With the 2014 FIFA World Cup now well under way, and the Olympics coming in 2016, Brazil is assuming its place on the world stage. The current tournament has generated more coverage of the country—and its far-flung corners—than ever before. Be it David Beckham’s trip into the Amazon for BBC television, or writers “slumming” it in a Rio favela, interest in Latin America’s sleeping giant is finally rising, as the country has itself. Or so the narrative goes. Take a closer look at Brazil’s inequality, particularly in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, and the situation does not seem so rosy. Favelas throughout urban Brazil, most visible on Rio’s hillsides, are misunderstood and misrepresented, and remain on the wrong end of stigmatization and prejudice.
In recent years numerous studies have appeared in English promoting a growth-based optimism about Brazil and its development since 2002 (when popular president Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva was first elected) and since FIFA and the IOC awarded their prizes to the country (in 2007 and 2009, respectively). Fueling this confidence is the notion that Brazil is finally overcoming its issues with violence, inequality, and corrupt politics, paving the way for economic and political growth.
Among those recent studies, Riordan Roett’s The New Brazil sketches out five hundred years of Brazilian history to conclude that the new “crafty superpower” is finally progressing toward “reducing and, it is hoped, eliminating social injustice and poverty.”1 Larry Rohter’s Brazil on the Rise tries to move beyond certain stereotypes in a wide-ranging overview, claiming that Brazil could reach the “next level” in global affairs, joining “the rarified company of true world powers.”2 2012), p. 280. Citation refers to the 2012 edition. ] The country would seem on the brink, then, of finally shedding its past and fulfilling its global potential.
Two new books delving into the more intimate details of Brazil’s complex recent history, Bryan McCann’s Hard Times in the Marvelous City and Alfred P. Montero’s Brazil: Reversal of Fortune, also look forward to a positive future for Brazil—and particularly for Rio de Janeiro—despite the ongoing “challenges.” McCann, a historian, finds grounds for tentative optimism in the “sense of hope” that Rio’s favelas will become more integrated into the city, thus reducing its infamous social inequality. Montero more assertively extolls the “turnaround,” proclaiming that “the last fifteen [years] have witnessed a stunning reversal in favor of more optimistic views.” What is it that accounts for these shining prospects?
Brazil, under military rule from 1964, returned to democracy in 1985. Political scandals, hyperinflation, uncontrollable favela violence, and police corruption dogged the country’s first years of democracy—a pattern that dominated until the late 1990s. McCann’s study focuses on Rio de Janeiro in the decade between 1978 and 1988, when favela residents mobilized in an attempt to democratize city space and integrate their communities into the urban landscape for the first time, electing a “crusading left-wing governor,” Leonel Brizola, to reform the socioeconomic status—and common perception—of the favelas through policy. The flaws in that strategy were exposed in particular by the emergence of international drug trafficking and violence. This led the favelas, and their politics, to a breaking point. The conditions of the wider city deteriorated too, with Rio beset by a bankrupt public sector, a currency crisis, floods, and landslides. Convenient scapegoats, the favelas were branded with the social and cultural stigma of the wider decline. Attempts to integrate the favelas faltered, and soon they were more segregated from the city than ever before. With the “barrier,” as McCann calls it, increasingly cemented, the image of favelas hardened too, an image that dominated for the next 20 years and remains influential today.
McCann’s argument for optimism in the contemporary moment relies on a historical comparison: the political conditions for favela integration are much better now than they were in the period of Brazil’s transition to democracy, as the political and economic environment is more stable. Displaying his faith in building the city from below, he declares that community organizers and mobilizers “have seized a new opportunity to build a Rio de Janeiro that lives up to its democratic promise and to its nickname: the Marvelous City.” On a practical level, there certainly have been improvements, with education projects, some public transport, and better sanitation, as well as a much-improved water and electricity network. Nonetheless, the social segregation remains deeply entrenched.
