Rio de Janeiro’s 450th birthday: not much to celebrate, lots to do


These young people, dancers at the Favela em Dança festival last year, may be among those who pressure governments to come through on promises and duties

What can we do?

Keeping up with Rio de Janeiro is like playing Concentration, the memory game with pairs of cards. Turn one up, turn another up: no pair, turn them back over. As your partner has a go and then you turn over other cards, try and remember positions. Again and again.

Now do this while bringing up children, caring for elderly parents, working, commuting at rush hour…

So much is going on, with so many players, so much past history. Who can remember it all? And now — with the economy slowing, our water drying up and Rio budgets shrinking — it’s not easy to figure out how we got here (except for falling petroleum prices and Brazil’s failure to invest in alternative energy sources) nor, more important, how to move forward.

Many cariocas feel there is nothing they can DO, as tourism and business interests take over parts of the city, crime returns, joblessness grows and politicians go about business as usual.

We’ve got to find ways to keep all those cards in our minds, to make the matches: be vigilant and speak up.

(Remember, when you feel too sad, as I’ve said before, our one big saving grace: the people who left poverty over the last decade, even if they fall back into it, have had a taste of being full citizens. They won’t let go of their new sense of self. None of us can forget our roles as citizens. We need and want a healthy city, with adequate schools, housing, transportation, health care and public safety.)

What went wrong? 

Decades ago, urbanist Lucio Costa made a plan for Barra da Tijuca. It included environmental preservation. Unfortunately, this went by the wayside — as development there took hold, cariocas fled a decaying ex-capital, and the automobile owner was given carte blanche.

Rio turned a blind eye to the urbanist’s axiom that a sociologically and financially healthy city is a dense city that allows for different folks to meet and mix, at work, at leisure, and as they move around it. We placed the 2007 Panamerican Games, and then the 2016 Olympic Games, in the empty spaces of Barra da Tijuca — which, since Lucio Costa’s time has become an automobile-dependent region of gated communities that spew sewage into its waters.

Urban sprawl is the name for what Rio politicians, including current Mayor Eduardo Paes, president of the prestigious C-40 Climate Leadership group of cities around the world, have fostered. It’s not cost-effective nor is it inevitable.

Unable to keep all the cards in our minds, lulled by the idea that we must meet the transportation needs of those who already live in the West Zone, we allowed government officials to build a tunnel to Guaratiba, extend the Metrô in that direction, and to construct BRTs connecting it to the rest of the city. The expansion seemed so natural. No matter that Rio’s turnaround was making billions for construction companies and real estate developers — while the waters of Barra and Guanabara Bay remained polluted, and a fifth of Rio proper’s population still lives in substandard housing, in favelas.

Mobility would be the Olympic legacy.

So why, two years after massive street demonstrations sparked by a bus fare increase, do we still lack adequate coverage in the North Zone (and too many buses in the South Zone), and still don’t have fully air-conditioned and GPS-equipped fleets, with suitably trained drivers (as specified in the 20-year concessions awarded in 2010)? Why do we still not know the real costs and revenues of the bus companies? Why did the city council investigation of these come to a halt?

Why the train wrecks and bus accidents? Why does the Metrô delay so much?

Did anyone calculate the cost of the long passenger rides that the new mass transit alternatives will soon afford us? The cost of picking up the trash of a West Zone population that’s been increasing, attracted by the Olympic glow? Of providing all city and state services to a population spread out over a vast area?

Was there broad debate about alternative locations for hosting the Games — or thought about managing urban growth by way of densification?

For too long, we haven’t questioned enough. What happened to the promise of Morar Carioca, that all Rio’s favelas would be brought up to code by 2020?  As this blogger has mused before, in light of the Lava-Jato corruption scandal, perhaps the myriad works of the 40 proposed projects involved a degree of oversight — from planners, engineers, architects and community members– that could have hindered the padding of bills and other corrupt practices which Brazil’s top construction companies are now alleged to have carried out with Petrobras.

For too long, we’ve trusted others to think for us. How did pacification come about? A small group of thinkers and notable citizens presented the idea to then-Governor Sérgio Cabral. It met with considerable success and showed a way out of the trap of violence the city had long been stuck in. But, again– there wasn’t sufficient dialogue or participation, for the pacified communities themselves. Without participation, what we got — sometimes — was a drop in stray bullets and homicides, by way of occupation. After almost seven years, we’ve at last got pacification.2, with a great team — and concern over the state budget.

The oil money, which made everything look so easy, is drying up.

