Vila Autodromo, Brazil’s Favelas, and the Contest Before the Games

Since Germany’s stunning lopsided victory over their national team last Tuesday, many Brazilians find themselves negotiating the bittersweet taste that likely comes with hosting a sports tournament that they did not win. In having their sense of national pride rudely snatched from their bosoms with every German score, they now share the souring sentiments that befell their countryman, Altair Guimaraes, on what seemed to be a normal day in October of 2009.

It was then that Guimaraes received a television report that his home in Vila Autodromo would soon be no more. It would become a casualty, Rio de Janeiro’s Mayor Eduardo Paes announced, of the Olympic Village that is to be built in the Western part of the city to host the 2016 games and the new transport routes that would get the attending fans to and fro. Since then, Guimaraes, as president of Autodromo’s Residents Association, and his most persevering neighbors, have struggled to convince city fathers of the inhumanity of the decision, receiving rationales that strike them as insulting and insincere.

“They say we are a risk to events and they need a security perimeter” Guimaraes grumbles.

“The real reason [they want our land] is real estate values and speculation.”

The dispute between the city and the residents—another episode in the dramatic struggle that favela residents wage to keep their cherished, but unauthorized homes–has become more bitter than any loss to the Germans could ever be.

The pressure on Guimaraes is both atmospheric in weight and intimacy. Settled in the 1960s by local fisherman who were later joined by some of the construction workers who built the race track the City put there in the 1970s, Autodromo finds its number of residents decreasing daily because municipal leaders have resorted to paying families upwards of $500,000 US dollars to relocate elsewhere. This is the first time market rates have been offered in the history of favela removals. “Every situation that has money, there are opportunists.” Guimaraes laments.

Those who take the payoff—once friends who fought with Guimaraes against the state’s land-grabbing maneuvers–leave more than a discouraging absence on the psyches of those who remain; recently a municipal judge has ruled that such defectors cannot claim their new residencies until the ones they abandoned are emptied and torn down. Any departure nudges the city’s strategy in motion: It demolishes the home at times without lifting one finger to cleanse the ruins from the site. The shells of the homes become housing once again, this time, however, for vermin, other stray animals, and perhaps dengue-carrying mosquitoes, rendering the neighborhood a vast and unseemly checkerboard of active shelter and abject wreckage.

“It messes with you mentally,” Guimaraes confessed when thinking about the neighborhood’s devastated landscape.  To reach a structure still in use, one has the luxury initially of travelling the wide unpaved roads that wind within and around Autodromo—the lack of paving another way the city insists on the residents’ impermanency. Inevitably, however, wayward foliage, broken bricks, shattered wood, and other soiled discourteous mementoes of what once was there– a doll’s leg, a swatch of curtain, or a detached corner of a photograph–is likely to grace one’s path.

“This place really looks like a war zone,” said an observer who visited the neighborhood with me. An overstatement perhaps, but the only words the speaker had at that time to describe the pall of abandonment, loss, broken friendships, distressed families, and callous destruction that mockingly greets Guimaraes everyday he remains in the neighborhood.

Recently, as part of a group studying urban change in Rio, I was granted the opportunity to visit Autodromo and gain a greater sense of what made Guimaraes and his group believe they can win this fight against municipal leaders and the raw international power of the Olympic movement. Luck made the meeting possible. Guimaraes, a construction worker himself, was released from work the day we were there because of inclement weather. We met him in what now functions as the Residents Association’s headquarters, a concrete building with cracked and missing plaster that serves as a community library, common area, and war room against the developers.

One look at Guimaraes gives you a sense of his sturdiness; he is the type of man who would be quick to arm wrestle because he is likely to win. He was dressed as I would be if I were a construction worker in Rio and called to speak through an interpreter with pesky US interlopers on my day-off: yellow soccer shorts and a t-shirt with an indecipherable, but colorful design. His face is filled with life but carries the wear of someone engaged in a determined struggle whose future is uncertain.

I wanted to know from him if their community would be another victim of global capital’s insistence that the earth is its eminent domain and if this fight meant something for the economically dispossessed in the US.

“Affordable housing is a universal right. People need a roof over their heads,” Guimaraes declaimed during our exchange.

Favelas have been a prominent feature of the Brazilian landscape since the end of the 19th century.  Infamous for its shocking ratios of economic inequality—presently 50% of its wealth is held by 10% of its population of 200 million–Brazil’s lack of ghettosimpsonaffordable housing stock has always made it necessary for ex-slaves, rural migrants, retired military, displaced workers, and other surplus peoples to establish shelter near major cities in the hope that they could secure employment and improve their fortunes.

