by Juliana Barbassa. Touchstone,2015. 308 pp. illus., index, map, bibliography.
Juliana Barbassa was born in Rio de Janeiro, but grew up in several other lands. From the USA she felt drawn back to her country and city a few years ago, when major changes were happening in preparation for the 2014 World Soccer Cup. Her book is full of investigative insight, passion and personal concern. She really gets out there to report on the lives and struggles of many people with no voice . It did jump around a bit, but it’s a big topic to cover. From it we get a decent understanding of the major issues confronting the people of Rio. These same issues affect much of the world today. This ambitious book serves up some stark and terrible images of the realities on the ground.
Rio is a place of massive income disparity – think favelas; think hardened and ferocious police facing murderously brutal drug lords.
In 1994 the police stormed some of the principal gang-controlled favelas with tanks and helicopters. This is covered in detail in one chapter: “Fear and Heat”. At one point Barbassa describes a police raid filmed from TV helicopters and seen in continuous film loops afterwards
” One of the men [criminals], reduced to a tiny pixelated figure on the screen, took a bullet, stumbled and fell. This drew laughter from the cops [ in a pub with the author watching afterwards ] and shouts of “Perdue, playboy! Perdue!” This was bandido slang, the jeering refrain Cariocas often heard when they were held up for a wallet or a phone: You lose, playboy! You lose!” (p. 55)
This is a place where urban sprawl goes unchecked, where planners despair and politicians deceive and betray the poor at every turn. When the developers want some urban land they use all the levers of power and servile politicians to drive people off and take it over.
This is a giant city where ‘developments’ for the wealthy are destroying wildlife, trashing and polluting anything in their way, typically leaving a wrecked stinking mess just outside of their gated communities. We read of the lives of garbage pickers in the sprawling Gramacho dumps, where Barbassa goes to see for herself. We learn of the work of despairing wildlife biologists wading through sewage- and plastic-filled streams to record the effects on indigenous alligator species living in them.
We read of the Carioca river – centuries ago a pure source of drinking water for Rio. The author follows it back up to its source in a rain-forest mountain from the harbour below where it has been reduced to a sewer emptying untreated effluent into the harbour.
This is a place where bureaucracy is deadening and pervasive and where it is very hard to do anything. Worse yet, the government just does not care about the poor. When massive rains start bringing down the sides of mountains crushing villages, hundreds of people are killed and injured. But clearly they have only themselves to rely on and expect little or nothing from those in power.
For example: ” Two years later I visited again. None of the five thousand homes promised by the state’s governor and financed with federal money had been built. This was bewildering to me, but the residents shrugged it off. They had no time or energy to waste clamoring for help that wouldn’t come, at least not in this lifetime. …” ( p. 112 )
In contrast there is the ‘party-party’ life of the masses of tourists and locals who service tourism. There are even some progressive social changes and policies which push up against very reactionary social realities. Barbassa investigates the improved, but still very tough and marginal lives of some transvestite prostitutes in Rio, for example. She goes and talks with some of the women in the sex trade about their experiences.
There have been impressive efforts by some favela communities to face down the monied interests that want to pave them over or put in condominia and the writer gets in on the ground to record some of this process. There have been some partial successes in driving out drugs and criminal gangs from some favelas, but people living there do not trust the authorities. Again the author is on the ground doing interviews and observing life on the street.
The book ends with a message about the effects of Rio hosting the World Soccer games.
“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 resoureces to the needs of external organizations, creating a permanent state of exception that left no room or time for debate, consideration or braoader needs, or the reform of flawed institutions. On the contraruy, these pressures reinforced the existing hierarchies; the rush to kickoff or the torch lighting justified the further concentration of power and shorteneed decision-making processes.” P. 258
I think the author is cautiously hopeful that Rio and Brazil will learn from the social results of the 2014 FIFA cup contest before the 2016 Olympic games. After reading this book, I am not at all expecting things to improve. I think Rio will become a poster-child as the failed city of our times.