Take part, act now

Those memory game cards are so tough to keep in mind! At Carnival, we were all shocked to discover that the winning samba school, Beija Flor, was said to be funded by an oil-rich African dictatorship, allegedly by way of Brazilian construction companies with interests in that nation.  Then the O Globo newspaper reminded us of three ongoing court cases regarding dubious samba school financing right here at home.

We’ll probably forget all about this, though, until next year.

Maybe not; you can join ISER‘s executive secretary, Pedro Strozemberg, in pressuring Rio’s municipal tourism secretary and the president of the samba school league to change the competition rules so as to penalize schools sponsored by countries or companies that engage in corruption or human rights violations. Meu Rio‘s pressure cooker is just one way of helping change along in Rio; the NGO has done much to track the activity of Rio’s city council and its state legislature.

You can also participate in the Casa Fluminense, a new think-and-do-tank that approaches urban issues from the ever more necessary metropolitan angle. Take a look at its impressive news site.

We have to keep our eyes on those cards, unblinking: during the Carnival festivities, City Hall announced the location of a new bus station, in São Cristóvão. But just look what best-selling historian Laurentino Gomes has to say about the station’s proximity to Rio’s Imperial Palace, which already suffers from neglect (while new “iconic” museums open in the port area). The Globo report discusses the true need for bus integration with metro and rail service, but neither the paper nor government officials mention the impact on the Quinta da Boa Vista neighborhood, traffic, touristic, environmental or otherwise. Here you can see the reaction of a transportation specialist and here is additional information. Oh, and by the way, the site is the imperial cavalry barracks!

One can never be too vigilant. Rio needs us to monitor the bus concessions’ contractual obligations every day. It needs us to publish the daily agendas of the governor, mayor, state legislators and city council members — and then check up to see what they’re really doing. And much more. Because, most unfortunately, their activities seem rarely to focus on the common good– something that only we, all together, can identify and communicate.

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.

4 Responses to Rio de Janeiro’s 450th birthday: not much to celebrate, lots to do

  1. Orde Morton says:

    Those interested in Rio’s 450 years of history might be interested in reading “Rio: The Story of the Marvelous City”, the first full-length history in English of the city, which I published in January of this year. A description is available on my website (below) and the book can be bought as a hard copy or as an e-book from Amazon/Kindle, as an e-book from Google Play, Nook or Kobo, or as a hard copy direct (at a considerable saving) from

  2. PT Rio says:

    Great post. Rio is blessed with not just incredible natural beauty and history, but also with concerned citizens such as yourself whose voices all too often seem to get trampled in the rush to fame and fortune which Brasilian politics seems to promote. The HSBC/Swiss bank issue is likely going to help us learn more about Mr. “King of Buses”, and the entire Rio bus industry, being an international investigation I am hopeful it won’t be “archived” like so many other investigations which take place in Brasil.

    The Lava Jato investigation has helped us learn about how large construction companies do business in Brasil, it too has an international connection by virtue of the fact Petrobras shares are listed and traded in the US, and the US SEC will likely be investigating this corruption case as well.

    And if the attitude of at least one Federal Judge is any indication, that being his belief there is nothing wrong with his driving one of Eike Batista’s luxury cars which had been seized, and having a piano seized from Eike in his living room, and that of the Judge who caused a Lei Seca officer to lose her job and face a large fine for simply doing her job, we may even learn just how corrupt to the core Brasilian society really is.

    When the Policia Militar are caught robbing their own private hospitals, and PM’s are caught on a near daily basis for one illegal act or another, where illegal “Milicias” control entire communities (and from what I have seen, do a much better job of providing security than the PM’s have ever done), when the half dozen largest construction companies in Brasil face a ban on doing business with the government due to the bid rigging corruption involving Petrobras, which could cripple infrastructure projects throughout the nation, when “I know a guy….” is a basic mantra of getting things done here, you know Brasil has only Brasilians to blame.

    Despite Dilma’s claim that “ignorance about Petrobras” explains why Moody’s just downgraded Petrobras debt two levels into junk status, one more rating agency downgrade (which is extremely likely to occur) and Petrobras will be basically cut off from borrowing in international financial markets. That means massive layoffs, halting projects, cancelling orders and still a likely huge financial contribution from the Brasilian government (yes, even higher taxes) to keep Petrobras in business and out of default. Yet Dilma insists it is all somebody else’s fault. Where is the ability to accept responsibility here? Nothing will change until someone does.

    Don’t get me wrong, I live in Brasil and in Rio by choice. I love the spirit of the people, the natureal beauty, and the warm weather. I pay lots of taxes, I believe that gives me the right to state my opinion, which is based on fact. There are many, many good people in Rio, and in Brasil. There are many, many bad people as well. The good must continue to stand up, speak out, and expose what is wrong if anything is ever going to change.

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