Go to Rio


When I tell people I was in Rio recently, the most common response is, ‘Did you get robbed?’

I was there just days before São Paulo exploded into deadly ganglands a few weeks ago. I’ve never been to São Paulo, but watching the coverage of those riots, what stood out most graphically were the effects of persistent and entrenched inequality especially in a place like Brazil, where wealth is ostentatious and poverty ubiquitous.

A favela in Rio

As it happens, my answer to the question about being robbed is, ‘Yes.’

I had spent the morning on a favela tour, along with several well-fed, middle-aged tourists. ‘Reality tourism’ is taking off in many countries of the world, and it was more the notion of a favela tour, rather than the favela (or shanty town) itself, that made me sign up.

The pick-up point was outside one of the glass-fronted, plush-carpeted, ritzy hotels on the beachfront. I headed for the row of mini-vans with tourism company logos painted on the side. The drivers inspected my flimsy paper voucher, shook their heads, and eventually ferried me over to the other side of the hotel. Parked there, in hilarious but tragic contrast to the glittering ocean and languid locals, was a black, military-style humvee. The driver wore opaque wrap-around sunglasses and the guide, Sheira, was a middle-aged woman with a sun-creased face, wearing a faded t-shirt, and holding a no-frills clipboard.

We piled in and clung to the metal bars of the truck as it climbed the steep and crowded streets of the Rohinha favela. Sheira knew the locals, who waved as we drove past.

‘I come here once a week to work with the young girls,’ she said. Sexual safety was the main topic of their conversations. ‘But it makes me so sad, so sad.’ She shook her head slowly and looked back over the bars of the humvee. The week before, an 11 year-old had found out she was pregnant. ‘When I asked her about condoms, she said she didn’t like them. I asked why not and she said, œdo you eat lollies with the wrappers on? ’

No doubt we were getting the sugar-coated taste of the mountain-top slum. Sheira never let us out of her sight. But the people we met were genuinely friendly and, according to other travellers, warned tourists about the dangers of Copacabana and the city centre. ‘There are many thieves there,’ they said.

I left the favela with a camera-full of photos of kids playing capoeira, the Brazilian martial art-dance; of a mini-van that had been converted into a roving grocery store to supply cheap food to the city; and of two very young mothers standing against a wall on which someone had scrawled, in black spray-paint, ‘LOST.’

Within two minutes of leaving the crisp air of Rohinha, we were honking and braking our way through the steamy streets of the city. At the foot of the favela, we passed ‘Shopping Mall’ an upmarket megaplex of high-end designer stores and pricey foodhalls.

Another five minutes of driving took us back to the beach and past another favela. We couldn’t go into this one, not even with our world-weary chaperone. Too dangerous for tourists, it was closed off from the beachfront by tall concrete walls with glass shards embedded along the top. Mango trees hung over the walls, dropping rotten fruit onto the road just a few hundred metres before the entrance to the Sheraton.

Divide between the rich (right) and
the poor (left)

Extreme contrasts are Rio’s signature feature. It’s a checkerboard of wealth and poverty. Facing the coast, it feels like an idyllic tropical island. Spin around, and you see one of Latin America’s most threatening metropolises. When a few metres separate a favela from one of Rio’s most expensive hotels, it’s no wonder that street crime is rampant.

Inequality is a fact of life in Latin America. Argentina’s former Vice-President, Carlos ‘Chacho’ Álvarez, now the head of Mercosur, recently called this region the ‘capital of world inequality.’ In the midst of the São Paulo riots, major Latin American media reported that the most shocking thing about the chaos was that it affected not just the lower class, but also the affluent middle and upper classes who are usually able to pay their way out of harm’s way.

In his recent article in New Matilda, Robert Fisk noted some similarities between Brazil and his usual stomping ground, the Middle East. I would add that, as well as sharing a history of US interference and a fractious leadership, Latin America and the Middle East also share a vertiginous inequality of wealth and power.

And the political leaders don’t overlook these similarities. In May last year, Brasilia hosted the inaugural Summit of South American-Arab Countries. Sixteen Heads of State and officials from 34 countries attended the meeting and issued ‘The Brasilia Declaration.’ In the usual highfalutin legalese of international declarations, the regional leaders committed themselves to poverty reduction and, especially, ‘development of South-South co-operation.’ Saudi media interpreted this as a first step in ‘ushering in a new wave of co-operation and undercutting the international influence of the United States.’

The other thing many of these countries have in common is hydrocarbon resources. According to the CIA, 13 of the 24 top-ranking oil-possessing countries are in these two regions.

In other words, it’s not simply about absolute wealth both regions have the potential to lift the vast bulk of their peoples out of poverty. The palpable inequality in so many of these countries especially in Brazil is a recipe for the type of social explosion that cost 170 lives in São Paulo three weeks ago.

My camera wasn’t stolen in the favela. It was stolen in the middle of Rio by a grimy youngster with wordless determination and a quick gait. Two locals gave chase, sprinting after him around the corner, but he got away. They came back, perspiration on their foreheads and gasping for breath.

‘Did he hurt you?’

‘What did he take?’

They were both concerned and apologetic.

‘Just some photos,’ I said. The camera was old. Losing the pictures of the capoeira-playing kids and the other faces from the favela, was what upset me.

‘Yeah,’ they shrugged their shoulders and raised their hands, palms up, in frustrated resignation. ‘I’ve been robbed here twice this month. I just don’t use my camera anymore.’

It’s not just the tourists who are targeted. Inequality has created a class conflict that’s played out on Brazil’s streets and town centres every day. Three weeks ago, the druglords of São Paulo merely pulled the trigger: the gun has been loaded for a long time.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.