Brasil is not Rio

The Olympics are arriving in a year and it is only a matter of time before thousands of journalists parachute into Rio as they did last year during the months before the World Cup. Rio de Janeiro is unquestionably one of the world’s most beautiful cities. It is a magnet for foreign journalists and tourists and a great place to take a vacation, but it is not a microcosm of Brasil. The fact that foreigners use it as a springboard to make sweeping generalizations about Brasil and the Brazilian people generates huge misunderstandings.  I call it the Rio effect.  I spent 8 years of my life in the marvelous city and have a few theories as to how generalizing about Brasil based on short experiences in Rio de Janeiro can lead to misconceptions about how this country works.

Rio de Janeiro is unique among large Brazilian cities in that it has never had a mayor from either  PT or PSDB – the two political parties that have controlled the presidency for the past 21 years.  It is governed by elite families and their alleged organized crime cronies who normally align themselves with whoever is in power nationally.  This leads to serious mischaracterizations about national level politics through faulty inductive reasoning based on the local political context.

One case in point is ‘Brazil’s Dance with the Devil’ by Dave Zirin. While researching for the book, Zirin spent a few weeks in Rio de Janeiro led around by anglophone pundits who had their own agendas to push. He failed to speak with any national level union, PT or popular social movement leader and ended up with a book, published during election year, that compares center-left former President Lula to Satan. Why would someone who calls himself a progressive demonize a man who, while deserving criticism for bringing the World Cup and Olympics to Brasil, doubled the minimum wage, ended the hunger crisis and substantially increased health and education spending?

Unlike cities such as Recife, São Paulo and Porto Alegre, the organized poor peoples’, or “popular” social movements that were fundamental for PT’s rise to power are tiny in Rio de Janeiro.  Rio has a long history of popular struggle but since the 1980s, nearly 100% of the geographical territory in Rio’s poor neighborhoods and favelas has been controlled by death squads, paramilitary militias and drug trafficking gangs. These organizations operate like parallel governments, administering justice, regulating informal real estate transactions and brokering service delivery with local political parties. Most of them do not allow autonomous social movements to operate within their territory.   Whereas social movements such as the MTST, CMP and MNLM can bring 10,000 people to a street protest at the drop of a hat in other cities they have a hard time mobilizing 100 people in Rio. The fact that they have achieved anything in this hostile environment is a testimony to the bravery of their small but militant membership, but their relative weakness in Rio has led to a lot of confusion  about Brasilian social movements and their relationship with PT. Rio does have an active, intellectual and middle class left which produces important social movements of its own, but these shouldn’t be confused with the historic movimentos populares.

Favelas are a result of Brasil’s housing shortage and although you could say that every favela, being self-constructed, has its own personality and characteristics, many Rio de Janeiro favelas are unique in that a large (but shrinking) number of them are patrolled by machine gun-toting teenagers. The hundreds of news stories about “Brasil’s favela problem” featuring gun toting teens in Vila Aliança, Antares or Acari, focus on a very unique situation. This is not to say that drug gangs don’t operate in many other favelas across the country, but the way they do it is not as sexy for the violence-thirsty international media. Furthermore, spending an hour talking to some residents’ association leader in a favela  hardly qualifies one to make sweeping generalizations about poverty in Brasil, especially since 65% of favela residents are middle class.

Brasil is huge and for hundreds of years important cities like Rio, Salvador, Recife, São Luis and Belém had more contact with Portugal than they did with their neighbors. This has led to great regional differences. São Paulo and Rio don’t just feel like different countries, they feel like different planets as do most of the other state capitals. I’ve given up counting the number of times I’ve heard foreigners make sweeping generalizations about Brasilians based on Carioca’s local cultural idiosyncrasies. “Brazilians, they’ll agree to meet you somewhere and never show up,” is a common complaint.

In many cities and towns across Brasil, even in much poorer areas like the Northeast, the public institutions work. I am proud that both of my sons were born in public hospitals in the Northeast and that my stepdaughter goes to a good public school in São Paulo. I’ve gone into public health posts in little towns in the Northeast and been treated for free by a doctor or dentist within half an hour.  The public institutions in Rio de Janeiro are, for the most part, dysfunctional. This is not “Dilma’s fault”. The federal government sets guidelines and allocates money but is not involved in the management of the schools and hospitals and does not control the state civil police and local auditing courts, who have the greatest responsibility for investigating corruption. Public services have improved tremendously in most of Brasil since I first moved here in 1991 but there is still a lot of room for improvement. It is a developing nation and northerners shouldn’t expect a Swedish level of public services when they arrive here. Nevertheless Rio’s horrible public services are not indicative of Brasil, shouldn’t be treated as such and this problem has nothing to do with needing more money for health and education instead of stadiums.

Corruption is replacing human rights issues as a tool for attacking third world governments. The problem exists everywhere, as the 2008 sub-prime mortgage crisis and US bank bailout showed. There have been terrible examples of national level corruption under every presidency I have ever lived in, in both the US and Brasil.  Although it exists everywhere, some places are more corrupt than others. Many of the things that are legally done in Chicago, my home town, such as no-bid contracting, would be considered criminal behavior according to Brasilian law.  Brasil has led pioneering efforts for public transparency and control over spending that have been copied around the world. The most famous example is participatory budgeting, present in 350 Brazilian and 1200 foreign cities. There are many others, including mandatory participatory planning and citizen’s councils with deliberative power over different sectors of municipal, state and federal budgets.   You don’t see any of this working in Rio.  Nevertheless, it is common to see the Rio case treated as indicative of the entire country by foreigners living there and by the foreign media.  By corruption standards, you could say that Rio is the Chicago of Brasil.  Nobody would write an article declaring Chicago corruption as indicative of the American system and it is just as ridiculous to make sweeping generalizations using Rio as an example for Brasil.

I would like to think that as the Olympics arrive the foreign media and reading public will learn from the mistakes made during the lead up to the World Cup. Hopefully, the fact that there won’t be a presidential election next year will keep a lid on the smear campaigns, the violence pornography, the stereotypes and the simplistic, gratuitous attacks on Brasil and its people. One step in the right direction will be if people can start understanding that Rio de Janeiro may be a small and important part of this great nation, but it is not synonymous with Brasil.


By Brian Mier

Writer, geographer and former development professional who has lived in Brazil for 26 years. Former directorate member of the Fórum Nacional de Reforma Urbana (National Urban Reform Forum). Has lived in São Luis, Recife, Salvador, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Author of “Os Megaeventos Esportivos na Cidade do Rio de Janeiro e o Direito á Cidade” (CEPR: Porto Alegre. 2016). Editor of "Voices of the Brazilian Left" (Sumare: São Paulo. 2018). Editor of "Year of Lead: Washington, Wall Street and the New Imperialism in Brazil" ((Sumare: São Paulo. 2019) Irregular correspondent for the Chicago radio show This is Hell.