Rio de Janeiro Despatch | International

The ‘marvellous city’, cursed for its beauty

The soldier sitting on an armoured car clutches his automatic weapon tightly as the military vehicle rolls into the main square of Lapa, the night-life quarters which remain sleepless on weekends. Men in army fatigues stand at the centre of the square, throwing steely glares at the evening crowd, rushing towards open bars by the pavements. The city’s wintry air is thick with fear. People seem to be in a nervous hurry to grab a drink and head home before the dusk turns into darkness. With men in uniform standing at almost every corner in this metropolis of six million people, Rio de Janeiro looks like a city under siege.

Just a year after Rio hosted the Olympics and dazzled the world with its silvery beaches and glittering sports arenas, the city has turned into a disaster zone: its money has run out; its crime rate has spiralled out of control; and its top politicians have landed in jail cells for corruption. “Our dream has turned into a nightmare. We thought the Games will take us out of the recession, but now we are sinking even deeper. Looks like we have been cursed for our beauty,” says Joao Oliveira, 38, who runs a kiosk of fried snacks at Copacabana and lives in a favela (slum) just off the fancy neighbourhood.

A climate of constant fear

Rio’s residents — be it those who live in leafy streets or the ones in smelly, narrow lanes — are known for being passionate about their city, just like hopeless lovers. They do not tire of talking about the ‘Marvellous City’ and its sunny waters, Bossa Nova joints, romantic poets and football legends like Zico. But in just 12 months since the city hosted the biggest sporting party on the planet, the mood has darkened, and hopes have given way to gloom. With more than 2,700 people killed in the Rio State since the beginning of the year and shoot-outs between criminal gangs claiming 600 lives, including those of 90 policemen, the city is in the grip of a climate of constant fear. “I hear bullets being fired day and night. You can get killed by a ricocheting bullet sitting on your balcony. Or you can get shot in the head for a phone on the street,” says Isabela Santos, 56, a former teacher whose building sits by a hill packed with matchbox houses, where drug gangs kill people at will.


Rio’s poor have been bearing the brunt of gang wars for decades. But in the year since the 2016 Games, robberies, murders, kidnappings and gun battles have spilled over onto the streets. In July, the federal government had to send thousands of troops to check crime. The army will stay here till the end of year, when hundreds of thousands of tourists would arrive for the New Year revelry. The troops may stay over till 2018 if their guns fail to cut down the surging violence.

The army might have brought a temporary sense of security, but the city’s problems are too serious to be left to the men in uniform. Thanks largely to the crash in oil prices, the reckless spending on the Olympics and the multi-million dollar corruption scandals, the State of Rio is now practically bankrupt. The government has made the situation worse by pushing extreme austerity measures. Wages and pensions have been slashed by 30%, and salaries delayed by months. This has led to widespread anger. “My mother was a public school teacher for 30 years. She has been living well off her pension. But suddenly it has gone. I am supporting her though my own job is uncertain in this crisis,” says Carlos Silva, 41, a manager in a small firm.

The economic crisis has sparked crime and crippled the police force, which has been threatening to go on strike if not paid more and on time. If that happens, Rio’s misery will be complete. “I don’t see a way out of this crisis. I hope no other city hosts the Olympics and suffers like us,” says Mr. Silva.

Shobhan Saxena is a freelance journalist based in São Paulo, Brazil

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Printable version | Jun 5, 2020 9:32:58 PM |

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