Dancing with the Devil in the City of God: a must read

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Every country and every culture has traditions that are unique and help make that country what it is, but just because something is part of your past doesn’t make it right; it doesn’t mean it defines your future. — President Barack Obama

There are many ways to think about the Rio de Janeiro metropolis. One is to think about the social, economic and political change that’s taken place over time. Another way is to compare Rio today to where one thinks it ought to be, or where other cities are.

The first way is useful for gauging change, comprehending its components and implications for the future — and sometimes, to “forgive” Brazilians for where they come up short.

The second way is relatively new. Up until about fifteen years ago there were still people who argued that one had to take cultural factors into account, that comparisons were unfair because they assumed that some cultures, and their ethics, were better or worse than others.

But nowadays, with increased global access to information and travel, more people share clear ideas about how societies should function. Just last week, President Obama told Kenyans how to live. Which makes it that much harder to maintain Brazil’s unjust, unequal and ultimately, self-defeating, society, so well portrayed in Juliana Barbassa’s new book, Dancing with the Devil in the City of God: Rio de Janeiro on the Brink.

Barbassa, this blogger’s friend, is Brazilian but grew up abroad. In 2010, she returned to her native Rio to report for the Associated Press. She did back- and heart-breaking hard news reporting: waiting for the 2010 Complexo do Alemão invasion, slogging up to the mountains after the horrendous 2011 mudslides (with colleagues who made fun of her emotional reaction to the deaths involved), spending a day with a West Zone crocodile handler and interviewing prostitutes in Rio’s infamous Vila Mimosa.

More, in her page-turning first-person account she make senses of this and so much else.

“Rio embodied this sense that Brazil’s moment might be passing before it arrived,” she writes toward the end of the book. “The city had been in dire need of investment for decades. Cariocas had high hopes that the international events that started with the [2007] Pan-American Games would bring measures to curb chronic congestion, pollution and violence,” she continues.

“But they were learning, at great cost, that massive sporting events have short-term objectives and tight deadlines that do not mesh well with long-term city planning goals. In Rio, contracts bound resources to the needs of external organizations, creating a permanent state of exception that left no room or time for debate, consideration of broader needs, or the reform of flawed institutions. On the contrary, these pressures reinforced the existing hierarchies; the rush to kickoff or the torch lighting justified the further concentration of power and shortened decision-making processes.
Over four years, I’d seen this at work in the removal of favelas without due process; in the scrapped environmental reviews; in social cleansing policies that targeted street vendors, prostitutes, drug users, and the homeless; and in the further arming of a police force still lacking accountability. Gentrification worsened an already serious housing crisis even as favela-upgrading programs like Morar Carioca were cut off at the root.”

This blogger agrees with Barbassa’s assessment of Rio in recent years. At the same time, having lived in Brazil 34 years, I’m drawn to thinking about what’s going on in the fabric of society, beneath actual events. Cultural relativity aside, what are some of the underlying assumptions?

Much of what she describes derives from Cariocas’ notions that Rio proper is still growing apace (untrue) and that urban expansion will be automobile based (despite the ever more obvious drawbacks). Both these assumptions stem from yet another: that Brazil will continue to be a society of poor masses and rarefied wealth, the former serving the latter. Ergo expansion to the West, with its wide avenues and gated communities — spurred on by the Olympic Games.

Here is why the hierarchies exist and are reinforced by mega-event pressures; for those in charge, they still function nicely. Mayor Eduardo Paes has publicly stated that it’s a lucky thing that his children don’t have to go to public school.

Quiet social change begins when hierarchies start to fail the powerful. It can be argued that the process is already under way here, but we’re too close to see it clearly enough to be sure.

Given such uncertainty, and the slow pace of social transformation when it happens, the importance of describing reality cannot be underestimated. Here’s where comparing Rio to where it ought to be, and to other metropolises, comes in. It’s galling, but can be energizing.

