Rio: Beneath the spangles and the samba, a recurring cycle of dearth and excess

Rio: Beneath the spangles and the samba, a recurring cycle of dearth and excess

The Brenthurst Foundation last week released a Discussion Paper on Brazil and the relevance of its experience for Africa. GREG MILLS reports on the poverty that persist despite the abundance promised by the World Cup and the Olympic Games.

All Rio/Rocinha photos by Greg Mills.

Although Rio hosted the final of a tournament of the 2014 World Cup (in which Brazil invested $15 billion) nothing much has changed in the favelas.

‘”They did not do it for the favelas,” says my guide Edson. “Little has happened in Rocinha because of it.” We are walking along the twisting, filthy alleyways of Rio’s largest favela. “We hope the Olympics will be different,” he adds.

The houses of Rocinha (the name means ‘little farm’) cling to the steep hillside between two expensive Rio neighbourhoods, São Conrado (penthouses, beaches and golf course) and Gávea.

Rocinha is officially home to 70,000. Unofficially the population could be closer to 240,000. While its status is now raised to that of a favela bairro — or “favela neighbourhood”– deep inside its narrow, dark alleys awash with sewage and pungent with the stench of garbage, it’s no more than a brick and mortar slum. Only half the inhabitants have piped waste systems. A tangled mass of cables sags overhead. When it rains they present a dangerous hazard Edson tells me. ‘But we don’t pay for electricity, water or rates so we don’t mind if we have it only half of the time.”

The term favela was coined in the 19th century from a skin-irritating tree. When military veterans were brought to Rio de Janeiro and given no place to live, they settled on the hill of Providência, nicknaming it favela. Such informal settlements mushroomed in the early 20th century, populated partly by freed slaves in search of work.

By the 1940s, favelas had become the residence for the majority of Cariocas, the name for the residents of Rio when the industrialisation policy of President Getúlio Vargas’ Estado Novo, or ‘New State’, drew many more thousands of migrants from the relatively impoverished north-east, seeking their fortune in Brazil’s grand capital.

Photo: Rocinha in 1969.

From Copacabana’s art-deco beach-front strip epitomised by the eponymous Palace Hotel (still frequented by playboys and pop stars) to the baroque churches on the Centro and Cinelandia, the architecture of this Rio evokes a past that had glamour and power.

In Catete, the former presidential palace which boasts bronze condors on its eaves, has been turned into the Museu da República.

Rio’s paradox of dearth and excess is everywhere.

In the Palácio’s steamy gardens there is an exhibition of photographs about life in the favelas in the 1960s. There are cardboard cut-outs of poor cariocas at the street-front entrance.

Downstairs, inside the Museu, the cabinet room is as it was when President Juscelino Kubitschek moved the capital to Brasília in April 1960. The dark green leather ledgers embossed in gold with each of the minister’s titles remain in situ – a Mary Celeste of the world of executive politics. A grand staircase leads to the ornate first floor dining hall and reception rooms. The presidential bedroom is preserved on the third floor, complete with the striped pajamas worn by Vargas when he committed suicide on 24 August 1954.

Vargas had two cracks at being president.

The first was when he seized power in November 1930. After an election defeat he swiftly granted himself absolute powers in order to imprison his opponents. The second was with his election victory in 1951. His term ended with his suicide. He left a note reading ‘Serenely, I take my first step on the road to eternity and I leave life to enter history.’

Vargas pursued an ambitious development agenda, including the establishment of state-owned companies under high, protectionist tariffs.

Brazil’s fascination with big development schemes and its propensity for political melodrama did not die with Vargas.

President Kubitschek started building a new capital at Brasília the year after Vargas’ demise. Completed in just three years it was a symbol of the country’s ambition and determination. The military government that ruled for 21 years from 1964 was equally addicted to prestige projects. One such was the 13-km Niterói Bridge across Rio’s Guanabara Bay. Completed in 1974, it is the second longest bridge in the world.

The bridge passes close to the main naval base where the flagship aircraft carrier São Paulo is docked. Originally commissioned in 1963 into the French Navy as Foch, on retirement in 2000 it was sent to Brazil to replace the Minas Gerais, a venerable Second World War ex-Royal Navy carrier.

Given the challenges of its age, complexity and size, such a flagship is an expensive statement of the country’s ambition and sense of destiny.

Fast-forward to the present.

The 2016 Rio Olympics seems set to exceed its current $13.2 billion price tag. This will pile Pelion upon Ossa. Brazil’s economy is tanking and the president’s popularity has hit rock bottom.

Vargas died amidst a growing corruption scandal, a ubiquitous Brazilian political disease. Today, with economic growth stuck in negative numbers, the government of Dilma Rousseff is mired in its own disgrace involving Petrobras, the state oil company which Vargas established. The clamour for her impeachment grows every day.

