On a Sunday morning at the beginning of March, the rough sleepers of Carioca Square got a rude awakening. A brass band with bagpipes belted out ceremonial anthems at 9.30am as the Marvelous City celebrated 450 years of life — and a birthday cake to eclipse all others had been specially commissioned for the party.
“I’ve been working 72 hours,” groaned a baker named Bruno, eyes glazed with fatigue, as he scooped cream out of a bucket and slathered it onto the biggest cake in Rio’s history: 450 meters (1476ft) of soft sponge, gruelingly prepared by a team of 30 people who were running out of time and icing.
At 10.03am, it still wasn’t ready.
“The cake! The cake! A piece of cake!” cried one elderly gentleman, radiating rage. Sweaty photographers grumbled about the now stark sunlight wrecking their shots for the Monday papers.
But the government cake was off limits. People squeezed together behind security barriers shielding the giant confection, staring longingly down as police officers kept watch with the beady gaze of authority.
At 10.14am, the festivities finally began.
Rio’s blustery mayor was playing to the cameras. Adorned by a festive blue sash, Eduardo Paes cut the cake, presenting the first slice to state governor Luiz Fernando Pezão with a theatrical flourish. The officials eagerly wolfed it down, followed by their entourage — the archbishop, a man wearing a large anniversary crown, and a washed-up ’70s pop singer wilting in the heat.
A band struck up “Happy Birthday,” infused with samba rhythms. The understaffed cake distribution team struggled to meet demand. Clusters of eager elbows jostled behind the barriers, keen for a portion of government goodness.
At some point after 11am, the barricades came down.
“This isn’t government cake — it’s our cake!” proclaimed Jonaina Oliveira, shoveling two huge helpings into a plastic bag. “But do you see 8,000 people here? I don’t think so. The government has been stood up.”
TV cameras swarmed around a man decked out in full indigenous regalia, chomping through a brick-sized slice. It was a compelling image to beam around Brazil to kick off Rio’s much feted month of anniversary celebrations, a symbol of a city satiated with pride.
“The government can deceive the ignorant pigs with this big party, but they won’t fool me!” declared Akazuy Tabajara, Rio’s new indigenous poster boy, when the photographers had gone. Beneath a magnificent headpiece of blue feathers, his face was streaked with red and black stripes that sharpened the indignation blazing in his eyes.
“The mayor and governor’s salary didn’t pay for this — we paid for it with our taxes,” Tabajara continued. “People are killing and robbing each other all the time. The authorities act with impunity. There is no federal, municipal or state power. There is no law.”
A mustachioed French naval commander who fought in several wars, Villegagnon gathered a motley crew of 600 men — religious dissidents, soldiers, convicts, mercenaries and artisans — to start a new empire in the New World. Undeterred by the presence of the Portuguese, who had already colonized Brazil and established a central government in Salvador da Bahia in the north, the French expedition landed 1000 miles to the south, on Serigipe Island in Guanabara Bay. There, they set to work building Fort Coligny, christened for the admiral who persuaded France’s King Henry II to fund the ambitious quest.
The commander had selected a prime location in a bay blessed by nature. With a total area of more than 150 square miles accessible through a single entrance less than a mile wide, Guanabara was large yet easily defensible, dotted with some 130 islands and inhabited by Indian tribes who welcomed the foreigners.
But Villegagnon was a tough taskmaster, accused by one colonist of being “more barbarous” than native “barbarians” described as “the most savage men who exist on earth.” In 1558, he drowned three protestant missionaries after a fit of fury.
A group of his subjects abandoned the French adventure to form a breakaway settlement on the mainland. Troubled by desertion, inefficiency and lack of resources, the commander returned to Paris in 1559 to beg the crown for help.
Then disaster struck. The governor of Portuguese Brazil, Mem de Sá, led thousands of men on a mission to obliterate this upstart challenge to imperial supremacy. At the hour of need, Villegagnon was not there to defend his botched tropical fantasy.
