Blame it on Rio

I grew up in Rio de Janeiro in a very middle-class neighborhood. Not the fanciest one, but also not the poorest. Very much in the middle. This neighborhood also had the characteristic of being surrounded by hills. Many if not most hills in Rio de Janeiro have favelas. Favelas are poor neighborhoods that are formed by poor people who mostly want to live close to where the jobs are. Because I grew up in a middle-class neighborhood, studied in middle-class schools and had a middle-class family I was in danger of only knowing middle-class people. The thing that prevented me from that the most was going to church. In church, I lived with people from all kind of social backgrounds – including people who lived in favelas.

The history of Rio de Janeiro is mostly a history of expansion from the area we today call downtown. On several occasions, poor people (including my grandfather and his mother) were relocated (or frankly expelled) from their houses by the government that wanted to make some urban reform. People faced two options: to be relocated to far removed areas, far away from their jobs, or to occupy some undeveloped area in the vicinities of where they previously lived and form a favela.

Because Rio de Janeiro is the historic capital of Brazil, it received a lot of investment by governments over the decades. Many governments wanted to make it a vitrine of Brazil’s development. Also, Brazil has a strong history of developmentalism. Especially since Getúlio Vargas, who rule the country from 1930 to 1945 and again from 1951 to 1954, Brazilian presidents tend to believe that it is their job to bring economic development to the country. The higher the GDP growth, the best. I mean, who am I to say that GDP growth is a bad thing?! But we have a lot of stories worldwide of countries that grew too fast in too little time leading among other things to major population dislocations and new pockets of poverty around great cities. Lagos, in Nigeria, is a textbook example. So is Caracas, in Venezuela. So is Rio de Janeiro. This kind of development is pretty much like using steroids: the results are fast, but the side effects are terrible. Fernando Henrique Cardoso tried to “flip the page” from Vargas in the 1990s, but Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff returned to developmentalist policies in the 2000s. Even Jair Bolsonaro often talks as a developmentalist, apparently a tic from his military years. Anyways, developmentalism led to the fast growth of Rio de Janeiro over the decades – and the formation of new favelas.

One of the best stories of developmentalism in Rio de Janeiro is the neighborhood of Barra da Tijuca. Until the 1960s this part of the city, caught between the hills and the ocean, was basically desert. That’s when the government commissioned the architect and urbanist Lucio Costa to develop the area. Mr. Costa was also responsible for designing the city of Brasília, and it shows: Brasília and Barra da Tijuca are fairly similar. Not my kind of city or neighborhood. It’s very hard or even impossible to explore Barra da Tijuca on foot. Its area is roughly the size of Manhattan, but it has no subway lines. The bus lines are not very dependable. The city blocks are very large. Everything is very distant.

In my evaluation, Mr. Costa thought that he was God. Brasília and Barra and very interesting if looked from above, from the sky. But if you are on the ground level and don’t have a car, they are just not friendly. But that’s how modernists (including socialists) are: they swear they love humanity but hate human beings.

The news that the government was developing the Barra da Tijuca area spread fast. Many families came to the region looking for jobs in construction. Many of them settled in the vicinity of Rio das Pedras. Rio das Pedras became one of the main favelas of the region. In the absence of government, people started to organize themselves in neighborhood associations. Even with most of the construction projects done, the families never left. Barra da Tijuca became an affluent neighborhood with many jobs. Alongside came drug trafficking.

The “pre-history” of drug trafficking in Rio de Janeiro is almost idyllic. You just have to watch the movie City of God (2002). Of course, one could not sell drugs in fancy neighborhoods like Ipanema or Copacabana, where the government is strongly present.

So, most drug trafficking happened in the favelas, including Rio das Pedras. The first generation of drug dealers was mostly respectful towards residents of the favelas and other poor neighborhoods. Some even became legendary for pacifying the neighborhoods from other forms of crime: because they didn’t want to have trouble with the police, drug dealers would punish criminals themselves. However, this changed very fast. The dispute for territory led drug dealers to become more and more violent.

In response to drug dealers and the slackness of the government, people organized in militias. What once were neighborhood associations became paramilitary organizations. Just like happened with the drug dealers, the vigilantes were initially friendly towards the people living in the neighborhoods. However, this changed very fast. The dispute for territory led militias to become more and more violent. Eventually, drug dealers and militias became mostly indistinguishable. Some militia leaders entered politics.

