- The construction workers
In 2013, more than a hundred workers in situations analogous to slavery were rescued from the construction site at the Guarulhos Airport Terminal 3. They had funded their own tickets from the Brazilian Northeast to São Paulo, had gone through medical examinations at the company, and had been lodged in shacks or in overcrowded houses with no furniture at all, but they never worked nor ever received a cent. Lost in a gigantic and strange city, they had nothing to eat, they had no winter-appropriate clothes for São Paulo’s cold, nor the means to go back home. The day they were rescued by a labor union in Guarulhos, some knelt and wept.
At that time, the second half of 2013, Brazil was in a good phase. Unemployment would close that year at 5.4%, the lowest level in history (Martins, 2014). The Gross Domestic Product, although a long way from champions like China and India, presented a solid 2.3% growth (Portal Brasil, 2014). The Mensalão [monthly allowance] scandal, at the time considered the greatest corruption case in the country’s history, seemed to have been left behind, with the convicted surrendering to justice (Portal G1, 2013). In June, when people took to the streets to cry out against a 20% increase in bus fares, politicians catered to the aspirations of the masses and froze the price of transportation (Duailibi, Gallo, 2013). Democracy seemed better consolidated than ever.
In the eyes of the international community, Brazil was a country in evidence and appeared to be comfortable in its position as a regional leader. It presented itself as modern and progressive, with an ex-guerrilla as president, herself succeeding a worker who, according to Barak Obama, had become the most popular politician on the planet (BBC, 2009). As a result, the country had been able to join the select group of nations to host a World Cup and the Olympics within a two-year interval. The challenge brought by these major world sports events was Herculean: the schedule was tight, and to fulfill it, the country was transformed into a major construction site. According to the Court of Auditors of the Union (TCU), expenditures with constructions related to the World Cup alone would reach 25 billion Brazilian reais (Brandão, 2014), in projects that went far beyond stadiums and involved a wide-ranging urban mobility package.
At Guarulhos Airport, in São Paulo, a brand-new terminal was being prepared to welcome participants and spectators to the biggest event in world football. It would have 192,000 m2 (over 2 million ft2), would be able to receive up to 12 million passengers a year, and would have everything that modern civil construction could offer. A prefabricated reinforced concrete system would allow the foundations to be built more quickly. Illumination would emphasize natural light and LED bulbs, generating savings for future operators of the venture. Double glazing, with special films, would increase thermal efficiency, along with walls insulated with stone wool. Autonomous elevators would generate energy with their own movement, and there would be state-of-the-art systems for garbage recycling and rainwater reuse (Leone; Meirelles, 2014).
Before all this modernity came on the scene, however, there would be a lot of mud and concrete, a lot of iron to bend, and many humiliated workers, in a system of exploitation that resists change over the centuries. In other words, in the same Brazil that, at the beginning of the third millennium, was walking unabashedly towards a leading role, there would be slavery.
The 111 of Petrolândia
The denunciation of OAS, then one of the largest construction companies in the country, for maintaining workers in a situation analogous to slavery was only possible because of an underhanded maneuver on the part of leaders of Sindcongru—the Union of Civil Construction Workers of Guarulhos. They were receiving constant denunciations related to the work at Terminal 3, but could never get access to the construction site. The company claimed that the union in charge of the undertaking was a different one, focused on heavy construction, and vetoed access.
The solution found by the labor unionists was to throw fliers over the construction site barriers, talking about labor rights, offering help in cases of exploitation and giving the union telephone number. The first calls came right away and led to the first houses. The unionists divided themselves into pairs, in an orchestrated effort that followed the potholed streets of the neighborhoods around the airport.
“We didn’t stay here in the union offices anymore,” said Sindcongru director, Marcelo dos Santos. “I was out on the street all the time. And I had to walk around carrying money, because whenever I found the guys, they didn’t have any food, nothing at all. Then we had to negotiate with the owner of the shack where they were staying, because the shack was so bad, but being exposed out in the open was worse. Or we had to put the guy in the car and take him to some hotel in the area.”
Gradually, as they talked with the workers, Marcelo and his colleagues began to understand the scheme. The workers were recruited in cities in the Northeast, most of them in Petrolândia, in Pernambuco, where cars with loudspeakers would drive around the city offering job opportunities in São Paulo. Those who were interested had to pay between 300 and 400 Brazilian reais to a carrier that would unload them directly at the airport construction site—as is detailed in the inspection report, which would later be formulated by the Ministry of Labor and Employment.
