Why wear black? A question of Olympic proportions, but if the protest fits, wear it.

I was surprised yesterday to see on my Twitter timeline a conversation involving Juliet Cuthbert MP:

Wearing black weekly has become an international symbol of protests against violence against women and children.

The question struck me as odd, as it did some others. One reaction was to ask ‘Why march’ weekly? Both wearing something symbolic and marching could be seen as ‘at a distance’ forms of actions. Some would say, ‘Why not go and hunt down the perpetrators?’.

I added a facetious, but legitimate, touch on the possible economic implications of various forms of protest. Society gets many benefits from the things we do, whether some see those things as positives or negatives. So, my seeming facetiousness has a real import. In a place like Jamaica, one could argue that people would support actions that provide other benefits to the rest of the country, especially if these actions are planned and regular. Look at what now happens with 5k runs/walks.

If it’s not clear, the issue is really about the effectiveness of various forms of protest

The implication of Mrs Cuthbert’s question was that wearing black was too passive or ineffective. I’m not sure who gives anyone the right to question what others feel is appropriate protest. If it’s not to your liking, better surely to do what you feel is right. In fact, as her party leader once suggested not so long ago (2014), there’s nothing wrong with being the only one protesting in a particular way [though, against a bus fare increase by JUTC, not against some crime]. He subsequently organized a nationwide peaceful protest against the increase. Whether it made any difference or not, it was how some chose to act. Maybe, Mrs C would have asked ‘Why not boycott JUTC?’ or set some buses on fire? That’d teach them people didn’t want to take it anymore.

Maybe, the question has implicit in it a notion of ‘the protest should fit the crime’: so it’s ok to have a peaceful protest march for bus fares, but one should burn tyres and throw rocks against forms of violent crimes. I’m not sure. In Jamaica, we tend to have a narrow range of responses to policies or situations we dislike. Often, cutting down trees and blocking roads is the form of protest prescribed in the ‘national manual of acceptable protests’.

Maybe, because Mrs. Cuthbert is a ‘five-time Olympian’, who gave birth last year at the tender age of 51, is made of sterner stuff and really wants an active form of protest befitting of an Olympic athlete. Just wearing stuff doesn’t cut(hbert) it?

Mrs Cuthbert and her husband at the March 2016 swearing-in of MPs
You need some heart-pumping going on. Maybe, if asked she wanted a national steeplechase or half-marathon against violence, with full back pack. We must all share the pain? (On that point, wouldn’t that be an interesting punishment to fit some crimes?)

National steeplechase against violence? Gruelling, it would be.
All I know is that for most people doing anything to show support for something that has not affected or does not affect them is a major challenge. Much easier to just sit pat. So, if you can do your little part, somehow, I say ‘Let it rock!’. (I wont joke about what I have heard on occasion, such as ‘I don’t look good in black’.)

Mrs. C? Knock yourself out organizing some alternative form of protest. Cut it to fit your cloth. [BTW, that’s no reference to a little slip of the diplomatic language tongue a couple of years ago… :)]

History may show that one form or another seemed to give better results, but then again, it should not be a competitive thing: my  protest is more hefty than yours. If you care, you show it how best you can.

Those who write letters to the papers or to MPs, or decide to raise funds to maybe find alternative homes for abused women and children, I think what you are doing is fine–as I’m sure you did, already. So, as some may say, when it comes to bump, carry on.

The World Cup table is set, now all we need is a room to place the Olympics: Rio’s double curse

Argentina beat Holland 4-2 on penalties, after playing a 0-0 draw. 20140710-063753-23873739.jpgThat’s the important part of the second World Cup semifinal. It was a dour match, with neither side taking risks in defence, and getting few clear openings in attack. It was really what we’ve come to expect at the top level, till Germany spoiled us the night before. We still ended with a respectable four goals a game over the semis.

So, Argentina can win in Brazil and the hosts can’t stop them. Nightmare number two still hovers over Brazil. To say that the Argentines are arrogant would not be nice, but it’s what many believe. Yesterday was also their Independence Day, so fate was smiling on them. So, let the haters and baiters have their say, but wish the finalists give us a super match on Sunday. Before that, Brazil has to raise itself to contest the symbolic playoff for third place, in Brasilia, the administrative capital, leaving Rio, the true heart of the country, to hail the finalists.