Pedro Strozenberg the executive secretary of the Instituto de Estudos da Religiáo (Institute for the Study of Religion, ISER), set up during the period of military rule as a cloak to pursue social issues explains:

The problem is structural”, he says. “We need much more of a solid strategic response to address the problem that opportunities in society are deeply unequal.”

Davi owns the Bar do David perched on a hill in the favela Chapéu Mangueira, part of the larger Complexo Babilônia, behind Leme Beach on Rio’s desirable Atlântica Avenue. He has done well from the gentrification of the favela, enabled in part by its advantageous location. Yet he too complains about the ‘problem of Rio’: that the ‘rich get richer and the poor get poorer’.

Little surprise then that insecurity remains a problem in many of the favelas, of which there are an estimated 785 in Rio, housing one in five of the metro’s 12 million residents. Fed by a continuous stream of migrants, especially from Brazil’s poor northeast, with space to expand outwards constrained, existing dwellings instead simply build up.

Deep inside Rocinha, where access is poor, and it’s dark and very hot, rental rates are perhaps US$80 a month. Down the hill where there are wider streets and better shops, favela prices can be ten times as much.

Although there are three regular bus-services, vans and moto-taxis (motor-bikes) running Rocinho’s larger roads, everything has to be carried in and out of the residential rabbit warrens. The buildings are, in places, so close together that Vitamin D deficiency has become an issue, especially among older people.

A few houses show attempts to brighten things up, but mostly it’s cinder and breeze blocks, concrete and a birds-nest of electricity wires inside. Small barber-shops, hairdressers and convenience stores dot the alleys, yet far outnumbered by noisily frequented bars and eateries. Towards the main street of Caminho do Boladeiro, a crowd of men spectate a foot volley match, a game which has its origins on the Copacabana.

The favelas have become metaphors for drug trafficking and murder. The 2002 film Cidade de Deus (‘City of God’) was set in the Rio favela. The 2007 production Tropa de Elite (‘Elite Squad’) depicts police brutality and the link between middle-class drug-taking and the deaths of young favela kids, based on the activities of the Special Police Operations Battalion of Rio’s Military Police (Batalhão de Operações Policiais Especiais, or BOPE).

The relationship between the police, drug gangs and delinquent politicians is a core concern of civil society, which alleges a ‘shoot-first-ask-questions-later’ culture among the security forces. According to Robert Muggah of Instituto Igarapé, one in 38 arrests in Brazil end in a killing. The comparable figure in New York is one in 37,000.

Don’t take pictures here,’ warned my guide as we walked down towards the foot volley match. ‘Some of those guys just think they are drug-dealers.’

The most dangerous things you will encounter here, he warned, are the ubiquitous moto-taxis (motorbikes) and dog excrement. He was right, though crime remains problematic and entrenched.

Rocinha is under the control of the drug-dealers,’ he says. ‘The UPPs, the pacification police don’t do much at all.’ The number of UPPs in the favelas has more than doubled in four years, from 18 areas in 2011 to 42 by the end of 2015, while UPP officers deployed has increased fourfold since 2010 and now numbers 9,000.

The UPPs, or Unidade de Polícia Pacificadora, were deliberately established with an eye on the World Cup as a response to factional gang and police violence. This had steadily increased since the 1980s with the arrival of the cocaine trade, which has focused on the favelas as perfect operating and hiding places for the gangs. They are haphazardly laid out, difficult to access and there are plenty of recruits willing to do the drug lords’ bidding.

Three major drug gangs – Comando Vermelho (Red Command), Teceiro Comando (Third Command), and ADA (Amigos dos Amigos, Friends of Friends) – were able to seize control of these areas where the state had no presence, policing or services.

In 1994, the municipality of Rio reported 72.8 murders per 100,000 – more than double the national average.

Despite high levels of ongoing violence, the statistics show some overall improvement across Rio, particularly in the number of killing by the police. Between 2008 and 2015 there was a 78 percent reduction in the number of intentional homicides in the areas that hosted pacification units. There were also 40 percent fewer murders and a 76 percent reduction in gang shootings. By 2015, the murder rate was down to 17.7/100,000 in the city.

Luke Dowdney has lived in Rio for more than twenty years. He came to Rio to write his Master’s thesis on Rio’s ‘child soldiers caught up in the drug wars’. The terminology stems in part from his analysis which compared the number of firearm related deaths in Rio between 1978-2000 (some 50,000) with conflict deaths elsewhere, for example in Colombia (39,000), or Israel-Palestine (13,000). The death rate among young people has been over 200/100,000. Combining his sporting interest in boxing with a desire to help street children, Luke started Luta Pela Paz, ‘Fight for Peace’, in the favela of Mare in 2000 as a way of mentoring and educating the youth, initially through martial arts, offering both life and job skills in addressing the drivers that get them into violence.