From that point on, each group tells a slightly different story, but generally they underwent a medical examination on admission and were told to wait for the company to get in touch. Some stayed in shacks in the area; others crowded into houses procured by the recruiters themselves.
Since there was neither work nor salary, many begged for food in the neighborhood; others took on debt: in just one local restaurant, the meals sold to this group of workers added up to three thousand reais.
Rebar setter Lindemberg João da Silva, a resident of Petrolândia, summarized his saga in the situation. He told how Luciano—an acquaintance who was already employed at OAS—looked him up. At the time, Luciano said that he was looking for people to work in a large construction project in São Paulo and that the salary would be 1,400 reais, plus meal vouchers and overtime. The ticket to São Paulo would cost 450 reais and the worker would also have to pay for his own lodging, but it wouldn’t cost much—about 50 reais a month. Lindemberg accepted the proposition and, on August 10, at 10 p.m., he boarded a bus with 37 other laborers.
The trip was long. The seats were in poor condition, the toilet wasn’t working and the vehicle broke down five times. On one of these occasions, a truck driver drove up alongside the bus to warn that the engine was in flames. Despite the setbacks, two days later, around one o’clock in the morning, the vehicle parked with the group outside the OAS office near Guarulhos Airport. The men slept right there, and the next morning a number of them had their medical examinations at the construction company. They were there until the end of the day, when they walked 20 minutes to the house Luciano had arranged for them.
Thirty-eight men would now live in a dwelling with three bedrooms and only one bathroom. There were no furnishings—no beds or mattresses. Those who had sleeping mats would use them; the others would get by as best they could, with pieces of cardboard or bedsheets on the cold floor. A few days after arriving, Lindemberg was informed that the company would be hiring only masons and helpers—there was no prediction as to when they would need rebar setters. With no alternative, he remained at the house. Every two days they were without water, the bathroom never worked, and a foul cesspool smell dominated the environment. There was little or nothing to eat until Luciano managed to get the owner of a restaurant to provide a single meal a day for the men, on credit. Lindemberg spent something over a month in this situation before being rescued by union staff.
About two months later, OAS and the Ministry of Labor would conclude one of the largest judicial settlements concerning slave labor in Brazilian history, in which the construction company would agree to pay 15 million reais in damages. Of that money, 7 million reais would be reverted to initiatives that had philanthropic, cultural, educational, or scientific objectives, or fostered the improvement of working conditions. The Counter-Conducts project of the Escola da Cidade’s School of Architecture received part of this amount.
And the rest of it? Well, the rest is an unknown. At the outset, the money was to be used to pay workers’ compensation, but a quick reckoning shows a mismatch in values. The amount to be received by each of the 111 laborers who were rescued was three thousand reais on average for each one, which would come to a total of 330 thousand reais. By that calculation, 7.7 million reais in OAS funds would be left to pay for expenses with lodging and return transportation of the rescued—a sum that sounds somewhat exaggerated.
For about three months, I sought out the São Paulo State Public Prosecutor’s Office, responsible for supervising the judicial settlement, and even formalized an official request via the Access to Information Act. Up to the beginning of June, I had received no response.
Smoke in the beehive
After the legal settlement was signed and the news spread around the neighborhood where the workers were staying, outsourced companies that were working for OAS rushed to get workers out of shacks, tenements and boarding houses. After all, in a construction project the size of Guarulhos Airport, only part of the workforce is actually hired by the main company.
A number of smaller contractors enter as intermediaries, pulverizing the system and making inspection difficult. Pulverize. This was the strategy of the subcontractors as well, after the Ministry of Labor arrived and was sifting through the project file drawers: get the folks out of Guarulhos and spread them throughout the region.
Because, even though the 111 had gained a certain visibility, they were just the tip of the iceberg: the labor union staff says that a few weeks after the settlement, they found another hundred workers from the subcontractor Drenarte housed in the municipality of Suzano. They had been removed from Guarulhos hurriedly and were staying in an abandoned brothel. “They took those ‘hideouts’ where the intimate rooms had been, put some wooden bunks in and sent everybody there,” said Marcelo dos Santos.
In a short time, there were so many cases of workers who said they were in a situation analogous to slavery that the Ministry of Labor could no longer attend to everyone. The Ministry began to direct them to seek legal help at Sindcongru. As a result, the institution’s legal department reckons 171 lawsuits against OAS, all under the tutelage of lawyer Jonadabe Rodrigues Laurindo, a tall black man whose impeccably elegant suit contrasts with the simple attire of his union colleagues.
