Rio Run Amok; Brazil's Once Marvelous City Has Lost Its Luster for Natives as Well as Visitors. Can It Recover?

By Margolis, Mac | Newsweek International, April 25, 2005 | Go to article overview

Rio Run Amok; Brazil's Once Marvelous City Has Lost Its Luster for Natives as Well as Visitors. Can It Recover?


Margolis, Mac, Newsweek International


Byline: Mac Margolis

It's not hard to get a rise out of the powers that be in Rio de Janeiro. Just mention "crime" and "tourists" in the same breath. "I can name you 20 friends who have been mugged in Paris," snaps Rio state's secretary of public security, Marcelo Itagiba. "For tourists, Rio is as safe as Belgium," sniffs Alfredo Sirkis, city chief of urban planning. Prickliness aside, the authorities have a point: foreigners are by no means the main victims of Rio's busy bandits. But that is cold comfort to the Cariocas, as Rio's besieged natives are called.

Brazilians quibble over which city has the meanest streets, but the mayhem in Rio is a troubling sign of decline in one of the world's biggest and most storied cities. Homicides have doubled in the past decade to 3,729 a year, according to the United Nations. Young men 15 to 25 are most at risk, falling at the clip of 145 per 100,000--a casualty rate more common to war zones. Police are fighting back; last year they jailed 45,000 criminals, including 75 drug lords. Yet too often the police are the problem. On March 31, a band of hooded killers, later identified as rogue cops, raided the flatland suburb of Baixada Fluminense and murdered 29 people. They deposited the severed head of one victim in the local police barracks--a grisly rebuke to the new battalion commander's crackdown on crooked policemen. Many Cariocas fear for their city's future. "It's getting hard for anyone to go out anymore without bodyguards and armored cars," the Brazilian actress Fernanda Montenegro lamented after a rash of assaults late last year. "I'm afraid there may not be time to save Rio."

Save Rio? The very notion sounds strange. After all, this was always Brazil's cidade maravilhosa, the marvelous city, set like a jewel between purple mountains and a jade sea. In their 1933 film, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were flying down to Rio, after all, not to Lima or Santiago. "Delightful! Delicious! Delovely!" Cole Porter and his friends reportedly gushed as they sailed into splendid Guanabara Bay, thus inspiring the 1936 Broadway classic.

Brazil's most enchanted venue can still make strangers swoon, but not always in rapture. Up close, Rio is more often a monster than it is a marvel--a honking, steaming megalopolis where rampant crime is only the most flagrant symptom of decline. From tainted water to toxic politics, South America's third-largest metropolis (population: 10.5 million) has it all. Last month the National Health Ministry declared Rio's health services a "public calamity" and took over six failing city hospitals. Mass transit is a shambles--and even after an $800 million cleanup of Guanabara Bay, Cole Porter's dappled muse is a soup of raw sewage and industrial runoff. Rio finds itself trapped in a relentless cycle of industrial decline, capital flight and bureaucratic gridlock that has gutted the center city and transformed the once prospering suburbs into a rust belt of shuttered factories and slums.

The decline of Rio began in 1960 with the unveiling of Brasilia, the new capital. Four years later came a military coup, putting democracy on ice for more than two decades. In a single blow, Rio lost its political clout and its lifeline. From 1967 on, the ruling generals invested heavily in petrochemicals, steel, pulp and paper--all outside of Rio. Private capital took the cue and began to migrate. Starved of federal largesse, Rio has floundered ever since, straining to service a vast network of hospitals, schools, roads and waterworks left over from its plenteous days as the national capital, while propping up a bloated bureaucracy it can no longer afford.

In a way, Rio's plight is also Brazil's crisis writ small. Violence is a national epidemic. Shantytowns are everywhere. …

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