Juanita was able to grab her 2-year old son just as the bulldozer pushed through the cardboard and tin of her 100 square foot hillside home in the favela on the lace of poverty bordering Rio de Janeiro’s fancy dress. It was almost two-thirty in the morning, and her husband, Carlos, had left 30 minutes earlier to head to his “job” as rag picker. Carlos would spend the next twelve hours sorting through the refuse and garbage of the city’s 1%. If he was lucky, Carlos would have $5 in his pocket from sorting the recyclables from the rotten food and useless waste and he could feed his wife and child another day. One thing is different today though.
Carlos has no home to come back to.
In late-spring 2013, Brazilians rioted in the streets, at first, to speak out against unjustified hikes in transportation costs. The dissatisfaction grew to include insufficient public services, especially healthcare and education. The protesters also demonstrated against wide spread government double-dealing and forced banishment of communities as South America’s largest country got ready for the World Cup.
When Brazil was welcomed as the 2016 host for the Olympics, economists and governments were shouting about Brazil being an example of a capitalist success story. Media outlets of the 1%, such as the Financial Times and Wall Street Journal, bragged profusely about the country’s stock market, Bovespa. Bovespa had seen a growth of over 520 percent the previous decade and for many in Brazil, financial grown was past due. Being able to host the events was Brazil’s debutante ball. With parties and dancing in the streets, Brazil proudly announced that its day had come and it was ready to play in the big leagues of global impact.
The chest thumping about the economic growth started sputtering like a Model T in 2012. The massive growth which made Brazil seem like a major league player had shrunk. The golden-boy in South America saw its economic leaps shrink to less than 1 percent. Lack of continued growth didn’t stop Brazil from spending lavishly on projects for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics. The out-of-control spending has not stopped. The greedy and corrupt have continued to feed on the backs of the poor.
Brazilians that I have spoken with are furious that basic services like transportation, education and healthcare have continued to see their financing crumble while the fiscal irresponsibility for the World Cup has passed the 11 BILLION dollar mark. The legendary Marcana Stadium in Rio was the recipient of a five hundred million dollar facelift. The stadium hosted the 1950 World Cup final and twenty-first-century politicians and construction companies have used any means necessary to turn the stadium into a FIFA-quality landmark.
The construction companies in Brazil are the largest political donors in the country. They have hired security firms to make sure that ugly poverty is kept out of the view of the international audience. While new high-rises are sprouting up and high-tech security systems are being installed, dozens of favelas were demolished because people had the nerve to place their homes in areas “designated for public use.” Tossing people out of areas “designated for public use” is highly ironic when you realize that destroying a favela will lead to the private ownership, and development, of hillside real estate which is highly valued.
The process of tossing out the homeowners in the favelas goes beyond moral. It is unconstitutional. Brazil has some of the toughest squatters’ rights laws globally. Everyone who built a house before 2009 is supposedly protected under the constitution. If a resident accepts compensation and agrees to move, the compensation is supposed to be enough to allow them to find comparable housing elsewhere. It sounds good in theory. Reality is different. It’s not happening.
Joao, a Rio housing activist said it this way:
“Money is handed to you and you take it or leave it. People have to live in the favelas because of the proximity to wealth. They need to be close to where their jobs are and they cannot afford transportation. For the wealthy, it’s like your Mexican immigrants in the United States: they hate the favelas but they need the individuals in the favelas to do all the work they do not want to do. The time they are serving the rich people, they are good; the time they are living nearby, they are bad and it’s the same people.”
Protesting Made a Criminal Offense
Just before the World Cup started, the government passed an experimental “terrorism” bill. The legislation means that any civilian — whether they have engaged in a crime or not — can be locked up for merely demonstrating.
Law 449/2013, aimed to address the potential of terrorism, makes “disorder” a crime. “Disorder” is so vaguely defined, innocent civilians face the probability of being locked up for putting their rights of free speech and free assembly into words and on signs. The Brazilian government rushed the legislation through on the eve of the World Cup in an attempt to put a damper on protests at a time when international tourists are flooding in.
Brazil has forgotten, protesting is not a crime. It’s a human right.
Stealing land and homes and forgetting about the rights of people of African and Indigenous descent, Brazil has opened the doors for foreigners to come in and rape the country. The Amazon is disappearing under the noise of chainsaws, Brazil’s culture is being exported, public spaces are being stolen and the police are turning into the country’s military.
In the heady rush of excitement over a 90-minute game, the land grab and theft of public space will probably proceed with abandon.
Juanita and Carlos still will not have a home.
By Jerry Nelson