By Filipe Pacheco
O Rio de Janeiro continua lindo.
This is an extract of a popular song about Rio de Janeiro, written in 1972 by Gilberto Gil, an iconic name in Brazil’s rich musical lore. It means, “Rio remains beautiful.” Forty one-years have gone by after the song was composed and Rio too has gone through a series of modifications and facelifts, yet this Brazilian city is as beautiful and beguiling as ever.
Political and business leaders understand that Rio remains a city that can be criticized for having beauty that is ‘only skin deep.’ Thus there are major structural changes underway to bolster the economic prowess of a city that traditionally has been known more for the ‘festa’ than coders and business process. But on the ground – where I am this week – it is all about to change.
Rio is the birthplace for many Brazilian bigwigs and is probably the most well known Brazilian “face” outside of the country. The mountains surrounding the shoreline, the white sand beaches, the Bossa Nova, the samba dance and the favelas. That is all Rio.
I was in fact born and raised in São Paulo, the chaotic city that is the country’s financial capital. Paulistanos (residents of Sao Paulo) often criticize cariocas (residents of Rio), saying that they are “laid-back, lazy, and spend their lives on beaches.” The reality is that for the most part Paulistanos are jealous of Cariocas.
Given the option, I would choose Rio over Sao Paulo. Rio is not as thickly populated as Sao Paulo and has plenty of natural resources. The city has transformed itself over the past few years, overcoming most of its old problems such as gang violence and unemployment. A stroll around the city will convince you that Rio is shaping up to be a modern and advanced global city.
A Peep into History
Rio’s trouble began in 1960s when the national capital was shifted to Brasília, thousands of miles away from the inland. Rio was, in a sense, left alone and isolated as governments centralized in the interior. Under colonial rule, Rio was the center of activity, with the Portugal royal family holding court here.
Between 1940 and 1950, Rio started losing its economic mojo to São Paulo, an industrial city with descendants of European business families. The 90’s were the worst years for Rio because it was then the city slipped into a kind of civil war with police fighting street battles with drug peddlers. As violence became the order of the day, economic opportunities faded and long-time residents started leaving. Drugs, crime, gunshots, pick pocketing and favelas became the focus of countless newspaper articles.
But Rio’s fortune brightened quickly once the government implemented its ‘pacification’ (UPP) program to urbanize the shanty towns (favelas). The UPP is a law enforcement and social services program aimed at reclaiming territories controlled by drug traffickers. What improved things further was the discovery of oil reserves, which has started to spruce up the local economy giving birth to a wide variety of new industries. The announcement of global sporting events – including the 2014 Soccer World Cup and 2016 Olympics – is certainly a major injection for economic recovery. Remember, Rio is the host for the final match of the World Cup.
One of my friends (also a paulistano), who moved to the city three years ago, says, “Rio is starting to shine again and will shine more than ever in the next few years.”
The Road Ahead
Rio has to make up for its lost years and bolster its infrastructure to make life more manageable (and navigable given the traffic) for its 6.3 million inhabitants. Its biggest international airport, Antonio Carlos Jobim (Galeão), is old and inefficient. So are the city’s other transportation systems. If there is one thing which stands out above all others, it is the traffic. Rio’s roads are often clogged.
The city has also become ridiculously expensive. A meal anywhere in the Southern Zone or Downtown, where most businesses are, can easily cost US$ 25. Rental prices have risen 380% in the past few years. Renting a two-bedroom apartment in a middle-class neighborhood can cost half the salary of a working person.
Brazilians from all over the country, and foreigners from European countries including Portugal, Spain and Italy, are arriving in Rio looking for jobs and business opportunities.
Though security has improved considerably, Rio is still regarded a dangerous city by many foreigners. That image has to be changed. The opportunities are flourishing, businesses are expanding, qualified people are arriving, but the city is growing faster than its infrastructure can really handle. Analysts say Rio needs a modern railway network to keep pace with its growth.
Fifteen years ago, nobody thought that Rio could curb drug violence and grow into an international city. But Rio has proved them wrong. Fifteen years from now, this city may look back at the grueling road it traveled through. No doubt, whoever arrives in its land will still be able to sing “O Rio de Janeiro continua lindo…”