barbassa_juliana 150830-dancing_book
Juliana Barbassa, author of “Dancing with the Devil in the City of God: Rio de Janeiro on the Brink." (Simon Schuster, 2015)

Brazil’s striking green and gold flag features, in Portuguese, the slogan of the hopeful philosophy of Positivism—Ordem e Progresso. Brazilians are famously hopeful.

In the 60s under U.S supported military rule, Brazilians saw the “order” but wondered about the “progress.” Often they joked they were o pais do futuro—“the country of the future.” Now, for democratic Brazil, the future has arrived.

Brazil hosted the Pan American Games in 2007 and the World Cup of soccer last year. It will host the international Olympics next year in Rio de Janeiro. Brazilians again have hope–and some trepidation, remembering the cost over-runs and the riots. They often claim Deus e Brasileiro–“God is a Brazilian,” so He will not let them fail. But they and others are asking: “Is optimism enough?”

Brazil is the world’s seventh largest geographic country. Its land mass is larger than the continental U.S. Home to the eighth largest population (200 million), Brazil is the world’s seventh strongest economic power. She is involved in hemispheric and world politics as never before. She was a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council for 2010-2011 and hopes for a well deserved place as a permanent member.

But old problems nag and impede progress. Brazil has one of the largest gaps between the top, wealthy elites and the masses of poor. I lived and researched among them, many years ago, in the famous favelas on the hillsides (Mounce, “Politics and Poverty in Brazil,” PhD Dissertation, The University of Texas at Austin). The memory of four types of parasites, losing 40 pounds, will stay with me. (I don’t recommend that diet).

I also remember the welcoming embrace of Dona Maria and Seu Orestes, my multi-ethnic, multi-religious family in my hillside home of Jacarézinho (“Little Alligator”). Life was hard but tranquil. Then, drugs and cartels arrived in the 80s and 90s. In order to reassure tourists and participants in the Pan American Games, the World Cup, massive police forces moved in with the Navy and with tanks.

They established the heretofore non- existent UPP (Unidades de Polícia Pacificadora).The slums are now safer again, but at a great social cost. Hundreds were killed on all sides as the dreaded Red Command was rooted out and prison-to-gang communications disrupted.

Favelados are growing faster than other groups. They constitute 22 percent of the population of Rio, a mega-city of 6.3 million. These areas often referred to as “shanty towns,” proliferate all over Latin America, as migrants pour in. The urban planning dilemma still vacillates between evicition/destruction and maintenance/gentrification. It was, therefore, enlightening to read the current acclaimed book by journalist, Juliana Barbassa, “Dancing with the Devil in the City of God: Rio de Janeiro on the Brink” (Simon Schuster, 2015).

I visited friends in that ironically named favela, Cidade de Deus, long ago. I winced at the jarring scenes from the more recent film of the same name. It highlighted the notorious confrontations between government and criminals who hid out in the slums and intimidated favelados. Barbassa notes some things have changed. Now there is relative security, more government assistance (direct payments via Bolsa Familia), more favelados joining the middle class.

But some things have not changed. They face the daily struggle for fairness and the maddening difficulty of doing business. But much of the previous anxiety and fear are gone. “Ordem” is, well, more orderly. Even additional “Progresso” can be measured. Brazil’s GDP exceeds all the other Latin American countries combined. It possesses the largest deposits of iron ore in the world. It maintains nearly full employment. It imports engineers and technicians from the U.S. and elsewhere.

If not exactly “green” enough for some environmentalists, Brazil is trying save the Amazon, the “lungs” of the Western Hemisphere. It fuels its industry on 80 percent hydro power. Its new off-shore oil discoveries in the Atlantic, to be explored by its national (long ago socialized) company, PETROBRAS, are the third largest in the world. A giant mega-port is being built with Chinese cooperation.

Former President Ignacio da Silva (“Lula”) took the lead. Now, his successor, Brazil’s first female president, Dilma Rousseff, once tortured by the military dictatorship, now enjoys 77 percent approval ratings in Latin America, closely following President Obama. Their policies lifted 21 million out of poverty.

The media acknowledged Lula’s “Doctorate in Charisma;” Dilma is as committed to the masses, but less charismatic. Lula and his successors have a heart for the povo (people) but are also part of global capitalism, yet with a kinder and gentler touch. Rousseff is dubious of pressure to return to the days of “savage capitalism.” Her labor background—as a negotiator, not a radical—finds a “middle way” of compromise. Her background in the study of Marxism led to her concern for the masses.

This concern has been around since Aristotle and other philosophers—the need to build the largest middle class possible. We must pull up the poor; the rich will do well, no matter what. This is the recurring challenge. This is the subject Barbassa returns to in her analysis. She contends: yes, we know about soccer, samba, Macumba, trendy Brazilian music, great literature and culture.

We know Madonna has graced the city. Alicia Keys has visited. They and other celebrities have explored the alley-ways and admired the vertiginous hillside of the City of God, a “tableau reminiscent of Mondrian” (Barbassa). All fine and good. But was Rio ready for the World Soccer Cup in 2014? Yes, it was, despite cost overruns and angry protests, many of which were met and resolved.

Today, however, persistent problems of poverty and those of infrastructure remain; 90 percent of roads remain unpaved; Guanabara waters pose health threats to aquatic sports. This time around, will they be resolved by 2016, in time for the Olympics? And what of security? Was the massive, tough military response before the World Cup enough? Will its victories last long enough to deter crime from derailing the Olympics?

Athletes and visitors, if and when they feel secure from crime or violence, will often overlook the flaws. They will pay the exorbitant prices—U.S. $15 dollar tacos in Praia Leblon. They will be captivated by the Brazilian ambience of friendliness and openness. They will catch some of the Brazilian enthusiasm and optimism: Brazilians always have said “Brazil is too big to fall into the abyss.”

Other reliable sources agree with Barbassa’s on-the-spot journalism; e.g., “proper policing, better government and a stronger economy have made a difference in the more violent and squalid districts of Brazil’s former capital” (“A Magic Moment in the City of God,” The Economist, June 112, 2010). Barbassa’s nuanced memoir “goes beyond clichés of the Girl from Ipanema and Carnaval” (Ambassador Shearer, Global Studies, Occidental College). “You are there” in this hard-hitting account.

“Dancing with the Devil in the City of God” is a multi-disciplinary masterpiece by a native Brasileira, a professional journalist with a world-wide perspective, who entices the reader (at least me, hungry to “see” my favelas again). And what of St. Augustine’s Cidade de Deus? Well, it appears more human, less divine. What of the “order” of Brazil? There is more of it. From the residents’ point of view, it is necessary and more visible. The “progress?” It continues but at an erratic pace. That pace is picking up now before it hosts the Olympics. They will be ready, with exceptions.

Rio de Janeiro, “coracao do meu brasil,” is still uma cidade maravilhosa,” one in which I lived, loved, and studied. And, oh, those parasites? At least I could get into my little Brazilian bikini (at that time). Except for that loss, as you might imagine, much of Brazil and my favelas has stayed with me, in my teaching, my research, my friendships, even in my dreams.