Rio de Janeiro is the face of Brazil. The country's second-largest city, population nine million, was the imperial capital and port of entry for tens of millions of African slaves, more than any other during the transatlantic trade. A magnet for wealthy tourists and poor migrants alike, even in economic and political decline Rio de Janeiro remains seductive for its vibrant culture and natural beauty. It is also a city divided, a poster child for the country's endemic inequality, corruption and injustice. As international media attention evaporated after the Rio2016 Olympics, hope for the city's long-awaited revival was replaced by a hangover of broken dreams, a deep economic recession and the resurgence of the a reactionary conservatism.
The favela pacification program has failed and corruption remains even with four of the last five governors in jail. Organized crime, now stronger than ever, has expanding violently into the suburbs and has infiltrated all levels of government. Both essential infrastructure and cultural patrimony crumble as much needed development projects lie abandoned. In March of 2018, a rising progressive star in city hall, councilwoman Marielle Franco, was brutally murdered together with her driver, on her way home from a discussion on empowering black women in politics. Nobody doubts that the militia – a paramilitary mafia linked to right-wing politicians, soldiers and police – of carrying out the assassination. The murderous shadow arm of a corrupt state currently controls over half the city.
In 2019 Brazil inaugurated rightwing president Jair Bolsonaro, himself a resident of Rio, in a wave of revanchist conservative sentiment. The Bolsonaro family, with its connections to the militia that murdered Marielle, represents the most insidious reactionary groups in Brazilian society. His election and those of his allies brought the return of heavy-handed, law-and-order policies from the days of the military dictatorship. Few progressives expected any sympathy for the poor or marginalized in Rio, and those fears have since been justified: a conservative governor ordered police snipers to shoot suspects from helicopters while a pentecostal mayor did little except favour his evangelical electorate. A returning Olympic mayor promised to continue his neoliberal project encouraging privatization and real estate speculation in a city severely lacking in public housing, basic sanitation and jobs.
The project title comes from a chapter in Juliana Barbassa's 2016 memoir of the seductive and chaotic city in the run-up to the 2016 Olympic games. Even in those heady days of optimism, she saw the cracks starting to form. In that same spirit, this work aims to document a critical period of Rio's history between the post-Olympics hangover, to the election of Bolsonaro and beyond, with a focus on the periphery, far from the iconic beaches and Christ the Redeemer, where the majority working class of the city lives. What will become of the 'cidade maravilhosa', beautiful and broken?