A shameful Brazilian legacy

Why hosting the World Cup and Olympic Games is bad for Rio de Janeiro.

For all its golden beaches and panoramic hillsides, Rio de Janeiro is a dangerous place. Homicide is the number one cause of death in “La Cidade Maravilhosa” and its numerous favelas have gained global infamy as the crucible for the city’s endemic drugs problem. Recently, Brazil became the world’s largest market for crack-cocaine, largely due to the rampant network of drug-traffickers that tyrannize the country’s cityscapes.
 
For a country scheduled to host both the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games, this is an enormous issue.

On Sunday, over 1,300 military policemen swept through two of Rio’s most notorious favelas – Manguinhos and Jacarezinho – in a substantial pre-dawn operation. Flanked by a phalanx of armoured vehicles and with helicopters hovering above, military policemen armed with high-calibre assault rifles poured into the slums. 60 kilograms of cocaine was seized and three suspected traffickers were arrested.

More importantly, control was restored to a portion of the city once lost to drug barons.

Sergio Cabral, Rio’s state governor, hailed the operation as “another step toward peace, for reducing the number of homicides, car thefts, and home break-ins”.

These operations have become commonplace in Rio as part of a wider security initiative to install “Police Pacification Units” (UPPs) – semi-permanent police forces – in the city’s most troublesome favelas. With the World Cup and Olympic Games fast approaching, UPPs have become the centrepiece of the city’s campaign to clean-up its image and tackle its perennial drug issues.

Beginning in December 2008, 6700 military police have installed 29 UPPs to reclaim territory lost to drug-traffickers, with 11 more planned before the World Cup’s opening fixture.

The brainchild of the initiative, Rio's Security Secretary Jose Beltráme, hailed the success of the UPPs as a “major victory for society, for the people, for public service”.

However, many of the city’s residents aren’t convinced.  

“It’s not guns that are going to make things better: It’s services. Things like running water, sewage, and shoring up unstable hillsides that can slip when it rains. And those aren’t here”, Jose Martins de Oliveira, a local resident of Rocinha, told the Associated Press.

Others protest that the measures serve only to displace the violence, with drug gangs simply upping sticks and moving to the city’s north-western favelas that lie beyond the reach of the UPP programme.

But this is the very essence of the initiative: redirecting the flow of crime away from wealthy areas set to host the mega-events and towards Rio’s more peripheral shanty towns, far away from the hordes of FIFA/IOC delegates and far away from the camera lens. In some cases, the government has even erected enormous walls to hide its shame.

And while these communities are forced to cope with an influx of drug traffickers, the residents in Rio’s “pacified” favelas don’t have it much better.

Rio’s police force has a nefarious reputation for brutality. Human Rights Watch reported that the rate of civilian deaths at the hands of Rio’s police was a staggering 57 times higher than in the US. This predilection for extra-judicial assassination is further encouraged by the chronic failure of the state’s justice apparatus to hold policemen accountable for murder, as courts rely almost entirely on police investigations for their inquiries.

The end product is a police force with almost total impunity and officers routinely opting for bullets instead of dialogue.

As Beltráme admitted himself: “In Brazil, the law is dictated by assault rifles”.

To make matters worse, the complex relationship between favela residents and drug traffickers has blurred the boundary between the two. Often, favela communities who are provided services by drug gangs are seen as complicit in the criminality. 

“We were so hopeful”, Martins de Oliveira told the Associated Press.

“But now it seems we’ve traded the guns of traffickers for the guns of the police”.

The UPPs are essentially a top-down approach to a bottom-up problem. Instead of instilling martial law, the state must address the chronic lack of investment in vital services such as housing, public health, and education to confront the systemic failures of Brazilian capitalism.

What it has done instead has created a dual city: an Olympic city of opulence and a non-Olympic city plagued by the tyranny of unfettered crime and banalised police brutality. Ultimately, Rio's favela communities find themselves wedged between the iron fist of the law and the merciless violence of turf wars. 

Undeniably, the UPPs have produced results: homicides are down, robberies have fallen sharply and real estate prices have soared.

But this has come at a cost: growing social dislocation, urban militarisation and the erosion of civil liberties.

The World Cup and Olympic Games will certainly go some way towards cementing Brazil’s reputation as an emerging global player, but it will leave its people with a far more sinister legacy.

A policeman salutes the Brazilian flag after conquering Complexo de Alemão . Photo: Reuters

Alex Ward is a London-based freelance journalist who has previously worked for the Times & the Press Association. Twitter: @alexward3000

Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko
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Ruin porn: the art world’s awkward obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture

Deserted fairgrounds, disused factories and forgotten military bases may look cool, but are we fetishising the remnants of such a cruel history?

Armenia, where one side of my family is from, was one of the first members of the USSR, annexed by Russia in 1922. A few years ago, when I visited this little country that perches precariously in the south of the Caucasus, I was struck most by its Soviet architecture.

Although its landscape is a hotchpotch of medieval Orthodox churches, a smattering of Persian-era domes, and brutalist concrete, it was the latter that particularly stuck out. From unfelled statues of Stalin to giant tower blocks spelling out the letters “CCCP” from a bird’s-eye view (well, half spelt-out – construction stopped partway through, with the fall of the Soviet Union), I’ve never forgotten it.

