RIO DE JANEIRO ― The 2016 Olympics began with a promise. When the International Olympic Committee chose Rio de Janeiro as the host in 2009, local officials said billions of dollars of investment would be poured into these first games held in South America, transforming Rio into a “vastly better” city.
The favelas ― the unofficial, often impoverished communities that line Rio’s iconic hills ― would benefit too, they said. The government would finally deliver some of the basic services that the favelas had long lacked, improving roads and housing, sewage, sanitation, health care and education.
By the time the games opened in August, though, those promises had proved hollow. Rio did invest billions in transportation and infrastructure, but most of it focused on the already wealthy areas of town.
“They spent 39 billion reals on the Olympics,” said Michel Silva, a community journalist in Rocinha, the largest of the city’s favelas. (That’s roughly $12 billion.) “And the favelas got nothing.”
They weren’t just excluded. At times, the favelas were targeted — by bulldozers making way for Olympic venues and by police who promised to make Rio safer for everyone, it seemed, except the favelas. The public services they were promised never came, and existing services, like the bus lines that once connected some favelas to the rest of the city, were altered or cut altogether.
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But something else happened in the favelas, home to nearly a quarter of Rio’s 6.3 million residents, in the years leading up to the Olympic Games. People in the neighborhoods came together — in anger, frustration and hope — to fight for their way of life. The Rio Olympics and the ills they brought helped the favelas find their political voice.
“People in the favelas now more than ever have an identity and understand their value,” said Theresa Williamson, executive director of Catalytic Communities, a neighborhood development organization in Rio.
“They didn’t know they could fight for this,” she said.
“The world has recognized that the time has come for Brazil,” then-President Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva declared, as the news that Rio would host the Olympics sparked celebrations all along Copacabana Beach in October 2009.
At least in the beginning, the country’s Olympic ambitions included the favelas. Social welfare programs put in place by Lula’s leftist Workers’ Party had begun to reduce illiteracy, extreme hunger and the worst of the poverty. In 2010, Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes announced a new program to “re-urbanize” the neighborhoods. The Morar Carioca initiative would “put on the agenda issues which, in a way, the city abandoned,” Paes vowed. A mass “pacification” effort was already sending in police to drive out the drug gangs that controlled many of the favelas, purportedly making them safer and more open to the delivery of social services.
Perhaps officials thought their promises would keep the favelas relatively quiet as Olympic development rode roughshod over them ― as it had over poor residents of so many other host cities. Even among the people who lived there, social and racial stigmatization had fed the belief that the favelas were not worthy of better treatment.
“We are born fearing ourselves,” said Thais Cavalcante, a journalist at Jornal O Cidadão, which serves the Maré favela.
But not this time. This time, the favelas fought for themselves. It began with local reporters making sure that everybody knew what was going on.
In 2009, the community newspaper O Cidadão (The Citizen) ramped up its coverage of human rights abuses against Maré residents ― especially those related to the 2016 Olympics and the 2014 World Cup, for which Rio was also preparing. Maré never received one of the formal Police Pacification Units installed in more than 40 other favelas, but it was the object of a heightened police campaign. O Cidadão worked to document the effects of these “security” programs, asking a critical question: Was the government trying to improve public safety for everyone ― or only to secure the rest of Rio from the favelas?
A year later, Williamson and Catalytic Communities launched the news site Rio Olympic Neighborhood Watch, or Rio On Watch. Together with other community papers in the favelas, these publications began to scrutinize the Olympic planning process and its effect on the city’s poorest residents.
They were also there to amplify the cries of the people, as those who lived in the favelas started to push back against the broken development promises and blatant abuses.
One of the first protests occurred in October 2010, when residents of Favela do Metrô marched from their northern Rio neighborhood to Paes’ home to demonstrate against the construction of a parking lot for Maracanã Stadium, the iconic venue that Metrô overlooks. The project threatened to displace as many as 800 families.
Soon after, residents of Vila Autódromo, a small favela on Rio’s west side, began to protest their own planned evictions, which would make way for roads to access the Olympic Park.
Over the next six years, favela residents rose in near-constant protests to fight Olympic-related housing destruction and displacement, the failure to extend basic services as part of Olympic-related infrastructure improvements, the crackdowns on those peaceful demonstrations that soon followed, and other police violence to pacify the favelas.
The Olympic protests helped unite people around common issues. Groups like the Popular Committee on the World Cup and Olympics, which formed in 2011 to oppose removals and police violence, organized community events. The People’s Cup, for instance, was a soccer tournament in 2013 that brought together teams from various favelas threatened with evictions.
The new organizations also built on the journalists’ work to produce reports documenting human rights violations across the favelas. The Popular Committee’s final report, released in December 2015, laid out a list of more than 100 violations. Among its 16 recommendations for addressing those abuses, it called for better public transit that served all Rio residents, more public housing, protection of the rights to assemble and protest, and the promotion of sporting events to enhance “education, health, leisure,” not simply to make profits.
The 20 families that resisted are the symbol of this city. Public defender João Helvécio de Carvalho, speaking of Vila Autódromo residents
The protesters had their successes.
