The Olympics and Rio’s crisis

The interim federal government headed by Michel Temer of the PMDB has now responded to the declaration of a state of financial catastrophe by the heavily indebted state government of Rio de Janeiro, which has been in the hands of the PMDB since 2003. It has provided a 2.9 billion reais emergency cash injection. This is not a long-term solution to the problem of the state’s finances, which have led to public employees not being paid and serious problems in public service provision, including healthcare and policing. It is intended to ensure that this specific local crisis within Brazil’s bigger crisis does not impact on the security of visitors and athletes attending the Olympic games.

The state government’s declaration did not go down well with the city authorities, led by mayor Eduardo Paes, who deserted the PSDB for the PMDB in 2007. Paes insists that municipal finances are in much better shape than state government finances, and complains that the bad publicity generated by the declaration threatens city plans to secure long-term benefits from hosting the Games. But although the Rio state government’s financial problems are far from unique in the country as a whole, the Olympics provided a frame in which the widespread discontent of public employees could be turned into practical leverage by protests guaranteed to capture the attention of the world press. None was more effective than the picket by a group of striking civil police officers who greeted arrivals at Rio’s Galeão airport with a banner carrying the slogan  “Welcome to Hell. Police and Firefighters don’t get paid. Whoever comes to Rio de Janeiro will not be safe”.

Although these officers belonged to the civil (investigative) branch of the police, their slogan made common cause with the Military (enforcement) Police and Firefighters (who are also part of the Military Police). Anyone who has read my book The New War on the Poor (now also published in Spanish) will understand that police and firemen’s strikes (which have been fairly frequent in Rio) are not just “industrial actions”, but frequently the product of a complex backstage politics and related to the manoeuvrings of rivals for political office. Nevertheless, this is not incompatible with grievances over pay, conditions and career structure having some legitimacy, and there are reasons beyond the immediate problem of failing to be paid at all behind the work-related grievances in this case. Rio’s once lauded program for “pacifying” the city’s favelas through a new style of policing has now reached what is probably a terminal stage of failure. For reasons I have explored in depth in my book and other recent writings, including writings in Portuguese, efforts to change the nature of the policing of the favelas faltered and failed, police corruption and abuse, which had never totally disappeared, became more visible again, and drug trafficker violence returned. As police themselves started dying in escalating numbers, this created a vicious circle of repressive and human rights-violating responses that undermined the legitimacy of the Pacificatory Police Units even in favelas in which their initial reception had been relatively positive. As the risks escalated, police did not take kindly to being denied promised heightened-danger bonuses because the state government lacked the funds, and became ever more demotivated, even before basic pay itself became a problem.

They will now get paid again, at least for the duration of the Olympics. But what is really at stake in terms of security during the Olympics? Despite the airport protest, visitors probably have little to fear, despite the fact that levels of street crime in the city that affect middle class people did escalate through 2015. This was publicly manifested in a spectacular way when a woman was assaulted in full view of the cameras while giving an interview on insecurity to a TV reporter, and the backlash provoked some extremely unpleasant vigilante actions by better-off young people against kids from the favelas travelling on buses to go down to the beaches. Yet it is clear that the areas of the cities where visitors are going to concentrate and Olympic facilities themselves are going to be saturated with police and soldiers, making such experiences less likely.

This saturation of privileged areas makes it even less likely that police will attend to the security problems of favela residents themselves during the Games, although measures designed to demonstrate that supposed “dangerous classes” are contained in their settlements could make life even more unpleasant for them, as has happened on previous occasions in which the city has hosted sporting mega-events. Although it would seem foolhardy to rule anything out these days, the security forces seem confident that they can “deal with” any major international terrorist incident, but they recognise that “lone wolf” terrorism offers a different kind of challenge, made worse by the fact that Brazil, like the United States, is a society where firearms are readily available. Whatever pre-emptive actions they take will now benefit from Brazil’s anti-terror legislation, and this is perhaps where the legitimating force of “security” talk threatens the greatest dangers to Brazil’s already crumbling democratic life.

With the eyes of the world on Rio, two types of protest movements that have already begun to take action are likely to intensify their efforts to make their voices heard.

The first consists of movements protesting the way the Games have forced poor working people from their homes and into the urban periphery. These evictions were not simply about permitting the construction of new sporting facilities and transport infrastructure for the Games, but also about facilitating the class-biased “rehabilitation” of urban space. Some redevelopment for tourism and middle class occupation focused on supposedly “run down” neighbourhoods of the city such as the old port area, though popular art and history projects seemed as unwelcome in this “rehabilitated” space as favela residents. But there is also a plan to develop a new urban centre for better off citizens around the new Olympic complex, located beyond the existing central zones of the city, a legacy for the future in which poorer cariocas would have no place. The favela pacification program itself has supported another kind of “gentrification” in centrally located favela communities, but the social and spatial reorganisation of the city linked to hosting the games has had much wider implications in terms of evictions and redevelopment. Various regions of the city are affected, and claimed indigenous and quilombola territories as well as established settlements of working class people who have complained about the failure of the supposedly more financially comfortable city administration to honour promises of rehousing or compensation. Rio is a city in which the movement of the homeless has been active in occupying abandoned residential and industrial buildings, becoming the target of considerable police repression as a result. So one danger is that the security needs of the Games will be used to justify strong action against what are legitimate popular protest movements, and even against middle class people protesting about Rio’s socially exclusionary neoliberal model of urban redevelopment. This certainly happened during the World Cup.

