Interview with Theresa Williamson, Brazilian activist

Here's what a leading activist has to say about the upcoming Olympics and the political turmoil in Brazil.


RIO, June 1, 2016 – Back in 2009 when Rio De Janeiro first won the right to host the 2016 Summer Olympic Games over such cities as Chicago and Tokyo, there was near 100 percent approval by Brazilian citizens. Now, however, that is no longer the case, and the games have become a burden more than a joy.

One of the first groups to point out problems with the games was Catalytic Communities, which brought forward evidence that residents of favelas, largely known to the world from the universally praised 2002 film “City of God,” were being forcibly removed from their homes in order to build stadiums, housing and other Olympics related things.

On the eve of the games, CDN caught up with Theresa Williamson, founder of Catalytic Communities, to discuss Brazil and the Olympics.

Q: When the Olympics were sold to the Brazilian people, what sorts of promises were made and how does that compare to reality?

A: Few Brazilians were paying close attention when the Olympics bid was taking place. Rio was just coming out of three decades of stagnation, we had a new governor and mayor promising investments with new offshore oil fueling the changes, and then the Olympics bid added a huge amount of fuel to those flames. The state threw a huge party on Copacabana beach as the Olympics decision was announced, and no protesters could be seen or heard. There simply wasn’t a public debate or outcry to speak of.

That said, promises were made. The Olympic legacy was well-documented on websites and glossy booklets issued by the city government. Promises ranging from 24 million endemic trees to offset carbon emissions, to the full upgrading of all favelas across the city, were made. Upgrading refers to bringing areas up to standard in terms of sanitation, schools, hospitals, streets, water, electricity and so on. Favelas are Rio’s affordable neighborhoods built by residents themselves over the past hundred years. Beginning as slums or shanties, they are no longer that destitute. Today they are often vibrant and consolidated, though still chronically underinvested, communities.

Other legacy promises ranged from dramatic investment and improvements to urban mobility, to the clean-up of the city’s bay and lagoons.

In the end, a different list of legacies appears in the current version of those glossy booklets—stadiums and transport are the focus of this new list. All of the other legacies were abandoned or even upended (as in the case of favelas, which instead have faced the worst episode of forced evictions in Rio history, rather than integration into the city). And in the case of transport, there is no proof that there have been improvements in terms of the most important indicator: commuting times.

The “transport legacy” appears to consist of large amounts of money being used to fund a number of new modes (bus rapid transit, light rail, metro expansion, cable cars) while cutting those people most dependent on them (dozens of direct bus lines were removed, making it virtually impossible to reach the wealthy South Zone from distant parts of the city without various switches). Rio now boasts long bus rapid transit routes that have allowed the city housing agency to move tens of thousands of families farther to the city’s periphery and still allow them to reach work in wealthier areas with a two-hour ride.

Unfortunately, we have seen a legacy that is “for the English to see,” following an age-old tradition in Rio of instituting policies for marketing purposes, to facilitate corruption or votes.

Q: Are people living in favelas continuing to see disruptions in their lives as a result of the Olympics?

A: Most people living in most favelas complain of not seeing any investment despite the billions being invested in Rio in recent years. That said, those that have seen investment affecting them by and large are highly critical and, yes, their lives are still being disrupted. Whether it’s the growing presence of militarized police forces in their neighborhoods engaging in intimidating activities or even torture on a more regular basis than ever before, or living with the consequences of forced removals where families are now beginning the very long and arduous process of re-establishing their lives in a new place and under new circumstances.

Q: What effect will the impeachment of President Rousseff have on the Olympics?

A: The Olympics will now be carried out in a country that is essentially living a short (we hope) period of military dictatorship. A politician who would never have won an election outright and who is being charged with corruption is currently revising or removing a number of important laws that were successfully reducing Brazil’s embarrassing income inequality. He was supported by the military and Supreme Court justices in his takeover. These are characteristics of a military dictatorship, even if the takeover was a “soft” coup. It will be very awkward and humiliating to have this illegitimate government representing the nation during the Olympic Games.

