Brazilians Rally Round their Rogue Shopping Malls

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When news broke this week that 28 of Sao Paulo’s shopping malls were out of line with official regulations, inhabitants of South America’s biggest city expressed alarm.

Their concerns weren't so much about the misbehavior that had produced this result. Rather, they were worried that their shopping might be interrupted. In a Twitter posting, a Brazilian identifying  as Thiago da Hora lambasted Sao Paulo Mayor Gilberto Kassab, saying, "Apparently Kassab has entered into a war against Sao Paulo shopping malls." Someone tweeting under the name  Guy Franco chimed in: "Elitist! Hygienist!" A netizen with the log-on Tati Comelli commented: "'The majority of shopping malls in Sao Paulo are irregular.' What isn't irregular in this country?"

Authorities, who fined the malls, said the irregularities did not put customers at risk. Still, one might have expected shoppers to feel some outrage that 10 malls were constructed without proper authorization, 14 lacked the right documentation to operate, and eight had stinted on parking spaces. These were the conclusions of a city investigation. It was launched after a former executive of a company that is part of the Brookfield Group -- which manages five of the city's most illustrious malls, four of which were among the 28 -- told the Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper that her ex-employers paid bribes to obtain city permits. Brookfield denied the allegations.

In an editorial, Folha de Sao Paulo took umbrage over the irregularities:

The most amazing thing was discovering that no inspector had ever been to personally verify if, for example, the spaces said to be allotted for cars existed. The entrepreneurs do what they want, put something else on paper, and the city pretends to have supervised it. Inept, if not corrupt, bureaucracy takes the place of reality.

That other commentators were apathetic was emblematic of Brazilian attitudes toward corruption. That a company might have paid bribes to get permits for shopping centers surprises few Brazilians. It's what they expect.

The response also demonstrates a cavalier attitude toward health and safety that is common in Brazil. Very few Brazilians, for instance, use a car's rear seat belt because they don’t think it’s necessary.

There was a notable lack of pique after an earlier story in Folha de Sao Paulo revealed that, along the route airplanes take into the city's busy domestic airport, Congonhas, there are 45 obstacles that exceed the height limit, some by as much as 13 meters (43 feet). These include buildings, trees, two hospitals and a commercial center.

The response: jokes. Someone identifying as Alexandre Costa tweeted: “It’s almost an air rally!” Another tweeter, identifying as Cilmara Bedaque, said: “It’s a gymkhana to land at Congonhas.”

The newspaper piece prompted a lively discussion on the online forum Skyscrapercity. A Brazilian identifying as Lucas Luz said: “This article is a bit exaggerated. Every airport has obstacles, whether minor or greater. Congonhas is a safe airport.” Later, the same user published a video he said was from the cockpit of a Boeing 737 landing at the airport, writing, “Besides being tranquil, a nighttime landing in Sao Paulo is really pretty.”

One commentator, writing on the Aero Enthusiast online forum, did take the findings seriously. Identifying as Emerson Daniel, he wrote:

There is a law prohibiting construction that interferes with operational safety at airports, but in this country, nobody respects anything. The power of money decides everything. A bribe goes to the inspector, and a construction permit is issued.

The writer concluded, "In other words, there is a law, but nobody does anything until people start dying. Then maybe they’ll do something.”

People did die -- a score of them -- in central Rio de Janiero in January when, in  unexplained circumstances, a building collapsed, bringing two others down with it. A police investigation concluded that supporting pillars had been removed and that renovation work underway had not been approved by an architect or engineer.

A February article in the U.S. magazine Time cited the building's collapse in criticizing Rio's infrastructure. Instead of responding to the article's points, Rio's mayor, Eduardo Paes, attacked the magazine's provenance. “The Americans are envious since Chicago didn’t win the Olympics bid,” he told the O Globo newspaper.

As Emerson Daniel pointed out, corruption is always in the shadows of these discussions. It is perhaps the biggest problem Brazil faces as it strives to create a first-world economy. In its 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index, Transparency International ranks Brazil 73rd out of 182 countries. The Sao Paulo Federation of Industries estimated last year  that corruption cost the country as much as 2.3 percent of its gross domestic product, or 84.5 billion reais ($41.9 billion).

Leonardo Boff, who holds a Ph.D. in philosophy and theology, tackled this subject recently on the Congress in Focus website. Boff said there were three factors explaining corruption's deep roots in Brazil. One was historical: the legacy of a Portuguese colony built on slavery. Another was political, with corruption rooted "in patrimony, in anemic democracy and in capitalism without rules.” The third was cultural. “The corrupt are seen as smart and not as the criminals they really are,” he wrote.

The solution, Boff argued, was technical: More reliable auditors were needed. Boff quoted sources saying Denmark and Holland have 100 auditors for every 100,000 inhabitants. To achieve that ratio, Brazil would need to increase its ranks of auditors from approximately 12,000 to 160,000 . “How to combat corruption?” Boff asked. “Through total transparency,” he concluded, “and by fighting for a less unequal and unjust democracy.”

It is, however, a Catch 22 situation. If Brazil's citizens don't believe such things can improve, no one will wage that fight.

(Dom Phillips is the Rio de Janeiro correspondent for World View. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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