Dancing with the Devil in the City of God

Brazil takes on Poverty, Corruption and the Olympic Games

Brazil is one of the fastest growing economies in the world. But as we descend on Rio de Janeiro for the Summer Olympic Games, Contributor DYLAN SMITH talks with Juliana Barbassa about the government corruption, massive poverty, organized crime, and this emerging global power in Dancing with the Devil in the City of God: Rio de Janeiro and the Olympic Dream.

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Rio de Janeiro. Photograph: Wikipedia

When the city of Rio de Janeiro received its Olympic bid in 2009, Brazil was one of the fastest growing economies in the world. The country known for abject poverty, widespread pollution, and a corrupt government seemed to be taking its place among First World nations. Rio 2016's motto "The New World" would serve as the crowning symbol of the state’s economic and geopolitical ascent as an emerging global brand.

Brazil was forging an independent foreign policy with stronger ties to other emerging nations, and demanding a voice in the world’s important round tables. Its economic boom was partly due to China’s seemingly endless demand for Brazilian exports, and partly due to newly found petroleum off the coast of Rio, a commodity that promised to heave the country onto a higher geopolitical echelon. The World Cup was being held in 2014, and with a successful bid for the Summer Olympic Games, Rio de Janeiro looked with optimism to 2016.

This emerging world power has a list of national hindrances, and is cursed by a government that refuses to invest in its own citizens. The problems facing Rio need context, and native Juliana Barbassa is unflinching in her depiction of Rio de Janeiro. Holding a corrupt Brazilian government accountable for continually failing its people, she paints heartbreaking portraits of the hopelessness currently facing the once promising metropolis. I recently spoke with the author in Brazil about her new book Dancing with the Devil in the City of God: Rio de Janeiro and the Olympic Dream.

When the author and I spoke in July, the 2016 Olympics were nearly a month away, and the Brazil’s government was in a state of crisis. President Dilma Rousseff had been impeached, the Zika Virus was developing into a public health scare, and gang violence, pollution, and sanitation were all running amok. As a citizen of Brazil, Barbassa was less worried about the success of the Olympics, than she was concerned about the state in which the games would leave the city.

“I believe the Olympics will flow pretty seamlessly,” Barbassa says, of the 2016 Summer Olympic Games. “The venues will be ready, and Rio is a beautiful city that will look magical to an estimated 4 billion viewers around the world. But development to the city’s infrastructure is over budget,” the author says, “and in some cases abandoned. Many of the failures we’re seeing were promises that would most benefit the population.”

The potential for change provided by a global event such as the Olympic Games is vast, and provides an opportunity to heal Rio’s flawed infrastructure by bringing clean water, sanitation, law and order to its lower class neighborhoods. But while 54 percent of Rio’s citizens are without proper housing and sanitation, the government is investing in mega-highways, magnificent sporting venues, and an opulent Olympic village in preparation for a single event.

This isn’t the first time Brazil has held a mega-event on this scale. The Pan-American Games in 2007 were seen as a trial run for the 2016 Olympics, but should have served as a warning. “Operationally the games were a success,” Barbassa explains, “but their price tag was a shocker! The competition that had been billed at $250 million cost the public 1.15 billion, making the 2007 Pan-American Games the most expensive in the history of the event. Beyond being grossly over budget,” Barbassa continues, “the Pan-American Games left behind structures that were underused and expensive to maintain.”

Mega-events like the Pan-American Games, World Cup, and the Summer Olympics inject millions into Brazil’s economy, but the allocation of public funds is failing to provide sustainable changes to the economics, infrastructure and lives of its citizens. At the heart Barbassa’s thesis is the Brazilian people, and the story of how they’ve come together to fight government corruption, poverty and incessant violence.

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2 waterways that will host 2016 Olympic events are filled with dead fish and trash 16 months before the games. Photograph: Business Insider

Public Health

One of the most staggering examples of Brazil’s misallocation of public funds can be found by looking right into the waters. Rio’s streams and rivers once “delivered about 480 Olympic-sized swimming pools worth of raw sewage into the Guanabara Bay every single day. Currently, the city treats only two-thirds of its waste, and every 1 in 3 times a toilet is flushed its contents stream unprocessed into rivers, lakes, bays and the ocean.” Nearly 50 percent of all Brazilians can’t even divert sewage away from their homes.

This obvious environmental and public health risk was at the forefront of promises made by the Brazilian government when they received the Olympic bid. The government promised that 80 percent of Rio’s sewage was going to be treated by 2016 but, according to Barbassa, it is a promise that has not been kept. While this commitment was central to the success of the Olympic Games, and Rio’s public health, Carlos Minc, Brazil’s Minister of Environment, admitted “We don’t know what percentage of Rio’s sewage is actually being treated today.”