Coligny fell, and on March 1, 1565, a second Portuguese expedition led by the governor’s nephew, Estácio de Sá, established São Sebastião do Rio de Janeiro at the foot of Sugarloaf Mountain.
The Marvelous City was born.
And with hosting rights for the 2014 soccer World Cup already in the bag, serious celebrations were in order.
At the crux of an economic boom, Brazil was officially ready to join the first family of world affairs and banish a niggling inferiority complex that festered from generations of unfulfilled potential. A growing middle class, increasing employment and strides in balancing income inequality — as well as steadily growing GDP — had transformed the country into a Latin American success story for all to envy.
But a mere five years later, this enthusiasm has slowed. Brazil’s economy shrank in 2013 and continues to slide, while unemployment rises. Historic criticism about a bitterly divided society never really disappeared. Endemic social problems were placed under a blinding spotlight by FIFA’s money-spinning megashow last year, and the Olympics will lead to even closer scrutiny of Rio itself.
At the heart of Brazil’s OIympic vision is Barra da Tijuca. About an hour’s drive from downtown, along a road winding through a verdant national park, it will host the majority of sports venues in 2016. The main avenue is a modernist boulevard of high-rise gated communities, car dealerships and shopping centers — including one with a replica Statue of Liberty standing proudly outside — that mark the stamping ground of Rio’s wealthy elite.
“There are two worlds inside Rio de Janeiro: The city of asphalt and the favelas on the hills,” historian Milton Teixeira told VICE News. “It’s a different reality including separate laws and social norms, as if they were two completely different countries.
“We’ve always had an exclusive society where the population is only considered as a workforce — and it’s easy to understand that in a country which lived with systemic slavery for more than 300 years.”
Teixeira could spin yarns all day in his fusty Botafogo apartment. Every corner is filled with objects: Buddha models, crystal goblets, oil paintings and a collection of samurai swords — including one Teixeira received from a policeman friend, who told him it was used as a torture tool by a cartel kingpin in the Santa Marta favela.
“This is like my own little museum,” he chuckled, “and Rio is always present.”
Guanabara Bay appears in many of Teixeira’s pictures. “The beaches are a bridge of pacific familiarity, a democratic space,” he theorized. “You can be rich or poor and wear the same clothes, behave in the same way, and the only difference people consider is not your social status — it’s the distinction and beauty of bodies. A socialite can have more money but be less beautiful than a house cleaner.”
At Ipanema and Copacabana, luxury apartment blocks and five-star hotels line the beachfront, including the renowned Copacabana Palace. During wedding season, its halls are crowded with the children of Rio’s rich and famous, dressed to the nines in Cartier or Dior and reveling in the ostentatious opulence of their country-club life.
Outside, legions of vendors trudge through the hot sand, dripping perspiration as they carry portable shelves of sunglasses or trays of sugary caipirinhas, calling out to sunbathers with rhythmic regularity. At the end of another long day, as the sellers pack up and beachgoers return home, the tide starts rolling in, dragging a trail of trash in its wake. Lost sandals, polystyrene packaging and stolen wallets begin to appear; children dig holes with pointy wooden planks washed up from the open sea.
The two worlds of Rio are separate once again.
Bulky galleons with towering masts carried the Africans to Brazil, hundreds at a time — Angolans, Yoruba, Congolese and other ethnic groups chained to plank beds in tight spaces to guarantee maximum returns. Sickness spread quickly in vile conditions. If medical checks revealed smallpox, the ill were left on Villegagnon Island, as Serigipe is now known. When they died, they were thrown into the sea.
Healthy slaves were taken to market at Praça XV, steps away from the imperial palace. Rio’s stock exchange now stands on the site where the precious human cargo was bought and sold — priced individually or by weight.
“You could pay for 200 kilograms and get whatever combination of persons the dealers put together — perhaps a pregnant woman, a toddler and a teenage boy,” explained Sadakne Baroudi, a historian who leads walking tours of African Rio. Her mission is to illuminate the city’s “lost history of stolen stories.”
