Rio’s toughest moment since 2008: are we shedding our skin?

A rich exchange, as the crime rate heads north and the Brazilian army arrives to occupy favelas, just weeks before the World Cup

Social scientist Silvia Ramos, a Rio de Encontros coordinator

Social scientist Silvia Ramos, a Rio de Encontros coordinator

“How do we dialogue with a cynic?” two young people asked during a Rio de Encontros gathering this past week, at the Casa do Saber. Others, also university students who live in favelas, echoed the question.

Luiz Eduardo Soares, anthropologist, activist and public safety specialist, state public safety coordinator from 1999 to 2000, was the speaker. The title of the gathering, “How to make dialogue in the city feasible?”, assumes such dialogue to be possible.

But the young people in attendance had doubts. Cínico, cynic, is the word they use to describe those who would maintain the traditional power structure in Rio. The kids are rappers, journalists, human rights activists, artists, community organizers. Many are critical of pacification.

One asked Soares, a student himself during the military dictatorship, if we’re living in a dictatorship now (He said no).

Luiz Eduardo Soares was a visiting researcher at the Vera Institute of Justice and Columbia University in 2000

Luiz Eduardo Soares was a visiting researcher at the Vera Institute of Justice and Columbia University in 2000

Harking back to the punishments of slavery

“Why are people taking justice into their own hands?” asked one audience member, referring to the emblematic case of a group of justiceiros who last month stripped and chained a robbery suspect to a post, using a bike lock. Soares believes that, beyond the knee-jerk response of cariocas who feel neglected by their public safety and justice systems, something else may be going on. He says that on another, more symbolic level, the traditional middle class could be responding to what they see as the encroachment of those emerging from poverty.

“The rolezinhos (social media-coordinated occupations of shopping malls, often by lower-class youth) are evidence of a redefined geopolitics of society,” he explained. “Lynching is a reaction to this. Poor and blacks are starting to inhabit new spaces.”

It’s impossible to prove this theory, just as it’s impossible, Soares also noted, to prove that protest street violence is a reaction to decades of top-down violence in Brazilian society. To many observers on the left, these ideas are intuitively correct. Whether or not they truly are, living with such phenomena is not a tenable national proposition. And so we must move to strengthen our institutions and values, rather than rely on ad-hoc violence or justice to make a point or solve a problem.

One aspect of daily life here that needs no proving is a pervasive top-down attitude. Soares, proponent of a constitutional amendment to de-militarize the Brazilian police, said that this attitude is largely to blame for the difficulties that pacification now faces in Rio. Police, he explained, need to help manage public safety, not simply follow orders from above. “Professional pride is the the biggest obstacle to police corruption,” he added.

Natália challenges the idea of victimization, although she is poor, black and blind

Speaking up and out

How to engage? Is it worth even trying? Is Rio spinning its wheels, putting on a show? Huge questions for all of us, but particularly for those starting out in life. Disillusioned middle- and upper-class cariocas can always take their skills and dreams elsewhere, but what about the kids in the public university quota system, kids on ProUni scholarships at private universities, kids whose parents never dreamed of higher education?

Brazil’s biggest issues arise from inequality and the uneven application of democratic values. Over centuries, weak institutions with spotty access led to the creation of a parallel authoritarian system of networks of favors and payoffs, of justice and retribution, of lawmaking and information flows.

“It’s depressing, to keep on making the same old errors,” noted Soares. But then he went on to point out that, twenty or thirty years ago, “this auditorium would be unlikely”.

On the one hand, he said, many people blame an unspecified eles, “them”, for all that’s wrong. “This speaks of impotence, there’s no ‘we’. It’s about a corrosive individualism, victimization. People say, ‘Damn ’em, I’m just gonna look out for number one’.”

On the other, last winter’s street protests didn’t follow the traditional pattern of preparatory meetings to determine demands and activities, then a march with protestors behind a single banner. “Each person made his own sign, with his own message. We’re weaving the ‘we’, it’s a moment of collective reinvention.” Soares added that Rio’s collectives, such as Norte Comum, are key to the process.

In a sense then, the answer to the young people’s question is to simply keep on making art, communicating, organizing. Soares says even cynics have their weak moments: “No one is a rock”. Yet, in the midst of growing urban violence and misunderstandings, the personal investment involved is arguable.

What remains to be seen, with a mounting dose of patience, is if Soares is correct when he says Brazil is “shedding its skin”.


Transformation in the making?


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.

7 Responses to Rio’s toughest moment since 2008: are we shedding our skin?

  1. Marcia Cunha says:

    Reblogged this on Incubare & Sucubare.

