Isabel Ribeiro and her neighbor Jorge Valedevino in front of Colonia Carioca, a relocation site for favela residents whose homes were destroyed for the 2016 Olympic Games. Photos courtesy of Lawrence Reichard and Catalytic Communities / RioOnWatch.
The Olympics may be killing Isabel Ribeiro. Literally.
Ribeiro has an enlarged heart and needs surgery. But she can’t get the surgery she needs, she says, because her credit was destroyed by her failure to make a lump sum payment of $20,000 for her new apartment in the Colonia Carioca housing project. The project was built on the edge of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to house 1,000 of the estimated 22,059 families displaced to make way for this summer’s Olympic games.
Like many who have been displaced by the Olympics construction projects, Ribeiro never wanted to leave her home in the first place. She was forcibly evicted and relocated to new housing, which, she says, government officials told her would be free. Now the Brazilian national health-care system won’t do the operation she needs because she doesn’t pay her bills, and she can’t borrow money to have the operation done privately because of her ruined credit.
The government describes the program as a “key swap”—your old house key for your new house key. But it hasn’t worked out that way. First Ribeiro received demand letters from the Banco do Brasil, Latin America's biggest bank. Then came the texts, which are still coming. Ten to twelve on an average day, at all hours. Standing in front of her Block 4 home, Ribeiro shows me the texts on her cell phone. They go on and on, screen after screen, demanding that she pay.
It gets worse. Ribeiro had a sewing business. But with her poor credit, she was unable to buy inventory and had to close up shop. When I met her in May, she was getting by without the income from her business by relying on the kindness of others. In early June, she wrote to me saying that her power and gas were shut off.
Colonia Carioca is full of former residents of Rio’s famous favelas who were forced from their now destroyed homes to make way for Olympics-related construction projects and who are now receiving similar demands for payment on what they believed would be free housing. Julia Oliveira, the housing project’s block manager, tells me that none of the 1,000 families in Carioca have made payments. “They simply don't have the means,” Oliveira says from behind the desk in her office.
According to Oliveira, who hails from Ipadu, the same favela as Ribeiro, most Colonia Carioca residents never wanted to move there. “There was a sense of community in Ipadu,” Oliveira says. “ We were free. There was music and barbecues in the street.” In a country whose streets are alive with social interaction, Colonia Carioca residents now live behind chain-link fences where visitors have to call inside to get access.
Others in Rio have managed to stay where they are, for better or worse.
Daniel Ferreira lives in the Vila União favela, about a twenty-five minute walk from Colonia Carioca. His house, like others in the favela, lies right beside an open canal that carries raw sewage. To get to their homes, Daniel and his neighbors cross the canal on narrow homemade foot bridges, one for each house. The odor is strong and it permeates Daniel’s house.
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After a fifteen minute ride on Rio’s impressive metro, and a good hour on a municipal bus, my guide and I met Daniel at his house. Daniel’s family successfully fought off eviction and the destruction of the house Daniel built over the course of two decades. The government offered the family 34,000 reals (approximately $9,725) for the house, which is less than half what it would cost to buy a Colonia Carioca apartment.
The government was going to level all of Vila União’s 930 homes to make room for an elevated roadway, but the community proposed an alternate route for the roadway and some 300 homes were spared. “They could have saved all the houses,” Daniel says as we walk along, “but they just don't care.”
To get to Colonia Carioca, Daniel leads us on foot along a narrow and dangerous road where buses and trucks roar by just inches away from us. When the rains come, the road turns to a sea of mud.
“It wasn’t supposed to be this way,” Daniel says when we get to a safer part of the road that’s a little wider. “The government said it was going to widen and pave this road, but they don't care about poor people, only about the rich.”
Along the way, we pass through the favelas of Dois Irmãos and Colonia Juliano Moreira. In a quiet voice, Daniel explains that each of these two favelas has its own “administrator”—a rightwing militia member who controls the favela. We pass the relatively opulent home of one administrator. As we leave one favela and enter another, our dirt road suddenly becomes paved. The level of service depends on the vigor of the administrator, says Daniel.
Renato Cinco, a member of the Socialism and Liberty Party who serves on the Rio de Janeiro’s City Council, says many who were evicted for the Olympics received no compensation at all. “A small minority got something of doubtful value,” he says. “The rest got nothing.” He and others say those who organized and resisted eviction did better.
In London, which hosted the 2012 Olympics, the city’s Olympic Village was converted to low- and moderate-income housing. But Rio’s Olympic Village, Cinco says, is slated to go over to high-end housing.
Before Rio won its Olympic bid, the city announced an ambitious plan to dramatically improve services to the city’s more than one million favela residents. It specifically promised to fix the raw sewage problem. But then the city reversed course and destroyed all the bridges over Vila União’s sewage-laden canals in an apparent effort to pressure residents to leave their homes to make way for the elevated roadway.
Many families were given a choice: get a key swap home or nothing at all. Those who chose the new home found themselves living on Rio’s periphery, far from downtown and the wealthy neighborhoods that are the city’s employment centers. Suddenly their already demanding commutes grew longer.
The city agreed to improve transportation infrastructure as part of Rio’s Olympic bid, but doing so broke up some of the bus routes that served poor communities on the city’s edge. This forced many people to take two buses to work, which further lengthened their commutes. Many say the bus routes were broken up to discourage Rio’s poor from accessing the downtown and the city’s famous beaches.
Some critics allege that the displacement and evictions have little to do with the Olympic games, which they say are just an excuse to clear Rio’s poor from prime land that developers have long coveted.
Andrew Zimbalist, a professor and sports economist at Smith College, says corruption has run amok in the buildup to the games. While corruption is a common problem with mega sporting events—notably the 1976 Montreal Olympics—he thinks “the Brazilians have outdone the others.”
