The civic legacy of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games

(Originally written in April 17, 2013)

Rio’s preparations for the 2016 Olympics have been marked by human rights violations. Unfortunately, the sacrifice of the poorer for the progress of a city historically ruled by the rich is not new. But now, organized citizens have increasingly reacted. The Olympics have created a promising set of civil society alliances that may be re-shaping citizens’ involvement in Rio’s local politics.

The evictions are the best-known cases of human rights violations in Rio before the Olympics. The process of making space for the construction of roads and venues has been highly arbitrary. In many cases, secrecy in decision making, threats and truculence are some typical moments before people are dragged outside while their homes are hammered down.

The future of evicted people is uncertain. Some have been relocated to remote areas with precarious access to transportation, hospitals and schools. In addition, the financial compensation promised by the government does not come in regular basis. The situation is outrageous, but not new. Rio’s history is full of cases of how economic and political interests are pursued to the detriment of the poor.

The “relocation of the poor” traces back to the early 1900s. At the time, former slaves and poor workers were removed from the center for the construction of a “Tropical Paris”. In the 1960s and 1970s, whole favelas (Brazilian types of slums) were removed so fancy residential buildings could be erected.

Today, Rio sweeps poverty away to benefit the real estate and tourism markets (traditional powerful local lobbyists). Sometimes evictions are not possible. In those cases, the pacifying police unit (UPP) has kept surveillance in favelas around touristic areas and main roads into the city. Judging from the actions of Rio’s administrators today, favelas and other clusters of low-income population and urban poverty remain both as stains on the Wonderful City’s landscape and as threats to the formal city’s peace.

What is new, then? The organized citizens’ reactions are a refreshing outcome of the arbitrary Olympic process. Civil society has always been active in Brazil. But actions are often dispersed and not so visible outside their often local range of action inside favelas and urban areas, in unions and different associations.

However, the responses to the impacts of the Olympics have been given by many different collective actors who have raised voices and protested together. From within favelas, groups including dwellers’ associations, local NGOs and youth-led collectives have worked to generate awareness about human rights and to mobilize people to act against arbitrary evictions and police violence.

These actions have been supported by and articulated with organized groups from outside favelas. Actors like national and international NGOs, oppositional parties, academics and students have been important to expand mobilization to include not only urban poor, but also middle and upper-class citizens.

Internet has been a very important instrument in the construction of these alliances. In addition to facilitating the articulation of actions, websites and social networks have been used to generate counter-information to official statements.

So, when governors claim they are respecting evicted families, web-documentaries and photo-essays circulate to show the truculence of city agents during evictions. When the police explains casualties by accusing the victims of being drug-dealers, photos and videos made by favela dwellers circulate to show police’s excesses of force and violence. A lot has also been produced and circulated in English to reach potential foreign tourists. Online messages also circulate to urge citizens to go to the spot and support local resistance.

We cannot be unrealistic: at least in the coming years the thin sands of Copacabana will not become a tropical Tahir Square. Poor people are and will remain being evicted. The poor will continue being criminalized. Rio will continue improving to satisfy the real estate and tourist sectors.

But neither can we ignore these changes in citizens’ behavior towards political issues. The alliances between organized poor and non-poor citizens brings hope. The disillusion and dissatisfaction with the 2016 Olympics are paradoxically being turned into the real legacy of the Games: a renewed spirit of struggle bringing Rio’s citizens together against social injustice.