Dancing with the Devil in the City of God by Juliana Barbassa, review by Bruce Jacobs
The size of a small continent, rich with natural resources and miles of coastline, and home of the mighty Amazon River, Brazil, a country of 200 million people, has never quite lived up to its potential. While Brasilia is its official capital and São Paulo its largest city, Rio de Janeiro is the city that symbolizes Brazil for the rest of the world. Its rugged rocky peaks surround beaches full of multi-racial, barely dressed carousers playing soccer and drinking the ubiquitous Brahma beer. In 2010, when Brazilian-born journalist Juliana Barbassa joined the Associated Press Brazil desk, Rio had just been awarded the 2016 Olympics, to follow the 2014 World Cup. The economy was booming, President Lula da Silva was at the height of his popularity and the feeling among Rio's Cariocas was that their time had come. Then the Brazil soccer team was crushed by Germany in the Cup semifinals, Lula's successor, Dilma Rousseff, was under fire for corruption, and executives of Petrobras were caught stealing millions of dollars from the state-owned oil company. What's going on down there? Dancing with the Devil in the City of God is Barbassa's story about the city of her birth and its many contradictions, celebrations and tribulations.
Rio's bids for the World Cup and Olympics were based on the promise that investment in the required venues would include addressing the notorious crime and poverty of the city's slums, which rise up the mountains from the wealthy coastal neighborhoods below. Barbassa's first stop is to visit these favelas and see in person the "teenage gangsters who rested the butt of their semi-automatics against jutting hip bones and glared from the backs of motorcycles." Cities unto themselves, the favelas of Rio are cobbled from stolen cement, diverted water and bootlegged power ("entwined bundles of cables thicker than a man's arm... PVC pipes snaking up, down, and around hurdles" and "the nauseating stench of sewage"). Barbassa watches the heavily armed Pacification Police Units invade the slums to clean out the gangs and allow the housing authority to move in to relocate citizens to new slums farther from the city center.
Moving from one neighborhood and urban problem to another, Barbassa stumbles into a convoluted bureaucratic nightmare renting an apartment. She visits the gigantic Gramacho landfill that holds 60 million tons of trash, which will be closed for the Olympics with no replacement plan in place. Guided by a biologist and crocodile expert, she sees where the area's native caimans are being run off by new high-rise condos near the proposed Olympic Villages. She interviews women and gay people who complain that Rio's famous Carnival atmosphere has more abuse and homophobia than advertised. Although Rio is her hometown, Barbassa doesn't shy from the many problems hiding behind its glittering facade. Nevertheless, one can see her smiling in agreement with a comment she overhears from a British visitor to the World Cup: "I'm here in the sun, right, up to my waist in water, drinking a beer, and watching football. What's not to like?"
Bruce Jacobs's review first appeared in Shelf Awareness.