Dr. Christopher Gaffney, an urban geographer at the University of Zurich who studies mega sporting events, agrees, citing Rio’s construction of stadiums, multimillion dollar tennis courts, and cycling velodromes when adequate facilities already existed. Rio City Council member Cinco likewise decries a new golf course built in the middle of a nature preserve when Rio already boasts of four golf courses.
And in his book, Brazil’s Dance with the Devil, The Progressive’s sports columnist Dave Zirin rips the hugely expensive revamp of Rio’s famous Maracanã stadium, the soccer world’s holiest shrine. The stadium’s capacity has been whittled from a world-leading 175,000 down to 75,000. And the standing-room section, where the poor could still afford to watch games, has been completely destroyed to make way for luxury boxes.
But the fallout from the Olympics goes further, touching all but the wealthiest of Brazil’s 200 million citizens. This is because, in the midst of its worst economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s, Brazil is spending billions to host the games and delivering sharp cuts to education, health care, and other public services. Plans to close dozens of schools have driven students around the country to occupy their schools in protest.
According to Zimbalist, the Olympics may cost as much as $20 billion, in an economy one-tenth the size of the U.S. economy. This comes just two years after Brazil hosted the $15 billion World Cup. The Brazilian government says it is footing 43 percent of the Olympics’ bill. But over cups of coffee in his apartment in the sprawling middle-class and working-class neighborhood of Tijuca, professor Orlando Santos of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro says the real figure is 62 percent. Santos is the co-author of a detailed report by the World Cup and Olympics Popular Committee of Rio de Janeiro that documents evictions well beyond the number put out by the government.
Ironically, the high cost of construction projects and facilities improvements could lead to big headaches for the Games. Government police and security budgets have been cut, and cuts in environmental spending haven’t helped the situation in Rio’s Guanabara Bay, where raw sewage is flowing right into what will be host to rowing, canoeing, sailing, and triathlon swimming events.
According to ESPN, viruses linked to human sewage are present in Guanabara Bay “at levels up to 1.7 million times what would be considered highly alarming in the United States or Europe.” Last year, thirty-eight rowers at a World Rowing Federation event in the bay got sick, as did at least 7 percent of sailors in a World Sailing Federation competition.
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When Rio submitted its Olympic bid in 2007, the Brazilian economy was humming, the envy of much of the world. The future stretched rosily out ahead. That year, Brazil’s GDP grew 6.1 percent, outstripping the United States. With the fifth largest economy in the world, Brazil seemed invincible.
Brazil’s offshore oil boom tanked amid plummeting oil prices. Prices fell for other key exports, including soybeans, sugar, and coffee, and exports to China, a major export market for Brazil, saw a significant decline. And the Brazilian government’s heavy borrowing at high interest rates came home to roost. In a mere five months between late 2014 and early 2015, Petrobras, Brazil’s biggest energy company, lost a staggering 70 percent of its market value.
From 2011 to 2015, Brazil’s currency, the real, plummeted from 1.55 to the dollar to four to the dollar. Last year, the economy contracted by 3.8 percent, plunging the country into recession. Brazil thought it won the lottery when it landed the World Cup and Olympics, but suddenly the combined price tag of both events has a lot of Brazilians up in arms, which may be a contributing factor to the political turmoil racking the country.
On May 12, the Brazilian Senate voted to try President Dilma Rousseff for impeachment for seeking to hide a budget deficit that was no doubt exacerbated by Olympics spending. Now, just as Brazil was hoping to show its best face to a watching world, the nation is in an uproar over interim president, Michel Temer.
Temer is woefully unpopular—in a recent poll, only 2 percent of Brazilians said they would vote for him—and the country is deeply divided over Rousseff’s impeachment, which many say is an unconstitutional coup. There have been major marches and rallies throughout the country calling for Temer’s removal and Rousseff’s reinstatement, and protesters are expected to turn up the heat during the Olympics.
One of the biggest projects Brazil committed to in its Olympics bid is the construction of a much-needed fourth metro line. But like a lot of Olympics projects, the new line is way behind schedule, with the target opening date pushed back to August 1, perilously close to the Games’ August 5 opening ceremony. Even then, it will offer limited service and be unavailable to the general public. Only athletes, press, and event ticket holding passengers will be allowed to ride the line for the duration of the Games. Meanwhile, crews are working around the clock to finish work on the Olympic Park on time.
The specter of the Zika virus also haunts the games. With almost 100,000 cases of Zika, Brazil is the world’s epicenter for the outbreak and Rio is the epicenter for Brazil. Amir Attaran, a professor in the School of Public Health and the School of Law at the University of Ottawa, has called for moving or postponing the games. In a May 11 CNN interview, Attaran said some of Rio’s expected 500,000 Olympics visitors will inevitably contract the virus, and sending that many people home on 3,000 planes flying all over the world is no way to contain an outbreak.
Residents of Vila Autódromo favela protest its destruction for the 2016 Olympic Park.
During my recent visit to Rio, I saw a few signs in metro stations urging citizens to take precautions against Zika, but they did not specify what measures to take.
Back at Colonia Carioca, Julia Oliveira says the government “built a circus for journalists and foreigners to see a beautiful Brazil. But when the Olympics are over, the country will return to the same thing, to violence and all its other problems.” Then, referring to a popular Brazilian saying that harks back to the late nineteenth century when Brazil appeased Britain by pretending to end slavery, Oliveira smiles and says Rio’s Olympics makeover is “for English eyes.”
Lawrence Reichard is a freelance writer who splits his time between Maine and Latin America.