Last week, a feature story from Travel + Leisure Magazine began circulating amongst Cariocas and Rio gringos, and I thought it was worth analyzing.
The article, entitled Revitalizing Rio de Janeiro, was written by an enthusiastic New York and London-based journalist and details Rio's reemergence as a city and a destination. I recommend reading the whole piece first. Go ahead, I'll wait.
On one hand, the article really does a fantastic job of giving Rio great and well-deserved PR. Tourists are sometimes intimidated by Rio, and the article is very encouraging to those who might have their doubts. More tourism in the long run (rather than relying soley for the two upcoming mega-events) is one of the ultimate goals in upgrading the city's infrastructure. Also, it's important to note that the article is written with a specific audience in mind - a worldly and well-heeled crowd, much more so than your run-of-the-mill vacation seeker.
It's tempting to become starry-eyed when you travel in Rio, especially if it's your first time. It's extremely difficult not to fall in love with the city and sometimes it can be hard not to romanticize even one's own experiences. So I definitely can relate, since it's tempting to want to extoll the virtues of a place that is so easy to love, at the outset. I've also found that with stories like this, particularly features on Rio, the tendency is to either be very positive (some Cariocas described the story as ufanista, or excessively patriotic) or very negative (see this ESPN story, for example) But it's also important to be realistic and rational, and here are some areas I thought were worth discussing.
It's true that Rio seems to be bursting at the seams with optimism, something I also noticed on my recent trip. Many Cariocas are happy with changes in Rio, some stemming from preparations to play host to the World Cup and the Olympics in the next few years, be it extended subway lines or improved public safety (though I'll get to that in a minute). But I also think that economic growth has a lot to do with the optimism, since people are much happier when they have money in their wallets and greater prospects for the future. The overall growth of the Brazilian economy and its immediate effects on the local economy, as well as the growing importance of Rio as a hub for multinational companies and the effects of the influx of those new people and businesses, have been a large part of the everyday optimism you might see.
On the other hand, not all Cariocas are brimming with optimism. Many are still frustrated with public security, and everyone is unhappy with rising prices, which have reached exorbitant levels in some areas, like real estate. Also, after it was recently announced that Maracanã Statidum would only host the finals of the World Cup, which means the Brazilian national team may not even play there, some Cariocas voiced their frustration with the multi-million dollar reforms that may have very little impact on the city or its people in the long run.
The Travel + Leisure story closes with some quotes from Regina Casé, which some found to be off-putting. She's quoted as saying: “In Rio, we invite all the problems to a big party and we let them dance together.”
One of my readers, Claudio, a Carioca illustrator, explained his thoughts.
"Yeah, things are a bit better here, but mostly because 'rock bottom = no place to go but up.' I live on the West Side of Rio, not too far from Barra beach. The traffic has only gotten worse, and you get gridlocked regardless of rush hours. I don't go out at night, because the streets aren't really safe, with criminals posing as cops and putting up false checkpoints to rob citizens. Regina Casé's notion of 'we invite problems and let them dance' is actually a philosophy that somewhat brought this whole mess upon ourselves. Brazilians (and cariocas) have a tendency of getting too complacent, of finding a way around problems instead of trying to solve them. There is nothing to be proud of in that kind of mentality."
2. Beach democracy
While at first glance it might seem like Rio's beaches are "democratic," since people from different social classes frequent them. But it's not quite the case. Beaches tend to be segmented by social class - in Copacabana and Ipanema, for example, each "post" tends to have a specific group. While Posto 9 has traditionally been a hang out for the wealthy, other posts tend to have beachgoers from working-class suburbs or from favelas. Even Prainha, which is small in comparison, has fragmented segments. It's an unspoken rule that everyone should stay in his or her place - even on the beach. As for Vik Muniz's allegation that Cariocas drop everything to go to the beach every day at 4PM - I can only imagine that maybe he was taken out of context. Even he knows that the very large majority those who work are hardly running from the office to the beach. Most are just getting out of work and trying to go home at the end of the day.
One of the lines in the story that seemed to bother Cariocas was the author's claim that "it’s pointless being a snob in Rio." There was also the bit that said, "In Rio de Janeiro, those who have privilege admire those who don’t." That snobbery doesn't exist in Rio is laughable, and I found it odd that considering that the author seemed to spend a good deal of time amongst the wealthy, he didn't seem to notice (or maybe didn't want to point it out).
