Amid rubble, Rio residents fight Olympics evictions

Thu Feb 5, 2015 2:01pm EST
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By Stephen Eisenhammer

RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Street addresses jump in the Vila Autodromo favela: 39, 42, 48, 51.

The missing numbers belonged to homes now reduced to rubble to make way for the Olympic Park in Rio de Janeiro. But 18 months before the Olympic Games begin, about 50 families still refuse to leave, clinging on despite increasing isolation and irregular access to basic services like water and electricity.

The land conflict in Vila Autodromo, which feels like a ghost town with 90 percent of its residents gone, shows the underside of Rio's attempt to use the 2016 Olympic Games to modernize the city.

Vila Autodromo holdouts have become a symbol of resistance to those transformation plans and, depending on how authorities deal with their refusal to leave, a potential flashpoint for anti-Olympics sentiment and protests ahead of the Games.

In a country with fierce inequality, many are frustrated the government is spending money on another international sporting event just two years after hosting the soccer World Cup.

The run-up to the World Cup last year was marked by the largest street protests in decades as Brazilians protested the billions spent to host the event. While few are predicting similar demonstrations against the Olympics, social discontent is bubbling just below the surface.

"Para Quem? - or "For Whom?" - has become the rallying cry for a small but hardened group of activists who say hosting the Olympics only benefits the rich, particularly real estate speculators. The level of opposition is likely to grow as Brazil's economy stalls on the approach to the Games.

Located off a main avenue in Rio's prosperous beachside suburb of Barra de Tijuca, Vila Autodromo is a small strip of houses and unpaved roads by a lagoon. The buildings vary from ramshackle cinder block homes typical of squatter settlements, or favelas, to well-built spacious houses by the water.   Continued...

A worker works on the demolition of a house, with cranes and construction work for the Rio 2016 Olympic Park seen in the background, at the Vila Autodromo favela in Rio de Janeiro January 28, 2015.    REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes