Letter from Rio

20 Sep

Moving forward?

The columns of royal palms lining Rua Paissandu continue to impress the eye, towering over buildings and smaller trees as far as I can make out. The  sweetish odour of cane alcohol from the traffic still permeates the air and the same a actors I’d watch telenovelas in 1987 appear in them today, making it seem at times, as if time itself hasn’t moved on. The touchstones of my memories are still there. But Rio – 11 years after my last visit and 24 years after I first came to live in the neighbourhood of Flamengo – has changed. And I can’t help but feel both back to a place that was home for almost two years and a tourist in a city that is no longer one I can say I know and understand.

When I first lived here, I used to see dozens of people living and sleeping on the sidewalk and in other pubic spaces; this time I saw only one. The Praça da França, where a group of little boys stole my wrist watch on my first day here in July 1987, is now just another pleasant and well-tended park, free, like the sidewalks of the Zona Sul,southern  of its gangs of pivetes, or street kids. The subway that used to end at Botafogo now extends for several stations more, past the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema. The favela of Santa Marta, where I went to write an article about the battle between drug gangs and the police, now has a funicular that takes people up its steep incline of jumbled houses and narrow stairways, saving them the arduous  climb.

The resulting sensation is surprisingly disconcerting, making it difficult to get a grasp on a place I always felt I knew so well.

One wants to believe that the growing economy and increase in public spending has truly eradicated endemic poverty, yet like the seemingly impermeable faces that bring those myriad soap opera dramas to a kind of codified life on television, I can’t help but wonder if there is an underlying narrative here that hasn’t moved at all. Yes, the minimum salary has risen to some 500 and some reals a month but prices have leapfrogged even further ahead, making this a trip that causes me even greater sticker shock than one to, say, Manhattan. Almost everyone, apparently, has a cell phone but calling them costs more than a dollar a minute.

According to a recent article in the Christian Science Monitor, “High taxes and absurd profit margins have also made even the most ordinary goods and services prohibitively expensive. A bus trip costs $2. A loaf of wholemeal bread costs a minimum $4. And a 3G iPhone that sells for $49 in New York goes for the equivalent of $598 in São Paulo.”

Worst of all perhaps, the sense that decision-making and advantage-taking remains more than ever the purview of a privileged few, the ongoing corruption and enrichment of the entire country’s political class, leaves me wondering whether real change — value change as Jockin Arputham of India’s National Slum Dwellers Federation calls it — will ever happen here.

In Santa Marta, for example, improvements come as a result of personal relationships worked out between the leader of the local Residents Association and whoever is mayor or governor at the time, and through the dozens of small projects set up by philanthropic and civil society organizations. Not, says Itamar da Silva of Santa Marta’s Grupo Eco, a cohesive movement from within the favela itself. Come election time, those projects often come to an abrupt end. In Barra de Tijuca, for example, thousands of shack dwellers were recently paid off and moved out to make way for World Cup infrastructure and apartment buildings destined for the middle-class. The most they can do is move to other more distant slums, and of course, many more urban areas where the poor have taken root because there was nowhere else for them to go are also scheduled for similar re-urbanization.

Santa Marta, the drug gangs now scared off because of a large police presence, is now a tourist attraction. The people who live there, says Veronica, a slum tour guide who grew up and still lives at the top of the steep hill, are happy to see the drug dealers gone and the tourists arrive. But they don’t get much from these curious visitors, in terms of business opportunities. What’s more, she says, “before everyone always kept their doors open, but now they keep them shut because they know someone could come by and take their picture any time they like.”

So I have to ask myself: is this a new, improved Rio de Janeiro? Or has the economic boom simply changed the face – and the price – of reality in what has always been one of the most contradictory cities in the world.



One Response to “Letter from Rio”

  1. Wilbert Urueta October 14, 2011 at 6:10 am #

    Hello. impressive job. I did not anticipate this. This is a excellent story. Thanks!

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