It’s May in Rio de Janeiro. Winter. But winter means something very different here in Rio from what it means in my home of Maine. It means the weather is better, not worse. The sea sparkles under a brilliant sun, and the chic and humble alike gather to enjoy the wide sands and clear surf of world-famous Copacabana Beach, just one of Rio’s many beaches. A group of remarkably lithe favelanos kick, head and knee about a soccer ball with few missteps.
On the weekends the beachside boulevard is given over to walkers, runners, cyclists and rollerbladers, and everyone is seemingly fashion conscious and yet not at all self-conscious. There are sexagenarians in thongs and women in their third trimester walking around in bikinis as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
Hard to imagine there was a de facto coup d’etat three days prior.
The next afternoon I rode Rio’s impressive metro from my apartment in Tijuca, a blend of middle and working classes, to a meeting of the National Council of Food and Nutrition Insurance of the President of the Republic in a beautiful old building belonging to the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. The meeting was scheduled before what wide swaths of the population here call “o golpe,” the coup. But the meeting had taken on more urgency following the events of May 12, when after 20 hours of debate, a senate packed to the gills with crooks voted in the wee hours to impeach Workers’ Party President Dilma Rousseff for no crime at all. Had Brazil’s governors been dissected for the same budgetary maneuvers that provided the pretext for delivering Rousseff’s head on a platter, there would be gubernatorial vacancies in 16 of Brazil’s 27 states.
National Council head Maria Emilia Pacheco began the meeting. “This is a sad moment in our history,” she said. I was to hear this over and over as the day progressed. The Council, populated by social workers, professors, demographers and the like, had been set up to advise government on implementation of a nationwide program to provide all of Brazil’s people with guaranteed adequate food and nutrition. But the Council was no birthchild of policy wonks and ivory towers. It percolated up from the bottom, with local groups sending representatives to state bodies, which sent envoys to the national level.
The program’s success has been keenly watched around the world, and now it’s right in the crosshairs of former vice-president, now post-coup acting president, Michel Temer, whose poll numbers hover precariously above zero at a stunning two percent. According to my newfound friend and infinitely patient guide and language teacher, Temer, whose name means “to fear” in Portuguese, has already announced his decision to scrap the entire program, virtually guaranteeing a return to substantial hunger in this land of 200 million.
But my friend Maria is disappointed by the turnout of 20 or 30. Is this a reflection of the coup opposition’s ability to turn out numbers? It’s hard to imagine this is going to keep Michel Temer awake at night.
I follow a photographer outside in hopes of bumming some photos, and he refers me to a big office upstairs where a young woman apologizes that her boss is off in Brasilia, the capital. A mere five days after the coup her boss is twelve hundred kilometers away scrambling to minimize what the young woman says will be a decimation of Ministry of Culture jobs – Temer is moving fast. The photos can wait.
In the evening I go to an anti-coup protest at Arcos da Lapa, where 200 yards of whitewashed arches fifty feet tall provide backdrop to a plaza big enough to hold thousands. But there are not thousands. There are two to three hundred, mostly students, with a smattering of workers and academic types. The number of apparent workers is doubled by vendors who, right in the middle of the crowd, are hawking beverages and popcorn. It’s the only demo I’ve ever attended that offered cold beer, served from coolers mounted on large street-vendor tricycles.
The rally started well into Brazilian time, almost an hour late. The speakers unleashed a torrent of words I couldn’t possibly follow with my Esportugues, but I could make out key words, among them the coup opposition’s popular play on Temer’s name: “Temer Jamais! Temer Jamais!” (Never Fear! Never Temer!)
After a few scheduled speakers, they opened it up to an open mic, and some of the takers were actually quite good, with good delivery. But it’s all rapid-fire – no measured Martin Luther Kings here.
One professorial type donning a Che t-shirt declared “Patria Libre!” but he somehow left out the second part of Che’s famous mantra “Patria Libre o Morir!” (Free Fatherland or Die!)
On the far side of the plaza from the arches, not far from the speakers’ steps, a large elevated tv screen flashed ads intermixed with public service announcements. The screen heralded the promise of 150 new schools to be built in Rio de Janeiro state alone. But surely this PSA was more than five days old, for every indication is that under Temer’s indelicate neoliberal hand Brazilians will be lucky to hold onto the schools they already have.
Walking home from the demo I pass a newsstand. A headline catches my eye. “With 81 Days Till the Olympics, Rio Has 15 Foci of War.” I buy it, and inside the page three headline reads “Rio Has 15 Gang Wars in 21 Bairros.” Below the headline and article is a big half-page image of the city with green circles for Olympic venues, red for gang wars. Green circles overlap red circles in three places, and near one green Olympic circle there is a cluster of four red circles, four separate gang wars rubbing up against an Olympic venue less than 12 weeks before the games. Should be interesting.
Lawrence Reichard lives in Belfast, Maine.