The Olympic Games will go ahead in Rio in August after the World Health Organisation rejected a call to move or postpone them over the Zika virus outbreak, which is linked to serious birth defects. The mosquito-borne disease that led 100 leading scientists to say it would be “unethical” for the Games to proceed is just one more problem in a country chockablock with them.
Brazil is a mess: the Rio 2016 infrastructure and political system are chaotic, and the country is struggling with recession, corruption and violence. President Dilma Rousseff is to stand trial, accused of manipulating the budget. A resurgence of crime on the streets of Brazil’s most famous city – about to welcome 500,000 or so tourists and athletes – could not have come at a worse time.
Luiz Eduardo Soares is an academic, politician, activist and writer. He is Professor of the Department of Social Sciences at Rio de Janeiro State University, teaching political science and sociology. He offers a melancholy gaze at the warts of the “Extreme City”.
Soares’ seat at the top table did not end well. Shortly after his appointment as national secretary for public security with a brief to tackle corruption, gunmen strafed the windows of his apartment block. He lasted less than a year.
A moving chapter tells of Dulce Pandolfi, a 21-year-old student who was hauled away and suffered protracted torture. She was released after 16 months, a physical and mental wreck, but had refused to buckle.
The betrayals were as hard to recover from as the fear and pain. She found out that a key informant against her was her brother’s private tutor. “The enemy had not only made it through the door, he’d sat with you on the sofa, sat at your table over dinner, shared stories from a false past and touched the emotions of the family.”
She is now a historian, a remarkable story of recovery, but like so many, still scarred. The police still intimidate protesters, take bribes, set up people and take them out. While the murder rate for the wealthier areas of Rio – 3.6 killings per 100,000 inhabitants – is similar to the European average, in poorer parts it has hit 34.6.
And that’s minus the deaths caused by police, who fight back just as violently and often with impunity, caring little for “collateral damage”. More than 300 people were killed by police last year, a fifth of the killings in the city.
A Soares vignette: a local congressman is in his car. He and the police chief do not appreciate activists. They spot one on his bicycle. Their limo screeches to a halt and the activist is pumped full of bullets. They run over the dead body, causing the politician, who had just had his lunch, to “puke out his guts”. Exclaims cop: “Fucking hell. The car was spick and span. Just came back from inspection yesterday.”
And yet, and yet… Cariocas (inhabitants of Rio) just get on with it. “Rather than despair when the electricity goes down and the air chokes up, we dance, sing, beat the drum and the gods wake us from the nightmare,” Soares records. “And then, if only for a few hours, everything seems possible again, and we’re devilishly happy.”
Soares is a practised observer and gives an insider’s account of Rio’s frightening world of favelas, beaches and corridors of power, in all their shocking reality.