It’s been flooding in São Paulo, off and on, for well over a month now. Just when you think it couldn’t rain anymore, another storm moves in and pounds the city tropical styles. The southeast regions of São Paulo are the worst affected with hundreds of people losing their possessions in ground-level homes and apartments. It wreaks absolute havoc in traffic, especially downtown, where streets flood off and alternate routes get jammed.
Thankfully, it’s still holiday time here and traffic for the last two weeks has been blissfully “normal” meaning that you can travel 10 kilometers in less than two hours. I turned on Globo today and saw their headline: Protesters protesting the flood. The flood? They’re protesting what exactly?
The TV cameras, in their typical overly dramatic tremble, cut quickly from scene to scene, showing a group of about a fifty people in what looked to be a favela standing around a burning pile of wood then cut to a scene with an upside down car on fire. Wow, I thought, there’s an actual protest? Are they going to riot and demand that the city provide compensation for all the lost homes and possessions in poorly maintained streets where there isn’t proper sewer drainage?
I couldn’t tell if the “protest” was real or not because the protesters were just standing there and the cops looked bored and awkward, CB radio in one hand, gun in the other- it almost looked staged. There were a lot of young men and middle aged women and no one looked particularly outraged – no, I would say that their faces were quite complacent, in fact, the young men were beaming with joy while the car burned.
And the rain comes down…
Here’s a little story about Brazil.
Paulo’s first job was at one of the biggest banks in Brazil, he was 19. He started as a teller and over the course of five years, gradually moved up to the position of technical assistant. In the early days, he started work at 7 am: he counted bills all day, helped customers, crunched numbers and flirted with the young women who worked there, taking just 30 minutes for lunch.
His day finished at 5 pm, he took the bus home then later met his friends at a BBQ or kicked a soccer ball around the court of his apartment complex. At the end of his first month, the manager of the bank handed him an envelope marked with his name in shiny, black type; it was all Paulo could do to contain his excitement.
Later, on the bus, he discreetly opened the envelope and looked at the amount: he was paid for only six hours a day, not eight. The amount was less than expected. Despite the error, Paulo was thrilled to bring home his first pay check – all the values and lessons his father had always instilled in him were coming to fruition.
He kept a small amount for himself and saved the rest for a car. The bank continued to pay him for six hours a day and Paulo continued to work there.
This was in 1988 and it was common for banks and large institutions in Brazil to underpay their employees – top level managers, and their lawyers, pocketed the remainder and the employees, being powerless to complain with any results, let the errors go without much protest.
Eventually, however, as more and more people faced the same extortion, a growing number of them began suing the banks in large numbers. When Paulo quit the bank after five years and was in another job, he began to consider suing the bank himself.
Around this time Paulo’s parents had their good friends over for dinner, a couple they’d known since childhood. The man, Eduardo, a lawyer, had caught wind of bank employees suing for their wages and told Paulo that if he was “up for the fight”, he’d represent him in court.
Paulo and his parents thanked Uncle, as they called him, and agreed to start the proceedings immediately. As they left the apartment that night, Eduardo hugged and kissed Paulo and told him that he’d get him his money.
Eduardo and Paulo went to court and won. The judge awarded Paulo 40,000 reais (US$ 21,942) in stolen wages but because of the backlog of cases and the thousands of lawyers the bank had working for it around clock, getting the money would take years and would be paid through Eduardo.
Paulo said he could wait and imagined what his life would be like in the future when the money finally arrived. Maybe I’ll have a family by then, he thought. The years passed by and Paulo’s family saw less and less of Eduardo, though Paulo called him frequently to find out the status of his payment. Oh yeah son, Eduardo would tell him, I’m still waiting for it to come through.
Eight years passed and Paulo felt increasingly suspicious and began calling Eduardo more and more frequently. One day, Eduardo picked up the phone and told Paulo that the money had finally come through and he could pick up the check at his office today. Paulo went to his office after work and Eduardo handed him a personal check for $20,000 reais. But Uncle, he said, it was supposed to be for $40,000 reais.
Now, Paulo understood that the lawyer should take 25% of the awarded sum, but $20,000 meant that his uncle took 45%. Eduardo told Paulo that the bank had awarded only 94% of the total the other 6% would come later. Paulo had worked for a bank after all and understood that this still meant that Eduardo had taken more than his fair share.
Paulo would not leave it alone: he called him every day for months and Eduardo had a new excuse every time. In one exasperated conversation, Eduardo told Paulo that he had lent the money to his daughter Ana, a close friend of Paulo’s because she needed it for school. No Uncle, Paulo insisted, that’s my money, you promised.
After three years of this, Paulo decided to ask his friend Daniel, a lawyer, to help him get his money back. They signed an agreement this time as Paulo told him, “My father lost a friend but I won’t. We make a written agreement.”
Once again, the court awarded Paulo his lost earnings, this time from the crooked lawyer, and said the amount with interest would be 16,000 reais (US$ 8,777). However, when it came time to seize the money, the courts could find no information or assets in Eduardo’s name.
He had not one possession to his name, not even a bank account. Paulo himself had visited his home several times and knew that he owned two Mercedes’, a beach house, and a grand apartment with lavish furnishings in an affluent area. But according to the books, Eduardo didn’t exist. A ghost.
Paulo never got his money.
Recently, years later at his new job, some other employees and himself were sitting around the lunch room talking about the enormous line-up that public servants have to stand in to receive their pay at the public bank, with only one teller to serve a hundred people, and only once a week or one can’t cash the check.
Some of them give up halfway through out of frustration, others make jokes about the service, but no one voices their opinion too loudly. While the prosecutors and lawyers who work for the state have a separate section and separate bank to receive their pay where there are four tellers working to serve them, no line-ups.
“What corruption! Ludicrous!” Paulo listened to his co-workers complain around the lunch table. There’s a law in Brazil that if you yell at a public servant or anyone working for the government, you are automatically thrown in jail. No one protests and sometimes, they lose their money. They go back home quiet little mice and have BBQs in the sunshine. Sunshine, as it turns out, solves everything.
Paulo listened to his co-workers complaining and said, “If you wanna see who makes these anti-protest laws, try investigating the lawyers who created them. Just try to see the books for the Law Makers Association. See if they themselves pay taxes or what their wages are and I bet you’ll find that they’re all ghosts, illusions. They’re so insulated and protected that you’ll never find out how and where any new laws or taxes were began or by who. Never…”
Paulo told me that he wanted to believe in justice twice in his life: once when he was robbed at gunpoint, and once when he was robbed by a bank. But justice failed him twice and he knows why now, he understands that there are two worlds: the one “we” live in and the one Machiavelli’s Princes live in. “And they don’t suffer, Carmen, the Princes, they never suffer and we, we keep on paying, we keep on working.”
I tried to disagree with him. I tried to tell him that we don’t have to be affected by “them”, that we rise above it, that in fact, they do suffer because they never feel real joy or understand truth or justice or feel deep, lasting satisfaction in life. There’s natural justice, I said.
I told him those words from my heart and then added, “I don’t care if I sound naive, I won’t live in a world where I don’t believe in that truth.”
There won’t be any public protests, or shouts in the faces of politicians or public officials or lawyers or anyone else who holds power here. There never will be and that’s the world I live in.
And the rain comes down…
Carmen Joy King is a freelance writer and Canadian expat living in São Paulo. You can read more by her here: http://thenewbrooklin.blogspot.com/