This week, we’re diving into Brazil. We talked to Juliana Barbassa, managing editor at Americas Quarterly, and policy director of Americas Society. Her book Dancing with the Devil in the City of God: Rio de Janeiro on the Brink is one of the best primers we’ve found on an increasingly complicated and important country.
Why did you write this book on Brazil? Why now?
When I went back to Brazil as a journalist in 2010, I found a booming economy, 30 million people moving into the middle class, newfound economic stability, a working class president representing Brazilians who had historically been excluded from power. All of this was very exciting, and part of what drew me back. I wanted to see this, understand it. But as a Brazilian, I knew the problems – the country’s inequalities – ran very deep. Racism, class divisions and lack of education and access to healthcare – you can’t change all of that in five years, or ten. I wanted to explore this moment. How much of the change was real? How much was hype?
I wanted all of those great things to be true – that having a new political party in power, that brought a different vision to the country, and having an oil discovery off Rio’s coast, would mean money and political will to really tackle these longstanding issues. I also had my doubts. The book was a way to investigate this transformation in greater depth. And indeed, over time, I started to identify the cracks and gaps in this narrative.
What was most startling or surprising to you?
I came to Brazil, and to the book, with a lot of my own hopes and expectations. What I learned in my years there unraveled these hopes in a way that was often painful. For example — the sense of safety in the street of Rio had really improved. A new security program in favelas raised expectations for a better quality of life there, if the policing were followed by social programs and investment. This was huge. There was skepticism, but there were also expectations, in many quarters.
But years into it, if you looked closely at the interaction between the police and the policed in places like the Alemao complex of favelas, you could see the relationship remained antagonistic. The lives of some people were still valued less than that of others — police violence, and killings by the police, remained a fact of life for many communities. That this didn’t change wasn’t surprising so much as deeply disappointing.
Were you surprised about Dilma’s impeachment?
No. By the time she was impeached, she had lost her political base, but long before then, she lost the support of much of the public — even many who had voted for her. I was there when she won her second presidential election. She won by a very narrow margin. A lot of people voted for her because she had promised not to tackle the economic crisis through the economic retrenching that her opponent was running on. When she took office and began to pursue austerity measures, many of those people felt betrayed.
Her impeachment was due not so much to the administrative charges levied against her, though that was the official reason. She was removed because she lost control of the economy, and lost popular support. That’s a sin Brazilians aren’t willing to forgive. Many members of Brazil’s Congress, and much of its political class, are venal and opportunistic. They turned against her once she was weak.
There’s another element, too, that surfaced once the impeachment was a possibility. Sexism still runs deep in Brazilian society. The fact she was a woman wasn’t a big issue when she was campaigning, in part because she was hand-picked by Lula, her predecessor, who remained the country’s most popular politician. But once she began to lose that power base – you saw it as congress voted to move her impeachment forward — the language they used was sexist, patronizing and at times demeaning.
What does her impeachment imply?
It was the end of an era — a sad, wrenching end to a period of great expectations and real promise. This political-economic arc we’ve been talking about in Brazil, from the moment of growth in the mid-2000s, to a few years of bonanza, to the souring of the economy that became apparent in 2013, 2014 — this arc took a lot of Brazilians along for the ride. A lot of people really bought into the idea that the country was booming, headed for bright future, and that this would also be true for them, for their families.
Many did benefit from this improvement, these opportunities. As a country, we saw families move from poverty to middle class, we created spots in universities for poor students and students of color – this was powerful. But much about this broader promise was unsustainable. The bigger and deeper reforms that would have been necessary to prime the country for steady, long-term growth were not undertaken. Brazil continued to depend on oil, on the export of commodities. And when their prices tanked, the country was left exposed.
What do you think the legacy of those protests were in 2013?
On the more positive end of the spectrum, those protests captured and put forth a broader debate about governance – about the tenor of Brazil’s democracy, about distribution of resources – that Brazil has to grapple with as its democracy matures.
It was important to see that these issues had the capacity to mobilize people, and that people in turn put pressure on elected officials. I think everyone was surprised. The protesters hadn’t anticipated the size of the movement. Politicians didn’t know how to handle it. It was very new to them.
