Dancing with the Devil in the City of God

Rio de Janeiro and the Olympic Dream

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About The Book

From prizewinning journalist and Brazilian native Juliana Barbassa comes a deeply reported and beautifully written account of the seductive and chaotic city of Rio de Janeiro as it struggles with poverty and corruption on the brink of the 2016 Olympic Games.

Juliana Barbassa moved a great deal throughout her life, but Rio was always home. After twenty-one years abroad, she returned to find her native city—once ravaged by inflation, drug wars, corrupt leaders, and dying neighborhoods—undergoing a major change.

Rio has always aspired to the pantheon of global capitals, and under the spotlight of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games it seems that its moment has come. But in order to prepare itself for the world stage, Rio must vanquish the entrenched problems that Barbassa recalls from her childhood. Turning this beautiful but deeply flawed place into a pristine showcase of the best that Brazil has to offer in just a few years is a tall order—and with the whole world watching, the stakes couldn’t be higher.

Library Journal called Dancing with the Devil in the City of God “akin to Charlie LeDuff’s Detroit”—a book that “combines history and personal interviews in an informative and engaging work.” This kaleidoscopic portrait of Rio introduces the reader to the people who make up this city of extremes, revealing their aspirations and their grit, their violence, their hungers, and their splendor, and shedding light on the future of this city they are building together.

Dancing with the Devil in the City of God is an insider perspective from a native daughter and “a fascinating look at the people who live in and aspire to change one of the world’s most impressive cities” (Booklist, starred review).

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for Dancing With the Devil in the City of God includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Juliana Barbassa. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

 

Introduction

In Dancing With the Devil in the City of God, reporter Juliana Barbassa returns to Rio de Janeiro, the city of her birth, after two decades away. She finds this vibrant city, selected to host the World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games, on the brink of change and ready to claim its place as a modern metropolis deserving of the world stage. But in order to succeed, Rio and its citizens must contend with long-standing problems of corruption, violence, poverty, and ill-considered development. Barbassa brilliantly charts the progress of the city and its colorful residents, their stumbles, and missteps, as they prepare for the largest events in Rio’s history—and set its future course.

 

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. How did the author’s perspective as someone who had lived abroad for many years influence her writing about Rio de Janeiro? What aspects of life in Rio are most jarring or upsetting for her?

2. The gap between rich and poor in Brazil has shrunk to a fifty-year low. What factors played a part in this shift? How has the quality of life of Brazil’s poor and middle-class residents changed? Where has it remained the same?

3. What portrait emerges of the Cariocas, the residents of Rio? What characteristics of the upper classes and lower classes stood out to you? What makes Rio a “divided city”?

4. In what ways do crime and violence permeate the every day lives of Cariocas? Do you think the steps the police and government took to fight the Red Command were warranted? How did the public’s response compare to the way Americans have responded to police violence in our own country?

5. Do you think that communities such as Vila Autódromo will be able to coexist with gentrification in Rio? How is the government’s response to favelas such as Vila Autódromo or Metrô a barometer of progress?

6. Why would the program Morar Carioca have represented a significant step forward in how the government handled favelas? Why was the program abandoned? Contrast the failure of Morar Carioca with the success of the poverty-fighting program Bolsa Família.

7. Consider the condition of Rio’s rivers and ocean. Why have its citizens and its government allowed them to become so polluted? Do they have the means and resources to do better?

8. How does the “state of exception” (page 218) invoked to meet the deadlines of the Olympic Games and World Cup shape building and development in the city? In instances such as the building of the golf course, what compromises are made?

9. What factors contributed to Brazil’s progressive approach to gay rights? How do Brazilians’ attitudes towards sex and sexuality differ from those of Americans?

10. What sparked the massive protests of June 2013? What reforms did the protestors demand? Did the protests have tangible results?

11. How is the Brazilian team’s defeat in the World Cup emblematic of the disconnect between the country’s “aspirations and its ability to achieve them” (page 280)?

12. In the introduction the author wonders whether the changes in Rio de Janeiro will be merely para inglês ver, “a nicety for foreign eyes” (page xxii). What is her conclusion? What is yours?