Q: What are some important things happening on the ground that the world media are not reporting?

A: As always, communities are organizing. But this has intensified dramatically in recent years. Mis-spending with the Olympics and the World Cup, the cost of living increases associated with boom time pre-Olympic speculation, forced evictions, police violence, growing commutes and growing frustration generally have led people to organize these past years. There’s no doubt that the primary frustration of the political establishment is a desire to maintain the status quo (which includes significant remnants of slaveholding logic, as Brazil was the world’s largest slave colony, the last to abolish slavery, and has never processed the impact of all this on its psyche), though that will never again be possible (without force—hence their attempt at that now).

It is absolutely amazing to see the impact social media have had on community voices being represented and heard. Everyone over 8 has a Facebook account and uses it actively and often publicly to voice criticisms, frustrations and personal accounts and to establish media channels that reach many more people. So we’re seeing a huge conversation where all sorts of voices and perspectives are being represented directly that were never seen before. And they are not only being listened to and debated amongst their peers, but reaching the wider society. Examples of this include last year’s feminist #MeuPrimeiroAssedio movement, numerous cases of police violence being documented publicly with the very visible case of Providência’s Eduardo Victor, and last week’s response to a horrific gang rape using #EstuproColetivo. But the conversations are happening every second, and huge numbers of young people are tapped into them.

This is why I say that ultimately, there is no going back, and the political establishment will have to change (though they want to limit freedom on social media as a second tactic beyond force, as they see that’s a critical threat to them).

A lot of this is happening in favelas—much of the organizing, the debates, the shifts in perspective and rejection of stigma. So another story is right there: how much more tapped-in, insightful, engaged, concerned and switched on favela residents are than anyone would ever imagine based on the traditional and mistaken stereotypes perpetrated historically by the media.

Q: Do the people you speak with generally support Rousseff’s impeachment?

A: Most of the people we work with and that I know are against the impeachment and see it for what it is—a coup. And I myself have no difficulty associating myself with their view because all evidence supports it. I believe Rousseff was a convenient scapegoat given the overwhelmingly misogynistic nature of our Congress and the fact they want a return to the status quo, which she was a champion against. By labeling her “corrupt” (though there is no proof of this) and responsible for the nation’s economic downturn, taking advantage of the fact she had become deeply unpopular due to these facts, a majority of Congress “impeached” her in order to stop the corruption investigations which would ultimately have implicated them or their interests. They did this with support of the military and Supreme Court.

Q: How difficult has life become for Brazilians in the last couple of years?

A: In Rio de Janeiro, which is where I can speak best about, life has become much more difficult since 2013. I’m not sure how the average person would compare it with before this current cycle (which began with the current mayor and the Olympics announcement in 2009), but my sense is that it is actually more difficult, even though we were living with economic stagnation in Rio since the 1970s. I think it’s more difficult now for three main reasons. First, we had a few years of hope. For a few years, money was being invested, programs were being announced that gave us reason to look forward, and there was a genuine sense things were getting better (until those programs began showing their true colors). Living with the fallout of that and a new set of expectations may be harder than a long monotonous period of stagnation. Second, those pre-Olympic boom years led to inflation, which has maintained prices high, so everything from rent to transport has become prohibitively expensive for more people, requiring a larger portion of their salaries. Associated with this, forced evictions and gentrification led large numbers of people to move farther from employment and to dramatic increases in commuting times for those families and consequently others sharing the road. Third, the militarization of the city and increase in crime, crime being partly a consequence of the first two (because crime goes down when citizens have a sense of hope and opportunity—they take fewer risks; whereas when one is hopeless and angry and desperate one takes more risks with one’s life), make people feel much more uncomfortable, on edge and apprehensive, wherever they live.

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