Rio de Janeiro is hosting the World Cup and the Olympics in back-to-back media spectacles that will transform the world’s understanding of the city and its people.
The city’s famous, or infamous, favelas will be front and center of a thousand features, and still the western viewer will not fully grasp their enormity of their complexity.
My wife and I spent Saturday with two Poles, a Frenchman, and a pair of upstate New Yorkers under the watchful guidance of Brenda, a young Mexican with her PhD in psychoanalysis as a guide, weaving in an out of dozens of favela alleyways and stairwells, stopping at schools, food stands and vistas to gain at least a different view of the hillside cities-within-cities.
Rocinha and Santa Marta are just two of scores of Rio’s famed, sprawling slums, most of which are run by one of a handful of narcotics cartels, only a few of which have been “pacified.” There are schools and clinics within the favelas, and thousands and thousands of small businesses, but no planner could look on them and do other than shudder.
Somehow life has evolved into a highly complex economy that is constantly whirring, with goods and services being delivered in a nonstop dance within incredibly small confines and communal agreements. Trash is piled here, recyclables there. It reminded me of Dickens’ descriptions of 19th century London where every necessity no matter how foul or ghoulish had its practitioners, legit or underground.
Life has to get along, and even among the desperately impoverished a child with a broken arm gets carried to the free clinic. Health care is free, Brenda laughs, but you don’t want of use it if at all possible. The Santa Marta favela has a sewage system, but most of the others do not, and much of Rio’s famed coastline is off-limits to swimming with good reason.
The city’s traffic is a nightmare, its politics frozen in a classic left-right standoff. The tourists come and go and complain but the city just sprawls on, waiting for the world to descend.
The party on every corner of the beachfront Leblon neighborhood Saturday night was a glimpse of the festival life that will accompany next year’s World Cup summer and the 2016 games beyond. The long line of supertankers offshore can pay for a lot of cachaca and excellent food, but the country’s fractured, often incoherent politics make it hard for outsiders to see the institutional stability necessary to actually see a potential giant of growth move into its role of global leader.
Eduardo Campos is the name on many lips. Though the governor of northeastern Pernambuco state is head of the Brazilian Socialist Party and its likely presidential candidate, he’s also a pro-growth pragmatist who rejects the rich-poor politics that have plagued the nation for a decade. “Under no circumstances does Brazil need to raise taxes,” he told the Economist recently. But will the people of the favelas believe such a sweeping statement, as the rain comes down and washes away paths and sewage?