Barbassa traces the enormity of this public health issue first hand. Old pipes are breaking, and sewage is backing up into rainwater drainage systems that run under the city’s streets. “There are also illicit connections between homes, buildings or entire shopping malls which feed sewage straight into rainwater pipes, rivers, lagoons, and the ocean.” Even beachfront hotels and mansions within gated communities are illegally pouring their waste into the water main.

The consequences of this colossal failure in sanitation is serious and growing, with 396,048 patients being hospitalized in 2011 for intestinal infections that are caused by contact with sewage. Even a most basic contact with the water in Guanabara Bay could result in “fungal growth on the skin, a bout of hepatitis, or stomach cramps and diarrhea associated with an E. coli.” These are the very same waters that will be hosting the Summer Olympic Games.

The programs that were put in place to repair Rio’s sanitation failures were not being launched in time and, according to Barbassa, there is no incentive to accomplish any long-term progress after the Olympic Games have concluded. Rio has attempted to fix these problems in the past, the author says, but nothing significant or continually helpful has ever transpired. “This kind of Band-Aid approach wouldn’t do for the Olympics,” she explains, saying that in order to do the work necessary, it would take years or even decades to reengineer the crumbling infrastructure.

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Rio de Janeiro: Brazil's health minister was warned that the country is “badly losing” the battle against the mosquito blamed for spreading Zika virus. Photograph: Mumbai News World

Zika Virus

Sanitation is not the only health risk facing Rio. Among other factors threatening public health and the success of the Olympic Games is the recent outbreak of the Zika Virus. With 16,000 athletes coming to Brazil, and an estimated 600,000 visitors descending into Rio for the Summer Olympic Games, the Zika Virus is now a global concern. Zika has recently been linked to birth defects such as microcephaly, severe brain malformations, and this sexually transmitted disease has manifested in 7 different nations. The outbreak, which began in Brazil in April of 2015, is now considered an epidemic throughout the world.

Although 80 percent of Zika cases show no symptoms, and the Brazilian government is undergoing an enormous effort to fumigate the daytime-active Aedes mosquitoes that carry Zika, there is still concern on all sides. “It’s going to be up to each individual athlete to make his or her decision,” Scott Blackmun, CEO of the USOC, said at the opening session of the Team USA Media Summit. “We don’t want to be in the business of making health policy.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has advised women who are pregnant to avoid traveling to the Olympics, and advised women who are trying to become pregnant, and their male partners, to use caution if they attend. If there is even a chance that this virus could be taken out of Brazil and brought to the Northern hemisphere, the decision to go on with the Olympic Games could have an enormously inimical impact on the world.

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Rio de Janeiro's favelas. Photograph: Urban Adventures


Barbassa’s investigation is potent due to her personal connection with Rio. With familial and adolescent roots in the city, she is able to describe Rio’s plight in deeply personal, poetic turns of phrase. “Rio, beautiful and rotten,” she writes, speaking of both the water and air, where 77 percent of pollution can be blamed on cars and buses, and where the city’s measures of airborne particulate matter is three times above recommended levels. Her proximity also allows for an insider’s analysis of Rio’s past, particularly when it comes to the gang violence that has plagued the city for decades.

With the introduction of cocaine to Rio in the 1980’s came the anarchic control of one of Brazil’s largest criminal organizations, Comando Vermelho. Barbassa weaves through the gang’s inception in 1969, and highlights almost 50 years of war between the Red Command and the police who fight them. Although the economic upswing in 2010 brought many of Rio’s residents out of extreme poverty, Barbassa says “Brazil is still a place of jarring social inequality, highly stratified by class, and it is this socio-economic gap that has always been Brazil’s ‘Achilles Heel.’”

One of the physical manifestation of this gap between rich and poor can be found in Rio’s favelas (slums): informal squatter settlements that climb steep hillsides, blanket stretches of suburbia, and lack the infrastructure of even the most basic services. With these communities unchecked outside of the major metropolis, the Red Command was free to grow throughout Brazil and beyond. A massive organization by the 21st century, independent cells now controlled over 50% of Rio’s most violent areas through arms and drug trafficking, and had expanded into a formidable political presence. But when Rio received the Olympic bid in 2010, displacing the favelas, and its 11 million inhabitants, presented a humanitarian crisis. Life expectancy in the favelas was sixty-five, nine years lower than Rio’s average, and the physical manifestation of Rio’s class stratification would now be exposed to the world. Violence and poverty pose major concerns for this developing country, and both would be exposed by the Summer Olympic Games.

As a trial run for the Olympic Games, Rio de Janeiro held the World Cup in 2014. Regaining order before this event was essential for government officials, for many of them had “staked their political future on smoothly carrying off the games and projecting an image of Brazil as an orderly, up-and-coming country that is a safe bet for tourists and investors.” This meant taking back the city’s favelas and eliminating the Red Command. But in order to stifle the Red Command’s control, Rio’s police force has gone through many changes since the 1990’s, searching for the most successful anti-gang strategy. At first, the government took a lethal approach, arming its officer with semi-automatic weapons and instituting raises for police who “demonstrated bravery on the job.” But this “Wild West bonus,” as Barbassa describs it, “doubled the number of suspects reported killed in gunfights with the police from an average of 16 to 32 per month.” The city would then go through many command changes and, after innumerable unsuccessful police raids, Rio finally implemented Pacification Police Units, or UPPs.

