Op-Ed

President Obama’s Visit to a Favela in Rio: Below the Surface Calm

Vanda Felbab-Brown

A part of President Obama’s visit to Brazil is to be an outing to a favela, a slum neighborhood, in Rio de Janeiro. Rio’s government wants to show off the progress of its so-called Pacification Plan (UPP) designed to address the criminality, underdevelopment, and lack of state presence in these poor neighborhoods.

Historically deprived and neglected in their economic development, social integration, and provision of public safety, Rio’s favelas are ghettos of thousands to tens of thousands of people. When I visited one notorious favela, the Alemão complex, last year, I had to pass through a checkpoint manned by drug gang members with AK-47s and be accompanied by a “fixer” trusted by the gang. Inside, ramshackle houses with pirated electricity and without water or sewage systems precariously lined steep hills of narrow unpaved alleys. Many of the houses were riddled with bullet holes from periodic and bloody urban warfare between Rio’s police and the gangs. In the main square, a table, guarded by about ten young men with machine guns, was spread out with packets of cocaine for purchase.

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