RIO DE JANEIRO—Maybe this is all wrong: Poverty Porn Theatre.
Come on up folks, gather ’round to look at the impoverished Cariocas in their native habitat. Up, because the poor people of Rio, crammed into about a thousand favelas, enjoy spectacular vistas looking down toward the wealthy and the sun-dappled sea beyond.
Upside down, an inverse of most sprawling metropolises, because the beggared came up here to squat, building their shanty homes with corrugated tin roofs on public land decades and decades ago, and nobody stopped them.
Far above, the government could close its eyes and say we don’t see them. Therefore, we don’t need to serve them with electricity and clean water and decent public schools. Them being the now 1.4 million citizens who call the favelas home, about 22 per cent of Rio’s population.
They have to pay their taxes, just like anybody else in Brazil, 73 different taxes actually, this the fifth-highest taxed country on the planet, for not much of anything.
No-go places until recently when some – by no means all – of the crime-riddled favelas were “pacified” under a state program to expel drug gangs by initially posting police bases inside these gulags, with their crooked streets so narrow only motorcycles can navigate them – motorcycle taxis too – and their living quarters stacked atop and slapped against each other.
A counter-insurgency, critics called the pacifying mission, which began in earnest in 2008, blaming the raids – with armoured vehicles and state helicopters – and the ensuing “military occupation” for actually creating the new-generation gangster kingpins who coalesced their power while in jail cells – the Red Command and the Third Command the primary criminal entities. The last major shoot-out between the gangs and the law was in Complexo do Alemao, a cluster of favelas – inhabitants call them comunidades – left 37 dead. Many were never pacified, some have slipped back into violence as gangs regrouped and police budgets were slashes. In Alemao, stronghold of the Red Command, someone is hit by a stray bullet on average every five days.
Tourism companies, sending their vans out daily now, avoid Alemao.
Slumming tourism, slumming a term that first appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1884 and referred to the posh rubbing shoulders with the underclass in Whitechapel – for amusement, for entertainment – entices foreigners to ogle at the indigent and the working poor. Where once the entrepreneurs cut security deals with gangsters – hands off, nobody gets hurt – when first the favelas were sized up as potential money-making satellites, as in the townships of Soweto and the squalid mosh-pits of Mumbai, now they are more likely to arrange agreements with non-profit community groups and local activists and cops.
But still. It feels like rude staring, even as I buy crafts from a woman whose mother makes knife-paintings on old vinyl records and peel away from my tour guide to take lunch at a tiny churrascaria where, when I can’t make out the Portuguese-only menu on the chalkboard, the elderly proprietress takes my hand, pulls me into the kitchen and points to various mouth-watering offerings cooking on the stove and grill.
I convince myself – as eminent tour guide Marciello (24 years at it) had assured a small group of us earlier – that our dollars are directly helping the local economy. Someone has brought a shopping bag full of supplies for an independent school – superior to the public version, free as opposed to the private schools where the middle-class and up send their kids but not allowed to grant actual certificates to its graduates.
Mostly, I suspect, we’re seen as walking sacks of cash.
Maybe the residents here in Rocinha don’t actually mind being scrutinized. Certainly they’re friendly and smiling. Nor does Rocinha feel remotely threatening, though it’s early morning of a bright shiny day and these neighbourhoods, with their steep maze of walkways and paths and open-front stores, seem no more sketchy than the lively streets around our Copacabana beach hotel.
Indeed, global celebrities have come here slumming in recent years – Madonna and Beyoncé and David Beckham who, it’s rumoured, has actually bought a favela house. And just down that hill, in that gaudy estate – because the rich and the poor live cheek by jowl in the margins that almost overlap, resided a world-famous plastic surgeon whose clients include (I’ve no way of confirming this) Sophia Loren and the queen of Sweden. Dr. Ivo Pitanguy, an octogenarian who opened his surgery one day a week free of charge to the Rocinha populace, died last week, hours after wheelchairing his segment of the Olympic torch run.
Drug traffickers stopped them.