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

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Why Podemos will defeat the Spanish Socialists

A new alliance on the Spanish Left will be stronger than the sum of its parts.

On Saturday morning, on a palm-tree lined promenade in the small city of Badalona in eastern Catalonia, a 38-year-old woman named Mar García Puig fanned herself with her speaking notes after taking her turn on the stage.

Until six months ago, Puig was a literary editor with no professional experience in politics apart from attending demonstrations and rallies. Then, in December, her life was transformed twice over. In the national election, she won a parliamentary seat for En Comú Podem, the Catalan regional ally of the anti-austerity party Podemos. Four hours after she learned of her victory, Puig gave birth to twins.

Fortunately Puig’s husband, who is a teacher, was able to take paternity leave so that she could take up her seat. In parliament, Puig “felt like an alien”, she told me over coffee. As it turned out, she had to give up her seat prematurely anyway – along with all the other Spanish MPs – when repeated attempts to form a government failed. So now, in the lead-up to Spain’s first repeat election of the modern era, to be held on 26 June, Puig was on the campaign trail once more in a drive to win a parliamentary seat.

The December general election was as historic as it was inconclusive, ushering in a novel political era in Spain and leaving the country with the most fragmented parliament in its history. Fed up with corruption, austerity and a weak recovery from the global financial crisis, voters punished the mainstream parties, ending the 40-year dominance of the conservative Partido Popular (People’s Party) and the centre-left PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party), which have held power since the death of General Franco. Neither group was able to win an absolute majority as new parties from both ends of the political spectrum garnered support from disenchanted voters.

On the left, Podemos, which was only founded in March 2014 by the ponytailed political scientist Pablo Iglesias, won 20 per cent of the vote. Ciudadanos (Citizens), formed in Catalonia a decade ago and occupying the centre left or centre right, depending on which analyst you talk to, secured a 14 per cent share.

Despite having four months to form a coalition government, the two biggest political parties could not reach a deal. The People’s Party, which had implemented a harsh austerity package over the past five years, recorded its worst electoral performance since 1989, losing 16 percentage points. It still won the most votes, however, and Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy was the first leader to be asked by King Felipe VI to form a government.

By the end of January, Rajoy conceded defeat after the PSOE refused to join his “grand coalition”. The Socialists then failed in their own attempt to form a government, leading the king to dissolve parliament and call a fresh election.

Despite the inconvenience of having to campaign nationwide once again – and being away from her twins – Mar García Puig’s enthusiasm for her new career is undiminished. “In Spain there is a window of opportunity,” she said. “There is a receptiveness to politics that there wasn’t before.”

When the repeat elections were called, some questioned whether Podemos and its regional allies could mobilise its supporters to the same extent as in December. Yet Puig believes that the party’s appeal has grown further in the six months that the country has been without a government. “We are still new and Podemos has this freshness – it can still make people join,” she told me.

The following day, as the church bells rang at noon in the Basque city of Bilbao, crowds gathered for another rally. For protection against the sun, Podemos supporters had covered their heads with purple triangular paper hats displaying the party name as it will appear on the ballot paper: Unidos Podemos, or “United We Can”.

In May, Podemos entered into an alliance with Izquierda Unida (United Left), the radical left-wing party that includes the Communist Party of Spain, and which won 3 per cent of the vote in December. Izquierda Unida is headed by Alberto Garzón, a 30-year-old Marxist economist who, according to a poll by the state-run CIS research institute, is the most highly rated party leader in Spain. Unlike Podemos’s Iglesias, who can fire up a crowd and is seen by some as divisive, Garzón is a calm and articulate politician who appeals to disaffected voters.

Nagua Alba, who at 26 is Podemos’s youngest MP, said the new alliance would be stronger than the sum of its parts, because Spain’s voting system punishes smaller parties when it comes to allocating seats in parliament. “It [the alliance] will attract all those people that aren’t convinced yet. It shows we can all work together,” Alba said.

As part of the agreement with Podemos, Izquierda Unida has agreed to drop its demands for a programme of renationalisation and withdrawing Spain from Nato. The alliance is campaigning on a platform of reversing Rajoy’s labour reforms, removing the national debt ceiling, opposing the TTIP trade deal, and increasing the minimum wage to €900 a month. A Unidos Podemos government would attempt to move the EU’s economic policy away from austerity and towards a more expansionist stance, joining a broader effort that involves Greece, Italy and Portugal. It is also committed to offering the Catalans a referendum on independence, a move that the mainstream parties strongly oppose.

The latest polls suggest that Unidos Podemos will become Spain’s second-biggest party, with 26 per cent of the vote, behind Rajoy’s Popular Party. The Socialist Party looks poised to fall into third place, with 21 per cent, and Ciudadanos is expected to hold its 14 per cent share. If the polls are accurate, the PSOE will face a difficult choice that highlights how far its stock has fallen. It can choose to enter as a junior partner into a coalition with the insurgent left, which has politically outmanoeuvred it. Or it could decide to prop up a Partido Popular-led right-wing coalition, serving as a constraint on power. 

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain