The state government of Rio de Janeiro has declared a state of “public calamity”, as it struggles to cope with severe economic and social crises in the lead up to the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
Public services are under enormous pressure from tighter budgets, public health issues and outbreaks of violent crime. The police and fire services’ cars and helicopters have been parked indefinitely, to save money on fuel. Policemen and firefighters have gone on strike – some even occupied the arrival zones of airports in Rio de Janeiro, with banners bearing the message: “Welcome to the Hell”. Elsewhere, in the city centre, state employees are protesting about delayed pay packages and insufficient resources.
This has led to a climate of fear and insecurity, at a time when numerous cases of violence and vandalism are taking place in the city and its surrounds. In April alone, there were more than 450 homicides in Rio. High profile cases in the last month have included a physician and a young girl, whose murders shocked the city. Angry with actions from the government, residents have set fire to buses, and there has been a spate of assaults, rapes and shootings.
With just over one month until the city is due to host one of the biggest sporting events on the planet, tourists and teams from many countries have already started to arrive. Serious concerns have been raised regarding the safety of these visitors; not least, Brazilian football star Rivaldo Ferreira has urged people to stay away from the games, saying that attendees will be putting their lives at risk.
Recent events prove that these concerns are not unfounded: gunmen stormed a hospital that was recommended to tourists attending the games, and a dismembered body was found on Copacabana Beach, near the Olympic Arena. Australian paralympians and Spanish sailors have been robbed at gunpoint, while athletes from Great Britain, Denmark, Ireland and New Zealand witnessed a shooting in one of the city’s recently regenerated areas.
These incidents have not come out of the blue. Local citizens have long lived in fear of conflicts between the police, drug cartels and militias. Authorities’ attempts to “pacify” the city’s poorer areas have been disrupted by funding cuts and resistance from gangs. Severe social inequality, sewage problems and the demise of Rio’s public health system have all compounded these issues. The problem of “arrastão” (Group Crime) remain in the city not only on the beaches, but now in the streets.
The city, state and national governments have taken significant steps to keep preparations for the Olympics on track.
Brazilian special forces continue to train against the possibility of terrorist attacks, and have been authorised to use force to manage dangerous situations, like the arson attacks which occurred in the run up to the FIFA football World Cup. Armed forces have also been recruited to control the Zika Virus, after some scientists called for the games to be cancelled – or at least postponed – to address public health concerns.
Throughout the games, the Brazilian army will operate a force of 38,000 personnel on ten different fronts, including maritime control, border inspection, cyber security, air space monitoring, counter terrorism initiatives and more. What’s more, they will be assisted by international support in the form of 250 police officers from 55 countries, as well as assistance from Interpol, Ameripol and Europol, until the end of the Paralympics.
Huge funds have also been dedicated to fill funding gaps ahead of the games. On June 24, the state of Rio de Janiero’s interim governor, Francisco Dornelles, declared that Rio was facing a “serious economic crisis”. The state government has delayed pension payments, leaving almost 140,000 residents without an income. It is the first time in Brazil’s history that a state has declared bankruptcy.
This was, in part, a strategic move: Dornelles was seeking to elicit money from Brazil’s federal government, which is currently in a state of turmoil following the impeachment of several ministers, who were reportedly linked to corruption scandals, other alleged crimes and ethics issues. The ploy has paid off: the federal government transferred approximately 2.9 billion Brazilian real (US$878m) to the state, to help fund security during the games.
The public protest
This cash injection has failed to satisfy the residents of Rio, who took to social media to protest the games, using the hashtags “#naovaiterolimpiadas” (no to the Olympics) and “#naoqueroolimpiadas” (I don’t want the Olympics). Many are concerned that the investment will not fix long-term problems in the city. Indeed, there are concerns that the legacy of the games will be one of gentrification, rather than social and environmental improvement.
The funds seem to have done little to reduce the frequency of assaults on public transport, which has now reached almost 20 per day. Thousands have protested against Rio’s “culture of rape”, after a 16-year-old girl was reportedly gang-raped by 33 men.
What’s more, the national unemployment rate in Brazil was 11.2% last quarter, and continues to place a huge burden on the economy. And the collapse of a new cyclepath built for the games has left two people dead and called the safety of the city’s infrastructure into question.
It’s true that the fragility of Rio’s public services has been laid bare by the crisis. Work on many of the Olympic projects has come to an end, and some structures may be left unfinished for the games, including some venues, the BRT bus lane, the new metro line and the Light Rail Vehicle, which is apparently abandoned and accumulating rubbish. And taxi drivers have mobilised against plans for the games, and the ongoing presence of ride-sharing scheme Uber.
Several unfortunate incidents during the torch relay have also dampened the public mood: a 27-year-old man attempted to extinguish the Olympic flame for a dare, and an endangered species of dolphin was used during the torch relay, just days after a jaguar escaped and was shot dead following a similar ceremony.
Taking the lead
Yet officials seem confident that once the Olympic Games start, such concerns will be soothed. Rio’s mayor, Eduardo Paes, tweeted that the economic crisis reported by international press “in no way delays the delivery of Olympic projects and the promises assumed by the city of Rio”. According to Paes “the state of crisis is not the result of the games”. The minister of justice Alexandre de Moraes says that the all problems for Rio will be sorted in time.
These issues are not a direct result of the games – they have been brewing for years. It is unfortunate that the situation in Brazil has reached crisis point before the Olympics. But it’s still possible for Rio to host an excellent event, without wasting more money and resources. There is time to recover investments and stand the state and the country on its feet again. For Brazilian leaders, the biggest challenge will be to regain the trust and faith of their people.