By Julia Vargas Mondragon
Three weeks ago, the media was talking about the republican and democratic national conventions; then, Hillary Clinton finally gaining advantage over Donald Trump in the national polls. Attention has shifted from politics to the Summer Olympics. We all want to know about Michael Phelps’ newest medal, Simone Biles’ talent, how the whole USA gymnastics team got to meet Zach Efron, and who broke the latest world record.
More recently we heard about Ryan Lochte’s claim that guns where pointed at him, and a whole international scandal involving the Olympic Committee and the local police followed. We have the attention span of a child who cannot decide what toy to play with after receiving his Christmas presents. We forget to see what’s behind the screen, what is on the other side, and what is actually happening in Brazil; this scandal is a reminder of the rapid socio-economic transformation that Rio has experienced for the sake of world sports entertainment.
The city of Rio de Janeiro has seen an extreme landscape transformation since Brazil was selected host for both the FIFA World Cup of 2014 and the Summer Olympics of 2016. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and FIFA expect and demand from any host city/ country to be prepared for the innumerable amount of tourists and athletes that will reside for the longevity of such events. The expectations include increasing public services, improving transportation systems, building or re-constructing stadiums and facilities, and increasing security in order to be able to hold the tourism capacity that comes along with hosting these events.
When Brazil was granted the hosting rights from FIFA and the IOC in 2007, its GDP growth was of 6.06%, Brazil had become in the eyes of many, the future of Latin America, the fastest emerging economy in the world. Today, Brazil’s GDP growth is -4.04%, lower than it has been in over 15 years.
What happened during that time? Preparation for mega-events happened. I am not saying that hosting these events is the one and only reason why Brazil is facing difficult times, but it is a factor. To prepare for these events, the Brazilian government invested in the adaptation of the city of Rio, particularly the ‘pacification’ of favelas.
What is a favela? The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) defines favelas as large neighborhoods with high-density populations, living in extreme poverty, and unsanitary conditions. Just like a slum, but these happen to be more common in Rio given its immense income gap.
Why where favelas a concern for the event- planners? The government has struggled to maintain vigilance over favelas for decades and one of the security strategies implemented by the local government in preparation for these mega-events was to create a new branch in the police force called Police Pacifying Units (UPPs). UPPs focus specifically on the process of pacifying the favelas, initially by taking over the power from drug lords through armed intervention. The long- term attempts to pacify include military invasion, stabilization, establishment of police patrol, and finally a provision of basic services. But in reality, this takes time and resources that the Brazilian government does not have, and the short- term solution to keep the tourists and athletes safe during a political and economic meltdown, have not been successful in improving the security in Rio. There has been a 15% increase in murders, and 30% increase in robberies since 2015.
The locals in Rio have experienced great socio-economic change amid the economic and political crisis that they face today; and the situation is not expected to improve any time soon, Dilma Rouseff was impeached not too long ago for a corruption scandal related to Petrobras, but the attention to the investigation process is currently in ‘freeze’ while the Olympics continue.
‘The show must go on’ would say the IOC, and Brazil, the host of one of most televised events in history, continues to be ignored globally. No wonder why there is resentment from the locals in Rio, they have seen the short-term consequences of being a third world nation that has lived up to international standards. Rio is no Beijing and is definitely not London.
With the closing of the Olympics, Brazil will most likely see a social implosion at a time where the entire region of Latin America starts to face economic challenges. The Brazilian government will have to look inward if it wants to grow steadily and sustainably.
Julia Vargas Mondragon, recently graduated from Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Civic affairs with a double major in Geography and International Relations. Her concentrations at Syracuse were focused on International Security and Diplomacy with a regional focus in Latin America. Julia is interested in topics such as media and politics, looking forward to have a career in journalism.