Interview: Juliana Barbassa on Rio’s Missed Olympic Opportunities

The former AP correspondent on Rio's transformation since winning the Olympic bid

Olympics Features
Interview: Juliana Barbassa on Rio’s Missed Olympic Opportunities

After twenty-one years spent abroad, Juliana Barbassa returned to Brazil in 2010, a moment of great optimism and expectation: the economy was booming after years of instability and government social programs were beginning to reduce inequalities. Meanwhile, as upcoming host of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, the country was positioned to become a heavyweight on the global stage.

As Rio de Janeiro’s Associated Press correspondent from 2010 to 2013, Barbassa was a first-hand witness to the city’s attempts to grapple with its historically entrenched problems under the international spotlight of Olympic preparations. Her first book, Dancing with the Devil in the City of God (Touchstone) is a gripping and lyrical account of her time in the city during an important historical moment. Originally released last year, it is being reissued with a new afterword on the eve of the Olympics.

Paste spoke with the author by phone about the city’s broken promises, her belief in the resilience of the Brazilian people, and the questions we need to be asking about the Olympic legacy.

The book starts with you at your desk in the San Francisco A.P. newsroom in late 2009, watching on TV as Rio de Janeiro wins the Olympic bid and the crowds on Copacabana beach go wild. You write that it was a moment “when everything seemed possible […] It was Brazil’s turn.” This is a very different Brazil than the one we have seen in the news recently. Bring us back to that time. Why were Brazilians so excited?

The sense was that Brazil was ramping up for a promised future that had finally arrived. If you think back to the mid-80s, Brazil transitioned from a military dictatorship to democracy, went through a very rocky economic period where people couldn’t plan their futures—they didn’t know if their money was going to last until the end of the month. In the early 2000s, the economy stabilized and the first working-class president was elected, which gave a lot of lower-income Brazilians the sense that for the first time they were represented in power and that the usual hierarchies might shift. There was this real sense of optimism and possibility in the country, even before the World Cup and the Olympics, but [winning those bids] was the cherry on the sundae.

dancing_bookcover.jpgWhen Rio was chosen to host the Olympics in 2009, I felt as a Brazilian and as a journalist who had been watching this story unfold, that this was Brazil’s moment. Brazil was an up-and-coming nation; Brazilians were proud of this, they were looking forward to their future and to the country’s future, and that moment when Rio would host the Olympics would be their moment to show the world what Brazil could be.

What were the Olympic supposed to bring to Rio, specifically?

Big events like the World Cup and the Olympics come with very specific promises. As a journalist, it’s always interesting because it allows for us to hold the city accountable. There were specific mentions about improving transportation infrastructure, cleaning up Guanabara Bay, and around housing—Rio’s mayor, Eduardo Paes, said a number of times that the biggest social legacy of the Olympics would be the Morar Carioca program which would bring basic services to all of Rio’s favelas by 2020. These were some of the promises tied to the Games that would have had huge impacts on the daily lives of many Cariocas. Rio and its citizens had very heightened expectations—and rightly so—in the years leading up to the Games.

Your book is not only a deeply reported examination of Rio de Janeiro in recent years—it’s also about returning to your native country after twenty-one years living and working abroad. Tell us more about this experience of “going home.”

As anyone who has been an expat for many years will know, when you’re very far away for a very long time you can develop a sort of romanticized emotional relationship to your country of origin that is a blend of memories and hopes and wishes as much as it is reality.

I knew that Brazil was a hard place in many ways, but I also had a very deep emotional connection to the place. I arrived full of expectations about what I would find and full of hopes that indeed, Brazil was changing as fast as I was seeing reported in the pages of the international press. But I had questions, obviously. It seemed like they were talking about a very substantial and deep transformation in a very short period of time. And I knew that some of Brazil’s problems were very deeply entrenched, like inequality for example, something that builds over centuries. Can you really address that in a couple of terms of a working-class president? I wasn’t so sure.

Those first few years back, I found myself oscillating a lot between what I hoped for as a Brazilian, and what I was seeing and reporting on as a journalist. And those two sets of realities were often at odds with each other and caused me a fair amount of anguish as an individual, because I wanted things to improve, I wanted all of those great expectations to come true. But the more I looked into issues like, say, the environmental degradation in Rio or the claims of this growing middle-class that was gaining access to all kinds of goods and resources, I started to realize that things were much more complicated.

You describe the years that you spent as a teenager living in Barra da Tijuca, which will soon be the main region hosting the Olympic Games. Many outsiders might not know that the neighborhood is more than an hour away by car from the city’s main tourist areas. How would you describe Barra da Tijuca?

