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Target Favelas: The Neoliberal Scramble for World Cup Wealth
Dave Zirin (Photo: Michele Bollinger)

Target Favelas: The Neoliberal Scramble for World Cup Wealth

Dave Zirin (Photo: Michele Bollinger)

As the World Cup in Brazil garners massive international attention, leftist sports writer Dave Zirin offers up a riveting book that details how neoliberal economic gain for the few has come to dominate world sporting events. In particular, in Brazil’s Dance With the Devil, Zirin explores the negative impact of this year’s World Cup and the 2016 summer Olympics on the majority of Brazilian citizens.

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In this excerpt from the book, Zirin describes the history of the poor Rio communities known as favelas, which are now targets of a real estate land grab.

The Scramble for Rio

With the advent of the World Cup and Olympics, however, Rio has become ground zero for a speculative real estate boom that would make the San Francisco Bay area blush. The real estate tycoons and construction magnates are looking up to the hills and envisioning that land developed: a Rio without favelas. Normally, Brazil’s stringent laws would prevent this from happening. But the World Cup and Olympics have created “states of exception” – think eminent domain on steroids – that allow politicians to declare settled laws obsolete. Using any possible pretext – drugs, crime, environmental hazards – they can state that, with so many foreign visitors and heads of state coming to the country, they have an obligation to higienizar (clean out) the favelas to make the nation “safe” for the World Cup. This new reality, in which people’s homes become fair game, has massive implications for residents across the country – but particularly in Rio. Inequality actually worsened in Rio under Lula [head of Brazil before current president Dilma Vana Rousseff], though it improved in many parts of the country. In 2011, Brazil’s statistical agency, the IBGE (Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística), released the findings from its 2010 census, which stated that 22.03 percent of the 6,323,037 residents of Rio de Janeiro live in favelas – what the report refers to as “substandard” and irregular housing communities. Although the city’s total population grew only 3.4 percent, the favela population has grown by 27.7 percent over the last decade.

In 2014, even though the official line is that race is “not an issue” in Brazil, the descendants of slaves not only make up more than half of the nation’s population, but also are the largest group in the favelas. Brazilians of African descent live shorter lives, make less money, have more difficulty finding employment and are more likely to be among the 10,000 people killed by police over the course of the last decade. As Bryan McCann writes:

Black favela residents have faced particular hurdles in achieving civil rights, and persistent racism does explain part of the stigma against favela residents. . . . Black residents were inevitably concentrated more heavily in the substandard, precarious urban spaces effectively reserved for those without full rights: Rio’s favelas. Furthermore, their blackness reinforced dominant understandings of these as zones beneath the protections of law and guarantees of citizenship.

The difference with the United States, and this is immediately visible upon walking the favela streets, is that the favelas aren’t segregated: there is no “black favela,” “white favela” or “Indian favela.” Intermarriage is very frequent, and 30 percent of households in today’s Brazil are multiracial. Yet racism is so persistent that it is not uncommon to hear complaints about “too many” people of African descent on the public beaches or in the malls. This has led to organizing campaigns where groups of black Brazilians numbering in the hundreds walk as one into malls, their very visibility a statement of protest.

The favelas are perhaps best known, and most notorious, for their history of poverty and violence – mostly in the minds of those who have never set foot inside these communities. My own experience in the favelas is that they feel far more open and friendly than many of Rio’s wealthier neighborhoods, which are defined by gated communities and a militarized police force. This experience is not uncommon. According to one poll, 79 percent of people who had heard of Brazil’s favelas – but had never actually set foot inside them – had a negative view of them. However, 72 percent of people who had actually visited the favelas came away with positive feelings. Count me among the 79 percent who had a negative view, equating favela with “slum,” before I was able to see them for myself – and among the 72 percent who turned around after experiencing them for myself. My negative views were formed by a concern that some have romanticized the poverty in which people have historically been forced to live. Having reported from the townships of South Africa and the south of Chile, I know that poverty in the Global South is nothing anyone should paint in pretty colors. The favelas of Rio, however, are a different and very specific kind of community.

When you walk up a hill into a favela, you are entering a different world. Of course, it depends on the favela, but the contrast is more than a hillside community on top of wealth. It’s the difference between an open community, where people are generally friendly, hanging out on stoops and ready to talk, and a sidewalk where people are rushing to work, eyes straight ahead, clutching their bags. I spoke with Theresa Williamson, a city planner and executive director of Catalytic Communities, a nonprofit that works with communities in Rio’s favelas to distribute real images of their lives and to challenge the myths used to justify residents’ expropriation. She said:

You need to start, first of all, by exploding the connection between the favelas and criminality. At the height of the drug-trafficking explosion last decade, the drug trade and attendant realities were practiced in less than 50 percent of favelas. Even in those communities, we are talking about less than 2 percent of residents directly involved. Obviously the community has connections indirectly. There’s a lot of money flowing because of drug trafficking, so indirectly a lot of people benefit, you could say. But most of those people don’t want that. That’s not their choice. It’s the money that’s flowing in their community. No one mentions that the reason favelas exist in the first place is because there’s no history of affordable housing.

In the 20th century, after the 1888 abolition of slavery, “squatting,” or building on unused land without authorization, was most city dwellers’ only option in a land dominated by oligarchs. To this day, Brazil has some of the world’s most extreme concentration of land ownership; until the late 1980s its land inequality was the worst in the world. Some individual Brazilian families own swaths of land bigger than some European countries. Brazil is also one of the most urbanized societies in the world, with a higher percentage of the population living in the cities than we have in the United States, and it went through this process of urbanization earlier than the United States did.

Indeed, the idea of “squatting” assumes that land has always been private property – but for most of human history, people have simply built homes where they could. As Gisela, who lives in Vila Autódromo, put it to me, “There is this assumption that we’re squatters. We joke among ourselves, every one of our ancestors squatted. They didn’t buy it; it’s a process. People have to find a way to survive.” Or as Theresa Williamson put it: “The assumption internationally, but in Brazil especially, is that these are unknowable, dangerous, precarious communities. All of these negative assumptions ignore huge [positive] qualities in these neighborhoods.”

The most derisive, stereotypical ideas about the favelas exist within Brazil itself. In my visits, I’ve found that middle-class Brazilians take pride in having never gone up the elevators, tramways or stairs into these communities. They take pride in their families’ historic blindness to the favelas whose entrances lie mere yards from some of the city’s central thoroughfares. They discuss the favelas, especially incidents of violence – the more lurid the better – with their eyes wide and a shake of their heads. But they do not reckon with their reality. To be clear, I do no not want to seem like I am in any way underselling the very real poverty there. But the same questions that plague the rest of Brazil – education, health care, employment – are the questions for the people of the favelas.

Copyright (2014) of Dave Zirin. Not to be reproduced without permission of the publisher, Haymarket Books.

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