Southern Exposure 19: Rio

If Rio is not located in the most beautiful setting in the world, I do not know what is. You  probably have seen the photos of the harbor, Sugar Loaf Mountain, the huge statue of Christ the Redeemer atop another mountain, and the long, wide Copa Cabana Beach. You may have seen  video clips showing Rio’s famous Carnival, which happens every year  before Lent. There is simply no city like it, in fact nothing that comes close.

But do not let the natural beauty of the steep, luxuriant mountains and sheer cliffs, rising about white sandy beaches and luxury apartments and pricey hotels fool you. All is not perfect in Paradise. It never has been.

The day we arrived we took a cab from the port to our hotel—about a 40-minute ride. The hotel was  located on the beach in Ipanema, a beautiful beach about two miles long just south of  the famous Copa Cabana Beach on the other side of a steep hill, which separates the two beaches. Ipanema is a fairly large, upscale neighborhood with lots of restaurants, fancy shops, bars and cafes. Most high rise apartments and residential buildings are surrounded by gated fences, some with barbed wire. Our hotel, the Sol Ipanema, was small and intimate (only 90 rooms), very European, sleek and minimalist. 

To get to the hotel from the port, our driver took us through a  whole bunch of neighborhoods which were anything but upscale—trash on the streets, graffiti covering the street-level walls of most buildings, many depilated. It was our  introduction to a city which is a showcase for the vast disparities between the haves and the have-nots, the rich and the poor, those with and those  without.

The highlight of our three days in Rio was a half day tour of one of the favelas. That is the word Brazilians  use to describe what  in the U.S. we call slums. Our guide was Chiago, a 38-year old, very sharp guy with a bachelor’s in finance and an MBA, whose pervious job was representing Brazilian companies in China. Two years ago the Brazilian economy  went into decline, and here he is now doing tours of favelas. He took us and nine other tourists to two favelas. The first  was   the largest and oldest of the more than one thousand communities like this in the city.  Over one million people live in these communities. The first favela  was started in the early Twentieth Century and  has an estimated population now of over 120,000. The second was much smaller, around 2,500 people, and somewhat poorer but was getting more attention from the government. Both communities were located on steep hills and within a stone’s throw of very wealthy, gated communities. The difference between the upscale communities and the favelas could not have been starker. Adjacent to the clean streets of the upscale neighborhoods, in the favelas you find trash in the streets, graffiti, jury-rigged electrical wiring around utility poles, and make-shift housing with units stacked on top of each other. 

I had two conflicting reactions.  The first was the obvious: Why is the world this way and what is wrong with this picture. The second, however, was more positive. Embry and I have been to “informal settlements” like these in Peru, India, and Africa, which I recall being more squalid and desperate. I found myself actually being quite impressed with the vitality and the human spirit of the people who live here. And there has been progress. Now most favelas have water and sewer and electricity. The first favela now has public transportation and at least limited police protection. These are relatively new and happened just before the Olympic Games. Most adults according to our guide have jobs, albeit low paying ones and commerce has flourished inside many favelas. We saw all kinds of shops, bars and  cafes, even a bank. Crime and violence remain problems, however, and Chiago admitted that most favelas remain off limits to tourists for safety reasons.  The Rio favelas we visited  represent the tenacity of the human spirit and the human will to survive.

Our guide went to some lengths to try to explain the favelas, beginning with the legacy of slavery and dominance by Europeans for hundreds  of years. For the past half century he places blame mainly on corrupt politicians, especially the military and right wing dictators who tried and often succeeded in rolling back the reforms made under more progressive governments. Progressives in those days were Leftists and tended to be Socialists. Both of his parents had been jailed during the right wing military junta during the 1960s and 1970s. These governments in his view were controlled by thugs. They also were aided by the U.S. during the Cold War period because they were anti Communist. 

 Chiago believes that the move toward repression  is happening  again. In his view Brazil has a corrupt, right wing, strong man leader who is  fiercely anti immigrant, homophobic, and racist and is hell bent on developing the rain forest. But he has a strong base of support among many in the working class. 

Any of this sound familiar? One could make a  case  that the similarities between the U.S. and Brazil are a lot greater than you might think.

The only disappointment for us in Rio was the foggy weather, which persisted until we departed on Thursday, November 21, keeping us from seeing the tops of the mountains and the soul of Rio—Sugar Loaf and Christ The Redeemer. Fortunately we had gotten a peak on the ship as we entered the harbor. We spent most of our time walking the neighborhoods and the two famous breaches, Copa Cabana and Ipanema, which were packed with people, mainly locals, who were on holiday our last day there. 

We also caught a little of the impeachment  hearings. It now appears that the House will surely impeach but that the Senate will not convict. Learning about  the stories of the dictatorships in Latin America, most of which involved curtailment of the press and free speech and jailing dissenters, I suppose we should feel fortunate that Trump has not done more damage than he already has. If he gets another shot  at being president as appears  possible right now—and perhaps even probable given the support of his base and the lack of a strong Democrat opponent–who knows where we will be headed? I know it is still early with lots of drama still to come, but still I am nervous.

So we are headed south again, first to Iguassu Falls, then back to Buenos Aries, both by plane this time. Then back home the day before Thanksgiving.

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