13. Of all the challenges that Rio faces, which stood out to you as the most difficult to overcome? Why?

 

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Set the tone for your reading group by playing some Brazilian music. Try the official song of Rio de Janeiro, Cidade Maravilhosa; or the classic “The Girl from Ipanema.”

2. Bring Rio alive off the page by watching films set there. Try City of God or the documentary Waste Land.

3. Visit the website for the Olympic Games at http://www.olympic.org/rio-2016-summer-olympics to see photos and renderings of the construction and venues you have read about.

 

A Conversation with Juliana Barbassa

How did writing your first book differ from writing news articles?  Did you approach the reporting differently?

There is a moment during an interview that you always hope for as a journalist: when the person you are talking to relaxes into the conversation. That often happens after she is finished telling you what she thinks you want to hear, or has exhausted her agenda. There’s often a break there—the person has run out of big, important things to say.

In the silence that follows is when the good stuff starts to come out: the chitchat about the kids, their jobs, the neighborhood, the stuff that keeps them up at night, and the minutiae of their daily lives. This is what makes that person real and not a stand-in for an issue; it fleshes them out, shows what makes them tick. It also reveals the contours of their world and where the tensions lie. By culling from these stories and observations the writer can turn a topic—say, the razing of favelas in Rio—into something the reader can connect with and understand. This is true of any good reporting.

But daily news has specific requirements—you work under deadline; keep your articles short and to the point. That’s the nature of news. For me, it often meant having to leave an interview before that shift, before the good stuff; other times it simply meant leaving much of the nuance out of the final article for lack of space. My motivations for writing this book were many, but I admit that at the core was a very selfish desire to simply have more time to report, more visits to people and places. I wanted to bring the city to readers, but I also wanted to get under its skin. Covering Rio as a correspondent gave me breadth of experiences, thousands of interviews; reporting the book allowed me to return to the same person or place and see various layers. It gave me depth. And even that wasn’t enough! I still found myself wanting more time, more visits.

One theme of the book is how modern-day Brazil often confounds your memories or expectations.  What was the learning curve of living in Rio de Janeiro again like?

This process of trying to go home is always fraught, as knows anyone who has lived away from his place of origin and then tried to return years or even generations later. Over time, this place that is supposed to be home becomes flattened, static—a postcard. It becomes a convenient receptacle for hopes and expectations, far removed from the confounding and complex reality.

Confronting the disparity between the Brazil I’d known as a child and had carried with me and what I saw decades later as a reporter left me with a bad case of emotional whiplash. I often felt it would have been far easier to move to an entirely unknown country. At least there would have been no expectations of familiarity.

This move back home also tested my sense of self in unexpected ways. Being out of place in foreign country was a familiar feeling; I had felt that way for most of my life. But feeling out of place in what was supposed to be my home really knocked me off balance. I don’t think this is an unusual experience; others who have tried to move back home often find it raises more questions than answers.

I also had challenges just trying to settle. I’ve known few places that are as immediately rewarding to the senses, as rich and as visually stunning, and as maddening as Rio. Setting up life and work there had me oscillating wildly between giddy pleasure at my surroundings and seething frustration at the traffic, the bureaucracy, the senseless violence and the tremendous inequality that grate against you every single day. At the end of four years I’d found ways to navigate this, but I also felt a resignation creeping in, dampening the enthusiasm and the indignation that marked my first couple of years. It may be a necessary aspect of getting by in such a challenging place, but I am not sure it is a good thing.

The book weaves together many aspects of Rio’s culture and the ways in which the city is changing. How did you choose what subjects to focus on?  How did you shape the narrative?

Often as a journalist I felt I didn’t chose the stories I worked on; they latched themselves onto me and I had no choice but to take them on, report them out, and write them down just to get them out of my system. It was the same with this book.

There are aspects of Rio that grabbed me from the moment I landed: the new favela occupation plan, the pollution of the rivers and the ocean, the economic upsurge that fed the growth of a substantial middle class for the first time in Brazilian history. These issues confronted me every day, every time I took a swim, walked past the heavily armed police officers at the entrance of a favela, or saw people who historically had lived hand-to-mouth sporting cell phones, dental braces, a new car.

