FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

A Doctor’s House Call in Rio

by

Rio de Janeiro

My first visit to a favela, one of the most famous urban slums in Latin America, was unexpected. As a result of poverty, huge waves of migrants move to the countries’ main cities and end up living in these ramshackle settlements, which lack basic health and sanitation services. The so-called favelas in Brazil are known as ranchitos in Venezuela, pueblos jóvenes in Peru or villas miseria in Argentina.

At a meeting in New York I got to know a young Brazilian physician—Dr. Paulo as everybody knows him—and we became friends. He told me repeatedly that if I ever was in Rio de Janeiro I should visit him. He said that he would take me to the best places in Rio de Janeiro where he lives and has an active practice that puts him in touch with all segments of Brazilian society.

Soon after our meeting in New York I went to Rio de Janeiro for a medical meeting and called him up. He came promptly to my hotel and we had long chat. He asked me, since the weekend was coming, what I wanted to see in Rio, as the city is normally called. I told him I wanted to visit a favela. He looked at me quizzically and said, “I want to take you to the best places in Rio and you ask me to take you to a favela? I don’t understand you.”

I explained to him that in New York I already have access to very fancy places but, although I have visited slums in Argentina and in other Latin American countries, I had never been to a favela. “OK,” he said, obviously disappointed, “if that is what you want to do…One of my patients lives in Rocinha, Rio’s largest favela, so I’ll come for you tomorrow morning and we can go there.”

Unlike ghettos in the United States the population in the favelas is racially mixed, although blacks make up the majority of the population. Increasing poverty drives many people to live in the favelas, which are built on several levels on hillsides, crowded with poor-quality housing and besieged by the drug trade. Paradoxically, people living in those hillsides have a much better view of Rio de Janeiro than those living in the most expensive areas of the city.

Because the favelas built on hillsides are very close to rich neighborhoods below them, there is active drug traffic from the favelas to the wealthy neighborhoods. The police are normally unable to enter the favelas and, when they do it, they go in powerful armored vehicles called caveirôes (literally, big skulls).

There are some social codes in the favelas which prohibit those living there to engage in criminal activities inside their own favela. However, favelas house many people involved in drug trade and other crimes, which make a visit there relatively unsafe. Frequent shoot-outs between traffickers and the police, and other illegal activities, lead to murder rates higher than in the rest of the city.

Perhaps my friend was thinking about all these issues when I asked him to visit a favela. He was a good sport, however, and took me there. As soon as we reached the lower level we saw a small group of men talking on the side of the steps. My friend went directly to them and said, “I am Dr. Paulo, this is my friend Cesar and we are visiting one of my patients called Mercedes who lives in the upper level.”

Without waiting for a response we continued climbing the steps to the following level where we also found a similar group of men. My friend repeated what he had said before and we continued climbing, at each level following the same script.

I was surprised and a bit irritated by his behavior so I told him, “Why do you have to tell everybody who we are and why we came here?” My friend looked at me and said, “Because if I don’t we won’t reach the upper level alive. These men constitute the most efficient communication system you can imagine so we have to clear our presence here at every level to remain safe.”

Finally, after a steep climb we reached the upper level and knocked at the door of my friend’s patient. Mercedes, a woman of around 80 came out and was totally taken aback when she saw us. “Dr. Paulo,” she said, “what a surprise seeing you here!” and as she opened her arms she came closer to him. Then, in an almost conspiratorial manner she asked my friend, “Dr. Paulo, I want to be first one to know it, are you running for office?”

Dr. Cesar Chelala is an international public health consultant and a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award. 

Dr. Cesar Chelala is a co-winner of the 1979 Overseas Press Club of America award for the article “Missing or Disappeared in Argentina: The Desperate Search for Thousands of Abducted Victims.”

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

Weekend Edition
January 20, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Divide and Rule: Class, Hate, and the 2016 Election
Andrew Levine
When Was America Great?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: This Ain’t a Dream No More, It’s the Real Thing
Yoav Litvin
Making Israel Greater Again: Justice for Palestinians in the Age of Trump
Linda Pentz Gunter
Nuclear Fiddling While the Planet Burns
Ruth Fowler
Standing With Standing Rock: Of Pipelines and Protests
David Green
Why Trump Won: the 50 Percenters Have Spoken
Dave Lindorff
Imagining a Sanders Presidency Beginning on Jan. 20
Pete Dolack
Eight People Own as Much as Half the World
Roger Harris
Too Many People in the World: Names Named
Steve Horn
Under Tillerson, Exxon Maintained Ties with Saudi Arabia, Despite Dismal Human Rights Record
John Berger
The Nature of Mass Demonstrations
Stephen Zielinski
It’s the End of the World as We Know It
David Swanson
Six Things We Should Do Better As Everything Gets Worse
Alci Rengifo
Trump Rex: Ancient Rome’s Shadow Over the Oval Office
Brian Cloughley
What Money Can Buy: the Quiet British-Israeli Scandal
Mel Gurtov
Donald Trump’s Lies And Team Trump’s Headaches
Kent Paterson
Mexico’s Great Winter of Discontent
Norman Solomon
Trump, the Democrats and the Logan Act
David Macaray
Attention, Feminists
Yves Engler
Demanding More From Our Media
James A Haught
Religious Madness in Ulster
Dean Baker
The Economics of the Affordable Care Act
Patrick Bond
Tripping Up Trumpism Through Global Boycott Divestment Sanctions
Robert Fisk
How a Trump Presidency Could Have Been Avoided
Robert Fantina
Trump: What Changes and What Remains the Same
David Rosen
Globalization vs. Empire: Can Trump Contain the Growing Split?
Elliot Sperber
Dystopia
Dan Bacher
New CA Carbon Trading Legislation Answers Big Oil’s Call to Continue Business As Usual
Wayne Clark
A Reset Button for Political America
Chris Welzenbach
“The Death Ship:” An Allegory for Today’s World
Uri Avnery
Being There
Peter Lee
The Deep State and the Sex Tape: Martin Luther King, J. Edgar Hoover, and Thurgood Marshall
Patrick Hiller
Guns Against Grizzlies at Schools or Peace Education as Resistance?
Randy Shields
The Devil’s Real Estate Dictionary
Ron Jacobs
Singing the Body Electric Across Time
Ann Garrison
Fifty-five Years After Lumumba’s Assassination, Congolese See No Relief
Christopher Brauchli
Swing Low Alabama
Dr. Juan Gómez-Quiñones
La Realidad: the Realities of Anti-Mexicanism
Jon Hochschartner
The Five Least Animal-Friendly Senate Democrats
Pauline Murphy
Fighting Fascism: the Irish at the Battle of Cordoba
Susan Block
#GoBonobos in 2017: Happy Year of the Cock!
Louis Proyect
Is Our Future That of “Sense8” or “Mr. Robot”?
Charles R. Larson
Review: Robert Coover’s “Huck out West”
David Yearsley
Manchester-by-the-Sea and the Present Catastrophe
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail