Interview: Juliana Barbassa, author of ‘Dancing with the Devil in the City of God’

Juliana Barbassa is a reporter with the Associated Press in Rio de Janeiro.
Juliana Barbassa is a reporter with the Associated Press in Rio de Janeiro.

Journalist Juliana Barbassa believes people don’t just like Rio de Janeiro — they want to like it.

“Even if they’re never been there and don’t have a direct connection to it, when you talk about some of the realities that I talk about in the book, people have a strong reaction,” says the author of Dancing With the Devil in the City of God (Touchstone, $27). “It really is an astonishingly beautiful place. It’s physically imposing, with those steep stone facades dropping into ocean, the hills, the forest. . . . Those things are an impressive part of Rio, but there is poverty and violence and environmental devastation.”

Born in Brazil but living all over the world and later settling in the United States to work for The Associated Press, Barbassa returned in 2010 as an AP correspondent in Rio de Janeiro, intrigued by the sense that the city was poised to reinvent itself as a global, modern capital. With the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics looming, the timing was right. What she found, flaws and all, became Dancing With the Devil in the City of God, which she’ll discuss Sunday at Miami Book Fair.

The future of this city she loves is not entirely bleak, she believes: “Brazilians are, above all, resilient,” she writes. “They get to work and save themselves. They’re doing it now — slowly, daily.”

Q. What has changed about Brazil since you returned?

Rio and Brazil are better for most people than when I lived there in the mid and late ’80s. The country transformed from a military government to a democracy. The economy of the country was in shambles, with hyper inflation, street violence, gangs taking over favelas, cocaine, all very negative things for people to deal with, and they were part of everyday life. Not that all those things have improved, but the economy is better for most Brazilians than it was. . . . The middle class has grown: 30 million people went from poverty to the middle class in 10 years. There’s a huge sense that Brazil is no longer that country you thought you knew.

Q. What are some of the problems facing Brazilians now?

Inequality remains very much a part of Brazil. Class and race are huge dividers. Our former president Luíz Inácio da Silva of the Workers Party came from poverty, and when he was elected people had high hopes of a real transformation. He did install programs that did improve the lot of people bordering on hunger, but at the same time it’s easy to take care of the poor. It’s cheap. And money also went to tax breaks for companies, so the rich did really well under his government.

Q. Brazil has been in the news in the wake of the World Cup — and not positively, with reports of corruption, misuse of money, the destruction of homes to make stadiums that now lie empty. Now we’re reading reports that Olympic athletes will have to swim and boat in water so polluted it can cause serious health issues. What does this mean for Brazil’s attempts to change its image?

Brazilians are sensitive to how they’re seen abroad, including the leadership. The pollution is a significant issue, and in Rio this has tremendous consequences. It’s the reality for people who live there, but I don’t think anyone reacted strongly until it was blown up in the international media. All of a sudden people care. It’s terrible that athletes are going to have to be in this environment that could harm their health, but think about what it means for people who live there. People live next to that. Their children play next to that. The lack of sewage treatment and trash collection is real, but most of the wealthy are separated from it. If you have money in Rio, you can secure a certain distance from these issues.

Q. Can international media scrutiny push efforts to improve Rio’s image?

I think it’s helped. The international media comes with different expectations of place, looks at civil rights and the environment and fact-checks claims about the middle class. Do people have running water? Do they have electricity? They come with a different set of questions than the local media, which is used to the status quo. That is a positive thing. But I also feel it’s short term. People come for a few years. We have new bureaus in Rio, but I think they’ll close when the Olympics are over. We better do this for ourselves as Brazilians. Olympic atheletes may have their health affected, but there are millions living in direct contact with this pollution on an everyday basis. I’d like to see a deeper change in attitude in Brazil, but I don’t think there has been one yet.

Meet the author

Who: Juliana Barbassa with David Maraniss and Les Standiford

When: 11:30 a.m. Sunday

Where: Room 2106, Miami Dade College;