In Rio's Favelas, Hoped-For Benefits From Olympics Have Yet To Materialize

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Brazil's favelas or shantytowns were celebrated during the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games as the birthplace of a lot of Brazil's culture. Well, that was showbiz. NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro visited three of the most well-known favela communities to find out how the Olympics are affecting people who live there.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: Santa Marta is Rio's most famous favela internationally because Michael.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THEY DON'T CARE ABOUT US")

MICHAEL JACKSON: (Singing) All I want to say is that they don't really care about us.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's the man himself in the 1996 video for "They Don't Care About Us," which was filmed in the community. These days there's a bronze statue of Jackson, arms outstretched, echoing the pose of Rio's Christ the Redeemer.

SALETE MARTINS: Michael Jackson (speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Salete Martins is a tour guide here, and she tells me, "Michael Jackson left a huge legacy for Santa Marta. I would even say he's my patron," she says, "I bring tourists up here many times a day." But despite huge hopes, the impact of these Olympic Games here - not so great, she says.

MARTINS: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "Tourism has been very weak. Many consulates told their citizens not to visit the favelas," she says. "I think people were too afraid, and we're seeing very few tourists coming here. It's very disappointing," she says.

MARTINS: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "Tourism is a boost for the whole community," she explains. All the guides are from Santa Marta, and funds from their cooperative are given to the residents' association.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Francisco Aragao owns a kiosk that sells drinks and snacks to Santa Marta visitors. As we walk by, he's watching the Olympics on TV in his store. I ask him if he's enjoying the show. No, he answers.

FRANCISCO ARAGAO: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "Who is enjoying the games," he says - "not the poor. Brazil doesn't have the money for these games. Our hospitals are a mess. The government has put up a facade to hide the truth," he says. He can't afford to buy Olympic tickets to see anything in person, so this is the closest he's getting to the games, he says.

Security, too, is still very bad in many favelas despite the presence of 85,000 security forces in the city. This matters because Brazil is one of the most unequal countries in the world, and in Rio, at least 25 percent of the population live in impoverished communities.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yesterday Lucia Cabral woke up to shooting in her complex of favelas called Alemao. It's in Rio's North Zone far away from the main Olympic venues. She lets me listen to her recording of the gun battle.

LUCIA CABRAL: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: One woman was shot and wounded in the fight between drug traffickers and police. "While Olympic organizers promised the safest games ever," she says, "in the past two weeks in Alemao, five people have been shot."

CABRAL: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "I think during the Olympics, they just wanted to keep us trapped inside the favelas," she says. "We are abandoned." She says she saw the opening ceremony, also on TV, with its celebration of favela life.

CABRAL: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "But it doesn't help," she says. "A lovely show for a single day, but the rest of the time, they are killing two or three kids a day," she says. But there is one community which has been celebrating the games.

(CROSSTALK)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We end our day in the favela of Cidade de Deus, a sprawling gritty area which was the subject of the hit 2002 Brazilian film "City Of God." And this joyful noise is Rafaela Silva's family. She won Brazil's first gold for judo. Her story is already the stuff of legend here - the rise from poverty, the racism she suffered because she's black. She's now a national hero.

LUIZ CARLOS SILVA: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Her father, Luiz Carlos Silva, tells me that when Rafaela was growing up, he used to have to pretend he lived in another neighborhood because employers wouldn't give jobs to people from the favelas.

SILVA: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "This is a wonderful moment," he says. "Our whole family is thrilled. But also it's for the community. Never forget your roots is what I always told her. She was born in the City of God. She'll always be from the City of God," he says.

Among those also celebrating is Sergio Leal. He runs a martial arts NGO in Cidade de Deus. He says he's thrilled about Rafaela Silva's win. But when I ask him if he thinks the Olympics brought good things to this neighborhood only five miles away from the Olympic Park, he pauses.

SERGIO LEAL: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "The Olympics themselves," he says, "didn't do anything for City of God. Rafaela Silva, through her hard work and merit, did something. The light is Rafaela and not these games," he says, "because she sends a message to the people here that maybe if she could do it, I can, too." Lulu Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro.

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