In this guest longform article, our Development Intern, Isabela Lyrio, shares her thoughts on displacement and tension in her native Brazil during the lead up to the 2016 Olympics. Isabela, who hails from São Paulo, Brazil, is a GWU senior. 

On October 2nd, 2009 it was announced at the 121st IOC Session that Rio de Janeiro, Brazil would be hosting the 2016 Summer Olympic Games. In the coming years Brazil was to hold the 2014 World Cup as well as the Olympics two years later. Brazil had been a rising power globally and regionally and at the time it was revered for its strong economy and government policies contributing to the decline of 20 percent in income inequality. Popular refrains chanted that ‘God was Brazilian’ as the country’s morale was lifted in light of their international stance and the anticipation of these events.

This image radically contrasts that of the years to follow, with the 2014 protests in major urban areas around the country, where hundreds of thousands of Brazilians took the streets to protest a wide array of important social issues. Among these was the claim that Brazil is the 7th highest tax-paying country in the world and that this money is being used inefficiently. With corruption scandals and the focus on the international sporting events to come, people are left with low-quality basic services. This wave of protests was sparked by a small increase in bus fare, which became symbolic of the country’s poor management of tax-payer money by providing poor quality services while raising the price to access them.

Rio Image 1

This movement quickly incorporated an anti-World Cup discourse, stating that the government was adhering to strict international standards to improve stadiums for the World Cup and are investing heavily to follow these rules, while neglecting the poor quality of public schools and hospitals.

Rio Image 2

The images above reflect the sentiment that the government’s attention on the World Cup has distracted their focus from important social services, which was once their primary focus. In the second image the sign reading ‘FIFA Go Home’ has stickers that say: ‘World Cup for whom?’ emphasizing that this international sporting event will favor few at the cost of the poor citizens of the host country.

This kind of rhetoric remained in the lead up to this year’s Olympic Games. Brazil now finds itself in an even more complex political situation in anticipation of the event, including: wide-spread corruption charges against different levels of the Brazilian government and state-owned companies; a call to impeach President Dilma Rousseff that some are calling an attempted coup; inflation; clashes from different sides of the political sphere in support or opposition of the current government; and the Zika virus, which the World Health Organization declared a public health emergency of international concern. However, since the Olympics are happening just in Rio de Janeiro, unlike the World Cup that was hosted in several states throughout Brazil, the impacts felt are much more geographically concentrated. The voices against the Olympic Committee are not as loud as those against the World Cup because of the different magnitude of this sporting event. This explains why media coverage was more prone to cover controversial topics related to the World Cup than the Olympics and why protests against injustices were bigger in 2014.

The Olympic Park

For the Olympics, the city is relying on existing structures that were in place from the Pan-American Games in 2007, the Military World Games in 2011 and the World Cup in 2014. The Olympic Games will have two villages hosting competitors and media professionals for the duration of the events, in addition to the Olympic Park where the games will take place.

The construction of the Athlete’s Village caused the destruction and displacement of houses and residents in the favela Vila Autódromo, where 700 families resided before the Olympics construction. About 90 percent of the 600 residents have moved after being offered financial compensation, but there are still families remaining fighting for their right to stay in their homes. These statistics do not coincide with those released by Eduardo Paes, the Mayor of Rio, and his government who claim a smaller number of families are being displaced. 

Plans to reuse the Olympic site have been carefully set out by planners. The Deodoro Sports Complex is open for public use and many have been enjoying its swimming pool. Additional strategies for the structures include transforming the arena into four public schools. But can these kinds of services justify the displaced population of Vila Autódromo?

Evictions and Relocations

With the Olympics approaching, state policies against those who have remained residing in the favela have become more forceful. Those who did not accept money for relocation and chose to stay are victims of forced evictions. In June 2015, forced demolitions by order of Mayor Paes started aggressions between residents and the Rio Police. Paes argues that the government offered dialogue and remunerations for residents that are being displaced. Paes’ administration states that from the 824 families that live Vila Autódromo, 275 need to leave and of these families that need to be moved, 268 have already been relocated. He claims that residents that are fighting to stay are only waiting for the government’s monetary incentives to increase. However, Paes’ government’s actions are far more radical than his words. After explaining that few families remaining would have to be moved, and that he would not order forced relocations, police troops targeted two homes for demolition in June 2015, beginning the process of forced eviction in Vila Autódromo.

Maria da Penha, Vila Autódromo resident in Rio (Picture: Ricardo Moraes/Reuters)

Maria da Penha, Vila Autódromo resident in Rio (Picture: Ricardo Moraes/Reuters)

Among the evictions that followed was the iconic story of Maria da Penha. Since 2004, the Commission for the Defense of Women’s Rights of the Rio de Janeiro State Assembly has honored women that fight for human and women’s rights with the Leolinda Daltro Women Citizen Certificate. Maria da Penha’s struggles for her community and housing rights in Vila Autódromo merited her this award. On Women’s Day 2016, the day she would receive this prestigious recognition, her house was demolished. This is part of a series of symbolic demolitions, where community leaders are being targeted to diminish morale. Before Maria da Penha, the home of Neighborhood Association President Altair Guimaraes was illegally demolished as well as the Neighborhood Association building itself.

Maria de Penha made a speech upon receiving her award and after the destruction of her house criticizing the cost of displacing residents for the city to sponsor major events, saying that she will remain fighting. Residents have been taking action against these illegal demolitions. Heloisa Helena Costa Berto, a resident who was also displaced from her home wrote a letter to the United Nation Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights condemning the actions of Paes’ government as a human rights abuse, highlighting the international treaties Brazil has ratified in relation to religion, land, housing and property that have been broken.

The Future

Eduardo Paes has proposed an urbanization plan for Vila Autódromo following the Olympics, building formal houses with backyards in the favela and ensuring better infrastructure like sewage, lighting and sidewalks. Residents criticize this project that is slated to destroy existing house structures to build a street of uniform houses, and instead promote on-site upgrading

The Brazilian government has been allowed to displace a large amount of marginalized populations in informal housing in order to make space for international sporting events in the few years. It is important to understand the vulnerability of informal settlements and their lack of protection under the law. Such policies have created a culture of impunity and abuse and has further marginalized those that were already in a vulnerable position to begin with. The urbanization plan of Vila Autódromo may improve what is left of the community, but has to be done so according to the standards of the residents, and not to follow the pattern established and imposed by the government as a top-bottom approach.

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