The other kind of protest almost certain to occur is against a national government seen as illegitimate. Many artists and intellectuals have already taken to prefacing anything they say in public with the slogan “Temer out” (Fora Temer!) Although the 2013 street protests have produced youth movements of the right as well as of the left,  public opposition to the government produced by the coup could easily become another target of spectacular kinds of police repression, once again justified by the need to guard against terrorist infiltration. Such a possibility is made more likely because Brazil’s anti-terrorism law is fatally vague in its wording, some elements of the police are strongly politicised in a way that does not make them instinctive defenders of democratic and human rights, the PMDB is now in charge of the show at federal, state and municipal levels, and the ideological face of the interim government and its allies is now very right-wing indeed. As I have commented before in this blog, and subsequent events have borne out, the influence on decision-making of new federal justice minister Alexandre de Moraes is a particular cause for concern.

In his efforts to guarantee a vote favourable to Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment in the Senate, Temer has done everything possible to buy off senators who might change their minds in the light of the ever weakening legal case, in addition to giving his supporters direct material incentives through the patronage of projects directly affecting their constituencies and other spoils of office. Despite the fiscal costs, efforts have been made to placate generally dissident groups such as university teachers by settling pay claims, key social programs have received new funds, and the judiciary has received a staggeringly generous new pay deal. This apparent volte face on the need for austerity and prudent management of the public purse looks like short-term tactics designed to secure Dilma’s definitive removal from office after the Games come to end. After that, the government can proceed to make the huge and lasting cuts in areas such as health and education necessary to reduce the fiscal deficit that its own need to buy political support has increased substantially, and move towards reduction of the long-term proportion of public spending in relation to GDP, as indicated by other plans already announced. Other radical changes already on the table include raising the pension age to 70, which, with present mortality profiles, would ensure that most Brazilians would not enjoy the benefits of a life-time of contributions for very long, if at all. Although the congress will hopefully ensure that in practice pension reform will stop short of this degree of cruelty, other strategic aspects of the agenda, including the weakening of the BRICS group and realignment with the USA, may also encourage protest at a moment in which Brazil is again in the eyes of the world.

The Temer regime’s popularity ratings are low, and not simply because of the number of ministers already forced to resign following public revelation of their involvements in corruption, since the mechanics of the coup process as a plot hatched amongst a cabal of politicians tainted by corruption have also become increasingly visible. A disaster at the Olympics could prove a fatal blow, despite the nature of the congress and a politicised supreme court. The economic benefits of hosting the Games have long been questioned and seem even more dubious in the context of the present crisis, even leaving asides doubts expressed from the point of view of social justice. But when we look at the context in which the “security” of the Olympic festival will be guaranteed, the spectre that could come back to haunt the country and the region is Mexico in 1968, where hundreds of peaceful student protestors and some bystanders were murdered by security forces ten days before the start of the event, unleashing a sustained process of repression marked by impunity for its perpetrators, which remains central to the practical exercise of power in the country today.

Mexico, unlike Brazil, avoided military dictatorship in the twentieth century, but not because it was democratic but because a formal democracy that kept a single party in power for seventy years proved manageable through a sophisticated combination of clientelism, co-optation,  and repression. Brazil became an apparently effective multi-party democracy, but the vices of the system are today more apparent than ever following their reproduction in the PT itself in the years after Lula finally captured the presidency for his party. The authoritarian legacy of military rule remains in the DNA of Brazil’s security forces, and the implications of that are hardly encouraging under a president who was happy to take up the banner of “order and progress” and to form a cabinet that consisted exclusively of white males in front rank positions, although I should point out that PT federal governments also consistently supported local authorities’ security (and urban redevelopment) strategies in Rio de Janeiro, and were, of course, prime movers in bringing the World Cup and Olympics to Brazil. Yet the response of the Brazilian public to the World Cup was not as positive as was expected, and current circumstances of deep recession make fostering an “Olympic spirit” even more challenging. Yet it is Mexico 1968 that we most need to remember. Let us hope that Michel Temer and his colleagues in Rio can take a lesson from history and resist the temptation to abuse the power given to them by legitimate concerns about keeping participants and spectators at global sporting events safe.