Is Rio getting worse?

Mega-event make-up might be right, after all

Assim é que se coleta lixo na Favela da Mineira

Trash collection in Favela da Mineira

Your blogger has been quiet for too long, partly due to other commitments, mostly out of bewilderment.

What to say? Over the last five years, improved public safety has been at the heart of Rio’s turnaround.

The better part of 2013 sent daggers to that heart. Starting last June, we’ve had street protests, Black bloc and other destruction, police torture and abuse, increasing crime, beach-gang assaults, Lapa murders and UPP territory ceded to drug traffickers, plus torrential rain and flooding, with thousands losing their homes, mostly in favelas, including pacified ones. 

Last week O Globo newspaper published this interview with Viva Rio founder Rubem César Fernandes.  In it, he said, “The more you move forward, the further away [the horizon] lies.”

His image was meant for the challenges Rio still faces. It also applies to the protests themselves, which surprised us all, yet, in retrospect, given our ever-receding horizon, shouldn’t have. Brazil has begun to deal with its inequality, and that particular line visible out at sea moves fast, indeed, against a history of sluggish social change.

The protests (which have now ebbed) and Rio’s transformation are part and parcel of large-scale socio-economic change that all of us have trouble digesting.

It’s hard to say what brought on the elephant that the boa constrictor that is Brazilian society ingested, or when the process started. But the interview with the Viva Rio founder, meant to mark the pioneering NGO’s 20th anniversary, serves to remind us of a before, when, as he remarks, banks and airlines were leaving Rio and the naval industry was dying.

In those days — 1993 — eight young people were shot dead as they slept on the steps of the downtown Candelária church.  Twenty-one Vigário Geral favela residents were also shot dead, by an off-duty police death squad. Such violence is what led to the creation of Viva Rio.

“Rio is obviously out of the hole,” Fernandes last week told O Globo. “We began in an environment where people were saying ‘Rio is done for’. Today, in contrast, the city has become a magnet for great world events. There are obvious changes, such as the public safety policy. The [military police’s elite squad] BOPE and the [police pacification units] UPP are important institutions today. The debate centers on how to improve them.”

Does it truly? So many of us, like Fernandes, have invested our days and years in making a better future. Are we afraid to recant?

What exactly has gone wrong?

Starting in 2010, Rio’s homicide rate came down significantly, dropping to an annual  rate of 18.9 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2012. In 2007, before pacification began, the rate was 37.8, just about double.


But this year saw several crime spikes, with both homicide and street robbery up in August and September, the last months for which statistics are so far available. Some neighborhoods have experienced increases in street robbery, comparing the second quarter of 2013 to that of 2012, of close to ninety percent.

In the second quarter of 2013, according to Rio Como Vamos, based on data from the state Public Safety Secretariat and the governmental Public Safety Institute, the city proper saw a total of 8,667 street robberies, more than any quarter this or last year.

Residents of Santa Teresa, Botafogo, Leblon and Ipanema, among other neighborhoods, say they again live in fear, after a welcome two-year respite. The top of the pacified Pavão-Pavãozinho favela, in Copacabana, has reportedly been taken back by drug traffickers. Most likely there are other such areas in the city.

No one has come forward with an overarching explanation for the backslide. But a shift clearly began midyear with the street protests, which began over a bus fare hike. As a result, politicians  lost whatever glow they had, caving to demands  (Mayor Eduardo Paes, Congress and President Dilma Rousseff), or blithely living under siege by protestors (Governor Sérgio Cabral). The police too, long focused on drugs and guns, revealed by way of violence and incompetence just how unprepared they were for middle-class student marchers, and later, protestors who destroyed bus shelters, cash machines and the like.

This video by the Porta dos Fundos comedy troupe, with almost four million views to date, shows that Rio’s military police have fallen into an abyss from the public relations heights they enjoyed only three years ago, when cariocas applauded Wagner Moura’s heroics in the movie Elite Squad 2. In it, the cops are portrayed as traumatized imbeciles. “Rubber bullets” is all Fabio Porchat can say, over and over again.

So diminished respect may have something to do with increased crime. The protests may also have stretched thin police manpower, capability and attention to crime, exacerbating institutional weaknesses and political fragility. And there are unproven conspiracy theories that lay both protest violence and the crime spikes at the door of opposition politicians.

Silvia Ramos, a police, youth and violence social scientist at CESeC, remembers our euphoric early days. Two years after the first pacification unit was installed  in 2008 — at the behest of a group of concerned Rio businessmen — she ran a meeting in the auditorium of the Rio de Janeiro state industrial federation, FIRJAN. It was the first time that business, NGOS, favela leaders and residents and government officials had met in such a venue, to discuss favelas’ social needs.

“… we were going to carry out the mission of a generation, at last taking social policy coordination to places where public safety policy had been implemented for the first time,” she recalls in an emailed response to a RioRealblog request for retrospection. “Looking back, I can see that the optimism was tinged with ingenuousness and that we underestimated the longtime difficulties and resistance to the provision of good quality services to favelas — the city’s trademark for decades.”

She continues: “Not that most favelas are just as they were before the UPPs, but the truth is that the advances made are so small, when it comes to such basic and symbolic aspects such as trash collection, sanitation, urban order and others. It’s hard to understand where the blind spot is and why so little has been accomplished even in places where there are resources, interest and immense potential, as is the case with the South Zone favelas, located in the richest areas of the country, which stands among the ten richest countries in the world. Rio, the pain and delight of what it is. We’ve changed so little when it comes to our symptoms.”

Where is the blind spot?