In most of the lawsuits he filed against the contractor, Laurindo asked for 50 minimum month wages, an amount which—unlike that stipulated in the court order for the 111 workers—included moral damages. The lawyer won some cases, lost others, and, on average, secured about 15,000 reais for his clients. He recounts travelling several times to the Northeast region, going to the workers’ houses, making contact with the reality of his new clients.
“We have to understand that these workers are part of a gig-like economy—they go where the construction sites are. From time to time, they leave home and go anywhere in the country to work on a job for six months, a year. Then they go back, spend some time with the family, and then travel again,” he explained in an unhurried voice that indicated an out-of-the-ordinary patience. “These are people who work like ants. Rebar setter, helper, the guy who comes to tie rebar and to help tie the rebar, move the concrete. Most of them do this—the simplest, most manual work.”
Also, according to the lawyer, it is not uncommon to find cases of workers rescued from a humiliating situation, from slavery, who are sent back home and then, months later, end up being rescued again, at another construction site, in a situation very similar to the previous one.
“Many have no choice. Either they stay and watch cattle dying, their children going hungry, or venture out to find work. Some find a good company to work for and are able to provide for their families; others have this misfortune to fall into degrading jobs,” he concluded with a certain resignation in his voice.
The mafia theory
“It was a question of mafia,” the president of Sindcongru, Edmilson Girão da Silva—Índio—told me. “They would charge a fee to put resumes on top of the pile of admission examinations. The worker was subjected to the examination but didn’t work—his place went to somebody else. In this shift, they were acting like a labor bank,” he explained. “[The money] was divided between the administrative and the engineering sectors, the guys who were responsible for executing the project as such. Everything was arranged with them. I’m not saying that the owner of OAS knew, but those guys who were connected to the project itself knew. There was no way to hide it,” he said.
Índio says he had direct contact with this so-called mafia. It was at a time when the denunciations were at their peak, with union employees wearing out shoe soles to discover one clandestine housing place after another. It was almost midnight and he was getting ready to sleep when the phone rang. On the other end of the line, one of OAS’s managers asked him to go to the company’s office. Índio agreed and got dressed, but before leaving he thought it best to let his wife know his whereabouts: “Look, if I don’t come back, if anything happens, I’m going to OAS,” he reportedly said.
The unionist recounted that when he arrived at the agreed-upon location, about 1 a.m., he was asked to hand over his cell phone, then he was taken to a room with half a dozen executives. One of the men then reportedly asked what he wanted to resolve the situation. Índio told me that he interpreted the question as an opening for bargaining a bribe and that he took care to end it at once. “I want the workers to be compensated and the company to comply with the law,” he reputedly answered, ending the conversation.
The modus operandi theory
In the case of the 111 from Petrolândia, several aspects came together to characterize what the Penal Code (Brasil, Law No. 2848/40, 1940) understands as work analogous to slavery. Among them, degrading conditions, damage to health or risk to life, geographic isolation and debt bondage. By law, the company could not so much as bring workers in from outside without informing the Ministry of Labor, and if it did, it would have to offer lodging and food. The fact that the laborers at no time started work does not exempt the company from guilt. “If they were not actually working, that is the company’s problem, not the workers’ problem,” said labor inspector Renato Bignami, responsible for receiving Sindcongru’s denunciation. He met me in the office of the Regional Superintendence of Labor, in the center of São Paulo, a typical government bureau—chipped Formica tables, chairs with uneven legs, computers from the previous decade and legal process folders stacked everywhere.
Bignami does not accept Sindcongru’s theory that the recruiting of workers in the case of OAS was the result of a criminal scheme organized by those responsible for the construction. “A month before these people arrived, the company was desperate for workers, putting ads in the region’s newspapers. For this reason, everything leads one to believe that OAS knew it had a representative or agent recruiting and bringing a team in,” he said. “We couldn’t find out if this was done with or without the knowledge of higher authorities, but we imagined that everyone knew.”
The main indicator pointing in this direction is the Environmental Impact Report (RIMA) presented by OAS. The study, which should have predicted the effects that a work force coming from outside could have on the environment around the enterprise, stated that over the 73 months that construction should last, the peak of laborers at the site would be about 2,000 men. The document cited a supposed “regional unemployment situation” in Guarulhos and recommended hiring people who were “residents in the neighborhoods closest to the airport”.
These numbers, however, are very different from those presented in the project’s histogram—a prediction of how many workers would be needed at each stage of the undertaking. There the company said that in the most intense months, it would use more than eight thousand men, a number four times greater than the one predicted in the Environmental Impact Report.