Marcelo Freixo, a Rio de Janeiro politician of the PSOL (Socialism and Liberty Party – as I said before, a contradiction in terms) rose to fame in the 2000s for presiding over a parliamentary inquiry on the militias. Mr. Freixo had a character inspired on him in the movie Elite Squad 2 (2010). The first Elite Squad (2007) was a very good movie. The sequel, not so much. Elite Squad is somewhat based on real events and tells the story of (what else?) BOPE, an elite squad in the Rio de Janeiro military police (somewhat analogous to the SWAT), especially during the visit of Pope John Paul II to the city in the late 1990s. The movie has some similarities to Black Hawk Down (2001). If you haven’t watched it and want to be spoil free, you might want to skip to the next paragraph.

Pope John Paul II decided to stay in a dangerous neighborhood, surrounded by favelas. The BOPE was responsible for his security. Although disagreeing with the strategic intelligence of allowing the Pope to stay in a dangerous region of the city, the squad did its job. In very military fashion, “orders are orders”. The movie shows the police officers as very dubious figures: they are extremely violent and often disrespectful towards citizens. But they are also very honest and dutybound. Captain Nascimento, the main character, is a tragic figure. He became a police officer to protect innocent citizens. He discovers that by obeying orders he is often just putting his life in risk for very little or no results. Worse, he is misunderstood by all those around him, including his family.

Even his son ends up calling him a fascist. Elite Squad also portrays the drug dealers in a nuanced way. They are violent and vengeful, but Captain Nascimento himself understands that no one grows up dreaming about becoming a drug dealer. Drug dealers and BOPE members fight a private war and ironically might be the only ones to truly understand one another. The real villains of the movie are the upper-middle class youngsters who use drugs, financing the drug dealers who the BOPE fights. It is against them that the police officers direct most of their rage.

So, I believe that Elite Squad is a very good movie, that pictures quite well how life in Rio de Janeiro is for many people. Most of the time it is hard to precisely identify villains or heroes. However, no wonder, despite being very popular, the movie was trashed by leftist intellectuals who called it fascist. The sequel gains in quality in almost everything but the characters, and this makes it worse than the original. The villains are completely villainous and the heroes, heroic. It lacks the nuances of the original. The character inspired by Marcelo Freixo is morally perfect. The vigilantes whom he fights are cartoonish evil.

Brazilian and international media gave much attention last year to the assassination of Marielle Franco, a Rio de Janeiro politician who, just like Mr. Freixo, was a member of the PSOL. Ms. Franco’s assassination, like any other, is a tragedy. The police investigation is still ongoing, and no one really knows who killed her, but it seems very likely that she was murdered by members of a militia. Despite what international media might lead one to believe, Ms. Franco was far from being the first Rio de Janeiro politician to be murdered in the last few years. Mr. Freixo himself is under police protection for many years now. Other politicians from several political parties were not so lucky and didn’t receive the same attention from the media. The left’s last blow against president Jair Bolsonaro is to say that one of his sons, Flávio Bolsonaro, is somehow connected to Ms. Franco assassination. In their narrative, Flávio would be connected to militias who in turn killed Ms. Franco. All things are possible. Not all are plausible. Definitely, not all are proven. To be honest, there are people in the right saying that Jean Wyllys, also from the PSOL, is connected to Jair Bolsonaro’s assassination attempt last September. Maybe they should all go have a drink together. They have much in common.

Making a generalization (but I hope not an overgeneralization), politicians and intellectuals from the left tend to romanticize drug dealers. They are pictured as social victims or social bandits, almost Robin Hoods. On the other hand, they vilify the militias in a cartoonish way. Just like Elite Squad 2. I began this text mentioning that going to church prevented me from entirely growing in a middle-class bubble. Because of that, I heard people saying that old drug dealers had at least some sense of justice. Younger ones (sometimes as young as 16 years old) are almost animals, psychopaths without any sense of empathy. If you watched The Godfather trilogy you know what I mean. I also heard people frustrated with the government, that offered no protection against criminals. The same people were (at least initially) supportive of militias.

Politicians in the right, in turn, consider unimaginable to legalize any drug. But on the other hand, they were very slow to understand the danger of the militias, and citizens making justice with their own hands in general.