“The kilo system is imbued in every part of the country and its social structure,” Baroudi continued, citing the example of ubiquitous restaurants where people weigh their plates. She speaks with the steely conviction of a well-versed academic and a streak of righteous outrage. Born and raised in Harlem, New York, she has lived in Brazil for the last 12 years and not returned once to the United States.
“Brazil is in denial about its history,” she stated bluntly. “Slavery is how the country was built and why the country exists today, but people don’t want to deal with the facts and historical truths. They want to let sleeping dogs lie in their minds.”
In 1779, the slave market moved across town to Valongo Wharf. An imposing grain warehouse was built nearby, designed by André Rebouças — a brilliant engineer who happened to be a free black man from the northern state of Bahia. Rebouças, a staunch abolitionist, insisted that not a single brick of his perfectly symmetrical arched structure was to be laid by the hands of slaves.
“The building overlooks the Valongo in a way that dwarfs it completely. It’s like Rebouças was saying ‘Excuse me, gentlemen; this is a warehouse,'” explained Baroudi, as she surveys the old marketplace — now a protected heritage site. It was paved over in 1911 and rediscovered 100 years later as laborers dug up the ground for a drainage project.
The Church of Our Lady of the Rosary and Saint Benedict is far less well preserved. At the heart of grimy downtown Rio, its cracked stone façade is tagged with scrawly graffiti. When dusk falls, homeless vagrants claim the church doorway with cardboard boxes; meters away, a lady called Rita uses cartoonish tarot cards to read people’s futures, surrounded by flowers, figurines and the mystical drone of Umbanda prayer tapes.
Inside, the face of muzzled Santa Anastacia haunts a side room lined with rows of candles, annexed from the main chapel. Bought as a gift for the son of a wealthy landowner, she violently resisted his sexual advances — and was punished with an iron mask of silence that curved her head into the shape of a heart. Her existence was denied by the Catholic Church, but the patron saint of slaves has survived as a defiant icon of struggle worshipped by underground sects.
Anastacia’s tragic image also haunts the Afro-Brazilian Museum, hidden away on an upper floor of the church. “Bathrooms Out of Order” is the only sign by its anonymous entrance at the back of the building.
Inside, chains, shackles, clamps and heavy collars studded with spikes lie in dusty glass cases beneath ceilings of peeling paint. Pictures on the walls depict scenes in which these instruments of control appear more ornamental than restrictive, as cheerful slaves chat in the street, dance capoeira or rest their muscular bodies in the seemingly spacious hold of a cargo ship.
“Afro-Brazilian culture has been manipulated into a national marker of Brazil around the world,” Baroudi said at the Pedra do Sal, a spiritual home of popular music that draws scores of visitors to regular shows. A tourist information sign carefully explains how “stevedores” would “meet to sing and dance” in effervescent samba circles, playing tunes rooted in African rhythms. Slaves are only mentioned for their labor.
“The government’s stance is we can applaud the culture loudly — let’s have a feijoada and dance a little samba — but we don’t actually have to talk about institutionalized racism or how racial inequality is reproduced in Brazil,” Baroudi elaborated.
Despite a treaty that prohibited slave trading in 1826, Brazil’s human import business rose to record levels. A coffee boom in the 1840s left many plantations desperate for extra labor. When the trade officially ended in 1851, Rio de Janeiro had more than 100,000 slaves — the same number as its free population. They had to wait three more decades to gain full emancipation.
Brazil was the last country to abolish slavery, but Baroudi said she believes it has been “reconstituted and reinvented” in modern times. “We’re maintaining these systems and that’s why we haven’t advanced with racial issues,” she said, describing a section of domestic workers who are trapped in poverty by the minimum wage, performing the same mundane tasks as their ancestors.
“Slavery was a labor system that built great nations,” Baroudi continued, “and the slave class still exists.”