Perhaps it was so compelling because such stark physical symbols make recent history all the more tangible. A history still profoundly affecting the country of my ancestors (and all post-Soviet and communist states). But also, it just looked really cool.


Mixed air corps, Mongolia. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Eric Losito

It’s a bit passé now to mock the hipster obsession with reclaimed industrial detritus, exposed pipes and bare concrete. An aesthetic – that of a post-industrial wasteland, but a chic one – which has gripped western cities for years, and crept worldwide.

But it could be this tendency to find disused stuff visually intriguing, and a morbid fascination with cruel regimes, which has led to the art world’s obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture. A whole wave of artists and photographers have been poking around the eastern bloc’s architectural graveyard in recent years.

Late last year, we saw the hugely popular disused Soviet bus stop series by photographer Christopher Herwig, echoing photographer Sergey Novikov’s equally absorbing collection of abandoned Soviet cinemas from 2013.

Following Russian filmmaker and photographer Maria Morina’s “Atomic Cities” project four years ago, London-based artist Nadav Kander explored the “aesthetics of destruction” in his exhibition, Dust, in 2014, snapping “radioactive ruins” of secret cities on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia. The same year, Moscow photographers Sasha Mademuaselle and Sergey Kostromin travelled to the disputed region of Abkhazia, capturing fragments of its deserted infrastructure.


Fighter aviation regiment, Mongolia. Photo: Eric Losito
 

And photojournalist Anton Petrus’ now iconic pictures of Chernobyl’s abandoned amusement park have long been an internet favourite, as have numerous haunting images of Pripyet – the city famous for lying deserted following the nuclear disaster.

Jamie Rann, a lecturer in Russian at Oxford University, has written that the quality and technical accomplishment of most of this photography make the style more “ruin erotica” than “ruin porn” (the tag being used by some critics), but argues: “The enormous online popularity of this genre . . . combined with their voyeuristic, almost exploitative feel, certainly has something porny about it.”

The latest exploration of Soviet society’s skeletons can be found at the Power & Architecture season at London’s Calvert 22 Foundation. In an exhibition called Dead Space and Ruins, we see abandoned military bases and formerly mighty monuments, forgotten space ports freezing in the tundra, the ghost of an entire unused, unfinished city in Armenia lying derelict.



The unfinished "ghost city" built in Armenia to house earthquake survivors (water added by artist). Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Vahram Aghasyan

The works are beautiful, but do they feed in to this zeitgeisty lust for Soviet ruins?

One of its curators, Will Strong, laments this trend. “I was keen that this didn’t become like a kind of ‘ruin lust’, ‘ruin porn’ thing; this slightly buzzwordy term that there is at the moment, this kind of fetishisation of dead space,” he tells me.

“This history is incredibly loaded, and it did not end in 1991. To sort of fetishise it in the very bourgeois western way of, ‘oh yeah, look at all this wonderful Soviet architecture, isn’t it fantastic?’ Obviously a lot of people who lived in that time hated it . . . a lot of people were very miserable under these regimes, so it’s important not to forget that.”


Gym at the Independent Radar Centre of Early Detection, Latvia. Photo: Eric Losito

He adds: “It’s more a point of reflection on how buildings were designed, what their legacy is, what their narrative is, and who the people are who live with that story. This show looks at the aftermaths of when utopia hasn’t been delivered.”

This view is echoed by the Moscow artist, Danila Tkachenko, whose work is featured in the exhibition. “It is rather a metaphor for the future, not the past,” he says. “It represents an image of a possible future. When there is a visualisation of this issue [utopia], it evokes a response in people; they see this utopia in their lives . . . There is disappointment in all utopias.”


The world's largest diesel submarine, in Russia's Samara region. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko

His Restricted Areas series explores great behemoths of European communism left to lie forgotten in the tundra of remote regions in and around Russia and Kazakhstan: the world’s largest diesel submarine, like a beached whale in the snow; a giant satellite, thatched with antennae, built to communicate with Soviet bases on other planets some day; the deserted flying saucer-like communist headquarters in a region of Bulgaria. The structures hover in blank, white space, making the photos appear black-and-white.


Deserted observatory, Kazakhstan's Almaty region. Photo: Danila Tkachenko
 

Anton Ginzburg is an artist who grew up in St Petersburg in the Eighties as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. He believes studies like his film, Turo, of disused modernist constructions in the post-Soviet bloc, appeal to people’s connection to history. After all, picking through the architectural carcasses of former societies isn’t exactly a new thing:

“Russian culture is still haunted by its Communist past, and constructivist architecture is a decaying shell for its ghosts. It is an active reminder of the recent history,” he reflects. “Perhaps [its appeal] is a mixture of memento mori, with its thrill of beauty and destruction, along with a Romantic tradition of contemplation of Greek and Roman ruins.”

(Anton Ginzburg Turo teaser from Visionaireworld on Vimeo.)

The Power & Architecture season is on at the Calvert 22 Foundation, London, from 10 June-9 October 2016. Entry is free.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.