So, this is a story about Rio de Janeiro, one of Brazil’s most important cities. For decades politicians believed it was their job to bring economic development to the country – and to the city. This led to fast economic growth, which in turn led to the development of favelas. Favelas are areas where the official government is generally not present.

Therefore, its residents form neighborhood associations. Favelas are also places where, because of the lack of government, drug dealers can work in relative peace. However, over time drug dealers become more and more violent in their dispute for territory. The neighborhood associations, in turn, become militias. And the militias quite often become mafias. Some politicians rise to fame fighting these mafias, but the policies they defend are the same that begin this story in the first place. Politicians on the right are accused of dangerous liaisons. And no one seems to be willing to limit government to its primary function of protecting life and private property.

Brazil’s sole openly gay congressman leaves the country after death threats?

According to The Guardian and other online sources in English, Jean Wyllys, “Brazil’s first and only openly gay congressman” left the country after death threats. But is that so? Running a great risk (or certainty) of being called homophobic, fascist, racist, taxidermist, guitarist, etc., I’m gonna give some information that The Guardian and other sources neglect.

First of all, Mr. Wyllys is not “Brazil’s first and only openly gay congressman.” He was preceded by at least one other “openly gay congressman,” Clodovil Hernandes (1937-2009). Mr. Hernandes was elected for Congress in 2006 and before that was for several decades a respected (although sometimes controversial) fashion designer and television presenter. Mr. Hernandes was always open about his sexuality and while in Congress had good relations with Jair Bolsonaro, frequently accused of homophobia by Brazilian and international media – including The Guardian.

But coming back to Mr. Wyllys, he rose to fame after winning the Brazilian version of the of the Big Brother reality franchised television show in 2005. Following that, he ran for Congress in 2010 representing the Socialism and Freedom Party (PSOL. Socialism and freedom – a contradiction in the very party’s name) but received only an average of 13,000 votes. His election was only possible, considering the number of votes he had, through the votes of another highly voted candidate of the same party. In 2014 he ran for reelection and this time, justice be done, received a great number of votes: almost 145,000 – more than enough to be elected by his own rights, although still way behind Jair Bolsonaro himself, who received 464,572 votes in the same election. However, in the last elections, Mr. Wyllys went back to electoral mediocrity, with meager 24,295 votes. Once again, as in 2010, he was benefited by his electoral law and party votes and got elected, despite being behind candidates who received way more.

After Bolsonaro was elected president in last October, many leftists in Brazil declared they were part of “The Resistance.” One of the mottos of this informal group was “nobody lets go of nobody’s hand.” There were many rumors on the internet saying that Mr. Wyllys would leave Brazil with Bolsonaro’s election. Answering these rumors he said, “the slogan of my campaign was resistance. For all those who spread fake news saying that I would leave Brazil, I am here and here I will stay.” However, Mr. Wyllys’ resistance didn’t last for a month. Just a few days before the swearing-in he released a note from overseas stating that he will not assume his position as a congressman in February and that he will also not return to Brazil due to alleged death threats. Mr. Wyllys didn’t present any proofs of the death threats he affirms is receiving.

Mr. Wyllys despicable 24,295 votes – and the downfall from his previous almost 145,000 – show that he is actually a minor figure in Brazilian politics. However, considering the cover given him by The Guardian and other media, one might think he is something else. One might think that his alleged death threats are a major threat to Brazilian democracy. But let’s consider some things that The Guardian and other media ignore:

Last September, during the presidential campaign, Jair Bolsonaro suffered a knife attack in Juiz de Fora, Minas Gerais. Bolsonaro’s stabber, Adélio Bispo de Oliveira, was affiliated to PSOL – Mr. Wyllys’ political party – between 2007 and 2014. According to official records of Brazil’s House of Representatives, on the same day of the attack, Mr. Oliveira was in the House, in Brasília. Brasília and Juiz de Fora are almost 700 miles apart. Did somebody register his presence to create an alibi? Immediately after the attack, Mr. Oliveira was assisted by extremely expensive lawyers. The identity of who pays these lawyers is secret. If all these things don’t raise eyebrows, I don’t know what to do.

In 2016, during the voting for the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, Mr. Wyllys spit on Jair Bolsonaro. Mr. Wyllys spit was followed by a wave of leftists spitting on opponents as a sign of political resistance.

