An article on today’s O Globo opinion page by architect Sérgio Magalhães (who heads up the Rio chapter of the Brazilian Architects’ Institute, which held the recent Morar Carioca favela upgrade architectural contest) is emblematic of a generalized sense in Rio now that there’s no turning back. The late-November invasion and occupation of Vila Cruzeiro and the Complexo do Alemão, expected to occur only in 2011, suddenly put a spin on everything. Until then, governor Sérgio Cabral’s pacification policy seemed on track and had wide support, but had yet to fully prove itself.
This coming Tuesday, when President Lula inaugurates the cable car system built with federal funding in the Complexo do Alemão even while the drug traffic still controlled the area, will mark history. The social integration of Rio de Janeiro is likely to deeply affect the rest of Brazil and may well serve as a model for other countries troubled by wide income gaps.
Of course, major challenges still lie ahead: adequate social programs and opportunities for Rio’s poor, wresting control from paramilitary groups in much of the city’s west zone, improving the police force, and taking Rocinha-Vidigal favelas, still in the hands of drug trafficker “Nem” and his men.
Yet “…the events in the Complexo do Alemão may signal a new perspective, where the State’s absence has come to be seen as the problem,” says Magalhães. “With the experience of the police pacification units, followed by the retaking of Vila Cruzeiro and Morro do Alemão, the constitutional protection of territories becomes central to collective desires. An understanding is building up regarding the necessity that the Brazilian State fully assume its responsibilities. If necessary, reworking what had previously been agreed on among the three levels of government.”
Until recently, the Brazilian electorate didn’t demand recognition and assumption of that responsibility. Many favela leaders are understandably incensed that it took this long– that in fact it took the Olympics, with all the foreign scrutiny that the event brings with it– to get officials’ attention to their communities’ needs.
Rio has always been a city where upper-class residents did their utmost to keep the lower class at a distance, except when needed as workers. In the 1980s and 1990s, it was common to hear south zone cariocas complain of changes in bus lines that brought people from poorer neighborhoods into beach areas. Even more recently, as the Praça General Osório metro station was about to open a year ago, there was apprehension about the influx it would bring.
That station is now linked to an elevator that connects Ipanema to the Pavão-Pavãozinho and Cantagalo favelas, occupied and pacified a year ago. Midway up, the “Peace Lookout” affords stunning views and guides are available to orient tourists. Before the elevator was built, favela residents had to climb hundreds of stairs.
It’s ironic that the high-tech US$ 52 million panoramic room-sized elevator, inaugurated with pomp and circumstance last June, run by uniformed attendants, takes one to a ramshackle mass of dwellings and alleyways that an estimated 28,000 residents were induced to create because over centuries the Brazilian state was incapable of providing affordable housing, not to mention education and health care, for them.
Now, the expectation is that this “incapacity” is no longer tenable– for all of Brazilian society. Key to governmental responsibility will be informed political participation and mature long-term policymaking, as Rio prepares for its 2014 World Cup games and the 2016 Olympics.
These areas will be the focus of RioRealblog in 2011.