English-speakers (heads up, journalists preparing to cover the Olympic Games) need to know just how disappointing and wrong Rio can be, not only for a prodigal daughter but especially for those who born and brought up here. A book such as Dancing with the Devil puts us face to face with the fact that, as Obama said, “just because something is part of your past doesn’t make it right; it doesn’t mean it defines your future”.

Fingers crossed that the book will soon be published in Portuguese. Given Brazil’s current economic climate, here’s an urgent suggestion: a crowd-funded translation, to be published online.

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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.

6 Responses to Dancing with the Devil in the City of God: a must read

  1. Cuzar los dedos para que el libro también se publique en Español. El caso de Rio de Janeiro es aleccionante para toda Latinoamérica.

  2. Addison Jump says:

    Julia, thank you for bringing this book to the attention of your readers. I recommend it to anyone interested in the past, present, of future of Rio. Like you, I hope someone will translate it to Portuguese and make it available to as many Cariocas as possible.
    All agree that at this moment Brazil is in crisis and that only Brazilians can bring their nation through. This book examines some of the causes. Brazilians might perceive it as critical of their nation. No one likes to hear their community criticized by outsiders.
    Juliana has lived outside Brazil but is not an outsider. A native Carioca, she has seen much of the world, following the career of her father, an oil company executive. She witnessed the terrible social conditions of some oil-producing nations and even suffered with the natives fleeing Iraq in 1980 during the Iran-Iraq war. Later, she lived in Libya during the repressive regime of Gadhafi, when national TV showed public hangings of dissidents.
    She was back in a gated community in Rio in the troubled period 1984 – 1989, before moving to Houston, USA. Then, Brazil’s rising star during the Lula years drew Juliana homeward. In 2010, she returned to see firsthand the wonderful changes – changes that seemed to be irreversible.
    Alas, the changes, while real enough, left untouched certain fissures in society. This book is all about things left undone. It examines the unfolding of events instead of criticizing.
    Here is my notion as to the genesis and organization of the book. Over the years, Juliana wrote a number of newspaper articles about Brazil. In Dancing with the Devil, she succeeds in incorporating these into a flowing narrative by adding first-person autobiographical material and linking each article logically into the next. The reader sees through the reporter’s eyes the story she is writing, at the same time experiencing the internal feelings of the reporter. It is shared personal experience as well as shared news story.
    This works very well. I will try to give a flavor of the book by looking briefly at the first topic covered, gang violence, described in chapters 2 through 5.
    We first see Juliana returning to her homeland Nov 9, 2010. She is bewildered to find herself in the midst of a wave of car, van, and bus burnings, in which robbery seems to be a secondary motive. Upon inquiry, it appears that the motive is gang reprisal for the UPP program, which started in 2008. The UPP program was in turn a government reaction to the marauding over-reach of a criminal gang, the Red Command, Comando Vermelho, or CV. Juliana had to learn the story of the CV because, as she says, the gang’s story is in many ways the story of Rio.
    She describes how, starting in the 1930’s, political dissidents were thrown into the same notorious island penal colony that housed ordinary criminals. A 71-year-old former inmate tells Juliana the story. The two groups of prisoners formed a mutual aid society, which became known as the Red Command because the political reformers of those days called themselves Communists, “Reds”. At that time, the CV was a quasi-idealistic organization. Later, when times changed, the political prisoners were granted amnesty. This change in society changed the CV – it became more like any other criminal gang. Thus the CV came into being as the result of the conditions of society, and it changed as society changed.
    It grew into a formidable organization during the 1980’s because the times were ripe for it. Cocaine, a more lucrative drug came into use; the unraveling of the economy and the moral vacuum left by the disgrace of the military dictatorship left the field open to the CV. Televised shoot-outs made obvious to viewers the superiority of CV weaponry. CV spread through the favelas, especially Alemão. Juliana interviewed a cop who worked during this period. He described his sense of powerlessness as the CV killed many of his colleagues.
