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Poverty, Poodles and Favelas in Rio de Janeiro

Brazil is a world leader in economic indifference.

The inequalities of wealth in Brazil were so appalling that I couldn’t understand why no one ever seemed to talk about it. The glitzy shipping malls in Rio de Janeiro are full of rich kids trying on the Emperor’s new clothes whilst the poor are dodging bullets in the favelas and praying to Maria for a way out.

The poverty in Brazil is too obvious to ignore but it seems that most only ever see it as it affects their own lives. A rich girl in a chic Irish bar told me that I only found the favelas interesting because I was a foreigner. I snapped back that she only thought that because most well-off Brazilians had no idea what life was like in the slums.

“We know!” She protested indignantly. “We have to walk home afraid that some son of a bitch from the favela will come and rob us in the street.”

I wanted to tell her that she wasn’t afraid of being hungry tomorrow or the military police gunning her down in the street or of working for nothing all her life or having kids that had nowhere to go to school and becoming drug addicts. Instead I came up with the snappy answer that she was an ignorant spoilt tart.

The more apologetic Brazilians have rehearsed responses of concern regarding poverty in their country. Yes, it’s dreadful, they say, when I see children begging for glue, just breaks my heart. They rest at ease by contributing to one of the collective guilt campaigns run by President Lula like the Zero Hunger drive; some genius worked out that the economic, educational and racial exclusion of the poor could be solved by a billion dollar campaign to put rice and beans on their plate.

If it turns out that love isn’t what makes the world go round then self-interest will be a strong second contender. Individually the rich can’t be expected to solve the country’s problems any more than the average Westerner can single-handedly tackle world hunger. Perhaps the only motive for even writing this article is that in Brazil any sign of wealth sticks out like a sore thumb. Money goes a lot further here and when it’s wasted on gratuitous status symbols it seems somehow criminal when there are so many in need so close by. A couple stepping out of their new car with a poodle wouldn’t raise an eyebrow in Paris but seems almost decadent in Rio.

Poodles, Gyms and Salons

I think it was the poodles that really got up my nose. In the south zone of Rio de Janeiro you couldn’t escape the puffed up pooches mincing along in their little designer suits. I was talking this over with an American friend in a bar as we were watching a bunch of rich girls; they had obviously just come back from skiing in Switzerland or somewhere and were waiting for daddy to enrol them in fashion school.

“I’m going to ask them if they own a poodle.” My friend declared. He walked over and received an enthusiastic squeal of delight. The next thing one of the girls had whipped out her digital camera to show a video recording of her fluff ball bouncing across her garden lawn.

The south zone of Rio de Janeiro seemed to have gymnasiums and beauty salons every 30 metres or so. Beauty and money seem to keep close company around the world and looking the part was a prerequisite to be admitted to these circles. In the chic bars of Leblon the hair styles were all based on the latest cut of the telenovela stars and were accompanied by the matching bad attitudes.

Money, Class and Race in Rio

As a rule, the poorer a country is, the more people try to distance themselves from any connection with poverty. Money is a sticky entity that tends to close the ranks of status and class like glue. In Brazil it was rare to see someone who made friends with people outside of their economic and social bracket. After all, how could you show off your poodle’s new bootees to someone who couldn’t afford to go to the dentist?

In reality it’s not so easy to bridge the social and cultural gaps that lie between people of different education and life experience. You can’t discuss literature with someone who hardly knows how to read. But that was no reason to avoid making eye contact with the people who serve you in cafes and shops. A black person was automatically considered to be dangerous and travelling by bus was thought to be an invitation to get mugged.

These kinds of perspectives served to cut the wealthy off from the city they lived in behind a suffocating mass of fears. I met a cool girl who was the daughter of a government minister and she told me her mother was forever hassling her to install bullet proof windows in her car. All the money and connections in the world couldn’t buy them the freedom that the young black boys had, roaming the streets in packs at 3am. Black as the night they were already young men at 9 years old and they feared only the military police who used them for target practice. Sharing a bottle of glue and looking for someone to mug, they hitchhiked on the city buses and ran only when they heard a siren.

“Sometimes I think the city really belongs to them.” My ex-girlfriend, Cristina, told me. She was someone born into a good family in Leblon and felt disgraced by the pretensions of her roots. She talked to anyone and everyone on equal terms and the hostility of the street vendor vanished as soon as she began to chat. She refused to give in to the culture of prejudice even when a young guy boarded her bus one day and stuck a pistol in her face.

“What are you doing? Where do you live?” He swore back at her and demanded her wallet but she kept talking to him and he ended up apologising and asking for her telephone number.

She worked in NGO community projects that ran teaching programs in the favelas. In the circles of philanthropy she found too much nepotism and hypocrisy to bear. The work itself was the only thing that kept her going.

“Some of the kids there have never learnt to play.” She told me. “We used to go the detention centres for young delinquents and their eyes would shine with joy when we ran theatre workshops. But however much they opened up to us their defences shot straight back up as soon as the guards came back in to announce the end of the class.”

Rio Favelas, a World of Their Own

If a 9 year old kid would prefer to be on the street at 3am it makes you wonder what kind of home he has to go back to. The favelas are illegal settlements built on the sides of hills considered too steep for safe construction. The joke is that for once the poor end up with the sea breezes and good views. Not quite such an advantage when you have to carry you shopping home up 400 steps though. Some favelas do have roads ciricling the edges but even so the endless stairways are the only access to much of the favela and msut b a nightmare for the elderly. They do make good defensive positions though when invaded by another cocaine cartel or the military police.

Whatever the favelas have they’ve grabbed on their own initiative. With some creative piping they connect themselves to the water supply and they throw a ‘cat’, (a homemade hook and cable) onto the electric poles to get their power. They often lack a decent sewer system though and the walls of the houses are often quite crooked and so thin that stray bullets from firefights go straight through.

The favelas in Rio de Janeiro are distinct from the average slum as many are run like organised communities. The cocaine traffickers make the laws and rule with martial impunity though some were once influenced by socialist ideology. No theft is allowed within the favela itself and some cartels won’t let heroin or crack take a hold on the occupants. This serves their self-interest as much as anything as they young men of the favela grow up to serve as lookouts or vendors of cocaine.

For all the drama and violence though, the favelas do perhaps get a little too much attention. Especially the famous ones on the hills overlooking the rich districts where there are east picking and good money to be made.

Luizinho, my friend the street vendor of beers, pointed out to me:

“People often talk about the poverty of the favelas but they’re better off than a lot of people. They don’t have to pay rent and they don’t pay for their water or electric.”

Civil War in Rio

But they do have to put up with the military police occupying their neighbourhoods and shaking down their houses. The MP’s are generally savage thugs whose only qualm about shooting a boy in the back is that they waste a bullet. Their favourite trick is to seize the stores of cocaine and then sell it straight back to the dealers. It’s one of the few ways they find to supplement their meagre salaries. Until the early 1990’s they were paid a bonus for each ‘criminal’ they killed. The year after this initiative was repealed deaths by gun shots fell by half.

Not that the drug lords take this kind of treatment lying down. A favela in Copacabana became famous a few years a go when it took down a police helicopter with a handheld rocket launcher. The helicopter was carrying a sniper who was targeting any young male to be seen on the streets.

I lived at the bottom of a favela in Ipanema and on more than one occasion I returned home at night to find military police in the street with semi-automatic guns. Other times it was hard to sleep with the sound of gun fights a few hundred metres on the hill above. It was like being a witness to a civil war in which most people were on neither side.

If only I’d had a poodle to cuddle up to.