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Fifty Years Later, Brazil's Utopian Capital Brasilia, Faces Reality, Hopes and Obstacles
A homeless person sleeps outside the National Museum, designed by architect Oscar Niemeyer, in Brasilia April 7, 2010. The dream was big. In just a few years, Brazil would build a modern capital in the middle of a savanna, an experiment in egalitarianism that would also shift power toward the center of the vast country. As Brasilia turned 50 years old on April 21, 2010, vestiges of that dream live on in Oscar Niemeyer's soaring architecture, the uniform residential apartment blocks, and the plane-like city shape that legend has it was meant to signal the Latin American giant's take-off. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes.

By: Bradley Brooks, Associated Press Writer

BRASILIA (AP).- Renato de Jesus gives a tour of the trash-strewn lot where he has lived all his life, just yards (meters) from Brasilia's gleaming federal government promenade built 50 years ago as an emblem of the South American country's promise.

The 30-year-old shows the places behind the ministry offices where he rummages through garbage, collecting enough paper and plastic to earn $200 a month from recycling. He is so grimy, he sheepishly dismisses a hand outstretched in greeting, explaining he does not want to spread the filth.

"I still have the hope that Brasilia was built on," said de Jesus, his 18-month old daughter grasping his leg while his young, pregnant wife quietly sits outside the family tent of black and blue plastic sheeting. "I'm not asking for the life of a rich man. But I do want to live with dignity."

Brasilia, built from scratch 600 miles (965 kilometers) inland, was envisioned as the dream city, a transformational project to thrust Latin America's largest nation ahead with a modern capital in the wilds of Brazil's vast, interior savanna.

A half century after it was inaugurated on April 21, 1960, it has fulfilled much of that promise. Brasilia is now a city of 2 million with swooping buildings designed by famed architect Oscar Niemeyer. The roads are smooth and pedestrians can cross streets without fear of being mowed down. Downtown sparkles, in contrast to the crumbling centers of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo.

But just like the rest of urban Brazil, Brasilia is ringed by huge slums. Poor migrants arrive daily by the busload, and improvement projects are inevitably delayed by everything from weather to corruption.

That de Jesus clings to a sliver of hope at a better life is remarkable. That he shows scant bitterness, despite living in squalor just 700 feet (200 meters) north of Brazil's Economy Ministry, more surprising still.

But that vision of hope was the driving force behind Brasilia.

Moving the capital from coastal Rio de Janeiro to Brazil's interior had been floated as early as 1823 by independence leader Jose Bonifacio de Andrade e Silva.

He and his successors wanted to develop the vast swaths of jungle and plain that held natural riches and seemingly endless farm land. But there was no population center to anchor such development.

During the 1956-1961 term of President Juscelino Kubitschek, whose motto was "50 Years of Progress in Five," the city was finally built — in 41 months no less, with laborers toiling 24 hours a day until the inauguration.

It was the golden age of development in Brazil, and moving the capital to Brasilia was Kubitschek's crowning achievement. The country grew in no small part because of a road torn out of the jungle linking the new capital with Belem, a port city on the mouth of the Amazon River 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) to the north. That road spawned hundreds of small towns and sparked development — and destruction — in the jungle.

Industrial production grew 80 percent during Kubitschek's administration, and agricultural output jumped 52 percent in the 10 years ending in 1960.

While Brasilia became Brazil's capital in 1960, Rio remained the de facto seat of power for another 10 years.

Government workers and foreign diplomats were not keen to move the capital away from glamorous Rio de Janeiro to a sparsely populated region far from any beach.

The children of the first Brazilian government workers who moved to the new capital still recall the rough, early living — a lack of water and electricity outside the planned city center, and wild animals roaming where today limousines carry presidents and prime ministers to high-level meetings.

The U.S. was the first nation to open an embassy in Brasilia, shortly after the city was inaugurated. But it was only after the military took over the government — and Gen. Emilio Medici, who served as president in 1969-1974, granted civil servants pay raises and other incentives — that the move to Brasilia finally occurred. He told foreign embassies to either relocate there or lose accreditation.

Since then, the country has transformed itself into a political and economic power, largely on the back of goods coming out of the land Brasilia opened up — from the soy-growing heartland of Mato Grosso on the central plains to the Amazon ports that move massive amounts of iron ore, minerals and grains for export.

Brasilia's architecture has brought international attention as well.

Named in 1987 as a UNESCO world heritage site, the city's airplane-shaped design was the idea of urban planner Lucio Costa and its modernistic government buildings the work of architect Niemeyer.

Despite its beauty, Brasilia has the same problems as the rest of Brazil, a nation burdened with one of the world's most unequal distributions of income and land.

It was designed with enough homes for an estimated 600,000 people. City founders did not predict that thousands of workers recruited from faraway to build the city would settle there, setting up squatter camps that are now the slums that ring the city.

Some 19 million Brazilians have been lifted from poverty since working-class President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva took office on Jan. 1, 2003. But about 38 million people — roughly the entire population of neighboring Argentina — still live below the poverty line.

Antonia Albino da Costa, 34, moved to Brasilia from the Amazon state of Para at the age of 18 with her 6-month-old son in search of a better life.

Selling coffee and cake out of the back of her car by day in the parking lot of the National Theater and working in a Japanese restaurant at night, she has been able to bring her three sisters and mother from an impoverished existence in the Amazon to Brasilia, where they, too, have found jobs.

Costa, who credits Silva for helping the poor most, said the promise of Brazil cannot be found in the design or location of its capital.

"No city, no physical buildings, can propel a country anywhere," she said. "It's the people inside them that are in charge of the country that will make the real changes."


Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.

Brasilia | Renato de Jesus | Lula da Silva |


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