It is not easy to raise yourself from the fresh mental torture of a heavy defeat at home to play another match. It has to be about pride and heart. Nothing can erase the past, and the fear is that the fall from grace will be deeper if the national team lose again. It will be fascinating to see if and how the nation rallies behind the team. I’m not close enough to local politics to do more than repeat what I’ve read. The government had tried to raise its popularity on the back of the football love fest. Now, that’s evaporated. The huge spending on the tournament, some US$ 13 billion, could have gone to address many social needs. People are understandably unhappy about that, but seemed content to trade that spending off for a World Cup trophy. Now, the well is dry and the cup is gone. Thirst bites hard.

But, Brazil has not finished being parched. It will host another expensive international event soon, with the 2016 Olympic Games. The World Cup had been threatened by lack of preparedness, with much criticism from FIFA. On the face of it, the infrastructure and organization have held up well. But, the Olympics preparation is severely off track, reportedly just over 10 percent done, while London was 60 percent ready at the equivalent time. The International Olympics Committee Vice President has called it the “worst” state of preparation he’s ever seen. 20140710-060836-22116797.jpgSimon Jenkins, a hard-hitting British sports journalist, wrote a highly critical piece on the dual curse on Rio. He pours ice water on the proposals for ‘nomadic’ architecture, whereby Olympic structures could be transformed into schools. The promised further improvements in favela facilities seem stalled, but clearance of the areas has still gone ahead, with nearly 200,000 people moved–still far from Beijing’s 1.5 million. 20140710-061442-22482437.jpgEven an optimist would worry about the social trauma moves like this leave if successful. If they fail? Caramba!

All modern Olympics have been financial disasters for the hosts, leaving behind many ‘white elephants’. The eyesore of unused or underused or unnecessary structures in areas of pressing social needs is offensive enough. Dress that with the odour of privilege that trails behind the officials and dignitaries. Then top it off with the seemingly inevitable sleaze and graft that are bedfellows to these processes and you have the ingredients of a super social Molotov cocktail.

Based on recent games, the World Cup generates approximately US$3.5 billion in revenue (with most going to FIFA) and the Summer Olympics generate around US$5 billion (with most going to the IOC). Simple arithmetic tells us that the games will mean a net loss for the host country, unless the host makes up the difference with increased income from tourism and investment during the games or—as a result of the games—in the future. Recent history also shows that the projected costs are too low ad the forecast revenues and gains too optimistic. Another bomb waiting to explode. So, Rio is near to ‘riot’ in many discomforting ways. Brazil’s mid-2000s boom, needed to be extended and accelerate to propel it from emerging to developed economy. It may well re-emerge at a place it left decades ago.

The list of modern Olympic financial planning disasters makes for horrible memories: Montreal 1976, Sydney 2000, Athens 2004, Beijing 2008, London 2012. It is a roll call of subsequent economic meltdown–though London is still a work-in-progress. Greece’s financial catastrophe has its roots in the Olympic spending debacle.

So, Rio, the capital of carnivals, has a cavalcade of hearses waiting to roll on its streets as hopes of success die.

None of these problems seem evident to most visitors. Most are only concerned with the main events, and rightly so. Residents shouldn’t hold grudges against the tourists, who fill bars and restaurants and offer easy money, at least for a few weeks. My wife blanched at paying R$20 (about US$10) for three popsicles on Copacabana beach yesterday, but she paid, and in five minutes they were done, while the vendor kept doing his disappearing coin trick on a new set of punters. That was too ironic a ploy.

I may get lucky and come back to Rio for the Olympics. My older daughter tried to learn some Portuguese before this trip and has been putting it to good use. She’s talked about learning it properly and looking to encourage her employer to open a Rio office, where she’d work. All power to that thinking. Hopefully, that would deal with lodgings. Sort out transport and the deal could be done, for me, though, a bed is good enough.