The Brazilian state has seldom rewarded the pluck and ambition of these unhoused hopefuls: up until the 1980s Brazil has generally followed a cycle of its poor building favelas and the state tearing them down.  National leaders have often deemed these unsanctioned structures, because of their shabbiness or because of their residents’ political restiveness (which at one point in history was understood to make the residents communists, at another point, key principles in the international drug trade), unbecoming of the modern architecture and modish people by which the State wishes to comprise its cities.

According to a recent dossier published by Rio’s Popular Committee on Mega –Events and Human Rights Violations, 75% of the 16,700 people that have been removed in recent years are related to the World Cup and the 2016 games.

Guimaraes is all too familiar with the State’s penchant for eviction. Before he moved to Autodromo, attracted to it because the community was uniquely tranquil and close-knit in comparison with others, Guimaraes was a resident in two other favelas— Praia do Pinto and Cidade de Deus (City of God)—in which he was told he could not remain. His own personal history makes it hardly surprising that he is drawing a line in the dirt paths of Autodromo. That line has become most precarious because the city has already established a place for Autodromo’s residents to relocate, a complex which marks Brazil’s first effort at large scale public housing called Minha Casa, Minha Vida.

Spectacular cautionary tales, like the mid-twentieth century urban renewal projects that decimated indigent homespaces in the United States, served to curtail Brazil’s desire to demolish unofficial housing in its own country. Since the late 1980s, with the support and encouragement of international financial bodies like the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank, Brazil has made a concerted effort to bring favelas—though only about 100 of an estimated 600–into the urban fold. Today, the process instead starts violently, with militarized police forces storming through neighborhoods to make sure they are free of the drug cartels by which some favelas are controlled.

Autodromo residents are aware that Brazil has paid favorable attention to favelas that lie close to valuable urban real estate. Places like Santa Marta and Vidigal, located in Rio’s South Zone (nearer to the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema) find their infrastructure and community life so healthy that they must now parry off gentrifiers like David Beckham and Kanye West who appreciate the authentic Otherness with which owning a favela residence associates them. In having hard proof that favelas can be viable neighbors to the metropolitan sites they abut, the state has become selectively less antagonistic to favelas.

In addition to the slight thaw of Brazil’s attitude toward favelas, are the political victories Autodromo has been able to claim since the standoff between them and the city began. Since its Residents Association was founded in 1987, the community has withstood at least three formidable attempts at removal, beginning in 1992 when officials in preparation of the Earth Summit claimed that Autodromo was damaging the local environment. Out of that dispute, the residents secured from municipal leaders a 33-year lease to the land. In 1994, resident activism led the city to extend the lease to 99 years.

Often favelas go up against the state without having legal statute in their favor. Autodromo does not suffer from this crucial lack. This explains why some of the public protests and marches have seemed at times to cow Paes and the city. Most recently, a plan that Autodromo’s residents co-designed with university architects received an $80,000 grant from Deutsche Bank and the London School of Economics, beating out 170 other Rio-based projects to develop their community. Their plan is to put the funds toward building a daycare center for the neighborhood’s youth (the construction cannot begin, ironically, without obtaining a permit from the city). At least one member of the panel of judges for the Deutsche Bank award chose Autodromo in hope that it would become “an icon of resistance to the Olympic Project in Rio.”

These achievements, when combined with signs everywhere that the people of Brazil are becoming increasingly intolerant of social inequality prove to Guimaraes that success is possible.  Last year’s massive bus fare strike, the protest by Rio’s trash collectors this Carnival season, and the recent FIFA protests bespeak a changing political mood. The most unlikely concession to Autodromo’s perpetuity has come from AECOM, the developers responsible for building the Olympic Village, that has publicly revealed plans that project the favela’s survival well past the playing of the games.

Perhaps Guimaraes himself is the most persuasive sign that victory is possible. Historically, the state has contained the challenges of the resident associations of favelas and other populist organizations by intimidating or buying off its leadership. Guimaraes, having now served as the association’s president for six years, believes that this explains why other residents associations have not declared their public support of Autodromo’s fight, despite the politically productive reasons for acts of cross-favela solidarity. It also explains to him why “people think I’m crazy. I could take a couple of million dollars” easily and the fight, at least for him, would be done.

“I don’t do things for money,” Guimaraes told us, “I do things because it is the right thing to do.” He adds with a wry smile, “I enjoy being a rock in the shoe of the municipal government.”

