The Olympic City after the June Protests

By Celina Myrann Sørbøe

Two months have passed since the massive June protests raged over all of Brazil. With time, the size of the demonstrations has inevitably diminished, and Brazil has disappeared from the world’s spotlight. What has been going on since June, as the protests no longer make international headlines? In this blog post, we take a closer look at some of the consequences the protests have had in Rio de Janeiro.

Background for the protests and principal demands

In Rio de Janeiro, Governor Sérgio Cabral won the 2010 elections with 66 percent of the votes. On July 1st 2013, however, after the peak of the June protests, only 25 percent of the population characterized his government as “good” or “very good”. His popularity has continued to drop: recent polls show that his level of support is at a mere 8 percent. After it was made public in early July that Cabral and his family members had been using public helicopters to take them to and from their vacation house on the weekends, the demonstrations against him exploded. Protesters have been camping outside his home in the upper-class neighborhood of Leblon ever since, demanding his impeachment.

Cabral’s sharp decline on the polls synthesizes the ever increasing discontentment with the state and municipal administrations that has been growing among the population of Rio de Janeiro the last years, culminating in the June protests. There seems to be an increasing disjunction between the politicians and their vision for the city and the interests of the population they are supposed to represent. People just do not see how somebody who can use public helicopters to fly the nanny to and from his private mansion on the weekends understands or represents the needs and demands of the population.

The Olympic City

Since being rewarded with the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games, transforming Rio into an “Olympic city” has been the obsession of the carioca administration. More than a mere tourist attraction, these mega-events will provide Rio with a valuable opportunity to place itself on the world map as a major political and economic actor. Through interventions in housing, mobility and security, the “Olympic project” has touched every segment of Rio’s society in some way or other. Initially the project had wide support; hence the population’s patience with the many delays, setbacks and cracked budgets that have plagued the construction works. The patience and positive will is however running out. Growing numbers of people are questioning the true intentions of the authorities and the ultimate consequences for ordinary residents.

Rio, as other cities in Brazil, has a strong institutional framework demanding popular participation and transparent governance. There has however been little or no dialogue with the population when it comes to the selection of investments and projects in front of the Olympic games. The much-publicized investments in urban mobility will help to facilitate movement between the Olympic venues and the international airport. Yet it is not given that they will have widespread benefit for the population as a whole. Meanwhile the general bus system is at a breaking point. In addition, the prices on rent and food have increased significantly over the last years as a result of an “Olympic bubble”.

The cash transfer program Bolsa Familia, increased minimum wages and other federal programs have gained international recognition and improved the living conditions of the poorest of the poor over the last decade. This increased income, which enables the growth of consumption, does however not solve the precarious nature of public education, health care, or public transport. Neither does it address the fragmentation that characterizes the urban landscape in Rio. In sum, gentrification, lack of transparency, skewed investments and precarious public services are just some of the issues that have characterized the urban development in Rio to the growing discontent of the inhabitants.

Impacts of the demonstrations

The demonstrations in Rio neither started nor ended with the massive mobilizations that gained international attention in June. These manifestations did not come from nowhere: they represent the culmination of years of formation of a new generation of urban movements. Organizations such as the MPL (movement for free transport), student movements, urban resistance movements, favela residents’ associations and movements “sem-teto” (for those without housing) have through occupations and demonstrations articulated in broader networks such as the People’s Committee of the World Cup and Olympics. Through the use of social media networks, the June protests gained size and strength, recruiting students and middle-class residents that had little prior experience with activism but were fed up with the ongoing processes. While earlier demonstrations met little compliance from the government, the massive mobilizations of the June uprisings forced the politicians to listen.

After long weeks where the hard core of protesters has held up the pressure; arranging numerous protest marches, camping in front of Sérgio Cabral’s house, occupying the City Council and re-occupying the Aldeia Maracanã indigenous museum adjoining the Maracanã stadium, August is finally bearing fruit for the demonstrators. Both the Governor Sérgio Cabral and the Mayor Eduardo Paes have met with the People’s Committee, residents’ associations from various communities and other civil society organizations, and have had to give in to some of their long-standing demands. On August 8th, Eduardo Paes promised more transparency in the processes surrounding public works related to the mega-events, and did a 180 degrees turn-around on two important cases for the civil society in Rio: the plans for the Maracanã stadium and the removal of Vila Autódromo.