Jamaica, who sees itself as part of the Olympics success package, is just getting out of some deep economic do-do. How ironic that we could help push Rio’s head firmly into that malodorous pile.

A day in the life of a Rio favela. Jamaica, are you watching?

The idea of tourists taking a guided tour of a Rio favela struck me as tacky. The idea of my being one of them seemed far fetched. So, what was I doing being driven in a van up a hill for a tour of a favela? I was being a team player during World Cup 2014. Out local guide quickly changed my attitude.

Carlos, our guide

Carlos was so humble, and unassuming; he was not blasé, and he was not pompous or annoyed about what he was showing.

Call a favela a slum for simplicity sake. As in any country, where masses of poor people live, certain characteristics appear. So Favela Santa Marta was little different at first sight.

It was Sunday afternoon, and most people were just cooling out. Lots of little children were playing–football in an area covered with artificial turf, running around playing tag, using the tourists as shields as we walked along.

Atop the favela

Adults were in small groups on roof tops bars, one group getting ready for a birthday party for the lady bartender. Other groups were listening to funky music and grilling meat. Some just cooled out in bars along the narrow passageways.

The first contrast with Jamaica that struck me was that no one came with a begging hand. Now, it could be that the community, which is organized in many clear ways, has come to shun that behaviour, but it’s a habit that’s generally less evident in Rio than in Kingston.

We walked around and marveled at the views of Rio from the high and steep hillside dwelling.

Amazing view from the hillside

It did not take much imagination to think that one pressure to change the area would be its desirable location. Gentrification may not be far away. It may be closer since recent efforts by the government to make favelas more like normal areas: improving water supplies; introducing ‘police pacifying units’, and using government organizations to run more things and push away control from drug and criminal gangs; forcing people to pay for their use of electricity and cable TV. I had to look at my wife and smile at the thought of JPS’s recent tussles to deal with electricity theft in Kingston. The good and bad of both sides were easy to see. The favela was wrapped in electrical cables, much of it looking jerry-rigged, but with some standard fittings for street lights. We saw the new digital metering boxes. We heard about cases of overcharging of customers. Some wondered about fire risks.

My mind is never far from risk:reward issues. I looked at the piles of garbage caught in narrow areas where water pushed things but could carry them no further. Kingston’s gullies are wide and we avoid such piling up in many areas because of that.

Garbage collection, and many social services face peculiar problems in a Rio favela, perched on a steep hillside, where the way in and out means steep movement up and down. You cannot do much except deliver in bulk at the bottom and get things redistributed upwards. Likewise, getting material down must be in small amounts. I looked at the newish fernicular railway that made the climb and descent much easier for people. It was easy to see how that one provision could and had transformed daily life.

Michael Jackson had visited this favela and made his video song ‘They don’t really care about us’. Though, I knew the song, I had never seen the video. We were given a viewing in a little store that sold MJ memorabilia.

My first reaction was “Those are Rasta colours,” as I saw the typically tight choreography. My second reaction was several thoughts, including wondering which politicians had seen allowing this as part of a strategy to help push change. I know that The Pope and President Obama have been well-publicized favela visitors. They’re now chic. Rudi Guiliani had sent materials from NYC to help develop this favela. Things were moving in a good direction, it seemed.

Our tour organizer had stressed at the outset that the favela would be safe. As we stood perched at the top, where we started, and looked from a pavilion down, we heard a loud crack and saw smoke. “It’s only fireworks, folks, don’t worry,” he said quickly. No one had ducked or screamed, but I wondered if he’d gotten an OMG moment. He seemed well at ease in the community, joking with kids and our guide. He told me that he was not from a favela, but had befriended people from there when he’d arrived in Rio, feeling more affinity with them than with the crowd he met in Copacabana.

We are not going to be major agents of change with our favela visits lasting 90 minutes, and pressing some cash into a few hands. I live seeing kids playing, and naive as it may seem, that’s usually one thing I try to use as a gauge of how life goes. Kids are not good at faking it. The little girl who carried a plate covered in foil to a table by a bar was deadly serious. That salad was for the party, not me. The boys who crashed into my legs, running from each other had not seen me as anything other than another object. I saw boys flying kites from high roofs. I did not have some idyllic notion that they would be with parents on comfy sofas watching Brazil play Germany on Tuesday. I visualized a mass, gathered around a TV or in a square crying out “Brasil! Brasil!” I visualized them all crying when the final whistle was blown, whatever the result. Tears taste the same, whether of joy or pain.

