After the Olympics

Despite hysteria in some sectors of the international press over Zika, raw sewage pouring into Guanabara Bay, and security threats facing athletes and visitors, the Rio Olympics proved successful as a sporting event. So, in the end, after initial lack of sponsor interest and slow ticket sales, did the Paralympics, which ended up beating Beijing in 2008 into third place in the attendance records. In mounting the spectacle that television has now made mandatory for the Olympic Opening Ceremony, financial crisis obliged filmmaker Fernando Meirelles, to “do more with less”, to borrow a phrase from the managers of my neoliberalized public university. Yet the director of City of God proved more than equal to the challenge of a relatively low budget, using digital floor projections and inspired lighting effects to provide a vivid portrait of the country’s socio-cultural diversity, coupled with a warning on global climate change. That warning seemed highly appropriate for Rio itself, where the mounting frequency and force of storm surges on the beachfront had killed two people in April when waves brought a recently constructed elevated bike path crashing down from the top of the cliffs into the sea near São Conrado.

As it happened I had passed the site of the bike path disaster in a taxi with my wife a few nights before it happened, en route to dinner with family friends. We both thought at the time that it looked a bit precarious, spectacular though it undoubtedly was. Yet the tragedy did not dampen users’ enthusiasm for the Tim Maia ciclovia. Globo News spotted cyclists using a new section, despite the presence of warning signs, even before its official inauguration in September 2016, now sporting traffic lights to shut it down when new wind and wave monitoring equipment indicate risk.[1] This is a legacy project of the Rio Olympics appreciated by a socially diverse public, not just the well to do. But here I want to focus on the social costs of hosting the Games, along with a less attractive side of Brazil’s talent for spectacle.

Critics of the Opening Ceremony spectacle have focused on the way Meirelles passed from that icon of white Brazilianness, supermodel Gisele Bündchen, as the Girl from Ipanema, through baile funk, to rapper Ludmilla. Musically, the favelas were certainly there in a big way, but their residents were not. This is no novelty, since although the people who live in favelas may see the samba music of Rio’s modern carnival parade in the Sambadrome as their cultural patrimony, they are excluded from the crowd watching that spectacle too, as anthropologist Robin Sheriff showed some years ago.[2] New music and dance styles that are born in the creative cultural worlds of the favelas rapidly catch on with young cariocas from more privileged backgrounds, which had ironic consequences in the days when Rio’s favela “pacification” program seemed to be working according to plan. Police associate baile funk with the world of drug trafficking, and it is worth stressing that there are plenty of favela residents who also disapprove of this type of music, either because they are members of evangelical churches, as very many are, or because bailefunk parties prevent them from sleeping when they need to get up early for work in the morning, as very many do. Yet in the case of one of Rio’s more scenic favelas, already in process of gentrification, the pacificatory police unit (UPP) in the favela shut down the baile funk parties of residents but allowed a commercial outfit to run parties there for what locals called “playboys” from richer neighborhoods wanting a risqué, but not really risky, experience with their girlfriends.[3]

What is risky, because of probable police aggression, is when favela residents of color venture out into the parts of the city properly reserved for the diversion of its more affluent residents and foreign visitors, a risk heightened during the hosting of sporting mega-events. By the time of the Olympics, the favela pacification program had definitively lost its luster, for a variety of reasons. The promise of a new model of “proximity policing” which would build trust between police and residents and be accompanied by a range of new social programs had faded. Complaints from residents about not being treated with respect were compounded by a series of extra-judicial executions and cases of corruption reaching into the high command of the military police special operations division. Traffickers went on the offensive again in many favelas, and as police losses mounted, so did police reprisals and the levels of “collateral damage” caused by exchanges of fire between police and traffickers, as well as between different gangs competing for control of an area. The Olympics were “secured” by locking down the major favela complexes in just the same way as was done in 2007 when Rio hosted the FIFA Confederations Cup, under the same Secretary of Public Security, José Maria Beltrame, with the backing of the federal government led by Workers Party (PT) president Lula. Olympic lockdown produced the same unhappy consequences for residents virtually imprisoned inside the security perimeter that Maria Alves and Philip Evanson described for this earlier experience.[4] Children missed school, and stray bullets even made gathering with neighbors to watch the Olympics on TV risky in some favelas. But the deterioration in the quality of everyday life provoked by the failure of the UPP program was already being denounced by community journalists in the favelas before intensified security made matters worse.[5] Ironically, the financial crisis of the state government of Rio de Janeiro, which was provided with special federal funding to meet its commitments to the Olympics by then still acting president Michel Temer, not only caused favela residents to complain about unfulfilled promises of new social programs, but also contributed to growing demoralization of the police, not receiving promised bonuses for facing levels of danger that were claiming a growing number of officers’ lives.

