A sign announces the Rio Olympics in 2016 with the message, "A victory for all of us." (Photo: JorgeBRAZIL)
The even-increasing trove of US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks is shedding light on the realities the people of Rio de Janeiro will be facing as that city prepares to host the 2016 Summer Olympic Games. The released cables focus mainly on Rio de Janeiro's Orwellian-named "Favela Pacification Program," run by Rio's Peacemaker Police Units known as UPP, and discuss the possibility of human rights violations in the run-up to the 2016 Olympics.
Implemented in 2008, the Favela Pacification Program is run by Rio's elite police battalion with the aim of establishing a permanent police presence to "pacify" Rio's violent favelas. The creation of the UPP is essentially an attempt to put a new face on Rio's notoriously corrupt and violent police force. UPP Commander Col. Jose Carvalho is quoted in the cables saying, "We need fresh, strong minds, not a Rambo ... The older generation of cops is more oriented to kicking down doors and shooting people."
But as the cables reveal, the UPP seems less concerned about its notoriously violent past and more concerned with the 2016 Olympics and potential profits available in Rio's favelas. According to the cables, Rio's winning bid for the 2016 Games has increased the pace of UPP's favela program. In a meeting with US consulate officers shortly after Rio won the 2016 Olympic bid, Roberto Alzir of Rio's State Security Secretariat "expressed optimism that Rio's hosting of the 2016 Olympics will make state, local and federal authorities "move forward, faster" on favela pacification."
While the cables from the US Consulate state that it has yet to witness human rights violations from the UPP, Theresa Williamson has a different view. Williamson works with RioOnWatch.org, a site devoted to documenting the issues surrounding the Rio 2016 Olympics. And she has been on the ground in Rio's communities that are facing evictions due to the Games. In responding to the leaked cables and the UPP Willamson states:
The State of Rio's community policing initiative, or UPP, is a significant forward step for those communities benefiting from a more humane police force and the subsequent social investments that come with this program. Unfortunately it is in many ways a front, a cover-up.
Breaking with decades of hard-won housing rights legislation, the city government of Rio is using every opportunity at its disposal, legal and illegal, to forcefully evict residents from lesser known areas deemed valuable for real estate in Rio's changing urban landscape. The State's Public Defenders are currently representing cases of illegal evictions in 234 different neighborhoods.
Rio's Favela Pacification Program isn't only limited to concerns about real estate. As the leaked cables reveal, there is an opportunity for large corporations to make millions off incorporating favelas that currently do not pay for utilities such as electricity. According to the cables, "In addition to the obvious security factors... there are also some analysts estimating Rio de Janeiro's economy would grow by 21 billion USD should favelas be reincorporated in mainstream society and markets." Incorporating these favelas would bring more profits to companies such as Light, a Rio electrical provider. The cable states:
According to Andre Urani, an economist with the Institute of Labor and Social Research (IETS), Light loses at least 200 million USD per year due to pirated electricity in the favelas ... Emphasizing the potential market in favelas, Urani stated, "Imagine the revenue increase if Light could successfully turn the one million illegal users of its services into customers."
Also detailed in the cables are warnings to the US Consulate of possible human rights violations with regards to the UPP and the 2016 Olympics. Global Justice's Rafael Dias "expressed concern that a large police crackdown due to the Olympics would result in more extrajudicial killings." And Daniel Wilkenson of Human Rights Watch recalled the Rio 2007 Pan American Games, "when police killed some 20 persons in the massive favela Complexo de Alemao in one day alone." Wilkenson also warned that the Olympics could "worsen the situation in Rio, recounting the experience in Beijing, when government respect for human rights worsened prior to and during the Games."
Human rights concerns may already be arising in Rio due to the 2016 Olympics, but Williamson is quick not to draw direct comparisons to the Beijing Olympics stating, "This is not Beijing. Brazil is one of the world's largest democracies. As such, we should not settle into assumptions that evictions are a given. Coalitions are forming locally, nationally and internationally to recognize and guarantee a just outcome for these communities whose residents have built this spectacular city."
While the US Consulate cables from Rio provide details of possible human rights violations in regards to the 2016 Olympics, this does not imply that the US government sees anything particularly troubling about these developments. Especially considering the US Consulate's likening of UPP counterinsurgency techniques to those used by the US in its disastrous occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. And just as Light sees the possibility for generating profits off the favelas from new electrical customers, be assured that US corporations will be lining up to get a piece of the same pie by whatever means necessary.