Our tour organizer said later that Brazil will beat Germany, but feared that they would meet Argentina in the final. Why? Brazil may lose, to their arch rivals. Argentina supporters had already been strutting after their quarter final win. No. Lose, yes, but not to Argentina. He did not want that blight on his children’s lives. I was stunned that this young man focussed on the generations to come. But, he was a football apassionado, if I can use that word. He was a fan of Flamenco, the red and black colours ruled his vision and thoughts once he saw them. It is a simple thing in many football-crazy countries. Everything comes back to that. Much of life’s significance and personal pride gets reduced to that.

Brazil is on a high. World Cup now. Olympic Games in 2016. The world loves Brazil and she can return it in bucket loads. Favela life may get more than a sweet smell and wash over from that. Maybe, some jobs. Maybe, some wider interest. Maybe, some cleaning up and more consistent flows of public interest and money.

I asked about land ownership, drugs, alcoholism, sex trading. I did not hear much that surprised or shocked me. Alcohol is a bigger problem than drugs: people had seen the effects of the latter and were afraid of it. Land titles were not easy to create, but evidence of ownership was available. Of course, sex sells and is bought. Duh! I should have asked about whether the favelas are becoming the hip place to visit for ordinary Brazilians. I suspect not yet. The alleyways don’t lend themselves to casual visiting. More likely, favela action creeps down the hill into streets, bars, clubs and bedrooms. Everyone loves Samba.

Jamaica can take many lessons from the process of repositioning favelas. Slums have stigmas, but they contain lives as valuable as any. They often have great creativity. Living on little does wonders for ingenuity. Getting out and ‘moving ahead’ may be in some minds, but getting by is more likely. Few people really like to suffer all the time. Those who say people should get out of the favelas are good examples of those who see instant fixes in life. You can get poor in a hurry, but getting out from under the rock of poverty isn’t usually easy or fast.

Jamaican garrison politics depends much on being able to control through attrition, so pressure to maintain ghettos is strong. Our criminal elements have not yet been displaced by administrative structures, not least because they cannot deliver services as well the Dons can. So, we can look to Brazil, but our journey won’t be the same. But, baby steps may be starting to happen.

The good, the bad, and the ugly (January 26)


The Shaggy Make a Difference Foundation has donated the proceeds from the Shaggy and Friends charity concert on January 4, totalling J$70 million (about US$700,000), to the Bustamante Hospital for Children. (Press reports indicate that private donors included DJ Squeeze of Linkup Radio, who gave J$1 million, and athlete Yohan Blake, who also pledged J$1 million. Other donations included US$20,500 from Food For the Poor as well as J$389,200 via the Digicel Text line. Corporate donations included J$3.75 Million from SportsMax and Jamaica National Building Society, which handed over US$8,110 after a pledge to donate US$1 from the proceeds of each money transfer from the United States to Jamaica between January 2 to 15.)


Press commentary about a report on Education and Crime was shoddy and unfair in referring to ‘prison schools’ and suggesting a causal relationship between school attended and likelihood of imprisonment. Government reaction, notably by the Minister of Education, to criticisms of the report were also casual. Not surprisingly, many teachers have reacted negatively to the report and commentaries.


An 18 year-old black South African skier, Sive Speelman, Screen Shot 2014-01-26 at 2.33.17 AMfrom a poor, rural area in the Eastern Cape where it snows, has qualified for the coming winter Olympics in slalom. But…the South Africa’s national Olympic committee has decided that Speelman isn’t good enough, so denied him the chance to compete. This move has been criticized in South Africa and abroad. Speelman is outside the top 2000 but amassed enough points to gain eligibility to compete in the Olympics. In the association’s words, it wants “to ensure participation…is of the highest quality…unfortunately will not be delivering (sic) him to the Winter Olympic Games.”

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