Rio is Town of Two Worlds

Brazil 2001

By Trudy Rubin

June 09, 2009

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil - From the top of Corcovado Mountain, beneath the 10-story statue of Christ the Redeemer, you can see the endless stretch of Rio's fabulous bays and beaches.

But let your eye stray to a sharply pointed hill just past the far end of fabled Ipanema beach, and you see a squatter slum sprawling down from the top toward Rio's poshest houses.

That is Rocinha, Rio's biggest favela, home to 150,000 poor, and the largest of 600 or so favelas around the city. This is the paradox of Brazil, the world's fifth largest state in area and population (170 million). In the 1980s, the country emerged from centuries of colonial rule, oligarchy and dictatorship into full-blown democracy, with the potential to lead Latin America. It has one foot in the First world and the other in the Third.

But Brazil is held back by the biggest inequality gap in the world. First-world Brazil is easy to find in Rio. The middle and upper middle classes take morning strolls below beachfront apartments. No woman appears on Ipanema with a bathing suit larger than three triangles and some string. Bookstores and Internet cafes pop up between the swanky clothing shops and bars.

This is a country with top-notch universities, high-tech exports and half of Latin America's Internet users. Cell phones and automatic teller machines are ubiquitous, and all Brazilians vote electronically on machines that do an instant tally.

The well-to-do lunch at Mariu's restaurant on Copacabana, where waiters bring endless chunks of chicken, pork, beef, and wild boar on skewers. Intellectuals flock to hear their version of Bob Dylan: the black-clad, fiftysomething Caetano Veloso, who sings of Brazil's self-doubts and its violence, backed up by a cellist and African-style drummers. Younger Brazilians love the music of the elegant Fernanda Abreu, mixes rock and samba and the Afro-Brazilian rhythms she hears in the favelas in an effort to blend the culture of "the asphalt" (the developed economy) and the slums.

Beyond music, the First and Third Worlds aren't so easily blended. This is a society in which the wealthiest 10 percent of Brazilians have 28 times the income of the poorest 40 percent. While the middle class is growing, tens of millions of urban and rural poor are virtually marginalized from society. Even though 1.2 million of its 5.7 million residents live in the favelas, Rio didn't include the slums on its maps until 1994.

Ten minutes from Ipanema you can drive Rocinha's one rough, narrow road, winding sharply uphill past warrens of flimsy concrete homes and storefronts. They exist without legal deeds or municipal services or payment of taxes. I watched sewage pour down the hill in an open trough (when it rained, I couldn't even enter the favela). There's no hospital, and the primary schools hold only 1,000 of 6,000 kids in the age group. Most favela kids never even finish primary school. Electric lines are a jumble of wires as residents tap illegally into the lines of the few legitimate ratepayers. The whole place is run by drug gangs. I didn't see the guns, but I was told they appear if a stranger ventures beyond the main street. Crime spills over into the lower city (the elite, manicured American school just below the favela is surrounded by high fences). Police never patrol the favelas, and politicians, who aren't elected by district, mostly ignore the slums.

Yet Rocinha shows where hope lies for the meeting of First and Third worlds. It reveals how favelas could evolve into working-class districts. Brazil's market reforms over the past decade have produced growth, creating jobs, which enable even slum-dwellers to build, or to start small shops. Supermarkets are well-stocked with Bravo and Raid and plastic diapers and Peanuts cards in Portuguese. Sidewalk stands hawk cell phones that are snapped up because there are so few landlines, and a mini-McDonald's has moved in that sells only ice cream.

A growing number of Brazilian nongovernmental agencies provide some services to Rocinha where government has failed. I visited one, Viva Rio!, whose dedicated staff offers microloans to the poor (who can't get credit at banks) along with advice to gray market businesses on how they can go legit and get legal papers. As for government, the governor of Rio state is showing some interest in promoting crucial primary education in the slums. This is only a bare beginning. Rocinha may be the First World of favelas, but many others are little more than clusters of shacks. Brazil's current energy crisis could put the economy, and jobs for the poor, into a tailspin.

It's hard to see how Brazil can make it into the First world until government policy knits its Third-world sectors into the country's fabric. The gap between Ipanema and Rocinha must shrink - at least a little - for Brazil to move into prime time.