THE BLOG

Six Days of Violent Death, Literary Honor, and Politics in Rio de Janeiro

07/21/2014 02:58 pm ET | Updated Sep 20, 2014

I came to Rio to accept an award from the Brazilian Academy of Letters for my work on the screenplay of Bruno Barreto's movie, "Reaching For The Moon," ("Flores Raras" in Brazil) about the poet, Elizabeth Bishop and her love affair with a Brazilian woman. On the day I arrived, the wife of restaurateur Chico Mascarenhas was murdered. I met her several times, but she and her husband were very good friends with almost everyone I know in Rio.

Christina ("Tin Tim") was co-owner with her husband of Guimas, a famous hangout for Rio's artists for the last three decades. She was grabbed from behind in a street nearby, instinctively clutched her purse, and got shot in the head. The man took cash out of her purse, threw the purse on top of her body, jumped on the back of a motorcycle, and fled.

Since the police purged the favelas of drug lords and their employees, the criminals have come up with several new ways to redistribute capital. Christina had just been to the bank and it's thought she was targeted and followed. This is so common here the robbery even has a name, "little bank exit." It's now against the law to use a phone inside a bank because the crime used to begin with someone calling someone outside and telling them who took out how much and what they look like.

People say the city, which has felt safer and safer the last few years, is becoming more dangerous again. Last night the cab I was in ran several red lights so as not to have to stop in areas where you might get attacked and robbed. This running of red lights, which is both exhilarating and alarming, used to be normal in Rio but diminished in recent years. I've only been here a few days and it feel worse, but not as bad as it used to be. Maybe tomorrow I'll change my mind.

Dilma Rousseff, the leftist president who oversaw the recent World Cup, is widely disliked, in part because of corruption, greed, and waste associated with the event. But it's more than this. Although recent government policy has raised many out of grinding poverty into the lower middle class, the very idea of government, the concept that it can ever improve life, is questioned. The basic sentiment is that government is by definition more incompetent and corrupt than the private sector, and always will be.

A story I heard in Rio illustrates this attitude. Whereas most cities tend to name things after politicians no matter how flawed or imbecilic (JFK Airport, Reagan International) and raise statues to presidents and soldiers, Rio greets you with an airport named after a composer and along the beaches are statues not in honor of politicians or soldiers, but of poets, musicians, journalists, and novelists.

One of these, a statue of the poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade, was vandalized with spray-paint a few months ago. The government asked for bids to clean it. The lowest came in at 25,000 Reals (about $11,000). This was accepted, but before the experts arrived to do the job, a man came along with a can of paint-thinner and a rag and cleaned it in under an hour, for nothing.

The story is true except for the part about the government bid. The real story actually exemplifies a lovable aspect of Rio, a city which often feels more like a town. Writers, academics, and musicians are revered, but often there is little separation between them and the people. On the night I got my award, one of the leading members of the Academy, the great novelist Joao Ubaldo Ribeiro, died. The next day, most of the interviews on TV were with friends he drank with at his local bar, ordinary people, cab drivers, owners of nearby stores, housekeepers.

Carlos Drummond de Andrade's statue was cleaned by an old man who owned a small hardware store patronized by the poet before he died. The statue was vandalized one night and this was reported on the radio the next morning. The owner of the hardware store got right up from the table where he was having breakfast, went to his store to pick up supplies, and then walked to the beach.

"When I was done," he sad, "there was a small crowd. I wanted to kiss my old friend on the forehead, but I thought it would look like I was showing off, so I just brushed some sand from his feet and went back to my store."

This is a far more beautiful and touching story than the myth invented to diminish government. The myth, sadly, reminds me of the stories Republicans and Tea Party members invent for the same purpose in North America.

I suppose that both on the left and right we are all childishly attached to the notion that somewhere there exists a group of people we can rely on to be efficient and honest.

It is six years since the BP/Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico and six days since Citibank paid a 7 billion dollar fine for greedily and dishonestly screwing around with mortgages and ruining thousands of lives. In between are dozens of economic and environmental scandals, tragedies, and disasters brought on by private enterprise. With them in mind, it is hard to see "government" as being the only type of organization filled with incompetent crooks motivated only by greed and selfish ambition and lacking all moral inhibition. From the killer thief on the street, through the heartless bureaucrat, to the insatiable CEO, all the way to the politician who'll sacrifice young lives merely to increase his power, the disease of inhumane cynicism sometimes seems like an inescapable epidemic.