Rio's infrastructure has seen big improvements, notably a new metro line that makes Barra da Tijuca more accessible than it has ever been. Despite these upgrades, the city remains in a deep recession, brought on by an economic and political crisis partly stemming from overspending on the Olympics. Meanwhile, corruption has inspired a growing number of female activists to enter the political arena. Their aim: to bring a new era of social justice to a city grappling with deep-rooted inequalities.
One of Rio’s most illustrious periods was during the Summer Olympics in 2016. By all accounts the games were a huge success for the city, and cariocas (residents of Rio) took pride in the huge projects that transformed the town ahead of the event: the glittering new metro line extending all the way down to Barra, the high-tech light-rail system zipping around the city center, and a rejuvenated port district, complete with grand museums and a pedestrian boulevard lined with magnificent, large-scale street art.
In the weeks following the games, hopes were high for the Olympics to usher in a new era of prosperity and development. Unfortunately, things didn’t go as planned. Many new sporting arenas constructed for the games were abandoned, despite government promises to convert them into venues for the community. Further investment in infrastructure and social projects didn’t happen, as city coffers ran dry – owing in large part to a huge corruption scandal that involved both state and federal politicians. Rio’s governor Sergio Cabral (along with a group of senior government officials and businessmen) siphoned tens of millions of reais from public construction projects. When he was arrested in November 2016, federal prosecutors suspected him of leading an organized-crime ring that diverted over R$200 million in bribes. The following year he was sentenced to 14 years in prison for corruption and money laundering.
An estimated US$13 billion was spent on the Olympics, only slightly more than the US$11 billion spent on the 2014 World Cup. Such enormous spending contributed to a recession that crippled the Brazilian economy. Six months after the games the unemployment rate had doubled and GDP had fallen more than 8%. The wages and pensions of public employees had been cut by 30%. Soon the city was in a full-scale economic crisis and declared a state of calamity as its debt reached around US$6 billion: several hospitals had to close their doors owing to lack of funding; local-government employees and teachers were staging constant protests because they weren’t getting paid – some for months; and homelessness doubled. With a smaller police presence, violence returned to the favelas (slums, informal communities), and there were frequent gun battles between rival gangs and between gangs and invading police. Some schools in troubled areas had to close due to the constant dangers posed to the students.
By early 2018, with crime spiraling out of control, the Brazilian president Michel Temer signed a decree ordering the army to take control of Rio’s security situation – a step not taken since the fall of the military dictatorship in the 1980s. Despite the military presence, crime continued to be a problem, and critics declared the military intervention to be little more than a publicity stunt. In fact, for residents of the favelas, the military only made their lives worse: coordinated raids led by tanks and thousands of heavily armed soldiers created violent confrontations with drug gangs, and innocent people sometimes got caught in the crossfire.
New Political Voices
Anger over the corruption scandals led to a surge of new voices clamoring for thorough revision of Brazil’s failing political system. Formally marginalized groups rose to the fore, powered by grassroots activism and a public increasingly disenchanted with the status quo. Marielle Franco, elected to the city council in 2016, led the charge for change. As a black, lesbian woman who grew up in a favela, Franco spoke for the disenfranchised, and she was a leading light for both the black-rights movement and the LGBT community. Her charisma and bravery in the face of a corrupt regime earned her the admiration of many in Rio – but it also made her many enemies. Sadly, she was assassinated in 2018, and some suspect her political adversaries of being responsible for the crime. Her death sent shockwaves around the country, and tens of thousands turned out to protest her murder and demonstrate that ‘Marielle e presente’ (‘Marielle is here’). Indeed, far from silencing Franco, her executioners have only inspired others to rise up in her place, with activists such as Mônica Francisco, Thais Ferreira and Renata Souza continuing the fight to bring a better future to Rio de Janeiro.