Life in Rio de Janeiro is up, but down; actually it’s both

Words by Julia Michaels | 20 May, 2014

Imagina na Copa!” Imagine what things will be like during the World Cup! Brazilians have been saying this for the last three years. Every time a building falls down, a bus runs someone over or a waiter simply gets an order wrong: “Imagina na Copa!” And now, with the FIFA World Cup imminent, things are undeniably getting worse. Rio de Janeiro, locus of a 1983-2007 brain drain, and reverse influx of brainpower in 2008-12, has definitely lost its mojo.

The return of talent to the city in 2008 was prompted by a fortuitous constellation of factors: an unheard-of alliance at all three levels of government; the promise of a series of mega events; municipal and state finance cleanups; and a new public safety policy, pacification, which saw police occupy favelas previously ruled by drug traffickers. Brazil was also in the midst of an economic boom, reaping the benefits of having brought 40-million people—not a number to be sneezed at—out of poverty in the previous decade. What could go wrong?

No one saw last June’s street protests. It wasn’t favela residents doing the protesting either, but middle-class university students. And as they took to the streets to protest a bus fare hike, crime rates began ticking up. Since then, a litany of plagues have descended on Rio: strikes, street violence, police abuse, beach-gang assaults, drug traffickers retaking pacified territory, vigilantism, absurdly high prices and floods. Imagina na Copa!

And what of after the Copa? And after the 2016 Olympics? This year the jitters aren’t exclusively about hosting international football’s premier event. With presidential and gubernatorial elections coming up in October, protests and shifting political alliances have weakened the incumbent governor, Sérgio Cabral, who backed the pacification programme. Who knows the future of this policy, which has halved the 2007 homicide rate to 24 per 100 000 in 2012 and favourably impacted the lives of about 1.5-million residents of favelas and adjoining neighbourhoods. Public safety has been at the core of Rio’s turnaround.

Mariana Albanese, like a growing number of foreigners, students and young professionals, lives in a South Zone favela. In a recent blog post, she described a key effect of pacification on daily life there: when the police replaced the drug traffickers, they destroyed residents’ knowledge of the rules, of what to expect. “People know that, depending on an officer’s intentions, good or bad, a party will be permitted, or not. Because, in addition to the violence that everyone has seen, there’s extreme social control over daily life. The philosophy of pacification is based on the principle that everyone is suspect until proven otherwise,” she wrote.

During the years of the brain gain, cariocas—as native inhabitants of Rio are known—gabbed about how wonderful their city was becoming. A coffee company proclaimed on a bus shelter ad that its product was coming back, just like “the good things of Rio”. Now, cariocas are wringing their hands and reverting back to default pessimism. A British newspaper has diagnosed class warfare as the reason for all this.

Ever since a military dictatorship ended in 1985, Brazil has muddled back and forth between default egotism and what’s best for the nation

“I feel cheated,” says a college-educated Portuguese immigrant, one of thousands who fled Iberian joblessness for easygoing Rio. He laments the violence and his diminishing capacity to live a short bike ride from the beach. “People are so egotistical. I don’t want to bring up children here.”

Ever since a military dictatorship ended in 1985 after ruling 21 years, Brazil has muddled back and forth between default egotism and what’s best for the nation. But this moment is sharply different from what has come before. Even if they drop back into poverty at some point, the 40-million new entrants into the formal economy will never drop back into invisibility, into second-class citizenship. Their presence challenges Brazil’s entire social structure, all its assumptions about the less fortunate serving the more fortunate, about police buffering the income gap, about the two-tiered provision of education, transportation and healthcare. The newly non-poor have seen too much: in Rio’s public schools, where 80% of students live in favelas, 98% of the teens access the internet every day.

Favela residents aren’t the only ones who’ve lost a sense of what the rules are. Middle class cariocas now debate if, in the absence of police patrols, their teenagers should or should not be going out to beat up pervasive street criminals. It’s easy to mistake the chaos unleashed by social integration for a looming cliff; to miss the possibility that what’s really occurring is a dispute over newly vacated territory—the territory of urban order.

No force—be it police, business interests, politicians, protestors, criminals or the media—has ever fully or unilaterally dominated that territory. The challenge now is to come up with a new arrangement that better suits the city’s needs. Most observers agree that police violence and corruption, for example, need to be deescalated. There are proposals to unify the various police forces, and to demilitarise them. The process is messy. Whether Rio will rise to the occasion and what the official arrangements will look like remains to be seen. For now, cariocas will just have to imagine.*