Focus in Brazilian media has turned recently to the community of Villa Autódromo and its impending eviction to give way to Olympic constructions ahead of the Games next year. So nothing new here, then.
As we sit down to write what we have witnessed here – in what may be the last days of Vila Autódromo, Rio de Janeiro’s embattled favela – what strikes us is the mind-boggling banality of the story.
When they established their community in 1967, the residents of Autódromo took pride in how tight-knit it was – and they continue to do so today. “There is no crime over here,” is the oft-repeated mantra, a reassurance that things here are quite different to “over there, in Rio”.
Over there? Technically, Autódromo is very much a part of Rio de Janeiro’s metropolitan complex, but its residents are entitled to see it as a different world.
To get “over there”, to Rio’s centre, you have to travel the 30-odd kilometres past the wide and vast avenues of Barra, Brazil’s tribute to the Miami school of urbanism complete with gigantic shopping centres and vertical middle-class residential complexes, forming gated citadels that stretch up into the sky. The wide highway would skid you past lagoons, then the ocean, carry you under the ‘Two Brothers’ mountains and bring you straight out into the streets of Leblon and Ipanema in Rio’s famously indulgent South Zone.
When they founded their community, the first fishermen families that settled here opted for the tranquility of life far from the hubbub of the centre, its insecurity and the pressure from the authorities that would come with it. Here in Autódromo they were mostly left in peace, eventually given papers recognising their properties and their right to remain.
Little did they know that a few decades later it would be not just the urban authorities but also the trampling foot of global capital and international mega-events that would stamp down on them.
Using the tried-and-tested mix of financial lures, intimidation and mafia-style executions, the municipality has apparently succeeded in dividing the community. Of the 600-odd families that lived here until a year ago, around only 40 remain today.
Many have agreed to lucrative buy-outs and moved on. Others may have been intimidated by the cold-blooded killing of Tenorio, the community’s president, in 1996. The remaining residents received personal assurances by the mayor of Rio, Eduardo Paes, that he would allow them to stay.
“Those of you who want to stay can do so,” he told Jane, the former president of the community, when they met in late March. Two days later, Paes signed a decree declaring the entire site a “public utility” and authorising the demolition of all the houses that remained.
Paes’ actions tell us little new about the lies and deceptions that come with power. But the Autódromo story rings eerily familiar in more than just that way. The world over, from the forced evictions in China to the intense housing struggles taking place in London at the moment, our sheer right to exist and to stay put is under severe threat.
The story of the Autódromo community is a tragic one. Out of sheer bad luck they have found themselves in the landing field of global capital as it hit their city ahead of next year’s Olympic Games.
The opportunity for regeneration and development was simply too vast, a sweeping “gentrination”, akin to gentrification as we have known it, only now communities are faced directly with the force of global capital, which determines who can stay where.
There may be no better metaphor for the deception the Autódromo people have been faced with than the hollow words on the flag of the state that was supposed to be there to protect them. The famous motto on the Brazilian flag, Ordem em Progresso (Order and Progress) has trampled over them.
Order is the “order” of the mayor and the interests he serves; “progress” means kicking them out. If there is hope, it is only to be found in the demand for liberty seen in the modified Brazilian flag mural in this picture: liberty for us to choose how and where we live.