As the sun goes down, the street is a parade of stern faces etched with lines of daily determination. “Everyone is a slave here — nothing has changed,” Paul continued. “It doesn’t matter who’s in charge. I’m still working, just like before, so my kids can have a better life.”
More than 130,000 people live in Maré, a sprawling conglomeration of 15 communities in Rio de Janeiro’s northern zone. Unlike many other favelas, it was not built on a hill; the flat expanse lies at the junction of major roads connecting downtown Rio with peripheral areas and the international airport.
Maré is under de facto military occupation. In April 2014, little more than a month before the World Cup, 2,500 soldiers moved in with helicopters and armored trucks to seize territory from drug cartels controlling the neighborhood.
That was supposed to be an emergency measure, but the army is still a daunting reality one year later. Soldiers cruise the streets in open lorries emblazoned with a WhatsApp number for “pacification” assistance, bracing their rifles at every corner and staring down anyone brave enough to meet their gaze.
“I’m not scared because I was born here,” said a middle-aged man with thick glasses and no shirt, minutes after a patrol trundled along a road which he explained is gang territory. “If the traffickers see me speaking to police, they would kill me,” he continued, gesturing to bullet holes in the blue wall behind him. “Residents don’t get involved — we can’t talk to anybody.”
The complex is a maze of winding alleys and busy avenues, bisected by a slimy brown stream. Soldiers are stationed at all the main transit points, keeping watch over parks and playgrounds or squatting behind sandbags under an elevated highway.
Armadas of motorbikes tooting horns and toting machine guns are an equally conspicuous presence. Parts of Maré are still bandido territory.
“The traffickers already know you’re here,” Badharo, a 40-year-old Angolan painter, told VICE News. He arrived in Rio in 1997, fleeing a brutal civil war because he “didn’t want to hurt anyone” or be forced to fight.
His vision of Brazil was shaped by telenovelas and films which depicted Carnaval, Copacabana and other “beautiful things.”
“I thought I was coming to paradise, but I found hell,” he lamented.
“In Angola, I didn’t see people killing each other or dead bodies in the street, but here I saw everything. After a week, I couldn’t stop crying because I wanted to go back. I thought I wouldn’t have the power to stay.”
Badharo spoke in a lively, open manner but seemed unable to maintain eye contact as he recounted chilling tales of common violence.
“The bandidos played soccer with heads they cut off the bodies of dead enemies,” he continued, watching children kick a ball around the artificial pitch in front of his home as a track by the Red Hot Chili Peppers booms out from another house.
“Thanks to God, this hell also taught me how to live and understand people. I learned that I couldn’t make mistakes. The government of Brazil does not rule here — another state runs everything.
“When I arrived, they explained their rules to me. You can’t rob people. You can’t hit a woman forcefully. A woman must want to have sex with you, and you can’t take someone else’s girl. If they find a bad guy doing stuff like that, they take him away and cut his head off.”
But he has come to make peace with the alternative power that governs the neighborhood, which maintains a functional, if ruthless, order — and doesn’t “force anybody to buy or take drugs.” Badharo said he does not worry about his wife or two children, who amble around the sidewalk playing with tricycles and tablet computers.
“Whenever I have a problem, I find the guys to sort it out,” he continued in his husky Angolan accent. “If your house is running out of gas, they give you money. If your wife or child is sick, they give you medicine. They give you everything.”
He said that social projects, community events and street cleaning are also funded by the gang. “On Women’s Day, they organize a big party — giving out cake to everybody, playing with the children. And they make sure there’s no dirt around here.
“They are not bad people, they are good. Good people,” he repeated, several times. “Everywhere has to stay in order, but some places don’t have law.
“If you don’t mess with them, they don’t mess with you.”
It was a scene reminiscent of the World Cup, but these were not fans on their way to a game. Grey hair and balding heads marked the core demographic. Angry Brazilians were heading downtown to Copacabana beach for a protest against the government.
