Brazil’s glaring socio-political and economic time bomb went off in recent months and flared up Sept. 7 during celebrations of Independence Day, but the bomb itself has been ticking away for some time.
A wave of recent protests that sparked in June over a hike in bus prices in São Paulo, spiraled into over 2 million disillusioned demonstrators from across 100 cities in Brazil, voicing their anger against poor public services, high levels of violence, inflation and political corruption.
Instead of hosting exorbitant mega-events such as the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, why not, they asked, invest in public transportation, fund better schools and hospitals, and reduce the ever-widening income gap between the minority haves and majority have-nots? In Rio, 22 percent of the city’s population live in roughly 1,000 favelas (slums) that have become Brazil’s symbol of blatant socio-economic segregation.
Between 2006 and 2010, while Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was president of Brazil, I filmed the documentary “I Am Happy” (Eu Sou Feliz), featuring a graffiti artist, dancers, in-house maids, police officers and a conference interpreter who are from favelas or work with favela-dwellers. I wanted to know their frustrations and joys and how they cope with the inequality between the favelas and the rest of the city.
Favelas are stigmatized as crime-ridden battlegrounds for drug dealers and the police, even though less than 1 percent of the favela-dwellers engage in violent crime.
In efforts to combat crime and improve Rio’s image as a safer city, so far, roughly 30 of Rio’s favelas have been “pacified”; the pacification process involves a special law enforcement initiative known as the UPP (Pacifying Police Unit) establishing permanent positions in favelas after elite police seizes territories controlled by drug lords by expelling, arresting and sometimes killing major drug traffickers.
The favelas that I saw, back in 2010, were vibrant communities with humble shops, salons and bars where families and friends conversed on rooftops and verandas. With the occasional sounds of gunshots in the background, the police and drug dealers each hustled to make a living in communities — where uncollected trash and open sewers running next to tightly packed brick-and-cement-homes were not an uncommon sight.
Many of the favelas in the city center are isolated communities on top of hills, with an impressive view of the parallel world of wealth and glitter — concentrated around the beaches of the South Zone of Rio.
Maria da Conceicão dos Santos from Bahia moved to Rio de Janeiro when she was in her teens. She is an in-house domestic worker who invited me to her home in 2007, a home she visits during the weekends located in a favela two hours by bus from Rio de Janeiro’s center.
I switched on my video camera and asked her questions about her childhood. She told me, “When I was 7, I was already working.”
I asked her, “You were taking care of other children?”
“Yes. But you know I wasn’t unhappy. I was only unhappy when I wanted to return to my hometown, Salvador. I really missed my mother and sisters.” She is one of Brazil’s 7 million housemaids who cook and clean for the middle and upper class.
Although 40 million people have been lifted out of extreme poverty within the past decade with government aid programs such as Bolsa Familia, Brazil is still one of the most unequal countries in the world.
Maria, and others who come from favelas or live in favelas, grapple with systematic racism and socio-economic marginalization. More than 50 percent of Brazil’s population identify themselves as black or brown, yet their average income level is half that of whites according to IPEA, a government-linked think tank.
A young Afro-Brazilian hip-hop dancer, Jose Ribamar, who lives in Cantagalo, a favela adjacent to the postcard-perfect Ipanema beach said on camera: “Politicians spend so much money on fancy shows and the carnival, while Brazilians are neglected in hospitals and children grow up without an education. They’ll be fed up with life because they can’t achieve anything.”
Brazilian politicians are infamous for pouring money into favelas — hungry for votes — only to abandon community initiatives, leaving the community with posters of their smiling faces plastered onto half-built structures.
Individuals like Jose, who feel that politicians are just throwing them a bone with these celebrations and half-built structures, want to see public services that will help them construct their future.
If the mega-events such as the World Cup and the Olympics were to make Rio a safer city and bring long-term social and economic benefits to the average Brazilian, it’s an investment worth making, but I am not the only one who is skeptical.
I caught up with Jose, now a certified nurse, in July of this year, and asked him about his pre-Olympics and post-Olympics expectations. “Prices are going up,” he said. “When the Olympic Games are over, the drug dealers will come back and everything will go back to how it used to be; the pacification process is only masking deep-rooted problems.”
Many will disagree with Jose and argue that the pacification process is bringing better local services to favelas such as garbage collection and better electricity grids, as well as bringing down levels of crime. Other favela-dwellers will agree with Jose and complain about unfinished projects and petty crime on the rise since drug lords are no longer there to enforce security. Moreover, criminal activities have relocated to areas away from city centers to areas such as Niterói and Duque de Caxias, many of which have fallen off the radar of the pacification program.
Long-term measures to combat the vicious cycle of poverty and violence in impoverished communities should be designed to improve health care, schools and employment to provide an alternative to what the drug cartels are offering.
As for proposals to tackle deep-rooted problems, President Dilma Rousseff, who is up for re-election in 2014, pledged fiscal and public sector policy improvements, including transportation, health care and education. Rousseff is also pushing for political reform-greater punishment for political corruption and a more participatory political system.
Time will tell whether the string of promises Rousseff made will be fulfilled or whether the political opposition she is facing will jeopardize her proposed reforms.
Brazilian demonstrators, meanwhile, are continuing to define new grounds of common action. Frustrated with the status quo, they are demanding long-term and meaningful change.
Soraya Umewaka is a documentary filmmaker. Her documentaries filmed in Latin America and the Middle East give voice to individuals who, in their unique ways, overcome adversity and political turmoil.