When I was very young I remember my father saying: “Brasil is a sleeping giant that will wake in the future”. The future might be already here. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) voted Rio de Janeiro as the next host of the Olympics at the IOC’s 121st Session in Copenhagen, Denmark. Along with a recent economic up surge in Brasil this is the best news Cariocas (Rio’s natives) could ever hope to hear. I’m happy for those who will benefit from this event, but who will they be?
For Rio to be chosen it means a whole lot to Brasilians and also means Brasil is the first South America county to host the world Olympics. Hundreds of thousands will flock to Rio de Janeiro not only to participate and see the games but also to find out what Rio is all about. Cariocas are already celebrating the Olympic Games but there is something even more special in the air; a booming economy and a taste of power as Brasil dreams of becoming the 5th economy by 2020. – this is huge. Can Rio make the leap? Can Rio export its cultural richness and avoid the trap of sexual tourism destination?…
…fast forward to 2016 and the above paragraphs written in 2008 are outdated to say the least. Today Brasil’s economy is free falling in a nose dive fashion. Samba lost its timing and now the beat is like a terrible dysrhythmic cacophony slowing down as if someone had pulled the plugs from the old record player as a strange sound coming from a giant Aedes aegypti mosquito gets louder. From a carnaval float dona Zika emerges from the floor with a macabre fantasia of small heads…ai meu Deus…
There is hard work ahead and also a genuine and rare opportunity to set the city in a new course but spider man’s uncle was right when he said “with great power comes great responsibility”. Rio’s new trajectory will require structural and permanent changes and not just temporary fixes (jeitinho) which is the usual ways of doing business; the old ways will no longer work if Rio is to become a permanently safe. Some old bad habits will have to die and this will be harder than kicking heroin. The ounce wonderful city is today infested with organized crime, corruption and a thousand and one favelas (slums). Solutions are possible but not without some major surgery.
Rio is a city of high contrast where breath taking beauty coexists with senseless crime on a daily basis. While on the side walk the Garota de Ipanema (girl from Ipanema) show her wonderful walk to the sea, some other young garota but not from Ipanema has to work hard selling her body because there are no jobs; one moment you look at the Guanabara Bay and its marvelous views and the next one gazillion gallons of raw sewage have just been added to the waters from the Guandu river; a high executive closes a millionaire deal after arriving at his helipad at a downtown high-rise but down in the streets thousands of camelôs (street vendors) are fighting each other for spots on the crowded sidewalks of downtown Rio; a family is having dinner but have to take quick cover fearing bullets might come flying into their apartment from the local morro (hill) where a war with heavy artillery just broke out in the favela. These are common scenes in Rio. The lack of infra structure, overcrowding and crime could pose a problem hosting the Olympic Games but there are other hidden problems in the air.
With flights coming from every corner of the world mid air congestion can be expected to overtax the outdated CINDACTA “Centro Integrado de Defesa Aérea e Controle de Tráfego Aéreo” (Integrated Air Traffic Control and Air Defense Center). Brasil’s civil aviation system is controlled in part by the military which is not an uncommon practice but largely abandoned by most developed countries. While the air traffic control system saw significant improvement with the implementation of SIVAM in the northern portion of the country, there are many warning signs that the system as a whole is heading towards an unstable situation.
Rio’s problems are only a reflection of Brasil’s social fragmentation which is disguised by a friendly and gentle people. Peeling the surface one finds three distinct countries within the Brazilian borders. A self centered aristocratic elite who does not interact with the middle class and don’t even acknowledge there is a poor majority; a middle class who wants to be the elite; and a large majority of poor who just wonder where their next meal is coming from. These three words are in a constant battle with each other. If this is not enough trouble add an almost 50% African descent population who are racially and socially segregated and you arrived in Brasil.
Blacks’ exclusion can be evidenced by the anemic number of prominent positions they are able to occupy. These social problems and attitudes is what fuels the heavy and persistent concentration of wealth and prevent Brasil from taking off since you can’t have an advanced society when half the people still lagging way behind the times. The favelas of Rio are a showcase for how this social apartheid turns into a physical obstruction for the development of the city. Everyone will win with the end of social chaos. More money for everyone and a safer environment. People will not have to be walled behind a thousand security cameras or simply use regular cars rather then bullet proof ones.
But with all the pessimism Brasil should just carry it out. Brazilians are masters of ceremony. No one knows how to trow a better party. In the end the results will be positive. Tourists will come and spend their money and they’ll also see the problems first hand. Rio will be naked to the international eye and there is a lot of chance for change. If anything it could improve Brazilians overall depressed feeling at the moment. But real victory will only happens when at least some of the major problems are conquered.
Image credit: Alex Schwab