It is very different from Ipanema, Copacabana, the places that people usually associate with Rio de Janeiro. Barra da Tijuca is very new and very wealthy; it has a Human Development Index that’s on par with Norway. It’s a place where the landscape is gorgeous—the beaches are miles and miles long, white sands, forest mountains, lagoons—but the human landscape is built on the idea of exclusivity. That’s one way of putting it; exclusion is another.

The vast majority of residential areas are gated communities, so it’s built on this idea of creating safety for those inside by separating them from those outside. It’s also a very car-dependent landscape, it’s impossible to walk anywhere in Barra. I express a lot of concern in the book about the direction of Rio’s development, because Barra—exclusionary, segregated, car-dependent Barra—is proposed, essentially, as the future of Rio.

You describe Rio as a city that is both “beautiful and rotten.” Can you describe this juxtaposition between the city’s spectacular natural beauty and environmental degradation? What role does the Olympics play in this?

This is one of the aspects that was tremendously heartbreaking for me after moving to Rio, because it is a stunning place and anybody who lands in Rio and takes that taxi from the airport—you look around and there’s the bay, the mountains, Sugarloaf, the long stretches of urban beaches—it’s hard to find to a city that is physically as beautiful as Rio. But it’s also hard to find a place that combines natural beauty with degradation so perversely.

This was one of the real expectations that came with the Olympics. One of the very specific promises was that the bay was going to be cleaned—80% less polluted by 2016—and that new sewage treatment plants and sewage connection pipes would be built. Like many other people, I had real, well-founded hopes that something was finally going to be done about this. If for no other reason than for Rio to look good when the foreigners came to visit. To say it’s a disappointment that it didn’t happen is an understatement. If it didn’t happen under these optimal conditions, when the city, the state and the country had the money, the political will and an internationally imposed deadline to do this cleanup, I feel like it won’t happen. After the Olympics are gone, the spotlights are gone, we will not do it.

Photo courtesy Mario Tama/Getty Images

This goes to one of the other reasons why these past few years have been so frustrating. The Olympics come not just with a financial cost—money that was spent building venues—but also a real opportunity cost. This was a moment when we could have done something substantial for the city and we didn’t, and that failure is going to be something that we Cariocas have to live with for decades.

You write that in addition to the infrastructure issues such as new stadiums and transportation corridors, the biggest challenge for the city in hosting these mega-events is public security. Can you talk about the security situation in Rio and what it will be like during the Olympics?

This was another arena in which Cariocas had real reason to be optimistic. When Rio put forth its bid to host the Olympics, one of the areas that the IOC needed a lot of reassurance on was specifically, will the city be safe enough?

When Rio officials went to Copenhagen to defend the city’s bid, they brought along an official from the UPP (Pacification Police Units) program as evidence that they were doing something. The program was putting police officers in favelas that had long been neglected by government and that had become bases for drug-trafficking. This program had some significant early successes in decreasing the rates of crime in the area, but also, very importantly, decreasing the number of killings by police. The specific promise was that by 2014, Rio would have 40 units of this program in favela communities around the city. That’s a drop in the bucket of Rio’s nearly 1,000 favelas, but it was something that was being done in an arena where nothing had been done for decades.

But security is another arena in which things seemed to be improving before starting to unravel again: we saw cases of UPP police officers become involved in disappearances, torture and death of favela residents. We saw rates of petty crime in Rio begin to go back up.

Photo courtesy Mario Tama/Getty Images

For visitors, the Olympics will be a very safe, comfortable experience. Rio will unfurl its biggest law enforcement operation in history, with 85,000 law enforcement officers belonging to different policing bodies, including the army, to ensure that during the Olympics, Rio is the safest city on the planet. But I have real concerns about what will happen afterward. In preparation for the mega-events, these officers were given a lot more armaments, gadgets, Kevlar-encrusted body armor…after the Games, these same officers will go back to policing the population while remaining unaccountable and the number of citizens killed by police continues to rise.

Prostitution is legal in Brazil, and you devote a chapter to “the business of sex.” Can you describe the status of sex workers in Brazil and how the government deals with this industry during high-profile international mega-events?

Sex work is legal in Brazil, and I would say that there is a grand tradition of it in Rio—there has been for centuries, Rio being a port city. But I found that sex workers are still very vulnerable, there are still ways for them to be targeted by violence and by clients—but also by representatives of the government and police.