  2. PTRio says:

    As the 50th year since the military government took over, and 30 since its demise, the question that is no doubt going to be asked repeatedly is, “how is life better now than it was then”, and for many Brasilians I am not sure how that question could be answered in a positive way, other than the Bolsa Familia and a few other social programs which are certainly beneficial though given the tax rate on food in Brasil that program should extend to at least half the population. Why not eliminate the tax on food? It is the most regressive tax of any in existence.

    Certainly, the governments which have followed the military have had their good and bad actors, having been in Brasil ten years now I do sense a gradual change away from outright obvious thieves in government to fewer but more cunning corruptos, but that is only my sense. What has struck me, after moving out of a rather insulated environment living in Ipanema near the border with Leblon, and into the more reality based environment of Copacabana near the Pavao-Pavaozinho, is the incredible level of violence amongst Brasilians. Street fights, domestic violence, and worst of all, police violence. Not to mention huge crowds at bars to watch bare fisted fighting on television. The sudden popularity of that “sport” is something which has taken place in only the past few years. Crime rates are way up, despite more and better equipped police than at any other time in the history of Rio.

    Protests are an outgrowth of frustration, and today in Santa Teresa an older artist protesting the long delay in completing street work for the new bondinhos was placed in a choke hold by what appears to be an off duty policeman. In the US, police often use the phrase “Serve and Protect” to describe how they view their jobs. Here, I tell visitors the police motto is, “Shoot First, Shoot Lots, Make Up A Story Later”. I have been living here by choice, but now after ten years I am beginning to question that choice. Either I become a Brasilian citizen (I am eligible), turn activist and vote and lobby politicians to achieve a safer, cleaner, more sanitary environment in Rio, or I leave and go elsewhere. I’m honestly not sure what I will do, but I definitely do not like the path Rio appears to be following.

    Many Brasilians I know and meet tell me they would move to the US in an instant, even stay there illegally just to get out of Brasil. And here I am, an American living in Brasil and arguing with them about why Brasil is better. Sometimes I wonder. But, I do believe Brasil is an incredible place, with all the resources to be one of the great places to live on this planet. It is going to take a lot of dialogue, a lot of informed voters, and significant improvements in the education infrastructure and process to develop a generation of more socially conscious Brasilian citizens. It only takes a handful to carry out what may have been massive illegal dumping of raw sewage from the SaniKans during Carnaval in Rio this past year, all in the name of increased profit. That sort of ignorant greed has to be punished. On the other hand, it takes a majority to make a change in an elected office. There seem to be still too few who care (though many more than, say, five years ago), and the resistance to them too well organized and officially sanctioned to overcome any time soon. Hopefully I am wrong.

    • Rio real says:

      Voting is not the only way to participate. That’s what Soares was saying when he talked about the “eles” phenomenon. And what’s this about SaniKans? Where can I learn more about this? Thanks!

      • PTRio says:

        The sanikan story was in yesterdays online O Globo. The headline was, “Levantamento da CBN mostra que 30% do esgoto dos banheiros químicos do carnaval sumiram”. An internet search should turn it up. I have a copy, but it is too long to post here.

        Indeed, voting is not the only way to participate but having worked in a State legislature I know those who do not vote are not considered equal to those who do. Just the way politicians think. And, voting is legally required in Brasil, which I initially thought was a terrible idea but no longer do. Voter apathy is still a problem, but I find most Brasilians far more politically aware than most US citizens.

  3. Rio real says:

    PT thank you so much for your comments and the info on the dumped sewage. How awful!

    • PTRio says:

      As of now, it merely “disappeared”. Perhaps there is a new technology for waste treatment and disposal recently discovered by the Porta-Potty folks which simply vaporizes this unwanted commodity. Or, it was dumped into Guanabara Bay where 80% of the sewage from the Fluminense ends up untreated. I suspect the latter.

      As an aside, did you see the article about the new fleet of small barges which will be scouring Guanabara Bay to pick up floating debris? Carlos Minc was aboard for the maiden voyage and guess what was among the very first objects retrieved? A toilet seat, of all things. Unbelievably, and sadly, appropriate.

  4. Rio real says:

    Hi again. I think the dumping might have been closer to home. A friend did standup paddling just after Carnival at posto 6 and found herself in the midst of the most unbelievable stuff… so this report you came across makes a lot of sense to me. And yes, did read about the “fleet”. We have to move on this, ASAP, and all across Rio. Meu Rio is working on it–

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