The Bride to Be

Brazil’s Struggle to Balance International Image and Human Rights

By Fred Hill

As London prepared for the 2012 Summer Olympics, city-dwellers took advantage of the opportunity to indulge the national hobby of grumbling: tourist traffic, inconvenient bus rerouting, impossible-to-get-restaurant reservations. The gentle patter of complaints was as persistent, predictable and non-intrusive as the London drizzle.
Lush, troubled Brazil hopes to achieve more than the low-key success of last summer’s games. After winning their bids for both the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, Brazil has a unique opportunity to claim a central place on the global stage. The stakes are high, but the difficulties will mean more than tedious commutes and overcrowded sidewalks.

Rio de Janeiro, one of 12 cities hosting the World Cup and the host city for the Olympic Games, boasts both Brazil’s new wealth and old inequality. Expensive glass homes and hotels wrap around a pristine shoreline while the densely-packed, jerry-built housing complexes known as favelas teeter on the cliffs. World Cup construction plans to clear out these communities have awakened larger issues about social stratification and reform in Brazil. Can these mega-events bring real progress as well as publicity? What is being lost, and what could be gained?

It is easier to envision loss. Favela translates as “self-made,” and scenes of life from a favela exemplify the tenacity of the human spirit. Bright flags adorn metal roofs, houses are striped with sunset-colors of paint, children and dogs dart through the zigzag streets, ducking under tangles of wire that course with illegally obtained electricity. Life persists even in the most dangerous, impoverished places. Widely available pictures of the clearances show women weeping and gathering piles of clothing. Armed guards barricade people from their homes as they line up in front of their houses, refusing to leave.
Raquel Rolnik, rapporteur of a United Nations committee on World Cup construction, has pointed to issues of transparency. Many inhabitants of the favelas were startled to discover that wealthy politicians had chosen to sacrifice homes there for the common good of international prestige. Recompense is pitifully inadequate, particularly as Rio’s real estate prices skyrocket. A family who loses their house may get enough money to buy a mixed drink at a hip bar in the Ipanema area.

In those favelas allowed to remain, federal police have been sent in. Wary of the violent conflicts that resulted from similar clearance initiatives for the 2007 Pan-America Games, the federal government has created “pacifying police units” (Unidade de Policia Pacificadora) known as UPPs, stationed long-term. These pacifying units have been a general success, but in several cases, corrupt officers have begun participating in the local drug trade. In the roughest and most established favelas, such as the Complexo de Alemao, engagement with armed policemen more nearly resembles warfare. Ominously, the vehicles of federal police are known as the caveirao or “Big Death.”

Although favelas are unsanctioned and technically illegal, Brazil’s usucapião or adverse possession policy gives the right to file for ownership after five years of constant occupation. Many have lived in these shantytowns for decades, organizing unofficial systems for transport and electricity. The powerful attachment to these neighborhoods became evident in the 1993 “Cingapura” fiasco, a rehousing initiative named in honor of Singapore’s efficient system. In an attempt to clean up the favelas surrounding San Paulo, high-rises were built equipped with all modern conveniences, and move-ins were forced. The massive, shiny buildings were left abandoned as residents slipped back to their untidy neighborhoods on the hills. The still-empty buildings speak to the importance of community involvement in reshaping favela life.

Janice Perlman’s 1970s study “The Myth of Marginality” interpreted the favela as symbol and apparatus of Brazil’s economic vitality. As urban migration surged, determined young people formed communities on the outskirts of cities they could not afford to live in, bringing creativity, energy and labor. The legitimacy of Perlman’s thesis disguises a dangerous romanticization of the favelas. Human spirit alone cannot reinforce crumbling cinder-block masonry and corrugated metal shacks, and neighborly camaraderie will not keep an entire neighborhood from falling to pieces in a landslide, as Favelo Moro do Bumba did in the spring of 2010.

Inefficient or non-existent water access poses a health risk to denizens and an environmental risk to the waters of Rio. Lack of roads and public transport reinforce the favelas insularity and block off avenues for income expansion and social mobility. But the central problem of favela life, well-documented in popular movies and literature, is the gang and drug culture that dominates these communities and perpetuates Brazil’s narcotics trafficking. These isolated, unmonitored communities enable the deliberate torture of pesky journalists or the accidental killings of children who stray in the line of a bullet. Without other means of income, youth are drawn into the business, establishing a vicious cycle and a permanent battlefield within the favela.

Planners cannot, in most cases, preserve the physical favelas themselves, but should respect their emphasis on self-making and self-determination. Meaningful urban spaces are created by people from bottom-up. Rather than imposing an “ideal” blueprint, architects and planners must consider existent structures as well as the needs and wishes of the people who live in them.

Careful surveying of the actual landscape in order to determine which land is viable and safe for permanent habitation is crucial, as favelas are often stitched together atop hilly or undulating terrain, landfills or flood-prone lands. Making such surveys available and accessible to even the illiterate, through community meetings, would be an important step towards including all those affected in these vast and necessary changes. A substantial chunk of money should be spent on in situ improvements of technical services — waste removal, water, electricity. When displacement must happen, new housing, temporary or permanent, must be provided — rather than assigned. Finally, funds should be spent to foster community development through the creation of community centers and legal support to clarify and advocate for legalization of housing rights and regularization of rent.
Mega-events in developing countries have been both catalysts and demonstrations of economic liberalization and development. A blazing display of Brazil’s achievements may trump mundane urban improvement. The 2008 Beijing Olympics chose this route, trimming away unsightly slums with blithe disregard for human rights. But the futuristic The Bird’s Nest is in danger of becoming a 21st century Ozymandias, without a function beyond pomp and spectacle.

The prioritization of awe over legacy led to the formation, in 2000, of the Olympics Games Global Impact Committee to consider the long-term impact of the games on the host city. Brazil’s expressed intention for a sustainable program of improvement played a key role in their selection. But Brazil’s elites estrangement from the common folk means their grievances carry little weight.

The callous dismissal of protesters provokes outrage, heightened by the long shadows cast by brutal favela clearances by the military dictatorship of the 1960s and 1970s. It is exciting to see marginalized citizens standing up for their rights and resisting capitalist greed. Yet the self-sufficiency claimed is ultimately not empowering but self-defeating, hindering unification and assimilation. Reshaping densely populated urban infrastructure will never go smoothly. Rather than condemning the endeavor, concern should be for the process, demanding meticulous record-keeping and greater transparency, encouraging community involvement.

Like a bride-to-be on a juice fast, Brazil has been swallowing dubious things for the sake of the photo-op. But Brazil should keep its eyes trained beyond the closing ceremony, refining their plans in order to take full advantage of this chance to reshape not only their international image but the material realities of their most impoverished citizens.

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