A Rocky Road to Rio: An Interview with Eduardo Paes

Mayor Paes testifies in front of a Brazilian Senate commission regarding Rio de Janeiro's security preparedness for the 2016 Olympics. Photo courtesy of the Senado Federal, CC BY 2.0

Mayor Paes testifies in front of a Brazilian Senate commission regarding Rio de Janeiro’s security preparedness for the 2016 Olympics.
Photo courtesy of the Senado Federal, CC BY 2.0

Eduardo Paes is the mayor of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. The HIR sat down with Mr. Paes before the Olympic Games to discuss his tenure.

What are your goals for your term?

My ultimate goal is to improve the standard of living of the “Cariocas”, as Rio residents are known. Rio has extraordinary assets, including the creativity of its people and a unique natural heritage, but also faces a deep social divide. We are using the opportunity of mega events, such as the upcoming Olympic Games, to address urban challenges by leveraging investments in infrastructure and improving public services, including health and education. Our bid to host the Games was successful for that reason — despite the quality of infrastructure compared to Chicago, Tokyo, and Madrid, Rio presented the larger lasting legacy for its citizens. When Rio won the bid in 2009, I visited former Olympic host cities including London and Athens. The most valuable insight came from Pasqual Maragall, the former mayor of Barcelona, who spoke of urban revitalization inspired by an international event. He bluntly told me that “there are two types of Olympics: a city that serves the Games and a Games that serve the city.” I knew we had to choose the latter and those words became a mantra for Rio. With [the] Olympic budget, for every dollar spent on sporting venues, five dollars were dedicated to “legacy investments.” That means projects and initiatives which have little or nothing to do with the sport competition itself, including the expansion of public mass transportation, revitalization of degraded areas, and strengthening resilience against tropical storms (a climate hazard which has been increasingly impactful due to climate change). We also were able to partner with the private sector to make these investments become a reality. The city of Rio manages the main public private partnerships in Brazil today. The largest one, the port renovation, is a US$3 billion urban transformation project that is prioritizing public transportation and downtown revitalization. These partnerships and interventions have stimulated the economy and also allowed the administration to concentrate its resources on social spending.

Mayor Paes celebrating along with then President "Lula" da Silva by Ricardo Stuckert CC BY 3.0 BR, accessed via Wikimedia Commons

Mayor Paes celebrating along with then President “Lula” da Silva
by Ricardo Stuckert
CC BY 3.0 BR, accessed via Wikimedia Commons

What are some policies that your administration has implemented to target inequality?

About 75 percent of the investments in [the] past seven years have been dedicated to the underprivileged northern and western regions of the city, not around the beaches of Ipanema where the affluent reside. The 93-mile expansion of bus rapid [transit] routes cut commuting time by a half for those that live in the farthest areas of [the] city. Mass transportation has become accessible for 63 percent of the population (compared to 18 percent previously). Also, there was a massive increase in social spending. When I took office in 2009, three percent of [the] population was covered by primary health care. Now seventy percent, over four million people, have primary care coverage. We changed the focus of [the] health system from treating illnesses in hospitals to increasing prevention by expanding family clinics, in which a team of health professionals regularly visit families, as inspired by systems in Britain and Canada. In education, we have built over 300 schools and aim to have 35 percent of our students in full-time schools. Plans to have all students be full-time by 2020 seemed unimaginable in the past, but now it’s possible. It’s not an easy task for the largest municipal school system in Brazil, with 660,000 students. What we have spent on Olympic stadiums is less than one percent of the US$20 billion dedicated to health and education. Also, we have implemented a large social housing program called Morar Carioca, which has dedicated US$700 million to improve living conditions in the favelas, as the slums in Rio are called. Security conditions also have improved in poor areas, even with the difficulty of [the] recent economic crisis. Diminishing the social gap is a continued effort, and we keep focused on that.

The Rocinha Favela in Rio de Janeiro, one of the world's largest urban slums CC BY 2.0, accessed via Wikimedia Commons

The Rocinha Favela in Rio de Janeiro, one of the world’s largest urban slums
CC BY 2.0, accessed via Wikimedia Commons

What are some steps that your administration has taken to prevent corruption within the municipal government?

You need to be intolerant of corruption by punishing misconduct and malpractices. Also, it is important to improve institutional instruments and increase your level of accountability. At city hall, we have established autonomous internal affairs and auditing offices and regularly shared data and information with citizens. Our transparency portal regularly reveals data and key figures on the spending of the administration.

According to a study done by Ipsos Brasil, 82 percent of Brazilians do not identify with a political party. How does this hemorrhaging system of party politics in Brazil affect the city level? 

It’s not an exclusive problem in Brazil. In the United States, Europe, and other regions, there is a crisis with the current political representation and participation system. Extremism has become more prominent everywhere. In Brazil, the excess of political parties — there are over 35 today — do not allow the population to understand their differences in ideologies. Therefore, politics in Brazil has been historically based on individual leadership. At the municipal level, this is also the case. I suspect we should reflect on how the regular representation system has been working. Rules and channels of engagement have not changed much since the times of Athenian democracy or the beginning of the British parliament, but society and its interconnectivity have been completely transformed. People want to engage and participate more, and the digital revolution has given them instruments to do so. This occurs alongside another major trend: the growing urbanization of the world. Over half of [the world’s] seven billion people live in cities; it is estimated that in a few decades seventy percent of the world will live in urban areas. Political dissatisfaction manifests acutely in urban environments. Politicians and experts are trying to comprehend that phenomenon. I have been calling this “polisdigitocracy,” which means the reformulation of governance facilitating more horizontal collaboration and higher transparency. Digital technology is a great tool to bolster participatory democracy.

How do you perceive Operation Lava Jato and its impact on Brazilian democracy?

I think Operação Lava Jato assists with the development of the maturity of Brazilian democratic institutions. Overall, investigators and the judiciary system have been able to conduct their work with autonomy and have not privileged specific political groups or parties. The peaceful transition of power is also a good sign. I hope the operation leads to an effective movement to improve regulation and I hope that the system works to prevent any future misconduct.

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David Gevarter