Brasilia: A visit to Rio will make you realise that it’s not called the Cidade Maravilhosa – Marvelous City – for nothing. The whims of nature have placed sea and mountains side by side in perfect harmony in Rio. The scenic Pao de Açucar, the majestic statue of Christ the Redeemer on Corcovado mountain, the glamorous Ipanema beach, the Rodrigo de Freitas lagoon, the beautiful botanical garden, the iconic Maracana stadium and the carioca lifestyle places Rio de Janeiro, the former capital of Brazil, undoubtedly among the most beautiful cities in the world.
The grandeurs of the Rio Carnival are known across the globe and to be part of it has always been the dreams of a lot of people. The five-day fiesta, held before Lent, starts on Friday and ends on Fat Tuesday, also known as Mardi Gras. The principle attraction is the samba schools’ parade at the Sambadrome in Rio de Janeiro. Designed by Oscar Niemeyer, it can seat almost a lakh people at a time. For four consecutive nights, samba schools parade competitively for only one to eventually be adjudged the winner. The luxurious extravaganza of these schools with the vibe and rhythm of samba music makes it a great show. The Sambadrome will play host to the 2016 Olympics archery event.
At Copacabana beach, the venue for a couple of open-air sports for the 2016 Olympics – like beach volleyball and marathon swimming – couples lock arms as they stroll along the pavements. Smooth bossa nova music in Portuguese echoes from a beachside kiosk.
Yet this marvelous city has been making news for all the wrong reasons lately. According to a report published by the Rio de Janeiro State Public Security Secretary, in 2014 more than 340,000 robberies, 5800 deaths, 5700 rapes among other crimes had occurred. Recently, a lot of teenagers have been practicing a type of crime, where thefts are preceded by stabbings. Globo TV reported that, in 2014, 2,183 such cases were recorded, accounting for the death of 225, many of them foreign tourists. The most brutal of all these cases was the one where the victim was a doctor. It happened at the Rodrigo de Freitas lagoon set to host the 2016 Olympics rowing competition. “It was a barbaric, gory criminal act, in which the doctor, Jaime Gold, did not even try or had the opportunity to defend himself,” says Rivaldo Barbosa, a police officer investigating the case. On that fateful Tuesday evening, the 57-year-old cardiologist was at the lagoon cycling when he was stabbed to death by a group of teenagers.
Rio is reported to have been seeing a sharp rise in a new type of crime called sequestro relâmpago (lighting kidnaping): the victim is kidnapped at gunpoint along with his/her vehicle and forced to withdraw cash from multiple ATMs. Later, the victim is stripped of all personal belongings and abandoned in a deserted highway. Another kind of crime that seems to concern the authorities is called the arrastão, where a group of criminals surround a crowded location like a beach or a metro and steal each and every object in the vicinity.
Rio, which recently turned 450 years old, has a population of 6.4 million people, with only about 20 to 30 Indian families. Vimarshan Akula, who has been living in Rio de Janeiro since 2010, says, “Rio is a wonderful place, it has the right proportion of culture, colour and nightlife. Something is there for everyone. It is truly a Cidade Maravilhosa.” But he continues, “Safety has always been an issue here, things improved during the World Cup but since then crime has increased again.”
The pacified favelas of Rio
In 2013, the Argentina-born Pope Francis visited Rio de Janeiro. Specifically, he visited a couple favelas (slums) on foot and without his bulletproof vehicle. According to a lot of the Western media, these favelas are some of the most dangerous and crime-ridden places in the world, notorious for their drug crimes, violence and gang warfare. Renato Silva, a 32-year-old from one of the ghettos, was present during the Pope’s visit. He says, “People come here thinking Rio is all shacks, they think Rio is full of crime.” And this is not limited to the foreigners: according to Renato, even Brazilians are terrified of favelas. “There’s still this perception of favelas, people think you can’t move around on your own without bodyguards or bulletproof cars. But it is not like before, the communities are getting better each day.”
In the recent past, Rio de Janeiro’s state government has been trying to get strict measures in place to tackle crime. The state’s governor Luiz Fernando Pezão has said that he has been working with the state security secretary and intelligence agencies to improve public security in Rio. He also announced his government’s intentions to adopt a public-private partnership to carry out social projects to pacify favelas.
In 2014, Brazil staged one of the biggest sporting events in the world, the Football World Cup. Rio played host to seven matches including the finals, and almost a million tourists visited the city of which 471,000 were foreigners. Rio’s security performed impeccably then. Even after losing 7 – 1 to Germany in the semifinals, there were no widespread reports of riots. In one of the matches in the Maracana Stadium, which will be the main venue of the 2016 Olympics, about 100 Chilean fans tried to enter illegally into a sold out match and which was promptly stopped by the security. There were reports of crime, but nothing out-of-the-ordinary considering the magnitude of the event. It was not just visitors who were pleasantly surprised but the Brazilians felt safer, too.
Learning from their mistakes
The people of Rio feel the Olympics will pass by smoothly because it’s not new to such major events: recently, it hosted the 2013 Confederations Cup, the 2014 World Cup, the annual carnivals, Rock in Rio, etc. In 2007, it hosted the Pan-American Games with the participation of 5,600 athletes from 42 countries. The games portrayed Rio as a safe and efficient city to host major international events. There were no major complaints of athletes falling sick or being the victims of crimes, building a record that fetched the city favours when Brazil bid for the football World Cup and the Olympics.
In fact, the budget for the Olympics presented by the organisers recently stood at 38.7 billion Brazilian reais (USD 10 billion). Almost 60% of the total costs are funded by public-private partnerships (PPP), 10% by the federal government and about 30% by the state government. Of this total, 24.6 billion Reais (USD 6.35 billion) are being spent on works that will go toward the people of Rio. Some of the venues, like the Arena of the Future, are to be dismantled and shifted to build four public schools. Similar plans are on for other venues, to transform them into public recreational centres or sports training centres.
A subway link is also set to be laid between the City Centre and Olympics Park, the Bus Rapid Transit System extended by 150 km, and the Metro by 20 km, and Galeão Airport renovated. All these are clear indications that the Brazilians have learnt well from their mistakes and this time, unlike the 2014 World Cup, they are determined to bear the social costs of a city heaving under the weight of the world’s attention, and leave no room for any white elephants.
Aravind Krishnan runs a consulting firm helping Indian companies do business in Brazil and vice-versa. He moved to the country in 2008 and now considers himself a quase Brasileiro.