    Space does not permit me to relate in detail the events that followed. But the pattern remained the same: the nature of the city as a whole contributed to the nature and extent of criminal activities. Criminal activities, in turn, elicited a response from the city, and this generated reprisals by the criminal element. Here are a few notes on the external events the followed – I omit the detailed analysis that is in the book:
    1994: New governor gives bonuses to cops who kill suspected criminals.
    2002: Juliana, as grad student at Berkley, learns of torture murder of reporter Tim Lopes by a CV gang. Mayor César Maia responds: “… if criminals die, so be it – 100, 500, 1000, however many as necessary.”
    Christmas, 2006: Seven holiday travelers burned to death in a bus. Normally, traffickers hurry bus passengers out before they torch the bus; this time passengers were not allowed to leave. Juliana reads about it while visiting her family in Minas Gerais.
    January, 2007: New governor Cabral appoints Beltrame head of state security. He immediately starts to make reforms.
    2007: Pan American Games. Gang leaders transferred to maximum security prisons outside Rio de Janeiro state before the Games. Two officers killed, supposedly by CV gang members from Alemão. Police attack Alemão. Many deaths.
    June, 2007: after cache of weapons is reported deep in Alemão, Beltrame orders all-out assault; 19 alleged criminals killed, the youngest a boy of 13. Human rights organizations appalled.
    Nov 2008, police take over the favela Dona Marta to start the UPP program.
    Now the reader is taken back to the beginning of the whole story – Juliana arrives back in Brazil in November 2010, as 28 buses, vans, and cars are burned in 24 hours. Beltrame decides to use Navy troops and vehicles to enter Vila Cruzeiro.
    At this point, Juliana gives lengthy first-person narrative of attack on Vila Cruzeiro, which she witnessed:
    Wounded man who caught stray bullet in calf. Mothers with their children locked away. Seeing bodies come down in wrapped in sheets, the blood pooling in the sheeting and dripping out onto the street. Interviewing a cop, who says nobody has been killed, then clarifies by saying only criminals have been killed. She has read about summary executions for years but seeing them happen shakes her.
    Following this, we read of the invasion of Alemão, with similar vivid reportage.
    The reader may find these back-and-forth time shifts a little confusing. But when he finishes these chapters, he will be closer to understanding violent crime in Rio. If heroism is men going forward to confront death, there is much heroism. If villainy is taking by force another’s hard-earned living or executing a man who has surrendered, there is much villainy. But we see most of the actors as neither heroes nor villains. Rather they are just people acting out scripts assigned to them by circumstances – by blind economic, social, or demographic realities. Above all, there is a sense that violence aggression provokes violent response, which generates violent counter-response, etc. We sympathize with all sides, but above all with those caught in the crossfire, as they go about producing the food, goods, and services that keep everything going.
    Space does not permit me to summarize the remaining chapters. I will just list the themes of them. But whatever the matter covered, it is always an excuse for a lesson in the history of Rio and an examination of Carioca habit, values, and traits.
    For example, Chapters 6 and 7 deal with the rather light topic of finding a livable place to rent in Rio in the heady year 2010. But they also examine at the frustrating and costly drag of paperwork bureaucracy and the economic/political factors that shaped that period of optimism.
    Chapter 8: the mudslides that took place in 2011 north of Rio, of which I will have more to say later.
    Chapters 9, 10, and 11: the problem of pollution, garbage scavengers, sewage, sanitation and conservation – from the discovery of the Rio Carioca, to the visit by Charles Darwin, on down to the Olympic Games preparations.
    Chapters 12 and 13: prostitution, gay liberation, AIDS, and changing attitudes to sexuality, both gay and straight. Astonishing progress.
    Chapter 14 and 15: housing for the poor, favela eradication, and forced removal of households. As always, Juliana examines the history of these policies. We see them today in the countdown to the Olympic Games. Favela organizations have some success in resisting removal.
    Chapter 16: the antigovernment protests of June 2013. These were a great surprise to many and Juliana presents plausible reasons why we should have seen them coming.
