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Saturday, 1 July, 2000, 12:20 GMT 13:20 UK
São Paulo's mayor farce
Shanty town
Poverty rife in the city
By Stephen Cviic in Brazil

It's South America's biggest city; it's the engine that drives the Brazilian economy; it's a bustling, cosmopolitan marketplace where international businessmen do deals in gigantic skyscrapers. All these facts are true of São Paulo.

But São Paulo is also a city at the end of its tether, at rock bottom, drifting without a rudder.

On Friday 10 March, the mayor's estranged wife - Niceia Pitta - gave a long exclusive interview to Globo television in which she accused her husband of just about every variety of corrupt behaviour imaginable.

The juiciest allegation involved his relationship with local councillors. During an earlier scandal last year, she said, Celso Pitta had invited legislators round to their house so he could pay them off for not impeaching him.

And there was plenty more.

According to Niceia Pitta, in 1998 she and her husband travelled to watch the World Cup in France, with expenses paid for by the city's rubbish collection company.

And the prices of medicines bought by the council were routinely inflated, with the difference going into political campaigns. Niceia Pitta told TV Globo that she had documents to back up her claims.

'Credible' interview

Celso Pitta and other politicians affected by the allegations issued strenuous denials, and under normal circumstances, his wife's charges would surely have been regarded with scepticism.

Here was an embittered woman making a series of claims about events in which she also participated, and without immediate proof. And yet for most São Paulo residents, her interview had credibility simply because under Celso Pitta, life in the city has gone from bad to worse.

Sao Paulo
City is a bustling, cosmopolitan marketplace
He and his predecessor, Paulo Maluf, jointly ran up most of the city´s existing debt, which stands at more than $5.5bn.

Traffic is nightmarish, public transport is chaotic and there is graffiti on every wall.

Last year, it emerged that council inspectors were taking bribes from street vendors. One leading vendor was shot dead in what looked like a gangland killing.

After Mrs Pitta's interview, there was a public outcry, and councillors began - somewhat reluctantly - to start impeachment proceedings again.

But many of them were allies of Mr Pitta and Mr Maluf and the process didn't get far. Instead, in typical Brazilian fashion, it was the courts which intervened.

Legal wrangling

On 24 March, a judge ordered Mr Pitta to stand down - by staying in office, the court said, the mayor would be able to obstruct investigations into a huge loan he had received from a businessman.

The judicial order was issued and Mr Pitta promptly fled through the back door of City Hall to avoid receiving it. For two days - while he lay low - legal arguments raged over whether or not he could be dismissed without signing the court order. It was all academic.

Celso Pitta says he's the victim of a corrupt elite which wants to get rid of him

On 26 March, another judge upheld an appeal and the following day, Celso Pitta was carried back to work on the shoulders of cheering supporters - to the beat of a local samba school.

For two months, impeachment proceedings dragged. But then on 25 May, the judicial merry-go-round took another turn. Once again, Mr Pitta was ordered out of office.

This time he was out long enough for his deputy, Regis de Oliveira, to be sworn in, form an administration and make a few token attempts at cleaning up the reeking municipal stables. But - surprise, surprise - on 13 June, one of Brazil´s highest courts re-reinstated Mr Pitta.

Precarious hold on power

Celso Pitta's grip on power is still precarious. He says he's the victim of a corrupt elite which wants to get rid of him. The word from City Hall is that he's planning to run for a seat in the Federal Congress in 2002.

But fortunately for the people of São Paulo, he will be out within a few months anyway.

Local elections are due in October, and one of the main candidates is - you've guessed it - Paulo Maluf.

Four years ago, his party had a campaign slogan in which Mr Maluf said: "If Celso Pitta isn't a good mayor, never vote for me again."

Let's hope the people of São Paulo remember.

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See also:

27 Mar 00 | Americas
Brazilian mayor back at work
27 Mar 00 | Americas
Brazil mayor reinstated
24 Mar 00 | Americas
Brazil mayor told to resign
17 Mar 00 | Americas
Brazil keeps it in the family
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