The Mayor of São Paulo Talks Public Health, Protests and Brazil's Drug Problems

"Sometimes regular civilians are less intimidating than a police officer. I really believe in the power of social control coming from within the community itself."

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Jun 8 2015, 4:20pm

Fernando Haddad. Photo by Felipe Larozza.

This article originally appeared on VICE Brazil.

São Paulo's mayor, Fernando Haddad, has made a bit of a name for himself during his stay in office. He's loved by some but hated passionately by just as many. Known for being savvy on social media, he's pretty vocal in attacking what he considers to be biased reporting via his Twitter account. That, and highlighting stuff that he's done that he thinks is super cool. Alongside his mayoral duties, he also recently began teaching at the University of São Paulo (UPS).

We sat him down for a chat about solvents, crack users, baile funk, and a ton of other stuff that, for the most part, goes under the radar of Brazil's press.

VICE: Hey Fernando. We heard a rumor about you wandering around a São Paulo skatepark asking kids about their passions and dreams. What's that about?
Fernando Haddad: Well, generally speaking, I love listening to what people have to say. If you want to be able to teach, then you need to listen—a lot. I truly believe that the perspectives of people living in smaller communities or in the suburbs are some of the most interesting you can find. When I'm out there on the streets, I enjoy meeting people and listening to their complaints and critiques. It's something that I take great pleasure in.

An MPL demonstration on the way to Fernando Haddad's house. Photo by Felipe Larozza / VICE.

We cover a lot of protests at VICE. Back in 2011, we came to this very building with the MPL. We saw them when they were parading around with a doll of you. I heard they showed up at your place the next day. Were you there?
I wasn't. I'm quite sure that I am not the first mayor to be picked on by them. I really don't recommend progressive people to act like that towards a politician. I know that they come from a very anti-government standpoint, but I think it's the wrong way to go about things. Being left-wing myself, I find it worrying that people organize like that. That said, I, of course, understand their youthful spirit of demand.

Do you feel intimidated when you're sitting in your office and people are right outside, protesting against you?
Quite the opposite. I'll just go downstairs and hop into the parade wagon and speak to the people. Actually, when I was the Minister of Education, I used to have to deal with a lot more protests.

What about people showing up at your house? Im thinking about your family.
It doesn't bother me. I think it bothers my neighbors a lot more. I'm right here if they want to talk. What bothers me is the lack of political culture these people seem to possess. Like I said, it really isn't a good way to go about things.

We recently did a piece about dengue fever in Brasilândia. One house we visited had nine people infected with the disease—a lot of folks were asking why the government had shut down its medical tent there.
Because there was no need for it to exist, really. Right now, the temperature is dropping, which will in turn kill the mosquitos. The instance of the infection is also on the way down. Previously, we had about 1,000 cases per 100,000 inhabitants. Now, we're down to 300. Thanks to some serious teamwork from the health department and the general population, we've done an amazing job of isolating the disease. People have really listened to our advice.

The partnership between the military and health workers began in Northern São Paulo. Photo by Felipe Larozza/VICE.

You also deployed the army to help control the disease, right? How did you choose where that kind of intervention was necessary?
I'm not quite sure how to answer that question. Basically, I gave a mandate for the army to give a hand wherever the health department teams were having trouble getting into people's homes. All of the teams seemed to be experiencing issues with this. People are quite reluctant to open their doors to strangers. The reports that I've seen suggest that the army presence definitely helped. Them just being there helped people's confidence and security. But I think you'd be better off asking the health department about all that.



Cracolândia. Photo by Felipe Larozza/VICE.

Last year, we were there when the government demolished a small drug market in Cracolândia—a neighborhood well known for having a high concentration of drug users. What's your opinion on these crack addicts? What sort of people are they?
I definitely don't think we should try to paint all drug users into the same corner. When I was in Luz—before we launched the Open Arms program—I witnessed a dramatic problem. I remember the state government saying that we should knock down all the hotels that people were using for drug trafficking and prostitution. We didn't, of course. Instead, we rented the hotels ourselves and used them to house these marginalized people. We offered them both food and work—something that caught the world's attention. People from Holland, England, and even Canada came here to visit us. Everyone in the program gets medical assistance, food, and an equal opportunity to build themselves a professional career.

What people don't understand about the Open Arms project is that such an initiative can't exist when the local drug dealers are still about—that's why we demolished that area. We aren't trying to attack anyone's rights or anything, but we can't have people drug trafficking like that.

Last year we were reporting on local funk block parties known as fluxos. We came across this stuff called lança-perfume, which is basically a solvent that kids inhale to get high. It was everywhere. We talked to Denarc (Brazil's drug unit) and they had little to no knowledge of the stuff. Is there anything being done about this stuff and other similar inhalant drugs like loló?
What happens at these parties happens all over the city, right? It's not just at the parties. It'd be impossible to hire agents to go out and write fines for people in every single region, every single night. We need to talk to the organizers and figure things out. Another stereotype that you meet is that all the organizers of these parties are "drug dealers." It's a myth. Maybe 10 percent of these parties are set up by individuals with connections to drug dealers, but the rest of the time it's just regular people trying to have some fun in a tough city.

We met with the organizers from all parts of São Paulo last year, and in less than 12 months complaints had dropped by 75 percent. All we did was sit down and have an honest talk with these people. We understand that music is part of culture. We also understand that there's a real lack of space in the city, as well as a lack of public transport. We basically just asked them to understand there's families that need to sleep and get up for work the next day. They don't need to be disturbed. We want to meet these people half way and find some good spots for them to hold their parties. Places that make sense for everyone. There really are a lot of people coming to these parties.

A "fluxos" party in São Paulo. Photo by Felipe Paiva.

That's nice. But what about the prevalence of loló?
That's the same as lança-perfume, right? The police need to investigate that. But sometimes regular civilians are less intimidating than a police officer. I really believe in the power of social control coming from within the community itself. The community protecting itself, its children, its teenagers, you know? I think that's far more effective than a police presence. It's way more educative than if the state were to provide those kinds of activities.

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