Sporting events leave Rio's favela residents terrified

Thais Nascimento Silva, 26, lives in what is left from a building in the Metro Favela in Rio de Janeiro.
Thais Nascimento Silva, 26, lives in what is left from a building in the Metro Favela in Rio de Janeiro. FOR THE MIAMI HERALD

On a recent visit to the future site of Olympic Park, President Dilma Rousseff promised the 2016 Summer Games in Rio would be “the Olympics of all Olympics,” echoing a refrain she used during the chaotic lead-up to the World Cup.

The president said the Olympics would benefit from Brazil’s experience organizing the June12-July13 soccer tournament, which drew praise from hundreds of thousands of foreign tourists.

But that “experience” terrifies some Brazilians, particularly those who live in Rio’s favelas — the culturally rich but materially poor communities that climb the city’s hillsides.

After a last-minute scramble to organize the World Cup, the event went more smoothly than anticipated — but not for favela residents.

For those who live in the path of planned infrastructure projects, the legacy of the mega-sporting events has so far been forced evictions.

Favela do Metro, just 300 yards from the Maracana soccer stadium, is emblematic of what is happening throughout the city and reflects the sometimes overlooked human cost of playing host to huge events.

On Monday, the International Olympic Committee, meeting in Monaco, voted to approve a 40-point program to reform the bidding process. Forced evictions did not appear to be part of the program.

In Favela do Metro, rats roam freely. Mounds of garbage and old furniture pile up, bearing bed frames and spoiled food. Debris from walls and floors violently ripped out of homes remains.

Brazilian officials started evicting residents by force and simultaneously demolishing this decades-old favela prior to the World Cup, purportedly as part of the massive infrastructure upgrade required by the global soccer tournament and the Olympics, planned for August 2016.

Then midway through, the demolition stopped, and the community was left to fester.

Rusty metal wires now stick out of six-foot-high piles of rubble. Sofa cushions, tires and old clothes comprise the landscape. It looks like the neighborhood has been bombed.

Fabio Arsenio Vidal, 19, holds his 16-month-old daughter just a few feet from where a neighbor killed a rat the day before.

In three adjacent homes, laundry hangs outside one, another has a shattered top floor but people still living on the lower level, and a third has been obliterated. The destroyed and semi-demolished homes are symbolic of the haphazard way city officials have treated this community.

A desperate cry for help is scrawled on a wall: “Nois nao somos bicho pra ser despejados em desse forma.” (“We are not animals to be discarded in this way.”)

Even in Brazil’s October elections, the closest in decades and a contest in which Rousseff and challenger Aecio Neves tried to outdo each other in their commitment to the poor, Favela do Metro’s plight did not register on the politicians’ radar.

No major political candidate, national or local, set foot here, although it’s not hard to get to, sharing a Metro station with Maracana.

But in stark contrast to the lush, manicured pitch there, where Olympics matches will be played, Favela do Metro lacks running water.

Nearby, Thais Nascimento Silva, 26, expresses frustration over her plight. She has lived here since she was 12 years old but says she has yet to receive any relocation offer.

“We feel very abandoned,” she said. “They want to get rid of the poor and ugly part of the city.”

Favela do Metro isn’t the only community feeling the negative impact of hosting major sporting events.

Recently, residents of Vila Uniao protested their homes being cleared to build the BRT-TransOlimpica rapid bus system.

Also, the community of Vila Autodromo, which lies within the planned Olympic Park, protested their own forced evictions.

What happened in Favela do Metro, though, stands out for its harshness.

“The case of Metro is easily the most brutal eviction we have seen in post-democratic Rio de Janeiro,” said Theresa Williamson, founder of Catalytic Communities, an NGO based in Rio.

It also marks the return to the strategy of forced evictions after a period during which the government sought to preserve favelas. In the 20 years following the 1988 ratification of Brazil’s constitution, there were few, if any, evictions.

One consequence of how Favela do Metro has been neglected is that many newcomers have moved in — despite precarious conditions. Some are drug traffickers.

Others are genuinely seeking a better life. Some criticize them as squatters, but for Bianca da Silva, 32, and her husband, Joao Alves de Souza, 27, this is an upgrade to their previous home — where they lived before, on the streets.

Leaving Favela do Metro idle has also fueled suspicions that it is part of a larger Brazil government plan to clear out the poor before real-estate developers move in.

“The city takes any chance there is to remove people,” said Williamson, “and create opportunities for real-estate construction.”

Rio de Janeiro city officials offer a more upbeat assessment of what is happening in Favela do Metro.

In an email, a press official denied there were demolitions in favelas. She called them “resettlements,” adding that residents consented and had plenty of notice. Many were moved to public housing under the Minha Casa, Minha Vida program, a centerpiece of Rousseff’s administration. Others received compensation, she said.

But residents here and other witnesses refute those claims.

The evictions, which started in 2010 and continued through this year, were violent and involved police, they say. “Most families did not know until the day, and were forced onto a bus,” said Williamson, who has been following the process.

The initial justification given was to build a parking lot here for Maracana ahead of the World Cup. That didn’t happen.

Families were initially sent across town, at least two hours away by bus. Those who resisted eviction were moved to nearby public housing. Some prefer their new homes.

“There is no comparison to where I am now,” said Francisco Lima Santos, 42, who lived in Favela do Metro until 2012 when he was moved to the nearby Mangueira complex.

What to do about Brazil’s favelas is a long-running question.Rio de Janeiro’s most infamous favela, Cidade de Deus or City of God, which gained notoriety from the 2002 film of the same name, was originally conceived as a public housing complex in the 1960s.

At that time, Carlos Lacerda, then governor of what was called Guanabara, which encompassed Rio, sought to extinguish the city’s favelas.

Officials moved residents by force to an area far from where they had lived and named the new complex City of God, hoping that would make them want to live there. It even received support from President John F. Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress initiative.

In 2011, Amnesty International sent a letter to the International Olympic Committee criticizing forced evictions.

The organization issued another critical statement last year. It said it found numerous violations, including “a lack of access to information, lack of dialogue with the communities, insufficient notice/warning, relocation in areas far away or inadequate, and very low financial compensation, including those who received nothing.”

Since then, little appeared to have changed. In June, with the World Cup in full swing, respected Brazilian NGO Conectas pressed the issue at the United Nations Human Rights Council.

Brazil’s national government released a report in July, its first acknowledgment of the problem. The report listed those affected but without compensation.

Many called the report insufficient, including Raquel Rolnik, Special Rapporteur of the U.N. Human Rights Council on the right to adequate housing.

She wrote on her blog that it was positive the government finally recognized there was a problem but said its response was late, incomplete and vastly under-reported the number of Brazilians removed from their homes.

Meanwhile, conditions grow more dire in Favela de Metro. Barbara Cabral Souza, 38, says that city officials have yet to offer her a way out.

The shops and jobs that were once here are gone; there is no security presence, and drug dealers have become her neighbors.

“We are prisoners inside our own city,” she said.

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