Opinion, by Samantha Barthelemy

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Journalism students are taught early on not to use words like “for the first time ever.” Nonetheless from the plethora of articles on Complexo do Alemão and Vila Cruzeiro, in Complexo da Penha – post the late November take over of both areas by state authorities, of course – it seems to be the prime time of “firsts.”

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

Early on December 21st outgoing president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, accompanied by Rio de Janeiro’s governor Sérgio Cabral and mayor Eduardo Paes, symbolically inaugurated the cable cars that, for the first time, will “integrate” the fifteen communities comprising Complexo do Alemão.

The project, part of president-elect Dilma Rousseff’s cherished Programa de Aceleração do Crescimento (Growth Acceleration Program) and inspired on the Medellin Metro Cable, in Colombia, is expected to be completed by March 2011, cost over R$125 million and become the largest system of mass transport by cable in the country. The teleférico was designed to carry thirty thousand people between the slums and the city every day in an average of sixteen minutes. By Morro do Adeus station, residents will have access to a reading room and to the first agency of Banco do Brasil (Brazil Bank) inside Alemão.

Many businesses are finding their way to Rio de Janeiro’s Zona Norte (North zone) for the first time. Caixa bank opened a branch at Alemão, as well as a lottery office and three ATM-stations. Banco Santander (Santander Bank) set up the first twenty-meters tall Christmas tree with 48,000 LED-lights at the highest point of Morro do Adeus. The lightning ceremony on December 19th was marked by a short pyrotechnics show and attended by around five thousand residents.

On Christmas Eve habitants of Alemão joined Security Secretary José Mariano Beltrame, mayor Paes and other public figures for a screening of “Tron 3D” in the inauguration of CineCarioca Nova Brasília, the first movie theater to be built inside a Rio de Janeiro slum. The venue has the capacity for 93 people and tickets will costs R$8, a little less than US$5, with community residents paying half price.

According to mainstream media for the first time ever residents of Complexo do Alemão and Vila Cruzeiro celebrated Christmas in peace and silence – in reference to the absence of gunshots and firecrackers indicating police presence or conflict with drug gangs. For the first time nearly thirty thousand Christmas presents were distributed to children of Alemão not by drug traffickers, as per tradition, but by generous donors from all over the state.

Rio de Janeiro’s archbishop, dom Orani Tempesta, also broke with tradition and for the first time celebrated Missa da Aurora, the first mass of December 25th, at Igreja da Penha, a historical Carioca sanctuary neighboring the Alemão and Penha complexes. Again, nearly five thousand people participated in the celebration, among them Secretary Beltrame and General Adriano Pereira Júnior of the Brazilian Army. For Coronel Zanan, head of the Pacifying Force Social Communication, the event demonstrates how Alemão is starting to be integrated into Rio de Janeiro.

Now mayor Eduardo Paes claims that for the first time ever, thanks to actions by the state of course, residents of Alemão and Cruzeiro will celebrate an “unforgettable new year” in the party being planned for Igreja da Penha.

Public figures like TV host Luciano Huck and singer Preta Gil have made single or repeated appearances at Alemão. This is the place to be. During a debate on the freedom of speech and the criminalization of poverty held on December 23rd in Rio de Janeiro, renowned funk DJ and producer Sany Pitbull noted “that any and everyone who wants to reserve a spot in heaven” is sending food parcels to Alemão. “They don’t need just food hand outs,” he claimed. “They need much more.”

To be clear, neither Pitbull’s intention nor mine is to dismiss the so-called spirit of generosity or undermine the suffering incurred by thousands of slum dwellers for too long living under the whims of drug traffickers.

Even though this may be a time of many celebration worthy firsts, it is also a time for awareness. Do commemorate the “newfound freedom” from oppression, fear and violence for thousands of families. Do not forget that below all the overt sensationalism, the reason why residents of Alemão and Penha have lived and continue to live in appalling conditions is, first and foremost, due to the decades of neglect by state and federal authorities. The reason these communities are being “reintegrated” into Rio de Janeiro is because all of us, as a society, consciously excluded them in the first place.

This is a time of firsts for the Alemão and Penha complexes because authorities turned a blind eye to – or worse, profited from – criminals’ dominion of those territories. And the problems are not limited to the state’s absence but, according to sociologist Luiz Antonio Machado, they include the state’s presence reinforcing social inequalities through poor quality services and institutions and a structure conniving with drug traffic. This allowed not only for the unrestricted activity of drug trade and its perverse consequences, but also for the stigmatization of slum residents labeled either as criminals or as directly associated with them.

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.



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