    I give more detail of the final two themes:
    Chapters 17 and 18 deal with Brazil’s hosting of the World Cup in 2014. Sports should be out of place in a book such as this, concerned as it is with bitter life-and-death issues. But soccer is not just a sport in Brazil. If you do not understand why soccer is much more than a sport, you will after you read these chapters. In a way, they are the best-written of the book.
    They start with the “tragic” defeat of Brazil in the championship match against Uruguay in 1950. It was the only other World Cup Brazil had hosted and everyone (at least in Brazil) was certain of a hometown victory in the new Maracaña Stadium, then the largest in the world. Defeat plunged the nation into mourning.
    Though lightly written, these chapters reveal the primeval nature of sports. The young sons of the tribe go out to defend their people, as they have for a million years. A feeling of breathless anticipation rises from the pages as the dire moment of the first kick approaches. So that, in the end, the 7-1 loss to Germany seems like the last act in a Greek tragedy: inevitable.
    Chapter 8, the story of the mudslides, is the most powerful in the book. Listening to the evening news on a rainy summer night in 2011, Juliana learned of a disaster taking shape in the mountains some 50 miles north of Rio. At 5 AM next morning, she was on her way there with a crew of three and two cars. They arrived at 6:30 AM at Teresópolis, in one of the hard-hit areas.
    She went to get a story. She experienced a horror.
    I will not attempt to convey that experience; you must read the book. It is not for weak stomachs. As humans, we yearn for dignity. The remains of our loved ones are sacred to us. But read the chapter.
    The team drove as close to the disintegrating mountain slopes as possible, then set out on foot for them, against the flow of stricken families trying to find aid. It took hours to reach the foot of an avalanched mountain. The camera crew could go no further but Juliana and her photographer struggled up the mountainside.
    They witnessed one appalling scene after the other, but saw not a single instance of governmental help. When they had trudged back down and filed their stories, it was nightfall. With what must have been a determination to follow the story to the end, they sought the local cemetery.
    The scenes that Juliana witnessed there were too much for her. Near the point of nervous collapse, she fled from the cemetery back to the car and collapsed in tears in the back seat.
    But she didn’t return to Rio next morning. She remained up there another six days, in spite of the fact that it seems she didn’t bring along a change of clothes. What she learned is of the greatest relevance to Brazil at this moment.
    As she wrote, “The worst of the disaster happened on January 11 and 12. It wasn’t until January 15 that I saw the first representative of the state …” And this turned out to be a single soldier whose only task was to prevent looting.
    How can this be reconciled with the fact that Juliana and her crew arrived at 6:30 AM after the first night of the disaster?
    Of course, in the months and years after this searing experience, Juliana could not have detached her feelings from the region. Six months after the tragedy, she returned to the neighborhoods, “… and found everything virtually unchanged, the houses still ripped open, the roads still obliterated, the mud now dry and cracking, and the mayors of the two most affected towns indicted for funneling away the recovery money…”
    These were mayors elected by their own people. As the shepherds of their flocks, they should have been out there trying to help their people before Juliana and her little crew arrived that morning.
    In the days immediately following the mudslides and in the months and years after, Juliana tried to detect a feeling of rage against authorities.
    But, “The people had expected nothing, anticipated no help, and so were not disappointed when it didn’t come.” Two years later, “None of the five thousand houses promised by the state’s governor and financed with federal money had been built.”
    I conclude with some personal thoughts. I hope at some moment since the landslides and their aftermath that Juliana has become a fighter. The young and educated, seasoned by experience and travel, and having no illusions about the difficulties of the task, must join with the millions of hard-working Brazilians, and, over time and without violence, remove from public service a few thousand corrupt and lazy drones. This book is an opening jab.

  3. How can I purchase the Engish version of the book?

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