drop further; for industrial production has plummeted by
almost 10 percent in the past year. These are disastrous figures that can only further
increase the sprawl of the favelas with their violence. The experience of Brazil
suggests that the Pope’s prickly criticisms of naked capitalism are right.

Here then is the other face of the twin tragedy: the individual lives that are wasted
while billions of dollars are poured into the country. "Where does all the money
go?" Yvonne de Mello laments. "With $1,200 a month I see that none of the
children who come to my house in the favela go hungry. If I had $5,000 a month, I
could pay for teachers to ensure that they had an education and a start, a hope but only a
glimmer of it." She says that unless the government changes its policies so as to
offer a sound education, better health care and the prospect of jobs, few of the children
can ever hope to escape the favelas. What she is trying to do is save them from a
despairing flight to the streets. If they go there, their lives will be wasted by crime
and drugs and by the time they are 16 or 17, they’ll be finished".

Originally published on News from Brazil supplied by SEJUP
(Servico Brasileiro de Justiça e Paz). Number 337, February 13, 1999. Source: The
Tablet, 6 February 1999 –

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