It’s not as if nothing ever changes in Brazil, a hypothesis that this marvelous ESPN article explores, putting the recent street protests in the context of those of the late sixties.

What’s  different now, from previous Brazilian history, is that the present social change isn’t slow and gradual. Until the mid-2000s, social inclusion was a managed process that kept the country’s social structure fairly intact. Now, in comparison, what’s going on is a tidal wave. It challenges everyone to rethink attitudes, behaviors and relationships.

Perhaps most important, Brazil’s varied attempts to address inequality have brought to the surface the real costs of long neglect.

How to pick up all the trash and collect all the sewage in places where, for centuries, no person of means wanted to live? Locations that developed on their own, meeting the need for shelter, sanitation, electricity, water and transportation with little or no oversight or planning? Where, fundamentally, large-scale engineering and urban planning solutions, involving controversial resident relocation, are what’s needed? How to push this forward — and take care to preserve the attractive spontaneity and community networks of favela life, without bringing in droves of middle- and upper-class gentrifiers?

State Public Safety Secretary José Mariano Beltrame has correctly recognized that such an upgrade (an unfulfilled promise on the part of the city government) is part of what lies on our horizon, which also includes gubernatorial and presidential elections, this coming October.

“In twenty years what will become of the favela?” he asked, in a recent interview with O Globo newspaper. “The reconquest of the territory is a window of opportunity for the transformation of that public space. And we’re not just talking about schools and health clinics. Many favelas have enough of these. But how can you bring in sanitation if there’s no space for the pipes? How to help the poorest when they live in almost impenetrable agglomerations? Is it worth bringing in doctors, when tuberculosis will come back because of the environment? The favela needs access, pipes, public transportation, air, what amounts to a structure that will change the face of these places.”

You can never be just a little pregnant

All of this makes pacification — itself plagued with difficulties and issues of continuity — look easy. “We all know what the effects of the UPPs are in the short term,” Beltrame said. “The hilltop resident feels relief, and the asphalt resident feels very happy when the shooting ends. But this is just anesthesia for the bigger surgery. The big question, still unanswered, is what Rio wants to do with its UPPs over the long term.”

Anesthesia for surgery. Is this a useful metaphor? It depends what weight you give to the long-term impact of pacification. If you think it’s makeup for megaevents, the patient could well awaken in 2017 and find himself with no surgeon on hand, groggy, discharged from the hospital, sent off limping in the direction of that elusive horizon.

If you believe that the last five years of UPPs will have some lasting effect, you might want to consider another possibility. In this case, the anesthesia might precede not a kidney transplant, not open-heart surgery, nor breast implants, but the unavoidable delivery of a squalling new Rio.

Meanwhile, even as we gear up for the June-July World Cup, and a strong likelihood of renewed street protests, the local 2014 electoral debate will certainly focus on what Rio wants to do with its UPPs.


About Rio real

American journalist, writer, editor who's lived in Rio de Janeiro for 20 years.
This entry was posted in Brazil, Transformation of Rio de Janeiro / Transformação do Rio de Janeiro and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Is Rio getting worse?

  1. Your work has been to measure the distance to the horizon. In time we can look back and see. But for your work we would not know what we were looking at. Thanks.

  2. Danna olivo says:

    What is happening in Rio, as little as it may seem…is the growth process experienced when a society speaks out against change. It is all part of the transition as Rio learns what their abilities and limitations are,mand how to manage them. I believe that Rio’s biggest issue is lack of strategic planning in the growth process. Jumping into action without strategic planning for the long term is often short lived and unsuccessful.

  3. Pingback: O Rio está piorando? | RioReal

  4. ARvWD says:

    While people / voters do not believe in the efficacy of political processes enough to invest their scarce time and energy in reforming them and making them more responsive to a wider range of needs, reform is likely to be halting at best. Political leadership from the likes of Beltrame can help strengthen that belief. Your blog helps to educate the political leaders of tomorrow. Keep on keeping on, e um feliz e prospero ano novo para tudos!

  5. Rio real says:

    Thank you all. I hope the blog is read all around! Strategic planning is on the rise here, and it’s part of a much-needed package that also includes governance, continuity, tracking, adaptation, followup, monitoring, accountability… all those good words! The mega-events and economic growth have helped open Brazil to the world and new ways of doing business and carrying out public policy initiatives. Happy New Year to all!

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  7. Pingback: Assault on UPP Base Sign of Cracks in Rio's 'Pacification' Program | Brazil News and more in English!

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  9. Size of Rio city issue says:

    Old article but I have to mention that the version of Rio “city” used there is the “City” of Rio municipality. The *city* of Rio is much larger with around double the population. Municipalities that feature “City” in upper case are notoriously inaccurate when measuring a city’s size. To confuse the issue further, the principal municipality is often referred to as the “city proper” which it is here, despite the fact that in many cases it clearly excludes much of or even most of the city. Another problem is that many “City” municipalities are simply suburbs of the principal municipality.

    I have no doubt that the authorities are partly concentrating on the City of Rio because they know people define cities by arbitrary boundaries. The murder rate in the Baixada and further mesoregion has ballooned back up in the last two years. It’s nowhere near as low as they claim and I know it increased in 2013/14, at least over 2012 and 2011.

    • Rio real says:

      Gary, thanks for your comment. Much has changed since I wrote that post, particularly my own view of Rio– which has become more metropolitan as I have become involved with the Casa Fluminense, a metropolitan think-and-do-thank that I hope you have discovered. The creation last August of a new metropolitan authority could be the start of new approaches to urban problem-solving here. Let’s keep talking!

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