“They are destroying our beautiful country with marvelous people,” said Joana Oliveira, a 65-year-old economist. “People with white hair like me have protested many times in other eras against dictatorship. Now, we are here again to call for Brazil to go back to how it was before — a free, independent country with rights.”
The march shuffled noisily along, passing an elaborate sand sculpture of the Cristo Redentor celebrating 450 years of Rio. As helicopters hovered ominously overhead, beachcombers from plush hotels looked bewildered by the sudden disturbance to their holidays.
“Brazil will not be a New Cuba!”
“Criminals, go to prison!”
Some of the more creative placards incorporated the “PT” initials of the ruling Workers’ Party into words like “coruPTos” and “incomPeTencia.”
All of Brazil is seemingly on first name terms with President Dilma Rousseff, who began her second tenure in office at the start of 2015 after tight elections in October last year. A toxic bribery scandal at the state oil company, Petrobras — which Rousseff chaired for seven years — has cut away at her popularity, along with ongoing fears about economic malaise and a plummeting currency.
“Today is a day of Brazilian salvation, the redemption of Brazil. People are on the streets from morning to night,” Vera Britto, 71, a retired teacher, declared to VICE News. “The PT thinks it owns the country — it has appropriated the whole state for a criminal project of power.”
Shouting herself hoarse above the din of the demo, Britto denounced the authorities for infiltrating society with lies at “subconscious level” by infusing the education system with ideological ideas.
Rather than calling for impeachment like many of her fellow marchers, Britto favors a radical solution: “I never wanted this — not even military people want this — but, as I see it, this country is hopeless unless there’s a military intervention.” From the protesters at her side came echoes of approval.
Later that day, Rio’s State Federation of Favela Associations published a viral meme with its own take on the idea. A photo of armored cars entering an unspecified slum is charged with a sarcastic message of contempt:
Come and live in a favela,
Here the state is minimal,
And there’s military intervention.”
The stench hits you first. Jardim Gramacho gained international infamy as one of the world’s largest open landfills — a parallel society of trash workers laboring dawn till dusk, sifting through decades of the Marvelous City’s accumulated waste.
“I didn’t want to live here — I came out of necessity,” said Maria Lucia Suarez Feitos, a 60-year-old great grandmother who has spent half her life in Gramacho. “My husband was unemployed and couldn’t find work, but our five children were hungry; this was the only way to get money.”
Maria’s house lies right opposite the dump at the end of a muddy road. Hordes of vultures circle above obese pigs sniveling around putrid mountains of junk. Car parts, computers, toys, furniture and gutted televisions have melded together into an impenetrable mass of man-made detritus.
“I’ve collected cans, glass jars, bottles, metal… and I’ve sold it all to feed my kids,” she told VICE News, waving towards the mess. “You can get one real for a kilo of plastic. That will buy five bread rolls.”
Maria’s haggard frame looked small even in her daughter Mara’s tiny blue shack, her legs pockmarked with insect bites that had swollen into dry boils. “All this trash endangers our health,” she said, emitting a wheezy cough. “But it’s the only way we can eat. We have nowhere else to go.”
Mara lives with nine of her 12 children, whose pictures decorate a wall in the main room. The youngest is three and the oldest nearly 26 — and she already has seven grandchildren.
In June 2012, the family was plunged into chaos when the trash processing plant that employed Mara shut down after 34 years of operation. Workers received a payout of 3,900 reais ($1,200) and pledges of further help, which appear not to have materialized.
“The people who come here just make promises and leave,” said Maria with a scowl. “They promised light, gas, water, bread — that’s how it is.”
“We are human beings, we are people, and we have needs,” chimed in her daughter, swatting at a swarm of flies. “Doors are falling down, houses are wrecked, children are at risk — and they spend all that money on the Olympics. Somebody needs to look out for us.”
Mara survives on a monthly payment of 504 reais ($155) from the Bolsa Família federal welfare program. “I wouldn’t say I live the life of a queen, but I manage to buy the basic things — rice, beans, fruits, legumes. I never get biscuits or Danone products.”
