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  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.