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Saturday, 27 March 2010

19 March 2010

RIO DE JANEIRO -- So, it’s a week now since I arrived here in Brazil, and you’ll want to know what I think of the place.

First, as I said on the programme on Wednesday, it’s a country oozing with self-confidence. The economy is in great shape; the country is acknowledged as one of the most important of the emerging nations – and its president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, known everywhere simply as Lula, is reckoned to be the world’s most successful democratic politician.

Why? Well, how many presidents can you think of who are more popular at the end of their eight years in office than they were at the beginning?

But here comes the but. Millions of Brazilians still live in miserable poverty. (Yes, fewer than before, but still too many.) The country’s roads, railways and airports wouldn’t look out of place in a war-torn African country. Nor would the appalling levels of political corruption.

As for the favelas, the teeming slums that cling to the mountainsides outside Rio, they are not a pretty sight.

I met Lana just outside one of them. She’s 19 and told me what it was like growing up in a favela very similar to the one we were about to visit.

“Of course I was scared,” she said, as we talked about the drugs gangs and the gun-fights that characterise the widespread image of life in the favelas. “Every day, life was stressful.”

I asked her if any of her friends had been killed. “Yes,” she said, and her eyes filled with tears. “He was 14, and he was my best friend. But he got close to the wrong people …”

The government says it intends to “pacify” Rio’s favelas in time for the Olympic Games that Rio will host in 2016. What ministers mean is that they will put specially-trained police into the favelas, and keep them there. You might think that the millions of people who live there would be delighted – but it’s not that simple.

As we wound our way up the mountain-side, along narrow alley-ways lined with roughly-built houses, the community workers who were with us (they said we would be immediately targeted as strangers if we had tried to go in alone), said violence in the favelas comes in many guises.

We stopped at a tiny bar. The bar-owner told us she had had no electricity for the past five days; no water for the past two months. “You ask about violence?” said one community worker. “That’s the real violence, that’s the violence that has an every-day impact on people’s lives. Not the shooting that happens only when the police come in and make trouble.”

I asked how many people had been killed over the past month. They said they had no idea – the only people who would know were the people who did the killing. “But why does no one ask how many people were killed by disease?” asked one man. “Why is no one interested in how many die because of poor sanitation? Poverty is the real violence here.”

It’s all very different in Tavares Bastos. Tavares is also a favela, but much smaller, and with a jaw-droppingly beautiful view over Rio’s Guanabara Bay and the Sugarloaf mountain.

Tavares was “pacified” nearly 10 years ago, and now the people there live a peaceful and relatively untroubled life. There’s even a small guest-house and jazz club that entices people up from the city for good music and cheap beer.

Would the people of Tavares recommend “pacification” to Rio’s other favelas? They would.

But my lasting memory is of the two young schoolboys who grinned at us as we were leaving the Complexo do Alemão, the unpacified favela in the impoverished north of the city.

They were sitting on a doorstep in the sunshine. How was school? I asked. School was good, they said. And if they could change one thing about life in the favela, what would they change?

There was a quick glance between them, and then, almost in unison, they said: “Stop the shooting. That’s what we would change: stop the shooting.”

I’ll be on air live from Rio tonight, and there’s more – including some of my pictures – on my blog at bbc.co.uk/blogs/worldtonight.

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