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In Rio, the Middle Class Awakens to Demand Its Due


Rio carnival Coroadode Jocarepagua
Middle-class residents of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, are demanding decent public services and responsible elected officials. Here, carnival time. CREATIVE COMMONS

Rio de Janeiro is a spectacular city, situated between mountains and the ocean, broad enough to encompass a national forest and the justly famous beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana. It’s the subject of song and story, and this year it pulled off a spectacular and joyous Olympic games.

Rio is also a city of contrasts, a tropical place without a solar panel in sight, where the middle class lives in gated communities while favelas spring unregulated up the hillsides. Rio was Brazil’s capital until 1960, and is still home to graceful government buildings, an opera house, museums and a former royal palace.

Julianna Barbassa opens her history-cum-memoir, “Dancing With the Devil in the City of God: Rio de Janeiro and the Olympic Dream,” with the announcement that Brazil had been selected to host the World Cup in 2014. Brazil, and Rio, had arrived on the world stage.

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And yet, there was anxiety. Rio is a casual city and Brazil a country of many laws, not all of which are enforced. Crime was and remains high and often unsolved. Could Rio pull off these high-publicity events? What would be the consequences if it didn’t? If it did?

Barbassa was born in Brazil, grew up in various oil-producing countries (her father worked for Petrobras, Brazil’s national oil company) and worked as a journalist in the United States. In 2010, she took a job in Brazil and started exploring these questions. This fascinating and entertaining look at modern Rio and its recent history is the result.

Favelas are hugely important; they are simultaneously a visible reminder of the inequalities that persist in Brazil and symbols of resiliency, but also markers of Brazilians’ willingness to cut corners and get things done. Gangs ruled the favelas and from there led a series of assaults on drivers, setting cars and buses on fire. Barbassa reports that the assaults were a response to a new police approach in the favelas. Instead of going in, guns blazing, the police warned the residents. Gangsters fled; as a result, there was much less bloodshed.

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Instead of the police leaving after chasing off the gangsters, they tried a new approach: they stayed. Barbassa writes: “Under this new program, [the police] stayed, and set up permanent bases with round-the-clock patrols. These special policing groups were called Unidades de Policía Pacificadora, or Pacification Police Units — UPPs for short.”

The UPPs were a beginning — a small beginning, because when Barbassa arrived in 2010 there 12, with one more planned, for more than 1,000 favelas. Barbassa delves more deeply into the history of the gangs, Brazil’s notorious prisons that gave rise to the gangs and police operations to show that in another way, the 12 original UPPs were the start of a new approach to law enforcement in Rio.

Rio has what Barbassa calls a “flexible approach to the law,” which is sometimes shared by the police. Police entered another favela during Barbassa’s first weeks back in Rio, and her daily notes are urgent and compelling, if inconclusive. She reports that police killed suspects, ransacked homes and shook down residents for their cellphones, even while the larger police plan was to attract the trust of the favela residents.

“Something was happening in Rio, that much was evident,” Barbassa writes. “There was a cracking and shifting of structures that had long been in place. But what city was being created here? And for whom?”

The challenges of daily life were not limited to the poorest. Barbassa uses her own search for an apartment to illustrate the housing shortage, writing about the building porters who were the best source of information about who was moving and when and the expensive apartment whose shortcomings she was willing to overlook in her relief at finding a place.

Finding the apartment was the easy part: actually renting it was an extended lesson in Brazil’s culture of wrapping everything up in what Barbassa calls knots of red tape that “ensnared the simplest operation.” The lease required many documents, each having to be stamped by a notary. Notaries in Brazil are not like notary publics in the United States; in Barbassa’s words, “they permeate, and strangle, the country’s business, from contracts between multinationals to the simplest operations.” They generate $6 billion in fees annually and slow the process of opening a business: in 2010 it took 13 procedures and 119 days, Barbassa reports, compared with 5 days in the US and 29 in India and Russia.

Environmental neglect is another theme in the book, and after reporting on badly constructed houses outside the city that simply slid down mountainsides after heavy rains, Barbassa begins to understand the cost of environmental neglect on Rio. She explores the city’s trash, much of which ends up in the bay, making the water near Rio too polluted for swimming. She explores Rio’s sex trade and its openness to gay rights but discomfort with “travesties,” a word Barbassa says is “applied interchangeably to drag queens, cross-dressers, and transsexuals.”

Then it’s back to the favelas, where residents were being offered inducements to move so that construction for the World Cup and Olympics could take place. But were the inducements real? Some people left and their housing was demolished, but the rubble was not removed. The new housing wasn’t yet ready, or even begun, but the favelas were sitting on land, once ignored, that had become valuable.

Yet things were changing. Barbassa says: Residents were reclaiming stigmatized words like favela and favelado, or using the less loaded term, comunidade, community. Leaders . . . held that favelas were not a problem but a solution, albeit an imperfect one, to the city’s insufficient housing and mass transportation. Integrating these communities unto the urban fabric by providing the amenities they lacked was simpler, cheaper and better city planning than destroying and relocating them, they said.

Despite good intentions, Rio has not integrated the favelas; instead, the city continued to develop in the old ways, perpetuating problems instead of solving them: separating the poor, expanding the urban footprint and, despite expanding the subway, placing most of the Olympic venues in the car-dependent far west of the city. No matter that these decisions were driven partly by the pressures to get the city ready for its turn on the world stage; in fact, Barbassa says, that “state of exception was being used to reshape the city; Cariocas would live with its legacy for many years. . . . This brought me back to my original questions: what city was being created here? Who stood to gain from it, and who would lose?”

Barbassa didn’t have far to look, as protests started meeting the construction: polite protests, from middle-class people seeking schools, hospitals, a country without corruption.

She writes: “[W]ith dinner on the table and democracy guaranteed, Brazilians wanted more — they wanted the whole package. The protests were the growing pains of a middle-income country with a middle class that had awakened to the reality that they paid taxes, they voted, and they wanted what was their due: decent services and elected officials who represented their interests.”

Barbassa ends her book with the World Cup in 2014, a hugely successful event except for the performance of the Brazilian national team. As a run-up to the Olympics, the event couldn’t have gone better. Other events were not as kind: the country’s first female president, Dilma Rousseff, has since been impeached and convicted; Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, her predecessor, faces corruption charges, and the Petrobras scandal continues to linger.

Rio is a beautiful place, and if you’re planning a visit, this book is a useful and worthy introduction. And even if you’re not traveling there but want to better understand this fabled and fascinating city, “Dancing With the Devil in the City of God” is the place to start.

“Dancing With the Devil in the City of God,” by Juliana Barbassa. Metropolitan Books. ISBN: 978-1-4767-5625-7


We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Alexandra Bowie is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn. She is the book critic for the Brooklyn Bugle and has been working in local politics for many years. She has a law degree from Boston University and a philosophy degree from Bryn Mawr College. Follow her on Twitter @abowie917

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