The goal of the UPPs were “less ambitious and therefore achievable: rid each community of the heavily armed dealers who had long held sway of open-air drug markets and the easy violence they sprawled.” The program was a great success, with tangible results coming fast. Ultimately, it was the permanent police presence in the once gang-rattled favelas that broke the gang’s exclusive control of the slums and brought crime down in the surrounding neighborhoods, all of which was accomplished without a violent means.

The success of this program did not last long. According to Barbassa, the integrity of the UPPs have been lost, with many of the UPP officers succumbing to corruption and bribes despite the program’s motive of altering police culture. Although the program did have a temporary success before the Pan-American Games, street crime has increased by 24 percent this year and homicides have increased by 15 percent. According to the Associated Press, Rio de Janeiro saw 645 people killed by officer related shootings in 2015, ten times the rate in the United States. The failure of these programs is, according to Barbassa, due to “significant defunding of all of these programs and a significant loss of direction.”

LGBT Culture

Gangs and police culture are not the only manifestations of violence in the city of Rio de Janeiro. Despite Brazil’s impression of being a liberal haven, the vibrant openness around issues of sex, homosexuality and gender relations only flourish alongside deep pockets of machismo, homophobia and violence.

Barbassa dedicated a great deal of her research investigating the state of homophobic violence in Rio, and says that despite its progressive image, “the number of LGBT murders in Brazil had continued to climb year after year reaching 338 in 2012.” According to a New York Times article published in July of this year, Brazil is facing an epidemic of anti-gay violence, with a transgender or gay person being killed every day, hitting a level of crisis. This contradiction is rooted in “liberal government policies that have gotten too far ahead of traditional social mores,” with nearly a quarter of Brazilians identifying as anti-gay evangelicals, and conservative politicians resisting efforts to teach tolerance in schools and suggesting that anti-gay sentiments do not foster violence.

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Thousands took to the streets in Rio de Janeiro in March to protest alleged corruption involving executives of state-controlled oil company Petrobras and politicians. PHOTO: FABIO TEIXEIRA/ZUMA PRESS


Most of these issues facing Rio are, fundamentally, a product of government failure and corruption. It is through the recent impeachment of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, combined with massive protests against Mega Events, which bypass the democratic process, that the story of Brazilian resilience and pride has begun to emerge.

Rousseff was accused of violating fiscal laws by using funds from state banks to cover budget shortfalls. “But longtime observers felt her real sin, the one that could not be forgiven, was losing control over the economy.” With Rousseff’s popularity sliding to single digits in 2015, she attempted to restart the economy and demonstrate leadership by cutting government spending, and eliminating the number of ministers in the Brazilian government. However, “scores of politicians and business executives had used rigged contracts to siphon off public money through the national oil company,” which ultimately resulted in the impeachment of the President.

A crumbling economy coincided directly with 2014’s World Cup and protests going on around the country. There were transportation strikes, housing activist invaded the offices of construction companies to protest the spending associated with large stadiums, and even bus drivers went on strike. This widespread revolt of Brazil’s public servants illustrated the impending disaster associated with the 2014 World Cup, and the message from the president was clear: there would be no tolerance for disruption. No one would be allowed to stifle the success of a national event. According to Barbassa, Rio’s police arrested more than a dozen activists before the games began, the police force being armed to the teeth, and the federal government armed twenty-one thousand soldiers for action.

Despite the protests and activism, however, Brazilians hold futebol with a mythical, symbolic importance. “If culture is the stories we tell about ourselves, Brazil’s story was spun around the ball,” Barbassa writes. Thus, when Brazil suffered a brutal 7-1 loss to Germany it was more than just a sporting loss: it was a symbolic defeat to a spiritual, superstitious country.

Although the defeat hurt Brazilian pride, Barbassa considers the protests and activism a win for Brazil’s future. “The protests of 2013 and 2014 were promising,” she writes, “with their calls for better governance and spending priorities in line with the people’s interests.”

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Rio de Janeiro Olympic Park. Image: Wilkenson Eyre


It is through these portraits that Barbassa portrays Brazilians as resilient and powerful people. Protests, an ongoing corruption investigation, and the impeachment of their President has empowered the people of Brazil not only to question their leaders, but in the spirit all First World countries, to hold them accountable. In this way, the commercial success of the Summer Olympic Games will probably mean little to a nation that prioritizes trade, tourism, and class stratification over the welfare of it's people. Yet in their resilience is a universal story of oppression, a dichotomy of power and corruption, and a fight for something more than an olympic motto. It is their creed, and an ever faster, higher and stronger reach for “The New World.”

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