“The RIMA was fraudulent,” Bignami said. “It didn’t actually study the labor market to see if the labor available was such that OAS wouldn’t need to recruit outside workers. And not needing to bring them in would mean not having to provide housing, not shouldering those costs. So, the company pretended that the labor market in Guarulhos would be able to take care of their needs in any situation, whether they needed five hundred men or just fifteen.”
But why hold a hundred men if they weren’t actually working—like an extra reserve of blocks, sand, or crushed stone? For Bignami, it was simply a way of lowering costs. According to him, in a project the size of Terminal 3, it is very difficult to foresee exactly how many hands will be needed at each stage. That’s why the company “stocked” this reserve of unpaid workers. The strategy, in the end, was not the best, since the judicial settlement cost the contractor’s coffers 15 million reais.
The settlement, however, was an exception. And if we take a step back and look at the picture as a whole, we will note, paradoxically, that the situation of the 111 was characterized as analogous to slavery only because they were not working. That’s why they were not being paid and, consequently, had nothing to eat. They were desperate: they were, in fact, starving. So, having no other choice, they went after help.
Otherwise, if they had been bending iron, lugging cement or hammering nails ten hours a day and receiving their salaries of 1,400 reais, in the eyes of society everything would have been as agreed. Even if they had been brought from the Northeast clandestinely and crammed into inhospitable, overcrowded and filthy houses. By law, these conditions would classify them as slaves, even if they were being paid. But that would have mattered little if money had been “dribbling” into their accounts every month. They would have worked, slept, ate, drank cachaça in the neighborhood bars, and sent some money to the family. When the construction work was finished, some would have returned to their cities or gone straight to another project in whatever corner of the country. The others would have found a way to rent a shack, buy a lot on invaded property and stay around, waiting for the next construction site.
This, in fact, is what happened with most of the workers at Terminal 3, as evidenced by numbers compiled by the Ministry of Labor, after the denunciation by the union. The Ministry’s auditors examined the situation of all the workers who performed the same functions as the 111 from Petrolândia: rebar setters, masons and carpenters. There were, in all, 4,652 people. Of these, 2,534 (or 54%) declared residence outside the metropolitan region of São Paulo. They were, therefore, migrant workers. But none of them were housed in OAS facilities, as determined by the law.
According to the Ministry of Labor’s auditor, far from being an isolated case, this is the modus operandi of the entire civil construction sector, which helps shape the physiognomy of the large cities and, ultimately, of the country. For this reason, it is rare to find a major public construction site that doesn’t end up surrounded by a favela. “The companies recognize that they have to provide accommodations only when they are in some very isolated place, if they are going to build a hydroelectric plant in the middle of the Amazon. Then they need to provide accommodations, because they’re not going to turn jungle into a favela. But when the site is in the city, it turns into a favela,” he said.
Vila das Malvinas
Men in suits text on their super-smart smartphones as they hurry along without looking up from the screen, as though they were a new human species, endowed with a mysterious biological radar. Doors open and close automatically so they can pass through and move ahead. Velvet-textured voices spill out numbers through omnipresent speakers. Flight attendants in tight skirts, high heels, and hair molded in static Bakelite buns move at a pace of their own: accelerated, elegant, perfectly synchronized with the rolling wheel mechanisms of their small black flight bags. Everything in the Guarulhos Airport lobby moves—and beyond it, on the runway as well.
After soaring elegantly for thousands of miles over oceans and plains, 200-ton flying machines hit the ground at 300 km per hour, then move lazily over the remaining runway, like postmodern mammoths. When they finally stop, they are immediately connected, not only to other machines—refueling trucks, luggage unloading belts, cranes for removing garbage and sewage—, but also to the entire airport complex by means of movable metal bridges through which, every year, in Guarulhos alone, 36 million passengers disembark, most of them already looking at their cell phones, and always in a hurry to get somewhere (Aviação Brasil, 2017).
These are human beings who fly, and humans who fly seem more important than those who keep their feet monotonously planted on the ground. It has always been like this. In the past, it was because of the challenge, the danger, and the mystery of defying gravity; now there is no danger or mystery, but meaning and urgency. The men who fly are always coming from one place and going to another and so are very clear about the necessity of following a certain course—an urgent necessity that makes them seem important.
