Rio, My Purgatory of Beauty and Chaos

With the brightness and hustle of international sporting events gone, Brazil’s bills for the corruption that accompanied the Olympics and the World Cup must now be paid, write’s IB’s Joao Sette Camarra.

I live two blocks away from one of Rio’s most famous beaches, called Leme, in the district of the same name. My neighborhood lies between the ocean and two hills, each with a favela controlled by drug dealers, and since mid-2016, the two favelas have been at war. Since then, shootings in the hills above us have become a constant, a thing that we barely even notice now. And I live in one of the privileged parts of the city.

Rio remains one of the most beautiful cities in the world. But outsiders rarely note the dire situation the city and the surrounding state of Rio de Janeiro have plunged into since the end of the Olympic Games in 2016. Bad urban planning and the corruption of our elected officials are ultimately to blame. Sergio Cabral, who was governor of the state between 2007 and 2014, was the person who approved a great deal of the construction works and renovations the city went through in preparation for the 2014 World Cup and the Olympic Games which followed. During his two terms, he handed out tax exemptions to companies big and small as if they were party favors; the list of companies that got tax exemptions included everything from jewelry stores to gay bath houses. Eventually, the Brazilian Federal Police launched a secret investigation.

The investigations found that the governor was behind a number corruption schemes that drained hundreds of millions of reais from the public treasury. Cabral, it turned out, skimmed off 5% of all contracts signed with construction companies. On a similar scheme, he would get 5% of all contracts related to the State Healthcare System. Eventually he and his wife were arrested, and in November he was sent to a cell in a prison that, as it happens, he himself had had built during his first term as governor.

The governor elected after Cabral, Luiz Carlos Pezão, insisted on following his predecessor’s disastrous policies, and the result is that today Rio is officially in a state of “financial calamity”, with state and municipal public servants receiving their salaries in quotas that are constantly being delayed. More than 4 thousand state servants have not yet received their salaries for the month of April, for example.

Incredibly, of all the job losses sustained in Brazil during the present economic crisis, 80 percent have been in Rio. The new governor is now facing the possibility of impeachment, which only serves to make matters worse.

One of the most obvious consequences of this financial crisis is the rise in the rates of violent crimes, and Rio has seen an explosion of them, and 2016 was the year with the highest rate of crimes followed by violent deaths since 2009: 37.6 for every 100 thousand inhabitants. In Fernanda Abreu’s 1990s funk classic Rio 40 Degrees, she sings of the city as “the purgatory of beauty and chaos,” and this hasn’t felt more true since the 90s.

If you listen to the radio in Rio, every day you hear of shootings, thefts followed by murder, confrontations with the police. Just now I was listening to reports of a shooting in the lower middle class neighborhood of Vila Isabel, in the north of Rio. Interviewed on the radio, a local woman who is a beautician was saying how she unknowingly bought her apartment in the middle of what now is a war zone. She loved the place, she said; it was near her samba school, and the neighborhood was beautiful, but she wishes to move out of there fast.

In order to give an idea of how severe the situation is, only in the first week of May 2017, Amnesty International counted 87 cases of shootings in the city, about 12 a day. And if those that don’t live in favelas are afraid, those that live in them are more than desperate. Those that can afford to get out of the favelas that are at war move to more peaceful neighborhoods or go back to the cities where they came from, in a true exodus.

We’ve always had corrupt governments in Rio and in Brazil; that is not new, it’s almost a tradition. But we had never seen corruption and a disregard for the citizens in this scale, and this is the worst crisis the city has been through that I can remember. One of the solutions would be to elect somebody new, who has no ties with the old traditional politics that has destroyed Rio, the problem is that such a person doesn’t seem to exist, or is hiding somewhere. Until then, we will always be the purgatory of beauty and chaos.

Joao Sette Camara