Opinion, by Samantha Barthelemy

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – A colleague recently asked if I could explain what I mean by saying that we, as a society, are all responsible for Rio de Janeiro’s “problems.” Here’s a try.

Samantha Barthelemy, Carioca in New York specializing in International Security Policy, Brazilian Studies and Communications.

The heavy rainfalls that castigated the Região Serrana, the mountainous region of Rio de Janeiro state,and claimed nearly 800 lives in the past weeks forced us to remember the tragic consequences when there is a lack of political will to care for the most vulnerable.

Once again violent storms dumped more than a month’s worth of rain over Rio. Once again in a rich country where sophisticated satellite technology is available families died, buried in their sleep.

Politicians are to blame, yes, but only to a certain extent. The rest falls on you and I. Or do you honestly believe our part is done after casting the ballot for “the right guy?” Maybe it is not yet in the jeitinho brasileiro (Brazilian way) to take to the streets and fight tooth and nail for our rights. The more affluent usually take into their own hands what the state fails to provide.

Rio has one of the world’s highest murder rates, with 4,631 homicides in the metropolitan area in 2008? Don’t demand public policies! Erect metal bars and spend money installing intricate security systems in your house. Rio is second-to-last in Brazil’s IDEB (Basic Education Development Index)?

It’s fine! We pay exorbitant fees for private schools which (surprise!) the Program for International Student Assessment reveals fare barely better than public ones!

But in this tragedy wealth could not protect those like Erick Conolly, an economist at Icatu Holding SA, who suffered the loss of twelve family members and is still looking for his two-year-old son, Axel.

We haven’t yet learned how to question. While we like to say that every Brazilian has equal rights, we know access to these rights is anything but equal. While billions of dollars are devoted to massive works ahead of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics, we watch on TV dozens of people lying, and dying, on emergency room floors in hospitals lacking everything from beds to doctors.

Yes, the international events are bringing investments and employing thousands, but individuals’ rights to life and dignity cannot be part of a trade-off.

When former president Lula departed claiming to have put Brazil on the path to become the world’s fifth largest economy we forgot to ask him about the abysmal health, education and sanitation indicators. When he celebrated expanding his cherished cash transfer program, Bolsa Família, to 12.9 million families we failed to question why we are commemorating that more Brazilians are now depending on handouts from the government.

Could someone please explain the recent adjustment (with a more than 100 percent increase) to some politicians’ salaries, overstretching the same public purse we cannot afford to overstretch for an increase in the meager minimum wage? Or why our governor promised to reward policemen for killing less people during conflict?

I fear Cariocas have become dangerously comfortable, complacent, accepting occasional handouts, a stream of unfulfilled promises and sporadic improvements, usually after tragedies have taken place. I don’t have solutions, but I know assuming our responsibility as citizens does not require “taking the law into our own hands.” At the very least, it means questioning and demanding what is rightfully ours. Can you honestly say you are doing your part?

A Belgian-Brazilian native of Rio de Janeiro and former United Nations journalist, Samantha Barthelemy is a dual degree Masters of International Affairs student with Columbia University and the Paris Institute of Political Studies, specializing in International Security Policy, Brazilian Studies and Communications. http://samanthabarthelemy.blogspot.com


  1. Excellent article… i totally agree..!!! You are correct – the politicians are very corrupt and negligent… but as you point out… the people are also responsible – for showing so much apathy and complacency and not doing anything about it – e.g. no street protests… no boycotts… nothing – just drink a beer at the beach and pretend that everything is fine…


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