In Rio, poor families are pushed out of their neighborhoods to make way for the Olympics

Before her neighborhood was slated for Olympic development, Iranis Cadete da Silva ran a restaurant in her house, where she lived with her extended family. Neighbors fished nearby, and their small, tight-knit community was free of the armed drug gangs that often blight Rio de Janeiro’s low-income neighborhoods.

Today, there's nothing left of her home but a makeshift structure supporting a huge Brazilian flag that greets Olympic tourists who pass by on the road outside.

“We know why they needed us out. They have other plans for this place, and they don't want poor people around anymore,” Da Silva, 49, said Wednesday as she moved into her new government-built bungalow across the road.

She looked around in despair as her granddaughter leaped about and then hugged her leg. “I can't set up here. There's not enough space for anything. I'm afraid I'll just stop working.”

Most of the roughly 825 families of the Vila Autodromo community have been relocated to a number of bland, government-built sites far from the glitter and bustle of new projects constructed for the Olympic Games. Da Silva's family is one of a small number able to remain living nearby, but her small street is now part of the parking lot for the Olympic media center and two new luxury hotels.

Government workers on Tuesday demolished one of the last standing structures in Da Silva's old neighborhood. In front of a small crowd, a red backhoe pushed down a house that, in protest, had been painted with a Brazilian flag and a message: “Memory cannot be removed.”

Meanwhile, athletes have been streaming this week into a newly constructed Olympic Village, built in the upscale Barra da Tijuca neighborhood nearby, which wasn't actually finished — leading to a torrent of complaints about blocked toilets and exposed wires.

The controversy on both counts can be traced, critics say, to a grand Faustian bargain Olympic planners made with local elites to put on South America's first Olympiad.

In order to build new facilities needed for the Games, lucrative real estate deals were negotiated with private companies, many of them with close ties to Brazilian government officials.

In the process, poor families were often forcibly pushed out of the way to make space for what will become luxury developments after the Games.

“Their removal has been good for the developers and construction firms, and it's pushed the poor further into the periphery,” said Christopher Gaffney, a research fellow at the University of Zurich who spent years in Rio as part of his research into the effect of mega-events on cities.

City officials say Vila Autodromo was the only community directly upended by Olympic projects, though the city has seen up to 20,000 families relocated as a result of various kinds of redevelopment since the onset of Olympic planning in 2009.

Families in Vila Autodromo were living in “irregular constructions or unhealthy conditions,” and many opted to take payouts and offers of new public housing, the city said in a statement.

A mile away from the Olympic festivities is Parque Carioca, a cookie-cutter community of 900 families, many of them relocated from Vila Autodromo, living in apartment buildings built by the state.

Opinions on the new digs are mixed. It's widely believed that because of international media attention, residents here got a much better deal than many other families who have been forced to relocate in Rio.

“Some think it's worse, some people think it's OK,” said Sara Regiane Souza Gomes, a 16-year-old student strolling down the sidewalk listening to headphones. “But none of us wanted to leave. And why did we have to? They want to make money on that land. They're going to sell it and get richer.”

When Brazil was awarded the Olympics in 2009, the country was booming and ebullient, after the government of popular center-left President Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva oversaw the rise of tens of millions of Brazilians out of poverty. But investigators then had not yet uncovered the cozy, often criminal, relations between state officials and a variety of construction companies that had long undergirded Brazilian politics.

The subsequent corruption scandal has plunged the country into economic and political crisis. The largest economy in South America is in its longest recession since the 1930s, a situation touched off in part by the crippling effects of the scandal on Brazil’s state-owned oil company and the flight of foreign investors.

Authorities handed responsibility for building the Olympic Village in Rio to a company controlled by billionaire Carlos Carvalho and the engineering and construction firm Odebrecht, both of which have contributed liberally to the campaigns of Mayor Eduardo Paes. Carvalho has extensive interests in the surrounding Barra region, and Odebrecht has been deeply implicated in the corruption scandal that recently brought down much of Brazil's establishment.

In 2011, the International Olympic Committee warned that the private-public partnership, or  PPP, contracts being drafted for construction of new facilities might allow contractors to focus on profits over timeliness and quality.

"The PPP contractor most likely has two primary objectives, maximize land value and deliver venue obligations at least cost," the IOC said in one of the documents, obtained by the Reuters news agency under a public records request. “The city must be diligent in making sure the Games obligations are fully met.”

Many arriving athletes found that these concerns were well-founded when they arrived and discovered that some apartments were uninhabitable. Paes only inflamed tensions by laughing off the concerns, suggesting the Australian delegation, which complained vigorously, might be more comfortable if he put a kangaroo out front.

Carvalho, who will oversee turning part of the Olympic Village into apartments after the Games, has been clear about his plans for the future of the area. He wanted to build “noble housing,” he said, “not housing for the poor.”

The land occupied by Vila Autodromo has not been transformed directly into a real estate project, but authorities said its removal, which occurred between 2014 and 2016, opened up crucial entryways for the entire Olympic project.

Residents and activists say the relocation was almost certainly an attempt to boost property values after the Games.

“Recently, wherever the Olympics have happened, there are lucrative real estate projects. The IOC knows very well their events cause gentrification,” Gaffney said.

Emidio do Santos, who lives among the relocated families in Parque Carioca, won't be watching the opening ceremony Friday — he lost his eyesight over a lifetime of hard work and poor medical care.

“It's not so bad here, comparatively,” he said. He recognizes that Vila Autodromo families got decent treatment compared with many others whose forced relocation didn't receive the Olympic spotlight. “Compared to so many other people,” he said, “we were the lucky ones.”

 

Bevins is a special correspondent. Special correspondent Sam Cowie contributed to this report.

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