I saw this before Rio+20, the big UN environmental conference, and the flood of foreign dignitaries that came into town. There was a crackdown on brothels in Rio, particularly the big brothels that cater largely to foreigners. It’s not that what they were doing was illegal, but there are a number of little things that can be used—for example, it’s illegal to profit through the prostitution of somebody else. Or you could close brothels for building code or tax violations. We are now seeing this in a slower but steadier way across Rio.

I think the principle at work is not that Rio has turned puritanical and decided to turn its nose up at prostitutes, but it’s part of the social cleansing that happens in the city before these big events. Before the World Cup, you didn’t see people begging or children in the streets in Copacabana where everybody was going to watch the Games. It turned out that they had been gathered and sent to shelters far from the touristy areas. I think this is what’s happening with prostitutes as well; it’s part of this effort to scrub the city clean and make it shine for tourists and foreigners who come for these events. And at a personal cost to the people whose livelihoods are being affected.

In June 2013, millions took to the streets in historic protests throughout Brazil. Many were angry about public spending on the World Cup and the Olympics, holding signs demanding “FIFA-quality schools and hospitals.”

So far we haven’t seen any major protests against the Olympics. In a recent interview, Rio’s mayor, Eduardo Paes, said that the absence of protests against the Olympics shows that Cariocas support the event. Do you agree with this analysis?

No, I really don’t agree with that analysis. These are entirely different times for Cariocas and for Brazilians than in 2013 and 2014. Back then people were starting to raise questions about the spending of public money and the government’s priorities. Those questions have not gone away. But this is an entirely different situation: the World Cup is national, while the Olympics are within the city. It doesn’t have the national repercussions or the grip on the Brazilian imagination like the World Cup does.

Further, the political and economic instability assailing the country and the state of Rio right now is so serious that Brazilians are worried about their families’ personal well-being in a way that they didn’t have to be in 2013 and 2014. While the writing was certainly on the wall back then, most Brazilians were still doing fine, unemployment rates were reasonable, inflation was mostly under control, the big explosion of corruption allegations against officials at all levels still hadn’t occurred. Now, the economy is completely off the rails. Politically, the country is so unstable that we don’t know who is going to be president in six months.

So if Brazilians are not out in the streets protesting, it’s not because they support the Olympics…far from it! It’s because they are very much worried about their own jobs, about making ends meet, about not being able to feed their families by the end of the month. I do not read the lack of protests as support for the Olympics, but as a sign of far bigger worries than a set of sporting competitions that are happening in Rio de Janeiro.

Near the end of your book, you write: “What city was being created here? Who stood to gain from it, and who would lose? How were the World Cup and the Olympics being used in this context?” Have you come any closer to answering these questions?

I did, and the answer was not what I had hoped for. I was sort of dragged kicking and screaming by my own reporting to these conclusions, which were that the city that we have now is one that I think is more unequal than the city that we had before these mega-events.

The Olympics provided more and bigger opportunities for public funding to go into private pockets. People ask, “Is it a failure? Will Rio be ready?” I always reply that those are not the right questions. The bid was constructed to benefit precisely who it actually benefitted: the big construction companies and the magnates behind them—not the people of Rio, who are once again stuck with the bill and with little to show for it.

You conclude your book with Brazil’s humiliating 7-1 loss to Germany in the World Cup semi-final match. When considering this loss, you write that “Brazilians are, above all, resilient. They get to work and save themselves,” which I thought was very poignant considering the recent political drama and the emotional toll that it has taken on Brazilian citizens.

I keep looking for—what are the next chapters? What do we have to hold on to as Brazilians and as Cariocas? To me, the answer is always in the Brazilian people. The Brazilian government has proven itself rotten. The multiple corruption investigations that we’re seeing unfold are just overt evidence of something that Brazilians have long known.

But the Brazilian people have this amazing ability to push on through tremendous hardship—long commutes, crowded buses, difficult living conditions, a lack of basic services, the tremendous unfairness and injustice of it all—and continue to do it, day after day, and go to work and raise their kids, and give them the education that they’re able to give, and just marshal through, in spite of the terrible circumstances. As a country we’re seeing some of the results of that—we’re seeing more activism in terms of human rights, housing rights, activism against police violence.

We’re seeing people who have really long days and long commutes still find time to go to a community meeting, do their bit to improve things in the future, and that’s where my hope lies. I hope that we’ll come out of this period—that is indeed very grim—feeling like we will be able to chart a path out of the depth that we’ve sunk to as a country, a path forward that’s cleaner and better and well-informed by the experiences that we’re currently having as a people.

Kate Steiker-Ginzberg is a freelance producer and translator based in Rio de Janeiro. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin