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Brazil’s Long History of Faking Progress

The ruling class's preference for optics over substance is part of a pattern that stretches back centuries.

Clive Mason/Getty Images

The old Brazilian saying, “Só para inglês ver,” started off as a literal description. In 1831, Great Britain, the world’s dominant maritime force, pressured Brazil into outlawing the slave trade. Brazil’s slavers had no intention of agreeing to such an unreasonable restriction, but appeasement accomplished the same thing as resistance, without the risk of open conflict. So the law stayed on the books, as Brazil continued to import more slaves than it had in previous decades—many times more slaves, for that matter, than were being sold in the rest of the world combined. The law existed, in effect, just for the English to see.

Today, the expression is shorthand for the boundless cynicism of Brazil’s ruling class, for all the myriad ways in which it conjures the illusion of progress while precluding the possibility of change. The invaluable folks over at RioOnWatch identify three recurring categories:

First are the very visible, expensive architectural projects which look nice but are seen as pandering to tourists rather than serving favela residents’ true needs. Second are the projects which are launched with great fanfare and wide-ranging promises, but are then only partially completed, poorly maintained, or dropped altogether. And finally, the mega-events legacy projects that generate pleasing soundbites but have little connection to reality.

The 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics could fit any of those descriptions or all of them. And on the eve of the opening ceremony, it is worth examining how Brazil got to this point.

Só para inglês ver implies something important about the nature of power in Brazil. In a society defined by its gross inequality, the ruling class has thrived, in large part, because of the outside world’s indulgence. Especially now, with so many cameras in attendance, its survival depends on the foreigner’s inability or unwillingness to see.  

The first time Rio’s Valongo Wharf was renovated, it was for the sake of Italian sensibilities, not English. Dom Pedro II, the recently crowned emperor of Brazil, had been betrothed to a princess from Naples. In anticipation of her arrival in 1843, the decision was made to bury under a new wharf what had been, according to all contemporaneous accounts, a place of unmitigated depravity and suffering.

The most trafficked point of entry in the world’s most prolific slave port, Valongo alone received, in a few short decades, anywhere from 500,000 to one million kidnapped Africans—more than passed through U.S. ports over the entire span of North American slavery, according to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database. A single unmarked grave discovered beneath a nearby home in the 1990s contained the crushed bone fragments and assorted personal artifacts of some 40,000 slaves.

Archaeologists unearthed the remnants of Valongo in 2011, during another, much grander urban renewal project. At just shy of $12 billion, the price tag for this summer’s Games is the highest ever. But as with so many of the city’s “Olympic Legacy” projects, Mayor Eduardo Paes’s $2 billion public-private harbor revitalization seems destined to leave behind more in the way of displacement, erasure, and corruption than meaningful improvements of lasting, collective value.

The horrors preserved in Valongo’s ruins are just part of the downtown harbor’s rich history. Long after the formal abolition of slavery in 1881—“formal” because forced labor persists today in various parts of the country—native Congolese and Angolan dialects could still be heard on the streets of Little Africa, as the area came to be known. Samba and Carnival sprung from the vibrant quilombos, or free black refuges, that coalesced atop their ancestors’ remains. Morro da Providência, the oldest of Rio’s roughly 1,000 iconic favelas, has stood for almost 120 years on the hillside overlooking Guanabara Bay.

In a country where more than half the population identifies as Afro-descendent—and in a city with some three million black inhabitants—you’d think commemorating the trauma and vitality of this conflicted past would be a cultural priority for the government. But while plans for a Valongo memorial park languish in bureaucratic limbo, a polished statue of the Viscount of Mauá, the legendary Rockefeller-like figure of Brazil’s 19th-century chattel economy, watches over a refurbished plaza along the Olympic Boulevard. At the end of a new promenade of white stone, the $65 million Museum of Tomorrow juts out over the miasma of drug-resistant disease and human waste where the Olympic sailing competitions are set to take place.

According to a dossier presented before the City Council by leading human rights groups and experts last year, Olympic preparations have displaced 735 families from the predominantly black harbor, with an additional 800 staring down the threat of eviction. That’s not counting the hundreds of homeless residents cleared out of abandoned government property. (All told, the authors estimated that 67,000 people have been forced from their homes in the name of the Games.)  

Before long, the stated impetus for large-scale removal will be gone, but the invisible hand of the free market will still be there to finish the work that the police and construction crews started. “Participatory housing” has lagged years behind the feverish high-rise development unleashed by Paes’s “Porto Maravilha” overhaul. Some of the towering condos going up in this newfangled enclave of waterfront luxury will even brandish the name of Donald Trump.

Public service and infrastructure spending that was supposed to accompany the militarized “pacification” of Rio’s favelas has, in many cases, yet to materialize. As a result, the gangs have started returning to that vacuum with a vengeance. (Not that the cops are necessarily better. Human Rights Watch has recorded 8,000 police killings in Rio de Janeiro state over the past decade, including 322 thus far this year. Three-quarters of those killed were black.) Almost half of Providência’s allotted budget under Paes’s favela integration initiative went to building a cable car. Residents would have prefered basic sanitation, but this way, tourists too timid for a paid, street-level favela tour can take in the scenery from a comfortable distance.

By now, you’ve probably come across at least one report forecasting impending catastrophe at the Summer Games. And Rio does appear to be in worse shape than many host cities have been at this stage. But the smart money is still on Rio 2016 turning out a success, as far as these things go.   

Some 85,000 security forces will be patrolling the city over the next two weeks, twice as many as in London 2012, and Rio’s gangs aren’t interested in causing trouble when the heat is on. (Photos of Olympic-branded cocaine packets recently circulated on social media, asking respectful users to enjoy their product far away from children.) Largely dormant during the colder winter months, the dreaded Zika virus is largely a problem for Rio’s poor to deal with. And while the state’s finances are a mess—the governor declared a state of emergency just to pay public employees—there’s always been money for the Olympics.

Almost without exception, the Olympics wind up being an eleventh-hour production, and the panicked expectations about the first South American Games may even help boost the narrative of a turnaround once the spectacle has started. That’s what Eduardo Paes is banking on. Barring some actual disaster, he aims to emerge from this summer as the man who delivered a semblance of order in an impossible situation. He’s set to teach at Columbia University next year, but after that, commentators expect him to launch a serious bid for the presidency.

It’s worth reflecting on what a remarkable feat of political gymnastics that would be. The New York Times has labeled Paes’s right-leaning PMDB the “party that ruined Rio.” It is, without doubt, the party most responsible for Brazil’s present crisis of democracy.

Taking advantage of an unprecedented political kickback scandal and devastating economic recession, the deeply corrupt, ideologically unpopular PMDB has led the campaign to impeach President Dilma Rousseff on fraudulent charges of budgetary manipulation. Despite being exposed as a naked, unconstitutional power grab, that process may come to a close as soon as the Olympics end—once the international press has gone home. In the meantime, interim President Michel Temer and his white male cabinet are pushing through a series of business-friendly deregulation, privatization, and austerity measures that will further brutalize Brazil’s sprawling poor and precarious middle classes.

Unlike many of his allies, including the congressmen who pushed hardest for impeachment proceedings, Paes himself has not been caught up in the sweeping Carwash corruption probe. (Due to campaign finance improprieties, Temer, for his part, would be barred from running for office were he to honor the will of his people and hold new elections.) But some of the Olympic contracts Paes’s administration handed out to implicated construction firms are being investigated. Leaving aside his harbor project, Paes has directed the bulk of Olympic spending toward development interests in Barra da Tujica, the ritzy western suburb where he got his political start.

In that sense, the Olympics have already been a success, insofar as they have permitted Paes to realize a vision shared by generations of leaders before him. Embarrassed by Rio’s poverty and disdainful of Rio’s poor, they’ve tried, over and over, to cleanse the city of its undesirables. Ushering in modernity, as they conceive of it, has always just been a matter of clearing away the filth. And in the modern era, few pretenses have proven as effective at doing so as the Olympic Games.

Sixty percent of Brazilians now believe the Olympics will do more harm than good. Still, much can be done to ameliorate the damage. As 40 U.S. congressmen noted in a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry last month, the PMBD can’t consolidate power without the international community’s silent consent. It’s time for the proverbial English to decide which set of Games they want to see: The ones about to get underway in the stadium, or the ones already being played in the shadows behind them.