Approximately 500 meters (about 1,600 feet) from the modern Terminal 3, in the rutted dirt lane given the street name Nossa Senhora Aparecida [Our Lady of Apparitions], nobody seems to be in a hurry. This part of the Vila de Malvinas neighborhood is a large landfill over a marsh dotted with small ponds where, in the 1980s, people used to fish for food. The other part of the neighborhood, to the north, used to be higher, but much of the land that was there was removed and used to fill the swamp on which the largest airport in Latin America was positioned.
Whoever walks through the community’s narrow lanes, however, won’t notice differences. There is a certain uniformity in the houses, though not one is identical to another. All of them are glued, as it were, to a big fortuitous wall, and are identical in improvisation, in the lack of siding, plaster or other material on the walls, and in the creativity that transforms pieces of refrigerators, street signs, and vehicle scrap into walls, gates, roofs.
They seem to be mutating constantly, always under construction—which seems quite natural in a community full of masons, carpenters and master builders. From one week to the next, a second floor pops up to accommodate the daughter who got married, an addition to make room for a shop, or fences in the back to hold the horses—yes, there are horses around, five or six, and a group of friends used to going out under a full moon for horseback rides irrigated with beer and cachaça that go on until the following day.
The airport is always present in Vila das Malvinas. Curiously, due to the orientation of the air routes, the planes aren’t heard there. But everyone who lives in the neighborhood works, has worked, or has a relative who works in the cleaning, security, or maintenance of the terminals. Even though the modernity of aviation prowls nearby, it has not contaminated the community. Neither has the haste.
In the middle of a Wednesday afternoon, people walk unhurriedly or allow themselves to linger in some nook, sitting, chatting and drinking. Alcohol is present in the community—beer or cachaça. Every hundred or two hundred meters there is a shop, sometimes a pool table, grimy chairs and men drinking, waiting for the next job. Many are elderly, retired, but there are also young, unemployed men, many of them construction workers who watched the area’s construction sites dwindle after the advent of the Lava Jato [Car Wash] operation.
“After all this thievery that was going on, everything came to a stop,” said 40-year-old construction helper Adriano Viana. “Between that time and now, they cancelled everything, there’s no construction at all.” Previously employed by OAS, he has been unemployed for a year and a half and lives with the help of his retired mother in a one-room house he built in 2013.
At that time, after seven years with a formal contract, never imagining that he would not be able to get another job, the construction helper asked to be dismissed in order to buy a house with the termination money. He used six thousand reais on land, plus four thousand for construction. Adriano is from the city of Sousa, in Paraíba, and since arriving in Guarulhos more than 20 years ago, he had done a bit of everything at the airport: cleaning bathrooms, repairing wiring and even waxing and polishing the fuselage of airplanes. Flying is only thing he has never done. “I’m afraid of the fucking height,” he confessed with an embarrassed smile.
“That’s a construction worker for you,” said retired mason Dogival Pedro dos Santos, 59. “When you have been working for a while, you want the money. So, you tell the person in charge: ‘Let me go because I need the money.’ Then you get some money, a month goes by, or two, you’re at home, eating and drinking the money you got. Then you go back to work. If you can get it, right? Because now it’s harder.”
Dogival left Santana do Ipanema, in Alagoas, at age 19. “He wanted to see the world, to do gigs in construction,” he explained. During this moving around, he worked on a number of sites until, in the mid-1980s, he was hired to help erect the airport. He was also one of the first to live in Vila das Malvinas, at that time just a plot of land that someone, with an eye toward the expansion of local neighborhoods—driven by the construction of the Ayrton Senna highway (then called Trabalhadores) and the new airport—decided to take possession and sell lots. “The guys besieged you and either you paid or you were left with nothing,” he explained.
In 2005, Dogival suffered an accident that would force his retirement. He took off his leather jacket, rolled up his plaid shirt sleeve, and showed a deep groove running up his left arm. Then he rolled his sleeve up a bit more to expose the biceps muscle, which, in spite of being firm and well-defined, was only about half the normal size, as if someone had ripped off part of it. “It was in Itatiba, at a Sabesp site,” he explained. “We were dismantling a scaffold, twenty feet high, and a board slipped. It was going to fall right on a guy’s head and it was one of these heavy boards—it would have cut through him right in the middle. I held on and held on, with a rope tied around my waist that didn’t even have a safety harness, and I heard my arm snapping, and it started to turn red right then. It broke, snapped the nerve, the tendons, the muscle—everything…. And that was it…. So as not to let that guy get killed, I held on…. Then someone screamed, the guy ran away fast, and I let go of the board,” he said. “Then I went straight to the hospital. Today I can’t sleep if I’m not full of pain medicine.”