The preparation for the upcoming World Cup and Olympic Games were also unavoidable. Big infrastructural projects tied to these events were physically transforming the city; favelas were being torn down and new transportation routes were being carved into the landscape, fostering new developments along their route. The city would live with the consequences of this change for decades, and all the construction was choking the city. This aspect had to be examined if I were to probe what this moment meant to Rio.

The real challenge was deciding what to leave out. I opted to focus on what was suffering immediate and clear change, and leave out longer term and more subtle transformations in areas like race and education. I also allowed the arc of my own expectations and curiosity drive the narrative, assuming the reader would share many of my questions. The economic downturn, Brazil’s defeat during the World Cup, and my own readjustment of expectations gave the book a natural dénouement.

You describe Rio as both environmentally beautiful and rotten (page 129). What has allowed the environmental degradation to reach this point?  Do you see any shift in the Cariocas’ perception of the environment?

The poet Elizabeth Bishop, who spent eighteen years in Brazil, said in a 1965 article for The New York Times Magazine that Rio was “not a marvelous city, it is merely a marvelous setting for a city.” This touched a raw nerve with Cariocas, or Rio residents, back then. In a rebuke, a Brazilian writer told her, “Monkey, mind your own tail!”

Cariocas are just as sensitive today to critiques of their cidade maravilhosa, but the truth is that Rio remains a poorly planned, chaotic mess of a city draped over an exquisite landscape. There is no integration between the metropolis and the more than one dozen other towns that make up Greater Rio, with its population of nearly 13 million. The planning and implementation of public transportation, garbage collection, and sewerage infrastructure is piecemeal and disconnected geographically and over time. This is, in part, what turned the city and the state into an environmental disaster.

Hosting the Pan-American Games of 2007, the 2014 World Cup, and the 2016 Olympics provided opportunities to at least tackle the problems that could interfere with the events, such as the perennially snarled traffic or the pollution in the Bay. Ideally, the needs of these sporting events would be harnessed to the needs of the city, and preparing for them would result in improvements that are useful to residents in the long run. 

Instead Cariocas saw more of the same: projects imposed with no public consultation, unmarried to broader city-planning goals, and which served powerful but narrow constituencies. The city got, for example, several rapid bus transit lanes increasing flux to the wealthy west side, but no improvement in transportation to the mostly working-class north side, which has been historically underserved in all areas. New sewage treatment plants were installed where heavily polluted rivers empty into the bay, but the low-income communities upriver remain without sewage infrastructure. There are notable exceptions, but unfortunately I have not seen a significant enough shift in attitudes to force elected authorities to behave any differently. 

Your reporting brought you into contact with Cariocas at every level of society.  How do the opinions of Rio’s future vary amongst the lower, middle, and upper classes? What unifies them?

When I first returned to Brazil in 2010, one of the most noticeable changes was in the decrease of extreme poverty. The narrowing of the great gap between rich and poor that I’d read about from abroad was clear. Don’t get me wrong: Brazil was still a place of jarring social inequality, and highly stratified by class. But this was not the Brazil of the 1980s and 1990s, when hunger was a reality you could confront around the corner. For the first time in my lifetime, and I believe for the first time in the country’s history, Brazil was doing well and it was the lot of the poorest that had improved the most (relatively speaking, of course).

This created a sense of possibility, particularly among lower-income Brazilians. This optimism overflowed from a segment of the population to the country as a whole. This socio-economic gap had always been Brazil’s Achilles heel; the sense was that if Brazil could remedy that, then it could do anything. It reflected Brazil’s potential. I remember going to the Cidade de Deus favela on the occasion of President Barack Obama’s visit and hearing it from a resident, standing in front of his minuscule storefront: “The American president is here because we matter. It used to be that we had to go to them; now they come to us.” For the first time, I saw pride in this new Brazil, in what it could accomplish.

The middle class and the upper classes also benefitted, of course, from the stabilization, the growing economy, and the investment the country was drawing at the time. It was hard to open a newspaper without seeing a new record broken: the lowest unemployment levels, the greatest number of cars sold, the astonishing number of Brazilians flying in an airplane for the first time.