Rocinha residents blocked the construction of a cable car that would scale the hill on which the neighborhood sits while doing little to serve the locals’ own transportation needs. The favela argued the money could be better spent ― perhaps to help replace the bundles of a dozen or more water lines hooked up by alley residents, because the water company delivers service only along the main road. Sanitation and sewage could use the funds as well. But nobody in Rocinha really needed that cable car.
Rocinha’s residents were also among the first to fight back against police violence. They staged protests over the disappearance of their neighbor Amarildo de Souza, who was taken away for questioning by the favela’s pacifying police in the summer of 2013. “Where is Amarildo?” became a rallying cry against the escalating numbers of police killings that disproportionately targeted poor ― and black ― residents. Eventually, 10 officers were charged with torturing and murdering de Souza.
Police violence in the favelas even drew global attention: A coalition of Black Lives Matter activists traveled from the United States to Brazil in July of this year to meet with groups fighting the similar fight.
Vila Autódromo’s battle with the city also drew international press coverage. By the spring of 2016, more than 90 percent of the neighborhood’s roughly 600 families had been removed from their homes. But in April, 20 of those who remained struck a deal that allowed them to stay in new government-built homes. It was a small but meaningful victory.
“The 20 families that resisted are the symbol of this city,” João Helvécio de Carvalho, a public defender who worked alongside Autódromo residents to challenge the evictions, told HuffPost Brazil before the Olympics. “This symbol means that it’s worth fighting for what you want. They were an example of resistance against removals.”
The problems that plagued the favelas during the lead-up to the Olympics didn’t start when the IOC chose Rio. And they didn’t end once the games began.
Security operations led by the police and military continued. Officers shot and killed at least nine people in Maré during the first two weeks of the Olympics, according to local activists. Overall, there were 92 shootouts in Rio during the games. They left 31 people dead and 51 injured, according to Crossfire, an online app project of Amnesty International.
The Olympics hurt the favelas economically, too ― and not just because money that could have been spent on public services went toward the games instead. Land speculation and increased development led to sharp hikes in housing prices in Rocinha, making it more expensive ― sometimes prohibitively so ― for its own residents. Morar Carioca, the mayor’s ambitious favela improvement plan, largely failed to get off the ground and then was scrapped almost entirely.
The larger political front doesn’t look promising for the favelas either. On Aug. 31, just a week and a half after the Olympics ended, Brazil’s Senate voted to oust President Dilma Rousseff of the Workers’ Party. The new president ― Michel Temer, a member of the Brazil Democratic Movement Party ― represents a dramatic swing rightward. Temer has already cut literacy programs and other initiatives that had improved lives, however modestly, in the favelas.
“It’s going to get worse” now that the Olympics and Paralympics are over, said Gizele Martins, a Maré resident who previously worked as an editor at O Cidadão. “People who live outside the favelas don’t understand the importance [of these fights] sometimes. They do not live these violations everyday. They say you are all criminals. But we are lives.”
They say you are all criminals. But we are lives. Gizele Martins, a resident of the Maré favela
So the battle will go on. There’s no other choice.
O Cidadão plans to keep training journalists in the neighborhood and to organize workshops and events to help people outside the favelas understand what life is like there. Rio On Watch was supposed to shutter after the Olympics, but the website’s popularity during the games convinced Williamson and Catalytic Communities to keep it going.
“There is nothing more promising in terms of citizens’ actions against human rights violations and social inequalities in Brazil than the media activism of low-income, peripheral youth,” observed Dr. Leonardo Custódio, a Brazilian researcher at the University of Tampere in Finland, after the games.
In July, Casa Fluminense, a coalition of more than two dozen think tanks, non-governmental organizations and advocacy groups, released a 48-page plan called Agenda 2017, pushing for improved sanitation, transportation, development and human rights conditions in the favelas and across Rio. Unlike so many other well-intentioned policy plans, this one might have legs. At least three candidates in Rio’s mayoral elections actually signed on to Agenda 2017, Williamson said. And one of them ― Marcelo Freixo, who represents a leftist breakaway of the Workers’ Party ― survived the first round of voting on Oct. 2.
Looking beyond Rio, some of the organizations working in the favelas seek to organize events with similar groups in Tokyo before the 2020 Olympics, according to Martins. Housing evictions, security crackdowns and broken promises didn’t just happen in Brazil ― they’re hallmarks of the modern Olympics. Tokyo has already begun displacing poor residents. The Rio activists hope their experience can help their Japanese counterparts before it’s too late.
Rocinha buzzed on the final Friday afternoon of the Olympics, as the favela prepared for one of its famous funk parties that evening. People would come from across Rio to listen to funk rap, “the blood in the veins of the city.” Artists have long used the music to rage against the drug war, police violence and general neglect of their neighborhoods.
City officials cracked down on funk parties in Rocinha and other favelas before the World Cup and the Olympics, contending they were hotbeds of criminal activity, moneymakers for local gangs and drummers-up of anti-government sentiment. But in Rocinha and elsewhere, residents fought back against the prohibition on their parties, too.
“Favelas,” said journalist Silva, “are places of resistance.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story mistakenly said that none of the Rio mayoral candidates who signed on to Agenda 2017 survived the first round of voting in that election. In fact, Marcelo Freixo, one of two candidates who cleared the first voting hurdle, was among the Agenda 2017 backers.