Guimaraes and his neighbors are also not cowed by increasing number of deserters and the dwindling number of resisters. “It is not about the number of people, if they all have a commitment to the social function of housing, since [because of the lease] we have a claim.”

Though the resolve of Guimaraes and his neighbors was awe-inspiring to our group, we could not help feeling pessimistic about the implications of Autodromo’s struggle with local government and global capital.  When nations experience exceptional events (such as the Olympic Games, or a terrorist attack, or a natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina), and it becomes acceptable to suspend normal practices for some especial ends, political leaders will, as analyst Matthew Richmond suggests, “drive policies in the direction of segregation, not integration.”

Unique circumstances provide opportunities for nations to pursue ends that they could not meet previously by legal means, among them, banishing seeming undesirables like Autodromo’s residents away from the scene where they will remake their nations. That race and poverty factor as attributes that render groups undesirable is distressing, but also worth concern is the fact that the rhetoric of austerity and crisis spans the globe—even if neither are in play–and makes every moment appear to be one of emergency. In doing so, the contemporary moment antagonizes the key objective of favela residents and poor populations everywhere: social inclusion. This is why Autodromo finds itself in peril. By dint of natural, human, or economic forms of “terror,” exile has been deemed their appropriate fate.

As my invoking the issue of terror suggests, we may not only finger the United States as the main propagator of the logic of emergency that affect people everywhere, but also as a unique instigator of the methods Brazil has used in handling its poor.  For roughly 20 years, between 1965-1985, Brazil was under the thumb of a military dictatorship and got there under claims of emergency. The crisis that occasioned the dictatorship’s rise to power, according to Jan Knippers Black, was the rash of working class populism that at the time had consumed the Brazilian electorate. Populist leaders were championing economic nationalism as a way to allay the misery of the poor and the racially excluded. They hoped that such nationalism would make Brazil financially independent of the foreign capital that came from the United States and elsewhere and allow them to occupy a more neutral position in the Cold War between the US and Russia (Cuba).

By such neutrality the US would not abide, particularly on the part of Latin America’s biggest country.  It deployed CIA operatives to orchestrate the dictatorship’s rise to power and upon doing so flooded the Brazilian state with millions of dollars in aid. The influx of resources produced a boom that further empowered the country’s economic elite and sustained the vast disparity of wealth between the country’s rich and poor. Though Guimaraes and his neighbors were quite young at the time that US-sponsored regime came to power, their insecure housing predicament marks them as desperate legatees of the subversions that led to the dictatorship’s emergence.

The lines I draw between Brazil’s leadership, US-sponsored militarism, and the treatment of Rio’s poor during exceptional events may be easier to accept in that they resemble political relationships that exist in the present day. It is reported that in 2010, Brazil’s President Lula signed a pact with the US that would have the two countries partner to provide security for the World Cup. Academi, a US-based company that once carried the name of Blackwater, obtained the contract to train Brazil’s military personnel in terrorism prevention, likely on the merits of its experience in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. Certainly leaders in both countries feared the disruptions that could come from outside of the country, but Brazil’s leadership also harbored more domestic concerns. Journalist, Santiago Navarro, for one, believes that the measures the Brazilian state is taking to secure the World Cup is directed against “social movements,” groups of Brazilians that may “protest and confront the police.”

Who among the Brazilian people would be likely to affiliate with such groups? It would be those Brazilians who are excluded from the wealth, leisure, and luxury that teems the streets and beaches of Rio. They would likely share the socioeconomic vulnerability that dogs Guimaraes and the other Autodromo residents but not have the legal recourse of a 99-year lease at their political disposal.

In the struggle between Vila Autodromo and the city of Rio de Janeiro, the safe bet is that the residents will not win. The developers have already invested a great deal of money in the area, not to mention executing a pay-off strategy that has thus far successfully eroded the number of resisters. It is unlikely that they will let a measly 200 families interfere with the multi-billion dollar endeavor that is the Olympic Games. Unfortunately for them, this confrontation between the disgruntled poor and the mega-rich has already lasted longer than was expected. The contest has now entered extra time and the expiration date of 2016, when all of the Olympic plans must come to fruition, is fast approaching. Perhaps the developers will be defeated by the sheer inevitability of clock’s slow but certain progression forward.

“They are the ones with the deadline,” Guimaraes reminded us with hopeful audacity.

Tyrone Simpson is a the Director of Urban Studies at Vassar College and author of the book “Ghetto Images in Twentieth Century American Literature: Writing Apartheid (Palgrave 2012)