All this violence in poorer parts of town did not impact on those who were enjoying or participating in the Olympics, although the alacrity with which the civil police unmasked a false tale of assault told by a group of US swimmers returning from a boys’ night out did contrast somewhat with their habitual torpor in investigating crimes committed against favela residents, especially when the accused are military police. Did the “threat” posed by the favelas really justify the security response? Probably not, but the response was simply an extension of existing, and continuing, thinking. Secretary Beltrame has now resigned, but the now fully installed post-impeachment government’s reaction to the “failure” of the UPP to bring peace to the favelas is simply to promise further militarization.

This suggests that the real purpose of the Rio UPP, like what geographer Stephen Graham calls “military urbanism” everywhere else,[6] had little to do with the security and welfare of favela residents themselves and a lot more to do with facilitating the transformation of an already class-divided city into an even more divided one in terms of both social geography and access to services. Carlos Carvalho, the main real estate developer behind the Olympic complex in Barra da Tijuca, let the cat out of the bag in an interview published in the UK’s Guardian newspaper in August 2015 (and was subsequently told to keep his mouth shut by Rio mayor Eduardo Paes). Carvalho said that the legacy of his investments would be the creation of a new city for “noble” (meaning elite and upper middle class) families from which existing residents of poor communities would be completely evicted: in his view, service workers should live on the urban periphery. Embarrassingly for both Carvalho and Paes, some of those destined for eviction resisted and secured extensive coverage in the foreign press. In the end, Paes was forced to concede the right to remain to twenty-five families of the Vila Autódromo community, promising them a separate urbanization project appropriate to their needs within the larger development. Yet by this stage, tired of living amidst the chaos produced by demolition and construction work, and with their access to electricity and services cut, the majority of the original residents had already left, accepting offers of financial compensation or new homes in Minha Casa Minha Vida housing projects on the urban periphery.

Those displaced from Vila Autódromo were joining 22,000 other families evicted from other areas of the city during Paes’s tenure as mayor. Forced evictions related to transport system modernization and urban “rehabilitation” began with preparations for the World Cup. The old port area in which slaves first set foot on Brazilian soil was redeveloped as Porto Maravilha, a bourgeois utopia for upper income residents and tourists that includes the architecturally spectacular Museum of the Future. There the evictions included working class families occupying eight hundred homes in the community of Providência.[7] Providência was the original “favela hill,” so named after a species of tree found in the hills surrounding the millenarian community of Canudos in the Bahian backlands. The land was first invaded by soldiers who served in the war of extermination against Canudos, after the oligarchic government of the First Republic reneged on its promise to compensate them for their service with a legal land grant, a first step in what has proved a history of broken promises. A UPP was installed in Providência before the process of dispossession started.

A study published by Lucas Faulhaber y Lena Azevedo has providing a detailed mapping of the systematic displacement of families from areas already valorized by the upper middle classes, or in the process of being revalorized for those classes by urban rehabilitation, towards zones much more distant from both old and new urban centres.[8] Mayor Paes contested the study’s results, and was particularly indignant about claims by displaced families that their rights and options had not been properly explained by officials, promised alternative homes had not been available for occupation, that payments to cover temporary accommodation had not been made, and that lack of transparency in allocation and the amounts of money on offer did not make accepting monetary compensation an attractive alternative.

