Juliana Barbassa is a native Brazilian who lived a nomadic life in various locations around the world, from Malta to Libya, Spain and France, before settling in the United States. She became Associated Press correspondent for Brazil in 2010, a chance to return to her roots and explore the impact of big recent changes on Rio de Janeiro and Brazil as a whole.
Her new book Dancing with the Devil in the City of God looks at the dramatic changes Rio has undergone with the organization of the World Cup and the preparations for the Summer Olympics in 2016.
Beth McLoughlin, the Rio-based investigative journalist working with Children Win did an interview with the author.
What gave you the idea to write this book?
Rio is also an interesting case study. As the hosts of the Pan-American Games, World Cup and the Olympics you can really see the impact of these big events . As I went through the long process of starting to research and write the book, we had the big protests, and I started to see I wasn’t the only one who could see the really significant impact on the place.
What was your relationship to Brazil?
I am Brazilian, but I moved away when I was very young. I’m one of those people who doesn’t have a home, but Brazil was always my home in as far as I had one. I felt I really needed to get to know it as a journalist. As a journalist, you look into all the dark corners, explore aspects of the country or the city which you wouldn’t get to otherwise. I wanted an intense engagement with the place.
I came to Brazil for better or worse with an outsider’s perspective. I care about Brazil as I am linked to it in a personal way, but I had to strike a balance between an outsider’s perspective and using local knowledge to interpret what’s going on.
What effects of the World Cup and Olympics were most obvious to you in Rio and in Brazil?
One of the long term effects of these games has been the infrastructural projects which have connected the roadways, and the bus rail transit systems (BRTs). If you look at the bus networks, they all connect to the rich west of Rio, where the Olympics will be held. It is a legacy of the games that’s going to shape the city for 50-60 years to come, pushing the population further to the west. A lot of money and effort is going in that direction, instead of covering the existing needs of the north of the city. The west of Rio is not built on a human scale. All the nannies, cashiers, cooks, doormen and other workers coming there to support that lifestyle have to run across multi-lane highways. One of the most significant impacts has been building infrastructure projects that will leave us with a more unequal city.
Can all of these effects be directly linked to the mega sporting events?
The mega sporting events allow governments to push projects through with more urgency, pushing discussions about environmental concerns, for example, out of the way. FIFA’s Jerome Valke even admitted it is easier to host a World Cup in less democratic countries.
What are the impacts you have seen specifically on children?
A lot of the impacts are indirect, such as removals. Children are the most heavily impacted when the family is uprooted, in some cases causing their parents to lose their jobs. The hosting of the Olympics in Rio was a tremendous opportunity to build a proper sewage system, not just to depollute the bay but to go to the cause of the problem. I found a study looking at illnesses caused by pathogens in sewage, and the majority affected were children under five as they are the ones who play in the street. If this had been the only legacy left by Rio 2016, it would have been huge. The poorest people are the most affected by sewage as they don’t have the resources to move away from it.
Do you think it was a mistake for Rio to host the 2016 Olympic Games?
I would like to see the IOC learn from these mistakes. When Rio’s bid was chosen, there were four other countries bidding and Rio’s was the most expensive by more than double. Making the games sustainable is possible, if you look for the city which has the most venues already built. Rio was the polar opposite. The Olympics is a chance to show the world what you can do, and Rio is a gorgeous city. The only way this could work for the population was if the Olympic planning was integrated into the cities larger urban planning goals, with projects that meet the city’s real needs.
Who is responsible for making that happen?
It is a shared responsibility. As consumers, we can demand that the IOC takes into consideration when they look at bids what this is going to mean in terms of expense and long-term impact. A tremendous responsibility rests with the local authorities to decide which projects are going to be given priority. As a journalist, I wanted to hold Rio’s municipal and state authorities accountable for what they are doing to the city. There is a growing awareness of the cost of the games, and that their legacy will not be what we want. One of the positive legacies was that it helped fuel this indignation. This wasn’t the only thing behind the protests of 2013, but a lot of people were saying “we want hospitals and schools, not stadiums.”
You wrote an apology to your mother for the content of the book. Can you explain why?
Brazilians can be highly critical of the problems of the country. They are very cognizant of the systems that have failed in Brazil, but reluctant to show that to the outside world. It’s a very inward-facing country, and the tendency of Brazilians when foreigners come is to “tidy house”, not to have other people see your dirty laundry. Writing about this is tough as someone who has family there. It’s my job as a journalist to expose things with the goal of starting discussions which might ultimately improve things. I can see how it’s painful sometimes to have outsiders look at you with critical eyes.