Groups like Papo Reto have made it easier for foreign journalists to highlight the many issues in Rio. The foreign coverage, in turn, gives the groups legitimacy in Brazilian media that they've never had before.
James Lang-USA TODAY Sports
For all the failures of the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, the decade leading up to the Games has unintentionally left at least one positive legacy in the host city, particularly in its favelas, where residents like Raull Santiago have a voice in a way they never did before.
A recently released study by Rio-based NGO by Catalytic Communities found that coverage of the city's favelas in eight major global news sources increased drastically during Rio's Olympic cycle, from 45 total articles mentioning favelas in 2009, when Rio was named the host city, to 315 in the year leading up to the Olympics. Favelas were increasingly the main subject of those articles. Furthermore, by 2016 favela residents were directly quoted in 16 times as many articles as they had been in 2009. The coverage also became more nuanced, with less emphasis on violence and drugs and more on favelas having a strong sense of community and its residents being active agents of change.
In 2014, inspired by the changing conditions in their hometown, Santiago and several other residents of Complexo de Alemão, a favela in Rio's north zone, formed a local media collective called Coletivo Papo Reto. Although it's a young group, Santiago told me its founding members were all activists prior to that. Upon formation, they hit the ground running. Papo Reto documented everything, putting it on social media for the world to see. And there was much to report.
Santiago, who was born and raised in Alemão, was 17 years old in 2007, when Brazil won its bid to host the 2014 World Cup in the midst of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva's progressive government. At the time, the first few houses in Alemão were just getting their first computers and cellphones with internet access.
The whole country was changing. Under Brazil's Workers Party governments, a growing middle class emerged. While favelas didn't quite reach middle class status, lots of people, like Santiago, were lifted out of dire poverty and now had resources to purchase smartphones, tablets, and computers. They also had more access to universities. This economic and social development had a big impact when Rio's heavily militarized Police Pacification Units, or UPPs, moved into town.
The UPPs were not an Olympics legacy project, but their deployment coincided with Brazil's efforts to bolster its international reputation as a global economic player, in part through hosting events like the World Cup and the Olympics. As the international media increased its focus on Rio, documenting potential human rights violations and police brutality in the city became even more important. Papa Reto was formed at the height of UPP activity.
The Rio Olympics cycle, from 2009 to 2016, occurred during the mobile technology and social media boom. As Catalytic Communities director Theresa Williamson pointed out, Rio was the first Olympic city where the world could experience the costs in real time. This confluence of circumstances played a big part in giving favela residents a voice in Brazilian and international media.
Alemão has always had violence, but Santiago said it was different under the UPPs. They live in a war-like state now, where the UPPs form an occupying force and the drug gangs a guerrilla resistance. The residents are caught in the middle.
Around the time Rio won the bid for the 2016 Summer Olympics, the government built a cable car that connected Alemão to the neighborhood below and a public transportation hub at a cost of R$210 million, or roughly $130 million, largely supported by federal and state funds.
Most favela residents didn't want the cable car. There were many other issues that needed addressing, such as functional sewage system. And although some residents did end up using the cable car, less than three weeks after the Olympics ended, it was shut down for six months, ostensibly due to safety concerns and necessary repairs. The company running it, a subsidiary of Odebrecht, claimed they hadn't received payment from the government since April. By December, the cable car project was linked to lava jato, the massive, multi-billion-dollar corruption scandal engulfing Brazil. Nobody knows when the cable car will resume service.
Just after the cable car shut down, the UPPs resumed heavy operations in Alemão. By mid-September, shootouts were a near-nightly occurrence. One night, while Santiago filmed police loading residents on to buses, an officer reportedly threatened him, saying among other things, "a plain clothes moto will come by and get you and no one will see." Friends texted him for the next few days reporting that police were conducting raids searching for him, accusing him of supporting criminals.
I spoke to Santiago recently via email about the situation in Alemão. While I won't quote him directly because I used Google Translate to interview him, his message was clear: the violence in Alemão has only increased since the World Cup and Olympics were announced, and the main public investments in the favelas have been the police presence—which have destabilized the community. The promised legacies have not only failed to materialize; they have made matters worse.
But groups like Papo Reto have made it easier for foreign journalists to highlight the many issues in Rio. The foreign coverage, in turn, gives the groups legitimacy in Brazilian media that they've never had before. In 2015, for example, the New York Times Magazine profiled Santiago and Colectivo Papo Reto in a feature about the rise of citizen journalism in Rio's favelas. After its publication, Leonardo Custódio, a researcher from the University of Tampere who studies media activism in Brazil, told me that Papo Reto's members were interviewed by many Brazilian outlets including Globo, Brazil's major media company. "It gave them legitimacy, not just [as] favela residents who would cry when someone dies or burn tires when there's some protest or something but as someone able to make points and statements about political decisions that's made in the country."
Although Santiago worked as a documentarian for Globo News in 2015, he said it was all on the local activists like himself to dispute narratives put forward by the government and police, mostly via Facebook (although Papa Reto increasingly relies on more secure apps like CameraV, which embeds metadata into the pixels of the image to counter police surveillance). With the help of some NGOs like Witness, local activists like Santiago are learning techniques on how to shoot the most effective video for easy, widespread dissemination, like he did during the weeks following the Olympics.
Custódio emphasized that this increased reach of community activism isn't revolutionary; nothing is changing overnight. But, he said, it's "very, very important in terms of what it means to be an activist in favelas right now. People from favelas saw that what they were doing was relevant for people whose opinion matters a lot in Brazil."
I asked Santiago if he finds it hard to be optimistic given the economic and political situation in Brazil, which is affecting Rio the most, and favelas even more so. Santiago replied by telling me he's gotten a tattoo on his right arm that reads "BELIEVE." He says that it's a reminder to continue to believe, to remember that he's a small part of a global movement trying to forge a more equal, more peaceful, and more respectful world. Alemão won't have the cable car, but that's OK. It still has Santiago.
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