Hard Times in the Marvelous City

By 04 April, 2014

Hard Times in the Marvelous City starts in the organic encrustation of Vidigal, a favela that clings to Morro Dois Irmãos (Two Brothers Hill) as if its life depends on it, which, of course, it does. In the distance the surf breaks on Ipanema beach and the salubrious suburbs of São Conrado and Leblon shimmer like pearls. Such is Rio’s rich confection of haves and have nots. A marvellous city indeed, not least for its physical beauty and vibrancy but also for its irrepressible dynamism. Yet if Ipanema and Copacabana are the face that Rio likes to show to the world, the sprawling favelas and irregular subdivisions, are blemishes it once wanted to eradicate.

This history details the process whereby the favelas and their inhabitants, favelados, won the right to exist.

The Great Ignored

It’s a detailed and engaging account about the battle for rights of tenure, title and esteem. On a practical level the process was daunting, for all concerned, not least because of what one wag appraised as the modus operandi: “An idiot surveyor drew it up for an idiot owner. The idiot owner bought it from a corrupt official, in a time when the mayor was an imbecile… You can write it up that way, because the story is always the same.”

However, whatever the Byzantine peculiarities of land tenure and title (often resolved by adverse possession, i.e. squatted time-related entitlement or less successfully by Cada Família Um Lote (One Plot Per Family)), the process was also about empowerment, representation and acceptance as well as security.

For many in the favelas the struggle was about being recognised as citizens in their own or adopted city (many having arrrived from the impoverished North East from 1960s onwards). In a wider context, the democratisation of the favelas also represents the period when after 19 years of military dictatorship, Brazil was born again as a democracy.

Mr Spigot

From the time in the 1960s when blacks and morenos couldn’t hope to rise in the same lift as a branco (white man) let alone expect access to health, education, representation and the utilities, things have improved measurably. Eliana Souza Silva, president of the Nova Holanda favela association, said of the time: “People had lived there for twenty or thirty years and had never seen anything happen, and suddenly in four years, water, sewers and light.”

It no longer takes the promise of access to bicas (standpipes/spigots) – once offered by former state governor Chagas Freitas (1979-1983) – to garner political support for action. Whilst favelados are still at the bottom of the pile, they aren’t “other” anymore, they, too, are cariocas (residents of Rio). Nevertheless, “o direito de ir e vir” (the right to come and go), so fundamental to the early campaigners, is today often qualified by the presence of the military police or else the tráficos (drug dealers).

Heavy Trafficking

Indeed, throughout the 1980s and 1990s to date, Rio, aside from vagaries of financial crises that have rocked the city and the country, has had to deal with the usurpation or coercion of the favelas by what the samba artist Bezerra de Silva calls the “lei do morro” (the law of the hill). Where once the favela associations held sway and politicians of many parties, notably the Partido Democrático Trabalhista (PTD), Partido do Movimento Democrático Brasileiro (PMDB) and Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) courted their support, many now pay reluctant host to the “dono do morro” (boss of the hill) members of Comando Vermelho, Comando Terciero and the ever-changing minor heads of the narco-Hydra. Anyone who has seen Cidade de Deus knows what that means.

Vacuum Packed

One of the biggest ironies of the piece is that when the politicians were “occupying space”, lack of funds, indifference, tardiness and over-zealous policing left enough room in the social fabric to provide a degree of cover and protection for those who like to pose as latter-day Robin Hoods or Lampiãos. Someone ought to tell them that Robin’s merry men were high on freedom, solidarity and equality, not Colombian marching powder and machine guns. Nevertheless, as McCann contends in his epilogue, despite their privations, the favelas and favelados have come a long way in two generations, not least in education and more equal opportunities in employment.

Overlaying this is McCann’s keen eye for the political landscape of Rio de Janeiro – the city and the state – and how it has evolved since the military rule of the mid-1960s to the present day. The story is rich in all those elements you’d expect: corruption; idealism; opportunism; criminality; determination; greed and delusion.

Ways and Means

It’s a remarkable account of self-help and communalism, as expressed in the people themselves, the favelado associations, the Pastoral das Favelas (a practical application of liberation theology), enlightened individuals (lawyers, Bento Rubião and Eliana Athayde and others) and latterly the activities of NGOs such as Afro-Reggae, Casa de Paz and Viva Rio.

A Work in Progress

As things stand the Unidade de Polícia Pacificadora (Pacifying Police Unit) has been installed in over 30 favelas to try and break the stranglehold of the drug gangs. Following on from the work of Coronel Nazareth Cerqueira during his tenure as the chief of military police under Brizola (1983-87, 1991-1994), governor Beltrame is hoping that once the situation is stabilised community policing can be given another go.

Where things go from here is a moot point. Favelados, whilst enduring the drug gangs, still haven’t shaken off the kind of policing that left eight dead outside Candelária Church (1993), 21 dead in Vigário Geral (2005), 30 dead in Baixada Fluminense (2005) and the “disappearance” in UPP police custody of Amarildo de Souza, a 43-year-old bricklayer, in Rocinha in 2013. According to the UN, between 2003 and 2009, Rio’s police shot dead 11,000 people, most unlawfully.

The perception held by many favelados is that their principal “crime”, poverty, has them indelibly marked.
This is an enthralling study of an enduring subject.

Hard Times in the Marvelous City, subtitled From Dictatorship to Democracy in the Favelas of Rio de Janeiro, is written by Bryan McCann, an associate professor of history at Georgetown University.

You can buy Hard Times in the Marvelous City from Amazon.

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