Scaling up from urban politics, Montero examines changes and developments throughout Brazilian politics, making his book a primer for those unfamiliar with the world’s fifth-biggest country by population and geographic size. Like McCann, Montero locates the origin of the “turnaround” in the transition to democracy, focusing on the continual increase in stability resulting from the emergence of an ever more robust democratic system, the 1994 Real Plan (stabilizing currency), and the election of Lula in 2002 (stabilizing politics). Stability has been accompanied by increasing governability (which, he suggests, “may improve without fundamental changes in institutional design”) and good policy, despite a political system still laden with corruption. A commodities boom—and crises elsewhere—have added wealth to the mix. Together, Brazil displays high levels of growth, declining inequality, and a strengthening, if imperfect, democracy that together have made for a “stunning reversal of fortune,” based on a top-down political infrastructure. Boosters rejoice! Progress has rocketed the country toward its global telos, world athletic events in tow. The 2010s, as Lula put it, mark “our turn” to host the World Cup and the Olympics, and to show the world how far Brazil has come in fulfilling its destiny. According to this perspective, Brazil, favelas included, are on the rise. Nonetheless, favela politics—most visible in Rio de Janeiro—and national politics still seem a world apart.
And what of Montero’s claims that ongoing economic growth and better politics have gone hand in hand? If we accept this, another, more disturbing question emerges: what happens when growth slows, as it has to almost zero in the past months, and inflation and interest rates remain dangerously high? Michael Reid’s more cautious Brazil: The Troubled Rise of a Global Power paints a broadly positive picture of recent Brazilian history, but vitally hints at this economic slowing and the danger that it poses to Brazil’s potential for continued progress. Despite the nation’s growth and robustness during the late Lula years there are ongoing signs that all is not well in Brazil, as the coverage of delayed infrastructure projects, escalating costs, and some very dubious politics most obviously demonstrate. Undoubtedly, “the overall impression that Brazil today is very different from the one that was mired in political and economic crisis for the 10 years following the transition to democracy,” as Montero has it, is a valid one: the 1980s are rightly considered Latin America’s “lost decade.” But to label it a wholesale “turnaround” seems like forced and premature optimism that only adds to the shallow discourse of the “new” Brazil “on the rise.” Beyond politics and economics, what about the social and cultural changes that are often forgotten in this discourse?
Not integration, but rather an attempt to “deal with the problem,” has guided government policy, coloring the official optimism cynical.
Zooming back in on the favelas, we see at least one big problem still unresolved: stigmatization. “Favelas are not slums,” McCann rightly clarifies, “as poverty is no longer a consistent identifying characteristic.” Indeed, the term favela is arguably an untranslatable one, referring as it does to diverse communities with a shared history. Having begun as unplanned and unserviced settlements that met—and meet—a key need for affordable housing, they are now home to a wide range of people and incomes but nonetheless almost invariably remain on the wrong end of prejudice, judgment, and insensitive, shortsighted, top-down policies. Although there is more community organization in the favelas than in the past, and some favela residents have helped swell the middle class in a more reliable democratic political system in which many economic conditions have improved in Brazil more broadly, the stigma is still alive and well. Just look at the unfolding present, witness to the “pacification” of favelas and uncompromising evictions in service of World Cup and Olympic preparations and beautification. Not integration, but rather an attempt to “deal with the problem,” has guided government policy, coloring the official optimism cynical.
The World Cup media coverage unfortunately seems to reinforce the reigning discourse of urban inequality. Although undoubtedly, as McCann says, “favela residents have shared some of the benefits of the current boom”—mostly referring to increases in formal employment and wages, as well as to some infrastructure projects—the status and integration of favelas remains patchy. On a practical level, under 10% of favelas have been “pacified,” and the majority of those that have are in strategic locations for security purposes during the big events. More worryingly, media coverage often aestheticizes the “pacified” favelas as places of exotic poverty, inviting cultural voyeurs to experience the life of the “other” in its humble setting and symbolically reinforcing the barrier between the favelas and the rest of Rio. The separation and objectification of the favelas purifies an image of “modern” Rio and Brazil across the cordon. “Brazil is the country of the future, and always will be,” the old jibe goes. If equality will mark the country’s true arrival, Brazil’s future awaits its favelas’ sustainable integration.