FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

A Doctor’s House Call in Rio

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. 

More articles by:

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.”

February 19, 2019
Richard Falk – Daniel Falcone
Troublesome Possibilities: The Left and Tulsi Gabbard
Patrick Cockburn
She Didn’t Start the Fire: Why Attack the ISIS Bride?
Evaggelos Vallianatos
Literature and Theater During War: Why Euripides Still Matters
Maximilian Werner
The Night of Terror: Wyoming Game and Fish’s Latest Attempt to Close the Book on the Mark Uptain Tragedy
Conn Hallinan
Erdogan is Destined for Another Rebuke in Turkey
Nyla Ali Khan
Politics of Jammu and Kashmir: The Only Viable Way is Forward
Mark Ashwill
On the Outside Looking In: an American in Vietnam
Joyce Nelson
Sir Richard Branson’s Venezuelan-Border PR Stunt
Ron Jacobs
Day of Remembrance and the Music of Anthony Brown        
Cesar Chelala
Women’s Critical Role in Saving the Environment
February 18, 2019
Paul Street
31 Actual National Emergencies
Robert Fisk
What Happened to the Remains of Khashoggi’s Predecessor?
David Mattson
When Grizzly Bears Go Bad: Constructions of Victimhood and Blame
Julian Vigo
USMCA’s Outsourcing of Free Speech to Big Tech
George Wuerthner
How the BLM Serves the West’s Welfare Ranchers
Christopher Fons
The Crimes of Elliot Abrams
Thomas Knapp
The First Rule of AIPAC Is: You Do Not Talk about AIPAC
Mitchel Cohen
A Tale of Two Citations: Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” and Michael Harrington’s “The Other America”
Jake Johnston
Haiti and the Collapse of a Political and Economic System
Dave Lindorff
It’s Not Just Trump and the Republicans
Laura Flanders
An End to Amazon’s Two-Bit Romance. No Low-Rent Rendezvous.
Patrick Walker
Venezuelan Coup Democrats Vomit on Green New Deal
Natalie Dowzicky
The Millennial Generation Will Tear Down Trump’s Wall
Nick Licata
Of Stress and Inequality
Joseph G. Ramsey
Waking Up on President’s Day During the Reign of Donald Trump
Elliot Sperber
Greater Than Food
Weekend Edition
February 15, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Matthew Hoh
Time for Peace in Afghanistan and an End to the Lies
Chris Floyd
Pence and the Benjamins: An Eternity of Anti-Semitism
Rob Urie
The Green New Deal, Capitalism and the State
Jim Kavanagh
The Siege of Venezuela and the Travails of Empire
Paul Street
Someone Needs to Teach These As$#oles a Lesson
Andrew Levine
World Historical Donald: Unwitting and Unwilling Author of The Green New Deal
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Third Rail-Roaded
Eric Draitser
Impacts of Exploding US Oil Production on Climate and Foreign Policy
Ron Jacobs
Maduro, Guaidó and American Exceptionalism
John Laforge
Nuclear Power Can’t Survive, Much Less Slow Climate Disruption
Joyce Nelson
Venezuela & The Mighty Wurlitzer
Jonathan Cook
In Hebron, Israel Removes the Last Restraint on Its Settlers’ Reign of Terror
Ramzy Baroud
Enough Western Meddling and Interventions: Let the Venezuelan People Decide
Robert Fantina
Congress, Israel and the Politics of “Righteous Indignation”
Dave Lindorff
Using Students, Teachers, Journalists and other Professionals as Spies Puts Everyone in Jeopardy
Kathy Kelly
What it Really Takes to Secure Peace in Afghanistan
Brian Cloughley
In Libya, “We Came, We Saw, He Died.” Now, Maduro?
Nicky Reid
The Councils Before Maduro!
Gary Leupp
“It’s All About the Benjamins, Baby”
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail