[translation of an op-ed piece published March 6 in O Globo, by your blogger]
The idea was to host mega events, to brand the metropolis, attracting tourists and investment. Barcelona was our model, even after Rio was chosen for the 2016 Olympics. The Games would have to serve the city, not the opposite, as mayor Eduardo Paes often said, quoting what he’d learned in the capital of Catalonia.
But Rio de Janeiro isn’t the capital of a province, a charming city, though a smaller one among the gamut of European destinations. The population of Barcelona is 1.6 million, while ours is 6.4 million.
How could we think our problem lay in the realm of marketing?
Traditional economists theorized for decades that the country’s dependence on other nations was the main cause of Brazilian poverty. They couldn’t see the obvious: that in large part, the problem was our ability to maintain poverty. We invested in import substitution, helping large companies move forward. Petroleum – not the classroom – was ours!
In the same fashion, officials here — and their consultants, Catalan and local — were blind.
The typical tourist in Rio de Janeiro gets around on foot and by public transportation (which I suspect not to be the case of our officials or consultants). Those who experience the more human scale of the metropolis become enchanted with the street life that our climate allows, in contrast to many other cities. They love the spontaneity, the music and the creativity of the people here. They applaud the sunset, shake their hips, enjoy a freshly made tapioca, bought from a street vendor.
When opinion polls ask about downsides, the tourist does note problems: crime and pollution. We’re working to improve these aspects. But did we need mega events to create police pacification units and to fine litterers? As for Guanabara Bay, not even the Olympic Games were able to sufficiently mobilize our officials.
It’s always easier to look outward than to study one’s real self in the mirror. We think of the mega events as a way to change our relationship with the world. What we missed is the fact that our product was already very good. Rio de Janeiro is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, with a unique, unforgettable lifestyle. In spite of complaints, it’s common to hear visitors say they dream of living here.
There’s another aspect that’s tough to face up to, though. Branding will never change it, either. It’s our inequality. We’re so used to it we don’t question it. We travel to other cities, ones that are cleaner, more organized and safer — and we think that what Rio de Janeiro needs is order!
We don’t wonder what the disorder comes from. Could it be that its roots are not only in poor education and cultural levels but also in impunity for the more powerful, in land whose owners can’t easily be identified, in the belief that we’ll always have someone to clean up after us? In other words, might it not spring from inequality?
This time around, we missed the chance to face our problems squarely. The Olympic legacy will be mobility, a controversial subject for today’s public transportation passengers. Morar Carioca, touted in these same [O Globo] pages, a program meant to upgrade all favelas by 2020, effectively didn’t happen. Pacification limps along, health care is worsening and there’s still an abyss between public and private schools. The bay wasn’t cleaned, much less the waters around the Olympic Park.
I hope to live long enough to see the next round, when metropolitan Rio de Janeiro rethinks housing, sanitation, health, and education. A round not of order and strategic goals, but of vision and justice. Only then will we have a “product” good enough to sell — an easy task for our truly marvelous city. Word of mouth will do the trick.