In Rio, in particular, there were specific projects that targeted the city’s most recognized challenges. These affected most directly the lowest-income Cariocas, but would improve the lives of all residents. The UPP project, which brought police presence to specific favelas, and was supposed to bring basic services in its wake, is one. Cleaning up Rio’s polluted rivers and the bay is another. Morar Carioca, which would have brought basic services to all favelas by 2020, would have had tremendous impact on the quality of life in the city.

When the national economy took a nosedive and these Rio-specific projects failed to deliver or were cut off at the root, it was the lowest-income Cariocas who felt it the most. The better-off are affected by the worsening economy, certainly, but to a certain degree they are still able to shelter themselves from these failures and pay for safe housing, security, education, health, [and] distance from pollution.

In spite of the disappointments of the past few years, and the radically different ways in which these were felt, Cariocas of all classes come together around a stubborn, unstinting love of their hometown. No matter its flaws, nothing rankles laid-back Cariocas more than criticism of their cidade maravilhosa. 

What has happened to the residents of Vila Autódromo since you finished the book?

They’ve been suffering increasing intimidation. First, all the trees in the community were cut down. Then the remaining residents began to suffer phone, water and power outages. Many families succumbed to the pressure and accepted compensation or the offered public housing. But as tickets for the Olympic Games went on sale, there were still about one hundred properties left. The mayor signed decrees declaring the site a public utility and calling for the immediate destruction of about half of them. This raised the specter of forced removal, with some form of compensation to be settled later by court. The residents continued to protest and question the need for their removal, pointing out that plans for building high-rent condos do not constitute a public utility.

The removal of this community, where many residents have titles to their land, to favor development of high-rent, exclusive gated communities is one of the starkest examples of how local government is using the preparation for the Olympics as leverage to push through a narrow set of economic interests. The deadline and the external commitments imposed by the Games allow authorities to invoke a sense of urgency and create a state of exception in which the usual legalities are plowed over. This is also clear in the development of the Olympic golf course on environmentally protected and sensitive land.

The extent of the protests in 2013 took the whole country by surprise.  What effect did they have on the government?  What events could precipitate more protests?

One immediate effect was leaving government officials fearful and increasingly willing to be truculent to maintain order. Many, from the president on down, had staked their political future on smoothly carrying off the games and projecting an image of Brazil as an orderly, up-and-coming country that is a safe bet for tourists and investors.

By the time the World Cup started, the president had vowed zero tolerance for disruption. Since Brazil’s strategic plan for World Cup security had called for one billion dollars to be spent on public security—with states and cities contributing more—there was not only political will but also the cash to further militarize the police force and ready them to contain protests.

I’ll never forget the sight of a Rio state military police officer wearing the gear they got before the World Cup: the black, Kevlar-encrusted body armor, the helmet with a face shield, the multiple gadgets meant for shooting, shocking, spraying, handcuffing, or beating. Keep in mind this is the police force that kills the greatest number of civilians in the world, according to the Instituto Humanitas Unisinos. In 2014, Rio police killed 582 residents—up from 416 the year before.

This strike-first approach was put into practice during the Cup. Before the games, police preemptively arrested alleged protest organizers and seized computers and cell phones. As the competition started, rows of these Robocop-like officers stood shoulder to shoulder, blocking streets and funneling fans into designated areas. After the games, the president signed a law allowing Municipal Guards—the guys who hand out parking tickets—to carry guns, and the Brazilian Senate began debating whether protests could qualify as acts of terrorism.

Protests were far more subdued during the Cup, as Brazilians were lulled by the irresistible combination of world-class soccer and loads of extra holidays, and turned off by the increasingly violent environment surrounding the marches. But in spite of heightened security, the unrest continues. Protests flared up again in March 2015, galvanized by the return of inflation, growing unemployment, an economic slowdown, and a vast corruption scandal that has implicated the governing Workers’ Party, many of the country’s top construction firms, and the national oil company Petrobras.

