A spate of stories on Rio de Janeiro has recently emerged, focusing on the preparation for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics, focusing on the forced removal of people from favelas (shanty towns). The media has focused on Rio de Janeiro, historically the city most closely tied to favelas in the public imagination. The reports started in late-April, as The Guardian reported on the removal of favelas to prepare infrastructure (car parks, roads, etc.) for the tourists who will visit Rio in 2014 and 2016. More recently, Reuters has published a similar report, and even ESPN had the story as its main feature yesterday afternoon.
The story is fairly simple: favelas historically have sprung up on the hillsides and marginalized areas of Rio de Janeiro, often within eyeshot of some of Rio's wealthiest neighborhoods. As the city prepares for the massive tourist influx of the 2014 World Cup (where the final will be held) and the 2016 Olympics, it has begun to work on infrastructural improvements that center around tourism and "modernization" at the expense of the poor. As a result, favela residents are forced out of their homes and their homes are torn down so that streets can be widened, subway stations can be built, car parks can be constructed, etc. The city of Rio, in charge of these efforts, has promised the residents that new homes will be constructed for them elsewhere, but thus far, there is little evidence the city will actually follow through with these promises, prompting both Amnesty International and the United Nations to express concerns that the government of Rio (and other cities) is violating the basic rights of the Brazilian poor.
This criticism is more than valid and fair. It's not just that the poor are being marginalized, "removed" from places where they might serve as an uncomfortable reminder to the rest of the world of the terrible inequalities in income in Brazil. As the ESPN article points out, the poor are also being discursively rendered invisible:
This is Rio in the imagination of the 2016 Olympic planners: a 19-page brochure full of coloro photographs and grand statements outlining their bid. The opening spread shows children dancing on a beach beneath an enormous Brazilian flag, and, above a photo of wind surfers riding waves with a backdrop of Christ the Redeemer. The pages proclaim a new birth. "It is driven by sport, with athletes and the entire sports community looking forward to the lasting benefits the games will bring."The brochure promises to change the economy, to educate children and even to protect the world's largest "urban forest." The obligatory quote from Pele is included. The document is full of maps and photos and plans, but there's no mention of the war on the hill that overlooks Maracana Stadium, where the opening ceremonies will be held.The word "favela" never appears.
Of course, the promoters of the projects deny that this is about class or the effort to marginalize the poor. The Reuters article cites a city official in Rio:
"The city is absolutely not trying to gentrify and push the poor away," said Jorge Bittar, Rio's housing secretary and a member of Rousseff's leftist Workers Party*. "These new routes are meeting a demand that's been there for decades in Rio...the people who will use the buses are the poor, not the rich."
[*This association between Bittar and Rousseff is more than problematic itself. City governments and the federal government have to collaborate, but they are also nearly completely independent of one another as outlined in Brazil's constitution. There is a good amount of political science scholarship out there that shows how the PT [the Workers Party] at the local level operates independently of the national party, and often has different approaches, policies, and even ideologies. What unites the two is a general concern for social programs and a more even distribution of wealth in Brazil; obviously, though, how that takes place in policy at the national level and the local level can be and is very different. For that reason, directly associating Bittar to Rousseff is problematic, because it makes ties between the president and local officials that simply don't exist. A comparative example would be to tie Obama directly to something that a Democratic official in the New York City government said. - CS]
Bittar's comment is problematic in and of itself: the fact that the subways and cars are costly enough that they are for the "rich;" the fact that subway lines don't even go to many the many areas of Rio that are poor/marginalized; the fact that the government failed to provide this infrastructure "for decades" and that it took the international events of the Olympics and World Cup to finally address the needs of the poor. Yet it also cuts at the heart of the issue: while the government of Rio feels it is adequately addressing the needs of the poor even as it prepares for a massive influx of tourists (even more than usual), it is also pretty clear that the rights of many of Brazil's poor are not only being ignored; the government is directly violating these rights and needs.Certainly, this is depressing news, and it is good that the media is highlighting this story. It serves as yet another reminder that the outsiders' view of Brazil as a beach-haven of glamor and beauty has a very high cost. Yet the media reports this story as if it is a recent development, when in reality that could not be further from the truth.
The entire history of the favelas, from their creation in the late-1800s and early-1900s to the present, hinges on the forced removal, relocation, and marginalization of Rio's poor. Indeed, the original creation of the favelas took place in the early-1900s as the city of Rio "renovated" what is now down-town Rio de Janeiro by tearing down the Castelo mountain in order to build better roads and forcing many poor residents to the margins of the city. In the late-1910s, Brazil prepared for the visit of members of the Belgian royal family, Rio once again underwent a "beautification" project designed to show Europeans that Brazil was "civilized;" once again the poor were relocated, creating a ring of favelas around the newly-elite downtown areas. As the rates of urbanization rapidly increased in the twentieth century (in 1930, 70 percent of Brazil's population lived in rural areas, and only 30% in urban centers; by 1980, those numbers were reversed), favelas expanded along the margins of the city, not just in Rio but in places like Sao Paulo, Bahia, and elsewhere. Throughout the twentieth-century and into the twenty-first, the story of favelas has been one of creation, development, and relocation in the face of ongoing "modernization" efforts for the wealthier parts of Brazilian cities.
To be clear, this is not intended to defend the current forced removal of favela residents as just another phase in history. What they are going through is depressing not just for the process, but for its familiarity, as once again, Brazil's poor are forced aside "pra ingles ver" ("for the English to see," an old phrase that goes back over a century and captures the preoccupation to appear "civilized"/"modern"/"developed" to other countries). As Brazil prepares for the World Cup and the Olympics, the government of Rio is violating basic human rights. Saddest of all, however, is the fact that the story of what is happening in no way surprising or new.