Yet despite the mayor’s denials, the contention that the evictions have created serious social problems to which the city administration has no answer except violence seemed to be strengthened by the arrest of two leading community journalists, Rene Silva and Renato Moura, at the beginning of October 2016. Silva, Moura and other colleagues were trying to report on the forced relocation of people who had moved back to live in shacks on the site of their demolished homes in the Skol community of the Alemão favela complex, from which they had been removed in 2010 as part of the preparations for the forthcoming sporting mega-events. After waiting in vain for six years to receive the Minha Casa Minha Vida home that they had been promised, the families had returned to Skol, supported by the Homeless Workers Movement (MTST), because their rent subsidy was no longer being paid either. Faced with a court order to abandon the site and an intimidating police presence, the MTST representatives and families decided that they had no option but to negotiate a peaceful withdrawal. Yet the response was not dialogue, but rubber bullets fired indiscriminately at young and old. Even a journalist from the establishment O Globo newspaper was targeted when he tried to film one of the community journalists receiving a beating.[9] The very unpacificatory military police unit responsible for this disproportionate use of violence was, once again, the Alemão UPP. It is therefore now harder than ever to ignore the role of the UPP program in providing coercive support for the integration of the urban spaces occupied by favelas into the capitalist market. Forced evictions are, however, only part of this process, since, as I argued in a recent book, rising rents and living costs in pacified favelas also forced poor families out as the other side of the coin of a process of gentrification.[10]

This is the harsh reality in the favelas to which Fernando Meirelles offered a friendly wave in the Olympic opening spectacle. The hosting of sporting mega-events was a response to Rio’s deindustrialization, effected through a neoliberal model of urbanism in which speculative real estate development becomes a driving force, and the social geography of the city is changed accordingly. Since Minha Casa Minha Vida housing is constructed by private contractors, this is a win-win situation for the construction industry, but poorer citizens tend to lose, since their own capital in the form of self-built housing is expropriated for very much less than the future value that will accrue to developers in these “socially cleansed” areas. The Marvelous City with its Marvelous redeveloped port area and other Olympic legacy projects are mostly not for working people, even if they cannot be excluded from public bike tracks. When the Rio state government declared itself in financial crisis, the city government insisted that its own finances were strong. Yet now that the Games are over, contractors are complaining about delays in payment, and there has been a sharp increase in unemployment. The state government has announced a draconian austerity program that includes suspension of most of its social programs and imposition of huge hikes in the pension contributions of public employees.

Meirelles’s spectacle did a fine job of stirring feelings of national pride, a necessary response to the questioning of the country’s ability to host the Games successfully. But 2016 may well be remembered by historians for another, far less noble, expression of the art of spectacle. Backed by the Globo media empire and a compliant judiciary, given generous pay rises by Temer, the forces that secured the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff have turned the Operation Carwash (Lava Jato) investigation into corruption into a powerful weapon for discrediting thirteen years of PT rule whilst diverting attention from the sins of other parties. A pervasive “state of exception” has been instituted, in which grotesque breaches of judicial procedure are judged in the public interest and reputations are blackened by sensationalized television reporting of accusations that does not trouble itself with the quality, or even existence, of evidence on which a case could be based. This abuse of judicial power for political ends can be termed lawfare, a concept now at the heart of a human rights case on which ex-president Lula’s defense lawyers have received a positive response from the UN. The strategy of spectacularization reached a new low point in a Powerpoint slide offered in a typically evidence-light presentation by public prosecutor Deltan Dallagnol. This presented Lula as the mastermind at the center of all webs of corruption, not only benefitting personally from laundered kickback money but also using it to construct a corrupted and criminal system of governability, a clear attempt to discredit the democratically elected PT administrations to the benefit of political forces that had been unable to defeat the party through the ballot box in four successive presidential elections. Although the ludicrous nature of the Powerpoint as an argument immediately spawned a host of amusing memes on the Internet, the results of the 2016 municipal elections suggest that media spectacularization wrapped in the mantle of the justice system did prove effective at destroying the PT vote. The party even lost control of municipalities in the ABC region of São Paulo where the movement was born.

