It was one of those weeks in Rio where the shiny surface somehow crumbled away to reveal the ugly truth behind it. A few hours after I was at a meeting in the bustling financial centre (once the financial city of the country) on Wednesday, three buildings just tumbled to the ground. A journalist friend who was on the scene just a little while later remarked on how the pile of dust really didn’t seem substantial enough to have once been a 20-storey office block. Yet 17 people so far have died and there are others still missing.
The sad thing about this is that like the tragedy in which six people died on the tram in Santa Teresa, my former neighbourhood, a disaster in which people die only uncovers the neglect and cutting of corners that have somehow been going on all this time. Unregistered works were going on in some of the buildings, with theories varying from the removal of a beam central to the structure of the tallest, 20-storey block to the weight of piles of cement being posited as the cause.
It does seem as though there is much hand-wringing during these tragedies, but people are quick to forget when it comes to calling to account those responsible and making sure it doesn’t happen again. The best example of that is the rains which strike every year, flooding people out of their homes and killing many, provoking headlines and outrage but no tangible change. I would be wrong to say that this is a culture which doesn’t take to the streets or form any kind of protest however. Perhaps inevitably, young people use social networks, in a country which is one of the heaviest users of Twitter in the world. I saw the picture here on Facebook, shared by about 1,500 people. It shows the firefighters searching for bodies in the rubble of the buildings which fell, not all that surprising as this is one of the jobs one expects to see firefighters doing,albeit that such disasters are hardly an everyday occurence. The words relate to the arrest of many firefighters earlier in the year, when they were protesting peacefully about their abysmal salary, and described as “vandals” by the Governor.
Today, as chance would have it, marks a day of protest in Copacabana about the salaries of police and firefighters. An ordinary copper in the Military Police receives about R$1,200, about £440. Per month.
It’s hard for me to believe that the state would consider embarking upon a project like the UPPs, which puts a great deal of responsibility in the hands of ordinary police like these, when they are still rewarded with such a paltry salary. A salary which you can’t expect someone to live on, certainly not with any dignity. My straw pole of everyone I know has veered from saying that about 10% of Policia Militar are corrupt to 100% (yes, a Brazilian journalist really did tell me 100%). The salary is not an excuse, as Deputado Marcelo Freixo correctly pointed out to me that politicians do very well for themselves in terms of salary and expenses and corruption is still endemic. But for those who do take propina (bribes) it isn’t very difficult to see why.
This is a complex issue as the culture of the police would not change overnight even with a much better salary, and we mustn’t forget that not too long ago, they received bonuses for killing more people when entering favelas to conduct operations there (now the bonus is thankfully paid to those who kill less). In some respects, one could argue that giving your public workers who are forced to run considerable risks in the line of duty a dignified salary is a separate issue to the battle against corruption. It is certainly true that you won’t remove the corruption easily when the temptations to augment a meagre salary are manifest.
Firefighters too sometimes are involved in the militia gangs here, and a friend who saw them arrive (late) to a burning building in Barao de Torre, Ipanema, last year said he saw them rob the place of its considerable riches while extinguishing the fire. That doesn’t change the fact that it was the firefighters who unearthed those 17 bodies this week.
It might not be the last time either. Today, another report surfaced of a neighbouring building in the city centre, which is already home to 75 families who purchased them on the official market, even though it is unfinished and does not even have plaster on the outside.
When I first arrived, the lines between formal housing and informal housing seemed very clear. The self-built favelas on the hills, with their aluminium roofs and exposed bricks, seemed clearly to belong to the informal, unofficial housing, while those apartments and office spaces on the asfalto must surely have been subjected to all laws regarding construction and property ownership. Now I am starting to realise that many homes in the favelas do in fact have the right to be there (a government scheme called Minha Casa, Minha Vida has in part seen to that, as well as much evidence that people have been given the rights to their homes in return for votes). And, it seems, those built even in the centre of the city, close to the huge Petrobras monolith and the Central Bank, can just tumble to the ground, revealing that their foundations were as insubstantial as the flimsiest wooden hut at the very top of Rocinha.