Today Fight for Peace links 135 organisations across 26 countries with 250,000 alumni. Initially supportive of the UPP concept, Dowdney observes that its success will depend on “offering more than just policing: a permanent state presence, rather than an ‘invade-and-leave’ short-term scenario.”

The recent uptick in violence at the Complexo do Alemão, or ‘German’s Complex’, comprising a group of favelas in the north zone of Rio, illustrates the long-term nature of the challenge. A leather factory attracted the initial rush of workers in the 1920s. Today there are at least 70,000 people jammed into just three square kilometres. It has been the focus of much police activity and some development. In 2011, the first mass transit cable-car comprising 152 gondolas, each carrying 10 passengers across 3.5-km and six stations was commissioned. The government upped the police presence in the complex in 2008. But now the violence has worsened considerably. More than 200 incidents of shooting were cited in 2015. The police claim that they need more men and training to cope.

While policing is important, it is not an end in itself. Here the parallels between Rio and some African and other cities are clear. Government suffers from a lack of legitimacy, in spite of democracy, in the poorest communities, where it is seen as an unreliable and often antagonistic partner, where governance is fraught with institutional and economic instability. And the lessons follow. Smaller steps can help a great deal, including the training and accountability of the police, and improving the judges and prisons. Rio’s jails house 40,000 inmates, Brazil’s 600,000, the fourth largest prison population in the world.

The government realises the essential need for governance and delivery to reduce crime and create jobs.

A Metropolitan Chamber for Development was established during 2015 to improve co-ordination between departments to both avoid short-term project actions and address strategic discontinuities: first, of the need for longer-term planning and budgeting matched against a short-term, four-year political cycle; second, the introduction of private sector expertise and funding in infrastructure and management processes; third, the integration of government agencies; challenges; and finally, the establishment of prioritised actions.

Sanitation is identified as the most important priority, ‘where just 30 percent is treated and 70 percent goes into Guanabara Bay’. The past failure to link unused, new treatment facilities plants with municipalities is an example of bad management they say, which will be addressed by public private partnerships. Improving mobility is the next priority, given that 75 percent of the metropolitan area works in the city but only half live there.

Rio is putting together a city masterplan to try and ensure all of the above including better land use. It is sign of their intent that Jaime Lerner, the eminence grise town-planner-politician from Curitiba in Brazil’s south, is part of this team.

Overall, however, for structural change to occur, more than just infrastructure is required. As the Chamber’s Jose Firmono Pereira reminds, ‘Without economic growth and good wealth decentralisation, all of these projects are doomed to failure.’ And effective planning demands community input, a situation, says ISER’s Pedro Strozenberg, of ‘is being a democracy more than just seeming like one’. In all of this, there is a need to shake off a fatalism and narrow-mindedness defined by Cariocas as ‘Ta ruim mas ta bom’ – ‘it’s terrible but it’s good’ – and ‘se melhorar estraga’ – ‘if it gets better everything will be ruined’.

The underpinnings of youth unemployment, inequality, hyper concentrations of poverty, rapid urban growth, disquiet over government service delivery and the extent of urban informality can quickly spark into social protest and violence as occurred in June 2013. Known alternatively as the ‘2013 Confederations Cup’ riots, ‘V for Vinegar Movement’, ‘Brazilian Spring’, or ‘June Journeys’, these public demonstrations were sparked by a 20c increase in transport fares, and quickly gathered momentum to involve one million Brazilians in 340 centers countrywide. While transport provided the trigger, anti-capitalist ‘meme’ such as Black Bloc were able to capitalise on this disquiet and exponentially mobilise through social media tools, forcing a government response.

Bar do David serves simple local boteco food in a modest outdoor favela setting. The atmosphere however, is made more authentic by the presence of regular Military Police patrols carried out by black-uniformed soldiers armed with assault rifles. The bar made its name well before the police moved in to pacify the favela however. Davi also did not, he admits, get much out of the World Cup, but expects great things from the Olympics. ‘It will pay for another floor’ he laughs.

Other than Mexico and Munich, Brazil is the only city which has attempted back-to-back to stage the World Cup and Olympics. It’s a tall and expensive order. Yet there is little doubt even among sceptics that the Rio Olympics will be a success. The Cariocas know how to pull off a party. Think of the Carnival.

The challenges will happen the morning after the night before in maintaining the security focus and spending when the world’s attention shifts, motive and money dries up and the country nurses a monumental fiscal hangover. Such is the danger of mega-projects, in Getúlio and Dilma’s eras – then as now. DM


Main photo: The Rocinha slum is pictured in Rio de Janeiro February 26, 2015. Rio de Janeiro will celebrate its 450th anniversary on March 1. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes.


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