Protestors take to the streets of Rio in May 2016 opposing the interim presidency of Michel Temer. (Tomaz Silva/Agência Brasil)
Three days after the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro came to an end, at the Canecão concert hall near the beaches of Botafogo, Brazil’s latest and most publicized Occupy movement celebrated its 100th day in occupation. A group of writers, activists, filmmakers, painters and their supporters surrounded a birthday cake in a dimly lit but brightly decorated room, while the city around them settled into normalcy after 85,000 Olympic visitors trickled out through the Rio de Janeiro International Airport.
Canecão, which has been the group’s de facto headquarters since the start of August, was shut down by an owner dispute in 2010 after decades of hosting some of Brazil’s most prized musicians. The activists grabbed the hall in time for the Olympic games, but every day they evolve their settlement to last far beyond the cameras, athletes and crowds.
“Our fight [was] not against the Olympic Games itself,” says a spokesperson of the collective that spearheaded the event, Occupy Ministry of Culture. The buildings left in the wake of the games, they say, are “an exclusive, elitist city project, a city [changing] for tourists and the rich, while the population itself is eliminated, along with its popular culture and street demonstrations.”
On the surface, Occupy Ministry of Culture, which started this summer, is calling for the resignation of Brazil’s interim president, Michel Temer, a right-leaning politician standing in for elected President Dilma Rousseff until the Senate decides whether or not to impeach her over corruption charges. The movement also condemns the massive infrastructure projects that have displaced nearly 20,000 families in the run up to the 2016 Olympics and also the 2014 World Cup.
At the core of this unrest, however, is a pervasive fear that Brazil is losing some of its most prized public spaces and institutions to a grandiose, and far from inclusive, vision of the future. Federal and state governments, struggling to pull out of what’s being called the country’s worst recession since the 1980s, have begun disinvesting in public schools and government institutions; the militarization of favelas and public beaches, by groups like the Police Pacification Units, or Unidades de Polícia Pacificadora (UPPs), continues beneath the banner of an investment in public safety.
Occupations have been a powerful tool of Brazil’s protest movements far before the country submitted for the Olympic bid in 2007, but within the past year they’ve experienced a surge. When the São Paulo state government announced it would be closing 94 public schools, students from across the region occupied nearly 200 school buildings in November 2015. Some of the first community voices that should have guided that decision — teachers, students and parents — were kept out entirely, activists say.
At the start of the summer, beneath the helm of Temer, the federal government decided to cut the number of ministries from 32 down to 23 by absorbing nine of them into other ministry buildings as lesser departments. The Ministry of Culture was blended into the Ministry of Education, and ministries that were once solely designated to human rights and women’s rights were brought under the umbrella of the Ministry of Justice and Citizenship. Temer’s government also put together an entirely male, predominantly white cabinet around the same time. In response, protesters held sit-ins at public institutions in 11 cities across the country.
“It set off a fuse in Brazil,” says Brian Godfrey, an urbanist and geographer at Vassar College who visits the country frequently. Artists in Brazil have some of the biggest sway when it comes to broadcasting ideas that contrast the government, he says. “To a lot of people, [closing the ministries] wasn’t just in the interest of efficiency and cutting costs, but a political slap to try and take away the voice of activists in the country.”
In May, crowds coalesced around the Ministry of Culture building in Rio, a modernist high-rise whose construction was overseen by renowned Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier in the 1930s, and set up camp within its premises. They held the space for two months before getting ejected by police forces at the start of August, only to reconvene in the concert hall they now call home for a raucous festival playfully titled “Ceremony-Party-Act of Olympic Re-existence,” held in part to highlight all the city’s problems that were brushed under the rug to make way for Rio’s Olympic Village.
Nearly three weeks have passed since then, but they’ve yet to face a significant push by police forces to evacuate.
In Rio de Janeiro and cities throughout Brazil, “the investment in public services and spaces is defined as ‘spent,’” says the Occupy spokesperson, implying there’s been little interest from power brokers to continue investing beyond what they’ve already invested. The occupation’s goal, for the time being, is to activate the community through events at the Canecão in a strive for unity that they say the government has failed to achieve, or even consider.
It’s new, but not unprecedented: When hundreds of students occupied São Paulo schools at the end of 2015, they turned the empty buildings into laboratories for placemaking, hosting concerts, classes, workshops and dinners. The Occupy Ministry of Culture movement has taken a page out of that book, and is now drawing hundreds of people to political discourses, concerts, film screenings and art events nearly every week.
Through these processes, “the public ceases to be ‘anyone’, or ‘private’, and becomes the space of ‘all,’” say the occupiers. “It’s an open space, with collective, self-managing and horizontal democracy.” In other words, it’s a counterplay to the $880 million Olympic Village 21 miles to the west of the venue, built to subpar standards, and whose units are now being auctioned off as luxury apartments worth upward of $925,000 while residents displaced by Olympic construction have been diffused throughout housing projects.
“The larger issue [than the Olympics] is this one of public democratic space, and the notion that people are feeling very pressed with these mega-events,” says Godfrey. “The feeling is that the priority is going towards these foreign interests and the elites in Brazil, who are making a lot of money on these events.”
“Here the government is militarizing the public spaces, the beaches, the favelas, but where’s the space for the people?” he says.
In 2008, a year after Rio submitted its Olympic bid, the city collaborated with federal and state agencies to create the UPP force that patrols the favelas, which are riddled with drug crime. Almost a decade after their creation they’re still struggling to maintain a semblance of a relationship with the poor communities they were created to protect.
A 2015 survey of more than 2,000 officers revealed that only 5.3 percent of them actively engage in meetings with the neighborhoods they patrol, and more than 65 percent report having been verbally insulted by neighbors while on duty. Yet Rio and Brazil’s governing bodies want to increase their police forces from 9,453 to 12,500.
It’s a disconnect that seeps much deeper than the police officers and their installment in communities that don’t want them there, and Occupy Ministry of Culture protests are giving vocal chords to a new distrust of the government as it swells among some of Rio’s lower- and lower-middle classes. One hundred days in, the movement is still cohesive, but outside the ad hoc democracy brewing in Canecão it’s still not clear who’s in and who’s out in post-Olympic Brazil.