With no alternative, Dogival stopped working in the construction industry and today lives on what the little shop in the garage of the house that he bought 28 years ago brings in. The retired mason was not aware of it, but in 2013, right next door, at number 70 on Nossa Senhora Aparecida Street, a group of migrants from Petrolândia had spent anxious weeks waiting for the nonexistent jobs promised by one of the largest contracting companies in the country—OAS.
- The construction companies
OAS was created in the 1970s in Bahia, and one of its partners, César de Araújo Matta Pires, was the son-in-law of the state’s most powerful politician, whose name may be as deeply rooted in regional folklore as the acarajé or the Pelourinho: Antonio Carlos Magalhães.
Newly founded, the company had already begun to snap up an excellent lode of public works in Bahia, which, combined with the kinship tie between the builder and the influential politician, led to a jest that played on the construction company’s name: the acronym OAS, which was supposed to make reference to the initials of the partners’ names, was really an abbreviation for Obras Arranjadas pelo Sogro [Construction Projects Arranged by the Father-in-Law]. This anecdote is in the book Estranhas Catedrais [Strange cathedrals], winner of the 2015 Jabuti prize in the category “Economy and Administration”.
In this work, originally a doctoral thesis defended at the Universidade Fluminense Federal, Rio de Janeiro historian Pedro Henrique Pedreira Campos investigated the promiscuous relationship of the major contractors with the government, especially during the military regime. To do so, he reconstructed the whole history of the sector, from the time when the national industry did not exist and foreign companies monopolized the market. As Campos shows in the book, this continued until the beginning of the last century, a period when the major national infrastructure projects were concentrated on the expansion of railroads and were generally under the responsibility of outsourced companies, contracted by service providers (CAMPOS, 2014). A British power company hired a compatriot construction firm to erect poles and stretch wires, for example. It was not until the 1920s that the government began to interfere more intensely in the sector, creating companies to manage infrastructure projects and taking charge of such enterprises.
At the same time, several engineers who had worked with foreign contractors created the first national firms. Many of them operated in a mixed system: they would buy an area, bring in infrastructure, and would then create habitable neighborhoods, sell lots and profit twice. An example of this system was the Barão de Ipanema company, which built infrastructure and later divided the land into lots and gave the famous Rio neighborhood its name.
This model, with the state at the head of the projects, was consolidated in the Juscelino Kubitschek government and, little by little, the various levels of government (union, state and municipalities) became the sole contractors of public works, which created a condition of dependence and promiscuity between politicians and businessmen. From that point on, they were always together, each shaping the other, in an amalgam of interests that would help form the Brazil of Lava Jato [Car Wash].
By the end of the JK period, the construction contractors had become national companies, and the sector had consolidated itself as one of the most powerful in Brazilian industry. Then came the military dictatorship, and life became even sweeter for our builders: ties with the state grew closer. The contractors held positions in government and even came to assist in repressing opponents of the regime. The biggest example of this is Operation Bandeirantes (Oban), a mixture of police station with torture chamber, operated in partnership between army, police and civil society, financed by private contributions, including those of contractors like Camargo Corrêa. “Despite the heterogeneity of this group of businessmen, it can be said that most of them acceded to the regime, acknowledged the dictatorship, applauded it and, at the same time, underpinned it,” Campos wrote.
The generals reciprocated generously. In the Costa e Silva government (1967-69), the motto was “To build is to integrate”, and in the following decade, the so-called “economic miracle” was anchored, above all, in state investments in public works. The construction industry grew steadily and gained significant heft in the GDP, reaching an average of 5.7% in the early 1980s. The rhythm of the construction sites was so intense that there was a shortage in the production of cement, steel and asphalt, generating a crisis in the sector. While the Cement Industry Union said that production would be sufficient for the demand, the contractors accused the union of falsifying numbers. The lack of resources was understandable, after all, the construction of the Itaipu hydroelectric plant alone consumed as much as 10% of the national cement production.
As Strange Cathedrals shows, the dictatorial disposition—with the press gagged and popular participation curtailed—was beneficial to the businessmen involved in major public works. It allowed them, far from the eyes of society, to have greater access to power, interfere directly with public policies, and execute public works voraciously, with few concerns other than profits. “No wonder the government most praised by the contractors was precisely the most authoritarian, that of General Emilio Garrastazu Medici—the one responsible for the greatest repression and torture,” wrote the historian (Campos, 2014).
During the dictatorship, the contractors’ way of thinking helped to dictate the course of politics and to shape the nation in their image and likeness, in accord with the designs of an ideology with well delineated outlines. Naturally, it was a mindset with feet firmly planted in the engineering colleges where most of the industry leaders had graduated.