In Rio de Janeiro, the second round run-off was between an evangelical, Marcelo Crivella, a bishop of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, and a leftist from the Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL), Marcelo Freixo, best known for his work on a Parliamentary Committee of Inquiry into the milicias, paramilitary mafias that still control more of Rio’s favela population than do the UPPs.[11] The milicias were clearly going to use their local control of the means of violence to prevent people voting for Freixo, but in fact Crivella received majority support throughout the favelas, whereas Freixo’s core support came from the educated middle class and socially liberal sectors of society. The turn to the right represented by Crivella and most of the evangelical lobby in the national congress is more socially conservative than the “modernized” right-wing populism that is capturing working class votes from the left in France. Although some members of the youth movements of the right that emerged, initially unnoticed, from the street protests of 2013, do combine neoliberal views on the economy with more tolerant attitudes on issues such as homosexuality, the dominant orientation of the Brazilian right is revanchist. To destroy the PT is to put the lower classes back in their proper station of subalternity.

This may help us to understand why the real winner of the last municipal elections in Rio was neither a party nor a movement. The number of abstentions and null and blank votes exceeded the number of votes cast for Crivella (and the result in São Paulo was similar). Firmly allied with the governing PMDB in Rio, the PT federal government supported its strategy for urban redevelopment and public security policies. The PT in power also tended to promote an individualistic, consumer-orientated society. Yet it may be democracy itself that will prove the ultimate victim of the remorseless destruction through lawfare of a party that was at least committed to reducing poverty and inequality.

The latest interruption of democratically elected government in Brazil continues a longstanding historical cycle. The new regime represents an enduring oligarchy of wealth sustained by a regressive tax system and characterized more than ever by a rentier mentality. Even if the coalition behind the coup breaks up in the coming months, all its components are strongly committed to a deep and sustained fiscal austerity that will further undermine Brazil’s seriously under-resourced public health and education systems. They are also committed to surrendering control over a much increased proportion of the country’s resources to foreign capital and show no interest in the strengthening the BRICS group as a counter-weight to the USA, one of the means by which Lula gave Brazil’s voice more weight in world affairs. In the light of this abject abandonment of a national project, even the legacy of the Olympic Games as a potential boost to national pride seems unlikely to prove enduring.

[1] “Ciclovia Tim Maia terá semáforo e placa de atenção após tragédia no Rio,”

[2] Sheriff, Robin E. 1999. “The Theft of Carnaval: National Spectacle and Racial Politics in Rio de Janeiro,” Cultural Anthropology 14(1):3–28.

[3] Gombata, Maríselea. 2013. “O asfalto invade a morro: com a pacificação das favelas, o baile funk dá lugar às baladas de jovens da zona sul carioca,” Carta CapitalNo. 736, February 20, 2013

[4] Alves, Maria, and Philip Evanson. 2011. Living in the Crossfire: Favela Residents, Drug Dealers, and Police Violence in Rio de Janeiro. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

[5] “Rio Olympics: view from the favelas – ‘I can’t leave the house. The shots are too close’,”

[6] Graham, Stephen. 2011. Cities under Siege: The New Military Urbanism. London and New York: Verso Books.

[7] Freeman, James. 2012. “Neoliberal Accumulation Strategies and the Visible Hand of Police Pacification in Rio de Janeiro,” Revista de Estudos Universitários38(1):95–126.

[8] Faulhaber, Lucas, and Lena Azevedo. 2015. SMH 2016: Remoções no Rio de Janeiro olímpico. Rio de Janeiro: Mórula Editorial.

[9] “’A polícia estava com ódio’, diz militante do MTST sobre despejo no Complexo do Alemão,”

[10] Gledhill, John. 2015. The New War on the Poor: The Production of Insecurity in Latin America. London: Zed Books.

[11] Barcellos, Christovam and Alba Zaluar. 2014. “Homicides and Territorial Struggles in Rio de Janeiro Favelas,” Revista de Saúde Publica 48(1):94–102.