The case is still under investigation, but there is a lot of evidence that Fernando Holiday, a black and gay city councilor for São Paulo, suffered a murder attempt last December. Evidence also suggests that this was a political crime, for Holiday defends a controversial social security reform. But I don’t see The Guardian celebrating that São Paulo, Brazil’s greatest city, has a young, black, and gay councilor or that worried that his life might be under threat. Maybe because Holiday defends free-market and conservative policies?

Joice Hasselmann, elected for Congress in 2018 elections, also claims she received death threats. The difference between Ms. Hasselmann and Mr. Wyllys is that she presented proofs: in late November a pig’s head with a death note was left on her residence’s door. The case is under investigation. A woman, elected for Congress of one of the world’s largest democracies is apparently receiving death threats, but the coverage by international media is minimum. Maybe because Ms. Hasselmann is conservative?

In sum, Brazil’s democracy is fragile indeed. A presidential candidate was stabbed. A counselor in the country’s largest city was the victim of a murder attempt. A congresswoman by the country’s most populous state receives death threats on her home. If Mr. Wyllys is indeed receiving death threats, he shouldn’t leave the country. He should honor his voters, despite how few they are, and most of all, he should cooperate with the police.

Some thoughts on Rio de Janeiro elections

I’m a great fan of the Lord of the Rings, both the books and the Peter Jackson movies. Overall I believe the movies are pretty faithful to the books. There are, of course, some differences, but I generally accept the explanation that adapting a book to a movie is hard and some changes have to be made. There is, however, a whole chapter from the books absent from the movies that I believe shouldn’t be. If you haven’t seen the movies or read the books, be warned, spoiler alert. The said chapter is called “The Scouring of the Shire.” In the movies, when the hobbits return home from the War of the Ring, hardly anything has changed. It seems like the Shire has not been affected by the events in the world around it at all. In the books, however, Saruman the White, the evil wizard, escapes to the Shire after been defeated in the battle of Isengard. He ends up governing the Shire in secret under the name of Sharkey until the events of “The Scouring of the Shire,” when the hobbits return and lead a rebellion, defeating the intruders and exposing Saruman’s role. I believe this chapter is important because it shows that evil is not somewhere far from home. We may fight a war overseas, but evil may end up lurking really close to us.

This last Sunday Brazil had municipal elections. The Workers Party (PT), the political party of impeached president Dilma Rousseff and the almost convict ex-president Luis Inácio Lula da Silva, was the great loser. Some cities will still have a second round of votes, but it is clear that in the process PT will lose a great number of prefectures, city halls, and with it many commissioned positions as well. In sum, the process of rejection that started with the impeachment goes on and well. Or almost. In Rio de Janeiro the elections will be decided in second round between Marcelo Crivella and Marcelo Freixo. Crivella is a licensed bishop of the controversial Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, and Freixo is a member of the Socialism and Freedom Party (PSOL). Crivella was Rousseff’s ally almost until the very end, when his party decided to vote for the impeachment. PSOL is a dissent from PT that left the former party in 2004, believing that Lula was too pro-market in his policies.

Saruman took refuge in the Shire and changed his name to Sharkey. The inhabitants of the Shire were too unaware of the events of the War of the Ring to understand what was going on. Saruman was the White Wizard. He was supposed to be good, but ended up being one of Sauron’s greatest allies. Freixo is Saruman: he may try to hide as much as he wants to, and even change his name, but he is an ally to the worst things in Brazilian politics. He poses as someone pure (or White), but just like Saruman he actually has a robe of many colors, depending on who he wants to impress. PT changed its name to PSOL and is now trying to hide in my Shire. I hope the cariocas will not let it happen.

PSOL is popular mostly among the young, artists, and rich people from rich neighborhoods, so I don’t actually believe Freixo will become mayor. But their plan is, following Antonio Gramsci, to create a cultural hegemony and thus to win elections on the long run. PT did exactly this, but it seems like Brazilians are beginning to understand that socialists care only for other people’s money and little else. PSOL even has liberty in its name, but of course they aren’t going to offer any liberty to the people. Slavery can be defined as forced labor to someone else’s benefit. And that is also the exact definition of socialism: you work, they take your money and they give it to someone else. As Alexis de Tocqueville said it, “socialism is a new form of slavery.” I hope people in Brazil, and especially in Rio, will realize it.