As I watch the Olympics prepare to kick off, I remember the last time I visit Rio de Janeiro. It was the day that the Brazilian senate voted to suspend President Dilma Rousseff and open an impeachment judgment. That was also the day that an all-male, all-white Cabinet took office in substitution of the center-left (lately more center than left) government of Rousseff.
The Brazilian media will insist that the Olympics have nothing to do with the political crisis, but I believe that such connection is now beyond reasonable doubt. The process of using kickbacks from large construction projects to finance political campaigns was widespread practice. So far, only the left has been blamed for it, but the evidence points to all. Worse yet, the results of all this construction frenzy is a city more unequal, not less.
Consider the fate of Vila Autódromo, an informal settlement close to an old race track that gave way to the Olympic park. Answering to the demands of developers, the city negotiated with individual occupants and, despite the protection promised, demolished their houses as soon as they agreed to leave.
Living in the middle of rubble and under the threat of forced relocation, a majority of the families accepted the city’s offer and left. The 25 families that resisted till the end will have their homes demolished but others built in the same place. The developers can now boost their sales with the fact that there is no neighboring slum.
People who lived in downtown Rio were not so lucky. The redevelopment of the port area, named Porto Maravilha, removed more than 22,000 families from their homes. Here, two new museums represent the best and the worst of the construction fever. The MAR (Museu de Arte do Rio) occupies two renovated buildings now connected by an elegant new canopy that creates a pleasant terrace while at the same time paying homage to the best modern architecture outside of Europe. Renovating existing buildings is the right thing to do, but it needs to happen more often.
Across from the MAR, sitting on a white-stoned platform, is a strange metallic structure designed by world-famous architect Santiago Calatrava. Called Museu do Amanhã, or the Museum of Tomorrow, it has the potential to become the symbol of a lost opportunity. The museum has no collection, just a series of virtual displays that could not hold my attention for more than a few seconds each.
Here, alongside areas that were cleared for redevelopment is the best legacy of Rio 2016: the demolition of the Perimetral, a double-decker highway that used to follow the seashore. To visit Paço Municipal (old imperial residence), for instance, and have the view of the waters of the Guanabara Bay makes all the difference.
It is clear that Rio 2016 is already a missed opportunity. The subway extension to Barra da Tijuca will operate only on a limited schedule, for Olympic ticket holders only. The light rail downtown will also operate on a reduced course. Thousands of families were displaced. Thousands of apartments will take their place and make gentrification worse.
All this could be just another case of bad investment, but it is actually much worse than that. This model of city building has focused mostly on gentrification and campaign financing, which has took hold of Rio in the last decade, might now spread through the entire country. And keep in mind that the party that ruined Rio is the same that is supporting a coup against Dilma Rousseff.
The opportunity to rebuild a better Rio was lost. The challenge of rebuilding democracy now has Olympic proportions. The world is watching, and if we don’t want Rio (or Brazil, for that matter) to suffer for years to come, a change in direction is needed.
The U.S. will play a pivotal role as well, either respecting the 54 million votes that elected Rousseff or, once again, supporting a coup for economic and political gain. All of this is happening in the midst of a polarized and populist presidential campaign, another challenge of Olympic proportions.
Fernando Luiz Lara is an associate professor of architecture at The University of Texas at Austin, where he also serves as chair of the Brazil Center at the Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Boston Herald, Dallas Morning News, Austin American Statesman and the Rivard Report.
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