Today was our last day of learning from ‘experts’, except that we have some experts who are with us every day. The CIEE staff has been incredible: Matthew Ryan, the head of the CIEE study center here, has lived off and on in Rio working with traveling students and faculty for 20 years. Also, Dr. Sean McIntire, an academic expert and CIEE staff member, our official seminar leader, Zach, Fernadina, Adams and Jerimias (CIEE staff), plus others who are interning or helping while on study abroad or fellowships with CIEE while here in Rio. Our group has had at least two or three CIEE helpers who have lots of local knowledge every day. But Matthew is the head honcho – he has planned and prepared every aspect of our seminar – lodging, transport, meals and other logistics, plus bringing in the dozen or so outside experts who have provided our classroom experiences and some of whom have even gone along on our visits to help us understand what we are seeing and answer our many questions. Most notable: Dr. Theresa Williamson (RioOnWatch.org – see Day 5). Every day has been a smooth progression building on the material we have learned in the prior days. Putting together this type of program takes a special skill set, and clearly Matt has it (for more information, visit CIEE.org).
Today we had a 2.5 hour Q&A session with two very significant leaders in Rio who are in the favelas every day, but from different perspectives. Vidigal UPP Commander Lt. Veiga and Cantagalos Resident Association President Jose Bezerra. In any favela where that has been ‘pacified’, these two positions are the most important in the community. Both of these favelas are close to the tourist area, so they were among the first to go through the process. Here’s the basic outline of the program, begun in 2009. First, the residents are told that the military police are coming. This gives the illegal elements – drug dealers, or what they call ‘militias’ (in the US we’d call this a ‘protection racket’) – an opportunity to leave and reduces the need for violent confrontation. Then, elite ‘special forces’ type military troops come into the favela and take complete control of the situation, going house to house to find any remaining criminals, etc. One resident told us that the use of military helicopters and automatic weapons shoot-outs are not uncommon at this stage.
Next, a second military police force is installed – the UPP (Police Pacification Unit). These are young honest cops specially trained in community policing techniques. “We’re here to help you” is their motto. Since the criminal elements are only a small percentage of the population, most of the residents get along well with the UPP and are glad that they are there. It requires a huge investment in manpower and equipment, and new police precincts right at the top of the favelas, very visible. Lt. Veiga told us he has 212 officers to police about 10,000 residents. By comparison, Tampa has a population of about 350,000 (within the city limits, plus commuters), and the total size of the police force is a little more than 1000, so that works out to 28.5 officers per 10,000 residents.
As for the residents’ association president, he had a very difficult transition to make. For years he had worked with the drug dealers; they were the only ones with an interest in the neighborhood and the income to do anything about conditions. The residents were used to the drug dealers settling disputes, taking care of the needy, etc. When the UPP comes in, the RA leaders have to sever all ties to the drug gangs, and accept the UPP as the new authority in the neighborhood. The resident leaders and UPP leaders have to trust each other and work together. The man we met today has extremely valuable knowledge and courage; one person familiar with the situation said “he IS the favela”.
It is difficult to put into words how valuable our time was with these two men. We all had an opportunity to ask questions of each of them. But even more impressive was to watch their interaction with each other. We took them to lunch, and they sat by each other and talked and talked. When we posed for our group photo, they put their arms around each other. It was a really special moment.
After another lunch at another kilo restaurant, we toured the world’s largest urban forest – Tijuca National Park.
The weather wouldn’t cooperate; it stayed rainy and foggy and cloudy at every stop. We then headed up to see the statue of Christ the Redeemer on Corcovado. Here was an incredible trifecta: A beautiful monument, astonishing 360* views of Rio, and the divine serendipity of the weather clearing just as we got to the top, so we could see not only the monument, but the views, too. Also, it meant there were very few people there, so we got to visit at one of the most popular tourist stops in the world with only a score or two of others anywhere to be seen. I’ve posted 2 pictures below, but there are better pictures and a complete telling of the history of the monument easily found on the internets.
Tomorrow we wind down the seminar with debriefing sessions and special meals together.
Grace and peace,