Opinion, by Michael Royster
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – The “Telerj Favela” has now come and gone. Rising in early April in the leafy grounds surrounding an abandoned building in Engenho Novo (a neighborhood in Rio’s near north side) the hydra-headed monster threw out hundreds of tentacles, enticing some 5,000 souls to abandon their dwellings in hillside slums and flee to refuge there.
Telerj, for those not familiar with Rio’s history, is the former name of the telephone company now monosyllabically known as “Oi”. Telerj was a state-owned company, part of the vast Embratel empire before privatization, notorious for treating subscribers with disdain.
The building and grounds abandoned by Telerj were eventually agreed to be sold to the City of Rio. Supposedly, the site was to be used to create public housing. But nothing happened. The building just stood there falling apart. Oi says the city never paid, the Mayor says it never paid because Oi was greedy.
Nature abhors a vacuum and so do favela dwellers. As if by magic, there appeared dozens of “workmen” who started divvying up the ground into plots, marking infinitesimal areas as living quarters, throwing up makeshift walls. Needless to say there was no water and no electricity.
Withal, the people came—in droves, swarms, hordes! In the space of five days, some 5,000 people (!) occupied all the structures thrown up on the grounds. When Brazil’s biggest broadcaster began to publicize the “invasion”, the outcry was general. Oi went to court, supported by the City, and got an order to throw the people out.
So at 5AM one morning, in came 1,500 police. That’s right, 1,500 police for 5,000 invaders. They gave most people time (not very much) to gather their belongings and scram! The usual suspects turned up to throw rocks and other things at the police, the usual protesters protested, and some of the newly displaced occupants talked to reporters.
From what we read, most of them were NOT homeless; they had been living with family in favelas, because they couldn’t afford to pay rent elsewhere. They wanted to register with the government’s housing programs, but had allegedly been turned away. The city said only two hundred of them had tried to register, there weren’t any more places, so they should just get in line for the next offering.
The Curmudgeon has a few questions. How do you build “dwellings” for 5,000 people in five days — who finances the construction? How do people know these “dwellings” exist — through Facebook? How do they earn the right to occupy these “dwellings” — by paying someone?
But here’s the big question: why on earth would anyone want to leave a family home, no matter how crowded, to become a squatter on a minuscule flat square with nothing at all but bare earth? No water, no electric light, no paving, no nothing — abject squalor should mean no squatters.
The squatters are victims of someone. No one leaves a residence for something worse. So, who orchestrated the mass exodus? What did they promise people? And, finally, why aren’t they in jail?
Michael Royster, aka THE CURMUDGEON first saw Rio forty-plus years ago, fetched up on these shores exactly 36 years ago, still loves it, notwithstanding being a charter member of the most persecuted minority in (North) America today, the WASPs (google it!)(get over it!)