The People’s Committee protesting the Maracanã removals

The massive upgrading and privatization of the beloved Maracanã soccer stadium has been a disputed case in Rio. In spite of having been renovated in 2007, the stadium had to go through a new expensive renovation process in order to meet FIFA standards. The day before the bidding process on Maracanã was disclosed on October 22nd 2012, the Mayor undeclared the nearby Aquatic Park and Athletic Stadium as historic heritage sites, making their removal possible in order to construct parking spots and shops. Ever since, there have been strong mobilizations in order to keep the public buildings around the Maracanã. The forced eviction of indigenous people from the “Museu do Índio”, the indigenous cultural center, was a drawn out process that resulted in many violent clashes between activists and the police during the first months of 2013. After having left the building in March, the indigenous community gained courage from the June uprisings and reoccupied the building in the beginning of August. On August 8th, the Mayor Eduardo Paes met with the People’s committee at the Mayor’s request. The meeting led to some important victories that will change the future of the Maracanã stadium. The Athletic Stadium and the Aquatic Park were once again declared sites of national heritage, along with the Indigenous center and the Friedenreich Municipal School. These buildings will thus not be demolished.

The community of Vila Autôdromo in the Western zone (Jacarepaguá) of the city has been threatened by removal on numerous occasions, lately because of its location next to the future Olympic Park. While the City government stated that the removal of Vila Autódromo was inevitable, residents mobilized against it. August 9th finally represented a turning point for the residents of Vila Autódromo. After twenty years of resisting the threat of removal, the Mayor Eduardo Paes finally committed to a solution that could guarantee the permanence of the community. The mayor acknowledged that there had been errors in the treatment of the community and said he is willing to initiate a round of negotiations based on the permanence and upgrading of Vila Autódromo. While this is a big step forward, it remains to be seen whether the government actually sticks to this commitment, as the community has been through many rounds of threats of removal before. The Mayor did not commit to stopping evictions in Rio, where an estimated 40 000 people are threatened by removal because of the mega-events. He however committed to revise on-going projects and publish a decree that will establish clear rules concerning families’ resettlement processes. At least a channel of dialogue has been opened.

Where does it go from here?

In a public statement on August 8th, the People’s Committee stated that

“The recent retreats of the state government (…) are nothing more than reactions to the popular mobilizations. People taking to the streets have sent a clear message to politicians: we will not accept living in a city for sale! We will not accept a city managed for private benefit!”

They are most likely right. The retreats of the state and municipal governments came after persistent public demonstrations and protests. Both Cabral and Paes are facing demands of their impeachment, and they and others are feeling the pressure coming from the streets. The population has had enough of the enormous distance between the people and the politicians and demand more democratic representativeness. However, the recent promises have by some been interpreted as mere reactionary fire extinguishing politics; as desperate attempts to gain popularity through a populist compliance with some of the demands of a population with a short memory.

One can already see tendencies where the initial promises are being distorted. An example is the CPI (Parliamentary Inquiry Commission) on public transport in order to investigate the contracts signed between the municipality of Rio and the bus companies. It has been requested without approval since 2008 because of denouncements of cartel formation and corruption, but gained visibility with the June mass protests and was finally approved on June 25th. While supposed to be a tool of the opposition in the city council, the CPI seems to have been co-opted by the majority who were against it in the first place. The commission elected August 14th consists of only one councilman from the opposition- Eliomar Coelho (PSOL), who has threatened to leave because it is turning into a circus. The protesters that have demonstrated to demand a new commission have been written off as “militants” from the PSOL and other leftist parties by the conservative media and politicians in order to delegitimize their demands. Recently, this has been the case also with the teachers who are currently on strike – and whom the Mayor on several occasions has accused of being motivated by party politics – and the proposed CPI on the Globo news corporation to investigate tax evasion and other irregular activities.

To summarize, the civil society has gained some small victories with the protests, but there have been no revolutionary changes in the urban regime. The “Olympic project” continues to dominate the city governance. The civil society that has been made aware of their power through these last months will have to keep up the pressure to guarantee that the politicians stick to their promises. The history of Vila Autôdromo, which has gone through numerous threats of removal and guarantees of permancence, shows that a promise today might very well be challenged in the future.