A coalition of trash collector action groups is lobbying the government to carry out major public works. “We want a neighborhood that is well thought-out and sustainable, so we can have a good life,” said Alexandre Freitas Mariano, 38, who has lived in Gramacho since 1998. “It needs to be seen as a real part of the city with potential for development — not just a place to leave garbage.”
The proposal includes roads, houses, schools, sports centers and recycling facilities, as well as a processing plant for methane gas produced by decomposing waste at the old dumping ground — which Freitas Mariano says could be a source of funds to “revitalize” the area.
Since the closure in 2012, unofficial collecting activity has continued outside established co-operative structures. Several residents describe the situation as “clandestine” and do not want Gramacho to be completely cleaned up.
“There are many people who depend on the trash,” said Maria, sitting in front of a flickering yellow television as rowdy geese squabble outside. When asked what the community would do if it were all taken away, her eloquent flow of words seemed to falter.
“I don’t know if I can answer that,” she muttered, perplexed.
“We need the trash to survive.”
Sisters Kauane and Raiane were getting ready to leave home on March 18, packing their dancing shoes and bottles of water, when a sudden burst of gunfire crackled through the air.
“Sometimes it’s calm, other times it’s not — like today,” their mother, Ana Ilza Manuel Helena, told VICE News as she looked out over a captivating view of the city a few hours later. “When so many bad things happen, it takes that beauty backwards. What parent could live in peace?”
Morro do Adeus is one of more than a dozen favelas in the Alemão complex, a vast tapestry of slums that stretches over rolling hills due west of Maré. The Brazilian military were deployed there in 2010 before a special Police Pacification Unit (UPP) took over in 2012, as part of a flagship state program to liberate communities from feuding narco gangs.
Around the same time, Tuany Nascimento created “Na Ponta das Pies” — an open ballet class that now reaches some 40 students aged 4-15.
“It was a natural and spontaneous thing,” the 20-year-old recalled. “I had time to do something for the community — I wanted to give lessons and keep on dancing myself.”
A gifted ballerina and rhythmic gymnast who represented Brazil at the 2011 Gymnaestrada world championships, Tuany abandoned her dream of going pro due to “expenses we couldn’t cover.” She now teaches dance at locations across Rio, but “Na Ponta” is the real focus of her energy.
“For the girls here, ballet is a life experience. Every plié and jump they make is a step closer to entering college, or getting their dream job,” Tuany told VICE News.
“Some of them have parents or brothers involved in trafficking. People enter that life of crime because they don’t have opportunities, but this project means they get another choice. They have a chance to not fall into the wrong kind of life.”
Even with UPP officers on regular patrol, sporadic violence shakes the neighborhood. Shootouts during ballet sessions have sent girls scurrying for cover with only a wire fence for protection. On March 21, a firefight at 5am lasted more than half an hour.
Days later, a somber newsreader stared out of a plasma TV in the Nascimento living room, which doubles as a sleeping area for Tuany and her five younger siblings.
A story about increasing favela safety is followed by images from the funeral of a 38-year-old Alemão resident who died on her doorstep, struck by a stray bullet as she chatted with neighbors.
“The word ‘pacification’ comes from ‘peace,'” lamented Tuany, “but the majority of ‘pacified’ areas still have war. The UPP should have come with more social initiatives to let people get involved in something positive.”
“Families need to help and participate — love is missing here,” added Tuany’s mother, Ana. “Girls can easily get pregnant, start using drugs, go to prison or end up homeless on the street. So many children have talent, but the parents don’t think they can win at life.”
Their hopes for the future lie with an overgrown piece of land a few houses down the street.
“We want to create a welcoming place where everyone can get the support they need,” explained Tuany, who plans to launch a crowdfunding campaign to drive the project. Her idea includes a library, space for workshops and a fully equipped dance studio.
“Ballet is one of the most beautiful and transformative art forms. You need to be disciplined and respect the rules,” she continued.
“It gives the girls determination and focus in everything they desire and dream.”