What these protests show is that various segments of the population have heightened expectations of their country. It is as if they got a glimpse of what was possible during the economic upswing of the 2000s, when the Workers’ Party first came to power and Brazil hit on vast oil discoveries. The Brazil they glimpsed then—that’s the country they want. And anything that stands in the way of the vision—a crumbling economy, another corruption scandal, overspending on mega-events like the World Cup or the Olympics—could spark another wave of protests.

How did the short-term objectives of planning for the World Cup and the Olympic Games undercut the city’s larger goals?

The shortest answer has to do with allocation of public funds. Take the World Cup. After selling Brazilians on the idea that FIFA-standard stadiums would be constructed without a penny of public financing, Brazil spent $4 billion on what the NGO Play the Game has called some of the most expensive stadia ever built. Many of them were then handed over to the private sector. This is jarring in a country that still lacks adequate schools and health care.  It was the same with the 2007 Pan-American Games, which were nearly ten times over budget and left a legacy of expensive-to-maintain venues (including an $8 million velodrome that was demolished by 2013; another one is being built for the Olympics). Many of the same people were in charge when Rio got the 2016 Olympic Games, so there is little reason to expect it will have different results.

Then there is the question of the particular projects put into place as part of the preparations for the games. Rio de Janeiro’s transportation network, for example, was in dire need of improvement, after years with no significant investment. But instead of projects that fit into long-term city planning goals, Rio authorities threw a pet project into the Matrix of Responsibilities it signed with FIFA: a rapid bus transit lane connecting the international airport to the wealthy suburb of Barra da Tijuca, which serves neither the areas of greatest need nor the World Cup visitors. To carry out this and other projects, it was also given an exemption to Brazil’s Law of Fiscal Responsibility (like other FIFA host cities), which allowed for deficit spending and emergency financing.

But the real pity here is the opportunity cost. By the time Rio has hosted the Olympics, it will have lived through over a decade of preparing for and hosting massive-scale, international sporting events. This process will have remade the face of the city, and residents will live with the consequences for decades to come. It is heartbreaking to consider what would have been possible to achieve if such monumental change had been implemented with long-term planning and real public consultation.

At the end of the book we see that the economic upswing has begun to swing back the other way.  Where do things stand today?

The effervescent party atmosphere I found in 2010 has soured into a national hangover of continental proportions. Nearly all the positive developments that had led to such optimism have crumbled. Prices for Brazil’s commodities—iron ore, soy—have tumbled. Inflation has spiked, the unemployment rate is the highest in years, and the economy is expected to shrink in 2015 after four years of near stagnation. The state-run oil company behind the oil discovery hailed as Brazil’s “passport to the future” is embroiled in a corruption scandal that has involves the highest echelons of the Workers’ Party and the nation’s biggest construction companies. Brazil’s currency, the Real, has fallen by about 50 percent since 2011. Even Eike Batista, the Brazilian and Rio resident who was once the world’s eighth-wealthiest man, is now over $1 billion in debt.

The magnitude of the crisis has been recognized by investors: Brazil’s credit rating has been backsliding, along with that of its state-controlled oil company, Petrobras. Now both are perched on the brink of junk. And it is also causing unrest in the streets.  President Dilma Rousseff’s approval rating fell to the lowest ever, 13 percent, after renewed protests in early 2015.  So far, she has largely preserved the income redistribution programs that helped sustain the social gains of the previous decade: falling poverty rates, narrowing inequality, and increasing income among the poorest. But with a 2015 budget deficit that turned out to be, at $18.6 billion, twice as big as forecasted, it is unclear how long these programs can be maintained.

What do you think the legacy of the Olympic Games will be in Rio de Janeiro?

I feel I’ve already answered this question in other questions above, no?

About The Author

© Nadia Sussman

Juliana Barbassa was born in Brazil, but she had a nomadic life between her home country and Iraq, Malta, Libya, Spain, France, and the United States before settling in Switzerland. Barbassa began her career with the Dallas Observer, where she won a Katie Journalism Award in 1999. She joined the Associated Press in 2003, and after two more awards from the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and the APME, she returned to Brazil in 2010 as the AP’s Rio de Janeiro correspondent. Dancing with the Devil in the City of God is her first book.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Touchstone (June 2016)
  • Length: 352 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781476756264

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