Development centered on the implementation of a broad infrastructure network was at the core of this thinking—and supposedly was indispensable for economic growth. Resources for major projects should come from public coffers and the country’s budget should be focused on investment. Measures of austerity, which now dominate the agenda for the national economy, were disdained, and concerns about inflation or monetary stability seemed like minor problems compared to the stagnation and unemployment which, in the view of this group, would certainly emerge if the developmental impetus were curbed.
At this huge construction site which, in the eyes of the contractors, should be the whole country, there was a special predilection for roadworks, perhaps matched only by the love of dams. Roads were the best way to integrate the country and cars were a form of transportation undeniably superior to all others. Surreal as it may seem today, road construction was central even to the development of the Amazon region, which was seen as the green desert to be colonized, an unexplored fountain of valuable resources needed for the country’s development.
The idea seemed to please everyone: the mining companies would have a way of getting their production to the consumer market; land owners could expand frontiers to the north; the military would guarantee the defense and integrity of the country, occupying frontier areas, and the contractors, of course, would be at the forefront of the process, opening up rivers of asphalt and gravel in the inhospitable forest. The Trans-Amazonian Highway is the classic example of this kind of thinking. Construction began without a specific route having been planned and was divided into 300 km parcels, each one handed over to a company. Unable to get personnel and equipment there, the contractors had to open airstrips alongside the construction sites. Caterpillar equipment was brought from the United States in barges that had been used to land troops in Normandy on D-Day.
Despite the challenges, a first segment of the road was inaugurated in 1972, warranting a televised solemnity transmitted throughout Brazil. A year later, some stretches had already become impassable. The road would never come to function along the whole extension and cities with names like “New Brazil” and “Medicelândia”, would be overtaken by vegetation that, at least in this case, ended up victorious.
In the contractors’ worldview, besides contributing to the economy, their work also brought important social advances. After all, they were responsible for bringing public housing and sanitation to the neediest regions of the country, in a process that also generated employment and contributed to a more stable society. There were certain civilizing and missionary components in the universe of the major public works, as evidenced by a statement by the president of the Heavy Construction Union of the State of Minas Gerais (Sicepot): “Always the first to face a hostile environment in certain areas of our territory, the heavy construction industry—even before starting to build—creates job opportunities and introduces new standards of food, hygiene, health and education, in addition to techniques that benefit the local community.”
Finally, in the narrative they themselves created, the businessmen were often treated unfairly. Their work was not recognized and their activities were frowned upon by the press and the general population. “We rock to and fro with the vagaries of political winds; we beg for what is due us, we languish in waiting rooms; we don’t pay only when we don’t receive; and sometimes we perform the miracle of paying without having received. Worst of all is that we have never seen one of our number make a creditors’ agreement and then reemerge rich,” said the president of the Association Paulista of Public Works Contractors (Apeop). The last part of the statement, of course, has no backing in reality. By the end of the dictatorship, the Brazilian contractors had gone from national companies to being leaders of economic conglomerates, operating in various countries around the world.
The king is dead, long live the king!
During the inauguration of a governor of the State of São Paulo in one of the halls of the Bandeirantes Palace, a public administrator is said to have approached Sebastião Camargo, owner of Camargo Corrêa. “Hello, Senhor Sebastian, you’re here too?”, the man, whose name and position were lost in history, is alleged to have said. To which the businessman is reputed to have replied: “I … I am always here … you are the ones who change.”
The anecdote may not be true, but it certainly reflects the reality. Between the late 1970s and the mid-1980s, democracy was slowly insinuating itself into Brazilian politics. When it finally got there, timid and hesitant, the same old contractors were already waiting, clouding the country’s future with their cigar smoke, feet comfortably crossed on the coffee table of the nation’s course of action. This sphere for continuity in power had been conquered during the last half of the dictatorship, through an ever-closer interaction with parliamentarians. The bonds of friendship and favors, once focused on the executive and the politicians of the Arena (political party of the situation during the dictatorship), were extended to the PMDB (yes, they too were already there), then to the PTB and PDT. Politicians began to be invited to give lectures and engineers came to have prominent government positions. Soon, a group of “infrastructure representatives” would emerge, composed of parliamentarians who focused their activities on the oversight of public works and whose campaigns were financed by contractors.