With that said, there was no unifying philosophy and no unified demands. It captured the zeitgeist, it captured a feeling and a set of expectations about where Brazil is, the path it should take. But it didn’t turn into anything concrete – a specific set of demands – much less a political intervention. That’s where we stand now unfortunately. There was a broad rejection of the political class, but no one has stepped in to fill that role. There’s a significant power vacuum. It would be wonderful if that energy and those conversations could be channeled into a platform, a concrete plan. I don’t see that happening.
You say that Brazil is more unequal now than before the Olympics. Why is that?
For me, the preparation for the Olympics served as a window into what was going on in Brazil generally. The Olympic Games and the World Cup were pitched to the population as urban renewal tools, essentially. They were sold as a way of catalyzing change that would benefit all residents; at some expense, yes, but everyone would gain from it.
What happened instead was that the Olympics and the World Cup exacerbated a cycle of political patronage and corruption that was already in place. You had the same powerful actors — local, state and federal politicians, alongside the owners of the big construction companies that got contracts to build sporting venues and infrastructure — working together to funnel public resources into their private hands. They won; Brazilians lost.
In Rio, you did have a lot of physical transformation of the city, but when you look at what was put into place and who was best served by that change, it fits into the same old logic.
For example: Rio just invested in a very costly expansion of the metro from one of the wealthiest parts of the city to another wealthy part of the city. Is it nice to have? Sure. The city desperately needs new transportation options. Does that meet the greatest need of the residents? Not at all. This is the case all over the city. We now have empty venues, and infrastructure that does not meet the city’s most urgent needs.
And more: If you look at where the investments were made and who benefited it, generally, it was the people who were already well off: wealthy residents and the owners of the companies that build the infrastructure. That’s why I say that the Olympics made the city more unequal than before.
In the coverage of Brazil, what are some of the stereotypes and problematic narratives that you see? Narratives that need to be dismantled? What issues are not being covered?
Anything outside of the Rio and São Paulo, occasionally Brasília, is largely ignored aside from the rainforest deforestation, which is usually covered by parachuting in and spending a few days there. The country is hugely diverse: culturally, geographically, and economically. There is little recognition of that, and not just by the international media outlets, but also by the biggest media outlets within Brazil.
There’s also a problem of perspective. Journalists often look at everything from very close up, so in terms of the economy, what gets left out is the long term improvement, as measured by general welfare, health statistics, life expectancy. Even now, despite the very grim situation we are in, with political turmoil and economic downturn, Brazil is still a far better place to live for many Brazilians than it was 20 or 30 years ago. Literacy, deaths by easily preventable diseases, infant mortality, all of these things have been improving significantly and continue to, and haven’t been wholly undone by the recent downturn. It’s important to remember that.
One thing I’m really tired of seeing is the story of the violent favela. My least favorite variation of that is the intrepid reporter going into the violent favela and describing being there with these traffickers..it just makes me roll my eyes. I wanted to write stories that included favela residents but were not focused only on violence or the drug trade, or bodies sprawled on the streets, but were about working families, kids who go off to school in the morning, mothers who rush home at the end of the day to make dinner, fathers who work two jobs to make ends meet. They are neighborhoods, poor neighborhoods, in city that has tremendous inequality. It’s unsexy compared to the story where you’re faced with the trafficker or the automatic weapon, but it’s the reality.
It’s not a denial of the violence, but a shift in focus. People there have hopes, aspirations, lives, and worries that are beyond the violence. They plan birthday parties. They worry about the economy.
Do you have any recommendations for novels, documentaries, non fiction work, or even websites you like going to for information on Brazil?
There are some new media efforts in Brazil, such as Agência Pública, that is doing impressive work. There is one English-language website I usually recommend — Rio On Watch. I love what they’ve done with young, non-professional journalists and their focus on issues and communities that are not represented in the mainstream media.
There are great movies that make for a good introduction, like City of God, Elite Squad, Pixote, Bus 174, and Central Station.
There is a dearth of books about Brazil, but I would definitely recommend Alex Cuadros’ Brazillionaires, Alex Bellos’ Futebol: the Brazilian Way of Life and Greg Grandin’s Fordlandia.
What advice do you have for other women in the field who work in foreign policy and the media?
Do it. Most writers are men; most reviewers are men; most policy experts are men. The only way we are going to upend this trend is if women just do it, and then keep doing it, keep raising their hand, and keep proposing books and talks and op-eds. And when you’re in a position to hire women, promote women, engage with their perspectives, do that too.