Human Life at Discount Prices in Rio de Janeiro

By 2016, the favelas of Rio de Janeiro will be sequestered and repressed on a scale to rival the Gaza Strip. If this sounds like ungrounded prophesy and soothsaying, so be it, but in the two weeks that have passed since the Olympic Committee awarded the city with the games, the evidence certainly points in this direction.

Like most people I am deeply disturbed by photos published in the domestic and international media of a dead man stuffed into a shopping cart and left on a street corner, a crowd gathered around, and a police officer toting an automatic rifle standing to the side. Variations on the photo have appeared, with different groups of people gawking at the dead man as if he was an exhibit in a museum or, perhaps, a zoo. But now, with the divulgation of these images through mass media, we have the eye of the foreigner ogling the “Other” – the dead man, the bystanders, like exotic, dehumanized creatures.

In one photo a teenage boy can be seen openly laughing in the face of death, a tragic commentary on the desensitization to violence that can happen when it is part of your quotidian existence. It is that quality of common everyday-ness that stuns the distant observer from the First World. It is then only a short extrapolation to thinking that “those people” feel nothing in their encounters with this brutality.

What troubles me most deeply is the very partial coverage of the situation that has thus far appeared in the international press. The favelas are represented and objectified, along with the people who live in them, as being inherently and intrinsically violent. Being poor in Rio de Janeiro makes you into a criminal by default, and the only time that favela residents even see a police officer in their neighborhood is when they show up SWAT-team style with guns blazing. Shoot first, ask questions later, as the cliché goes. A vestige of the right-wing military dictatorship that ruled the country for twenty years and still rules the mentality of the police.

These areas are referred to in English as “shanty towns”, a loaded signifier that would lump together the slums of Mumbai and Kingston and Johannesburg and Rio while paying no attention to their different cultural and political histories. What is not being talked about in the coverage of Rio is that a great number of people who live in favelas *work*, when they can find work, often commuting to the city center to work at jobs that pay next to nothing. That many of these ‘shanty towns’ have fought for basic services like paved roads and electricity and telephone lines, and often have won official recognition and become incorporated into the city infrastructure to some extent.

Rio’s reputation as one of the most violent cities in the world is well-deserved. It is also one of the most unequal. What is rarely mentioned in the stories written by and for foreigners is the social context of having a place like Rocinha, one of the most notorious and largest of the favelas, in plain sight of the richest areas of Rio. Of the dozens of people you are likely to see sleeping in doorways and on sidewalks on a stroll through Ipanema or Copacabana on any night of the week. Of children searching for something to eat in the elite’s bags of trash left on the sidewalk. Or the fact that what the wealthiest 3% of Brazil spends in a single day could feed an entire family of Brazil’s poorest for months. Of the fact that 6% of Brazil’s population lives on the equivalent of $80 a year.

For every person killed by a policeman in São Paulo, upwards of 1600 are “protected” by police presence. In Rio, the statistic is that for every person killed by police, 250 are “protected.” Is it even worth asking who the people are who are being “protected,” and – more importantly – who they are being “protected” from? When the NY Times writes about the violence in Rio, do they mention the luxurious apartment buildings and homes built like fortresses to keep the ‘commoners,’ the multitudes, the “povão” at a safe distance? Of the apartheid walls with which the city already began to encircle the favelas long before the ‘good news’ about the Olympics?

Does the media coverage notice how the “War on Drugs,” created in the United States and exported around the world, has been a colossal failure? When the violence is covered by the media, it is often implied that what is needed to bring the situation “under control” is simply more police presence. There is little discussion, particularly in the foreign English-language press, of the absurd scale of corruption among the Brazilian police, of police participation in the drug trade itself, or of the formation of private militias comprised of off-duty or retired police officers to carry out revenge murders and other killings, often execution-style. How much attention has the international media payed to the Candelária massacre of 1993 and of the judicial impunity of those who carried it out? Of the Death Squads hired by businessman to ‘clean up’ the streets?

President Lula, when criticized for not including any mention of Rio’s sprawling favelas in the promotional materials to the Olympic Committee, made a statement to the effect that, in the future, the favelas will no longer exist. What he seems to have meant was that, by some magic of neoliberal economic theory, the favelas will reap the benefits of Brazil’s expanding economy. What is more likely is that they will be “developed” out of existence, by way of more dislocations and displacement. Lula is deploying the same type of neoliberal policies and logic that he fought against as a union militant in the 1970s and 80s, the “conservative modernization” and authoritarian development that led to unprecedented migration to Brazil’s urban centers during the “economic miracle,” in turn swelling the favelas with people who found that miracle to be a bit less than miraculous. Completely leaving aside the question of US covert operations and the toppling of democratically-elected governments, the economic policies pursued under “The Chicago Boys” of Chile under Pinochet and the policies pursued by the military dictatorships of Brazil and elsewhere, were a litmus test. The work of social engineering and technocratic planning forged in the First World nations as an experiment to be let loose in the sandbox of Latin America before deploying them in their own countries during the 1980s. Brazil emerged from the dictatorship into a constitutional democracy that held many of the same personalities and policies in place, with an even greater gap between rich and poor than before the 1964 coup. Little has changed, except perhaps the exponential growth of a culture industry that promotes material wealth and consumption out of reach of the majority of the population and portrays such consumption as the hallmarks of citizenship and self-worth.

Now that the eyes of a global and skeptical public are watching how Brazil addresses these issues, as the most recent spat of urban warfare between Military Police and drug-based gangs creates a public relations nightmare, the President is loudly proclaiming that they have “a plan” for making Rio a safe place for the throngs of tourists and – most importantly – the investors that hope to reap obscene amounts of profit from the Olympic-sized debacle that will arrive in six years. Other government officials involved with “public security” (literal translation) are using unabashedly military and adversarial language, of “going into battle” against crime. For years Rio has repeatedly coordinated and unleashed heavily-armed police/military operations on its own citizens, whether to bust up baile funk parties in the favelas or to engage in urban warfare.
To achieve the tranquility, security, and positive public image that Brazil`s politicians and business leaders are seeking, it will only be necessary to employ stronger doses of the same medicine. The “plan” of Lula’s government, to be presumably carried out by the next administration to follow, must consist of more marginalization, more criminalization, and more repression.

(Demonstration on Copacabana beach, Oct.14)

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