Over the “years of lead”, the promiscuity with politics led to the concentration of power: a small number of powerful sponsors sheltered a small number of companies. And when the country was heading toward democratization, the sector was dominated by four giants: Camargo Corrêa, Andrade Gutierrez, Norberto Odebrecht and Mendes Júnior. By the end of the dictatorship, their equity was almost equal to that of the four largest automakers in Brazil—Volks, GM, Ford and Fiat. “These four macro-companies postulated—by virtue of their size—developing international activities and playing an ample, leading role in the process of political transition, as well as carrying out, more intensely than others, the ramification of their activities,” writes Pedreira Campos (2014). Camargo Corrêa, for example, owned shoe brands (Havaianas), food (Supergel), and clothing (Santista Têxtil) among a number of others.
Reigning virtually absolute, the four mega-corporations were able to transition to the democratic regime without a hitch, and they kept intact the power they had with the government. The basic difference is that their operation became much more decentralized and complex. If, in the time of the generals, it was enough to have proximity to some key positions in the executive power, in the cacophony of democracy, that influence had to be fragmented.
One afternoon in April, I talked to the author of Strange Cathedrals. Speaking by telephone from Rio de Janeiro, he explained that, despite having dedicated himself to the period of the dictatorship, the idea of the book had arisen from “concerns about the action of the contractors in the Lula government.” That is, he researched and reflected considerably on the various phases of the system, and how we got to the present moment. “The impression I have is that, at least until Lava Jato these companies used mechanisms and strategies to operate in the niches of power: the national Congress, the press, political parties, etc. Thus, they were able to maintain the influence, prominence and projection they had over Petrobras, state-owned companies, and control agencies” (Campos, 2017).
In this process, they got involved in political campaigns, lobbied for congressional amendments and reform of laws, and they agitated the press about the need for public works. At a time when various political ideologies came into power one after the other, they clung to cronyism, attached themselves to government authorities, and continued to subject national politics to their own economic needs. “Health, education, the salary of a teacher or a doctor…. All this becomes secondary in relation to public works that cannot be postponed, that must be carried out as soon as possible. They [the contractors] define priorities on the public agenda, they define the priorities for public works and government policies. This is how these businessmen assert themselves, creating a consensus that there are general interests and public demands with regard to projects of which they are the main beneficiaries,” said the author (Campos, 2017).
This ability to dictate the country’s course of action does not seem to have cooled down even when a government that considered itself leftist came to power. A good example of this was the Growth Acceleration Program (PAC), launched by then-President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in 2007. The plan sounded like the necessary remedy for the long-awaited fulfillment of the dream of a great Brazil, but it looked like something from the past, echoing JK’s fifty years in five (Silva, s./d.), proposing heavy investments in infrastructure, major public works to generate employment or, in other words, the contractors’ ideology revamped and sold as a solution for the left.
Karina Oliveira Leitão, architect and researcher at USP’s School of Architecture, examined this issue in her PhD thesis, in which she studied the impacts of the Growth Acceleration Program in her home state of Pará (Leitão, 2009). In her work, she showed that the development proposed by the program, in adhering to national and international capitalist interests, overlooked the specifically regional needs, homogenized development and created a series of problems in a country of continental dimensions, with diverse and specific needs. “The PAC’s investment plan for the state not only synthesizes how the State of Pará is seen in the program, but also reveals that transnational companies, allied to national capital, are the true beneficiaries of public investments by the government and the region’s infrastructure sector,” Karina writes (Ibid., 267). “It is fitting to question the pertinence of assuming this relevant policy option, adopted in the absence of any kind of national debate, in the name of an economic growth that does not necessarily incorporate those excluded from the system and a territorial development strategy that, in the end, favors private gains and socializes social-spatial costs and environmental impacts” (Ibid., 268).
One of the public works that Karina Leitão criticized was the Ferrovia Norte Sul [North-South Railroad], which will be almost five thousand km long, linking Paraná to Pará. For the researcher, the project serves the interests of grain export firms and mining companies, and makes it evident that Pará is seen by those planning the country’s development as a place to expand frontiers—a source of apparently inexhaustible resources to be exploited by the agents of capital. For Leitão, the railroad—and the other works in its environs—reproduces models of predatory action, creates islands of development, with improvements that do not spread throughout the region and, at the same time, impact the environment negatively.
The North-South Railroad is an excellent example of the action of the country’s contractors. Not only due to the criticism in Karina Leitão’s thesis, but also because, three decades ago, this same public work was indirectly responsible for exposing, in a hitherto unprecedented manner, the bowels of one of the greatest problems for the functioning of democracy: how public bidding take place in the country.