“I’m the ‘Papa Mike’—Military police,” says the motorcycle cop astride his BMW. He is poised to escort the new Light Rail Vehicle (VLT) tram on its trial run, back and forth from the revamped Marvelous Port with its gleaming, Santiago Calatrava–designed Museum of Tomorrow, through the old center of Rio de Janeiro and into the likely soon-to-be-privatized Santos Dumont Airport. “My orders are to stop people being run over,” he explains as the tram pulls away, past a warning sign that reads: “Watch out! The VLT makes no noise.”
Who could question Mayor Eduardo Paes’s concern for the well-being of the Olympic host city’s pedestrians? Yet those packed into the tram, just as they are jammed every day into buses for the interminable commutes from Rio’s vast working-class periphery, must wonder why such precautions were not taken to avoid the real danger: the bankruptcy of the state of Rio, which has suspended the salaries and pensions of tens of thousands of public-sector workers. Draconian cuts have been made to schools, hospitals, and mass transit while 39 billion reals (some $10 billion) is spent on the Olympics. Two in three Brazilians interviewed this week by Folha de São Paulo said the Olympics have brought more problems than advantages.
Others aboard the escorted tram might wonder why similar protections aren’t afforded to the 3 million workers who have lost their jobs since 2013. The recession, Brazil’s worst ever, has undone decades of progress in poverty reduction in a country whose income inequality shocked the world, back when inequality could still shock. By the end of 2016, the recession will have wiped out roughly 9 percent of the country’s GDP in two years. The economy looks set to contract further, with a full-blown austerity program now officially enshrined in Brasilia under the right-wing caretaker government of Michel Temer, who assumed power in May after what many call a legal coup d’etat.
In many ways, Temer is taking up where the impeached Workers’ Party president, Dilma Rousseff, left off after her conversion to austerity in a disastrous second term. Now, however, the spending cuts are coinciding with a radical privatization program. “They’re applying many of the same policies as Dilma, but unabashedly and with a neoliberal hat on,” says Luiz Eduardo Melin, an economic adviser, in happier times, to Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s second government (2007–11). “They will drive the economy into a downward spiral, but they don’t care because they are not up for reelection.”