Limpeza Geral. Or, sweeping dirt by force

This is a guest post from Wiernie Walshe in Dili. Yes, that is a pseudonym.

Police pull over taxis and force the occupants and driver out at gunpoint. Public transport is forbidden from operating, and as a result school children cannot get to school in time to attend their final day of national exams. It is eerily silent in the main commercial district of town as businesses and banks are not allowed to open. Parts of the city are blocked by the Prime Minister’s 10 car convoy, shadowing him as he walks slowly down the street in his blue nylon tracksuit.

Welcome to Friday morning in Dili, Timor-Leste, where the President has declared every Friday morning is “limpeza geral” (general cleaning), a day when civil servants are forced to sweep dirt and cut branches off trees. Very little rubbish seems to be collected during the cleaning. The litter which is accidentally swept up along with the dirt is left in piles by the side of the street, to blow away into the already clogged drains. Nobody has bothered to organise any rubbish trucks to come and pick it up. And everyone continues to throw their trash on the street as soon as the cleaning is over.

Most civil servants treat Friday “limpeza” as a day off. Those who do turn up for the cleaning are generally seen sitting around by the side of the road, chasing each other around with their brooms. Then, because they are wearing casual clothes and have become sweaty and dirty with sweeping, they have to go home and change, and have a nap, by which time it is too late to come back to work. Friday afternoon in the government offices is almost as deserted as Friday morning. This in a country where 50% of the population is living in absolute poverty, and in urgent need of the services the government is supposed to be providing – infrastructure, education, healthcare and security.

With the forced closures of banks and businesses, Friday “limpeza” also creates havoc for Timor-Leste’s struggling commercial sector. In a country where people are fond of resting, many Timorese stores have very limited opening hours – Monday to Friday from 9am to 12pm and 3pm to 5pm. But now, thanks to the command of the President, even these limited hours have been cut. In the words of one supermarket owner, “Friday limpeza has set the country back fifty years. I am forced to close during three of my most profitable hours of the week”.

Surprisingly, there have been no reports of objections to police strong-armed tactics to enforce what should surely be voluntary participation in “limpeza geral”. Will the police stop at forcing taxis and their occupants out and handing them a broom? Or will they force all private vehicles off the road too, and then force people out of their houses? And if the police can force people off the road, with no legal basis, to engage in vigorous dirt sweeping, then what else will they unlawfully try to force people to do?

Is “limpeza geral” an attempt to encourage civic pride, or is it the first step along a path towards something more sinister?