Rio de Janeiro is the face of Brazil. The country's second-largest city with a population of 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 and 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 a revanchist, reactionary conservatism.
By 2017 it becomes clear that the much touted favela Pacification Program has failed. Turf wars between rival gangs erupt across the city. Even with four of the last five governors in jail political corruption remains endemic. Rio's militias – paramilitary mafia linked to right-wing politicians, soldiers and police – now stronger than ever, have expanding violently into poor and rich neighbourhoods alike, infiltrating all levels of government. Essential infrastructure and heritage sites crumble as development projects lie stalled or abandoned. In March of 2018, a rising progressive star in city hall, councilwoman Marielle Franco, is brutally murdered together with her driver after being followed and shot on the way home from an event on empowering black women in politics. Nobody doubts that the militia pulled the trigger, but who sent them?
In 2019, Brazil inaugurates the rightwing president Jair Bolsonaro, a longtime resident and representative of Rio. The Bolsonaro clan with clear connections Rio's militias, represents the most insidious reactionary groups in Brazilian society. His election and that of his allies heralds the return of heavy-handed, law-and-order policies from the worst days of the military dictatorship. Few progressives expected any sympathy for the poor or marginalized. An ally in the governorship orders police snipers to shoot suspects from helicopters. A pentecostal bishop mayor does little except favour his evangelical electorate. A returning Olympic mayor promises to continue his neoliberal development project encouraging privatization and real estate speculation in a city severely lacking in public housing and basic sanitation.
This work is a first chapter in a longterm project about Rio. The 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 and communities far from the iconic beaches and Christ the Redeemer, where the majority working class lives. What will become of the 'cidade maravilhosa', beautiful and broken?