Fellow blogger Corin, who's written extensively about Brazil, told me this in reference to the snobbery aspect:
"When, for instance, I told a friend of mine who lives in Ipanema that I'd spent the day out in Madureira, his response was actually "EW" -- as if "poor" were contagious. Another person -- on the way to her gated condo complex near Angra -- told me that "whenever we find some beautiful place, 'they' have to go and make it look ugly [by constructing a favela]." (She didn't seems to wonder or care where "the help" lived -- only that they were neither seen nor heard.) I've always had the distinct feeling that there's a whole class of folks for whom 'Rio de Janeiro' extends only as far as North as Centro -- and even then only the 'asfalto."
On the other hand, it's true that some members of the upper class like to play down their social status, it certainly doesn't mean they admire those who live in favelas. Claudio explained it this way:
"Now, if you go to an upscale shopping mall, it's common to see wealthy 20-somethings wearing tattered jeans, flip-flops and a flimsy t-shirt. It's trendy among the youth in Rio to downplay how wealthy they are, to proudly proclaim how they go to pagode houses in Lapa or eat standing at the counter of this or that streetside bar, etc. On the other hand, middle-class or lower-middle-class people usually "dress up" when they go to the mall. Kinda topsy-turvy, really."
But other than social reformers and those who work with NGOs, you'd be hard-pressed to find upper class Cariocas that defend the existence of favelas, or boast of having friends there.
4. Flip Flops
I was a little confused by the author's claim that he saw people wearing flip flops at City Hall. Business attire is pretty strict, and it's unthinkable that a professional would show up to work in flip flops, especially in government. My best guess is that they were lost tourists, or maybe some construction workers passing through.
I think this was the part of the article that was the most problematic, since much of the references to crime and security were written in the past tense. Unfortunately, it's not the case that Rio's security problems are a thing of the past. There was one part of the article where a person seemed to imply that people no longer use bullet proof cars, and declared that people roll down their windows now. People who drive cars without air conditioning have always been rolling down their windows, and for those who can afford it (a small elite), bullet-proofed vehicles are still the norm. The author also quotes Fernando Gabeira as saying, “Security is an impression as much as it is a reality. If people think things are better, they are better.” While I'd agree this is more applicable to economics - even the impression of wealth has helped generate even more optimism around the economy - it doesn't apply as much to security.
While Rio has come a long way, crime statistics are still grim. Though murder rates have supposedly gone down (though there's speculation about those numbers), other crimes are on the rise. Flash kidnappings, for example, more than doubled for the period of April to June from 2010 to 2011.
Crime still plagues many of Brazil's big cities. A recent IBOPE report found that 51 percent of Brazilians consider public security as bad or terrible. Greg Michener summarized the report on his blog:
"Within the last twelve months more than 51% of Brazilians give public safety a failing grade; 79% say they have witnessed or experienced some type of crime within the last 12 months; 63% say they avoid carrying money while circulating around their respective cities; 57% report that they have increased the caution they take when leaving their houses; and 54% avoid going out at night."
On my recent trip to Rio, my husband and his friends were reminiscing about friends who had died young. A friend who lives in the Zona Norte, one of the working class suburbs, matter-a-factly commented that he'd witnessed executions from his window. "The cost of life is so cheap," he said. Then he changed the subject.
After the IBOPE report came out, Rio-based crime reporter Jorge Antonio Barros asked his readers on Twitter how they have changed their habits to avoid crime. One reader who lives in Rio wrote: "I haven't changed any habits. It's just that I don't walk around with money. I always have my debit card and my metro card. If I get robbed, I give up everything and block the cards later."
The article seems to imply that militias are a thing of the past. They're still very much a problem, particularly in the Zona Oeste and Zona Norte. And even though the government has been cracking down on them, it's unclear if impunity will reign as usual. Just this weekend, prison officials were forced to explain why 2,600 cans of beer were delivered to a prison, likely to be served to former police officers behind bars for a range of crimes. In September, a former police officer accused of 16 murders escaped from the same prison, and once he was out, he allegedly began plotting to murder a local politician. So in the Travel + Leisure article, when it said (past tense) that the poor used to fear police, and the wealthy were skeptical of police, it really should have said that many people, regardless of social class, still fear the police.
So it's always nice to see an article like this, especially in contrast to some of the more bleak pieces on poverty and crime. But it's also nice to see some perspective. Corin described her thoughts on the article. "I mean, I guess anyone would like to visit the Rio he went to: the political left and right are singing kumbaya, the poor are respected, the rich are respectful, and even the models don't have eating disorders." The Rio in this article is the kind of Rio everyone is hoping for, but isn't quite there yet.