Power Society

Rio de Janeiro’s catastrophe under Mayor Crivella

In 2016, it seemed as if Rio de Janeiro was turning a corner. Hosting the Olympic Games, just two years after lending its legendary Maracanã stadium as the stage for the football World Cup final, there was a hope that the bad press Rio had received in the 1990s and 2000s—with urban violence reaching war-like levels—was now in the past. Rio de Janeiro would no longer be a dangerous destination, they hoped, but rather a unique opportunity to enjoy iconic beach landscapes without having to relinquish any of the conveniences of being in a major global city.[restricted]

Just three years later, Rio de Janeiro has declared bankruptcy. Marred in a health and administrative crisis under Mayor Marcelo Crivella, with public servants left without their wages, local people are scratching their heads and wondering where it all went wrong.

Common misconception

It would be easy to presume that Rio fell afoul of the same problems as other mid-sized Olympic cities, where lavish and oversized construction works took cities such as Montreal and Athens under. But this was not the case in the “Wonderful City,” not at all. However, this has not stopped Mayor Crivella from blaming his predecessors for “overspending” at every opportunity since beginning his term in 2017.

Marcelo Crivella is a former Evangelical bishop, and nephew of media baron Edir Macedo, the leader and founder of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God. Right from the start of his mayorship, Mr. Crivella used the excuse of financial austerity to launch his own moral crusade, cutting funding for Rio’s world-famous carnival celebrations. 

However, Mr. Crivella’s predecessor and political foe Eduardo Paes eventually won the argument about overspending, when a municipal accounts court concluded that while the previous administration left over BRL 200 million in future payments, it also left over BRL 240 million in cash reserves. 

In fact, the pressing issue of the current administration is its struggle to sustain the forecast levels of tax revenue. In 2017, Mr. Crivella was BRL 4.4 billion shy of his goal; to compensate, he increased land tax rates, but revenue didn’t rise as expected.

Rio mutiny

This administrative chaos has rattled even some of Mr. Crivella’s closest allies in the city council, such as his former Chief of Staff Paulo Messina, who went public with his dissatisfaction in March 2019. “Councillors have given the city an extra BRL 4 billion in revenue, now we need the machine to run.” Both sides of the aisle have accused Mr. Crivella of mismanaging the city.

His administration was so widely vilified that Mr. Crivella was very nearly impeached earlier this year. A curious voting alliance was patched together between one of President Jair Bolsonaro’s sons, far-right Rio councilor, and the left-wing Socialism and Freedom Party (PSOL), a historical enemy of Mr. Bolsonaro’s “necropolitics.”

The mayor eventually avoided impeachment after luring center-right parties with prestigious positions in the administration. Furthermore, Rio’s political cadre wasn’t particularly keen on holding a by-election just one year before the proper election in 2020. Had vice-mayor Fernando Mac Dowell not died of a heart attack in 2018, things could have been different.

Crivella on his way out

After three years of chaotic administration, which has been especially aggressive toward popular cultural movements linked with Afro-Brazilian culture, such as Carnaval and the traditional Feira das Yabás festival, Mr. Crivella began eyeing up re-election. In a bid to rally his religious base, he moved to censor an LGBT-themed comic at an international book fair. More recently, he nationalized one of Rio’s most important toll roads, the “Yellow Line” expressway. Rio de Janeiro is the only city in Brazil with a tolled road that links parts of the same municipality.

The Yellow Line move was a desperate grab for public goodwill as the city’s public service collapses in on itself. Mr. Crivella’s approval ratings dropped to just 8 percent and the general sentiment is that he has abandoned the city, with even wealthy neighborhoods complaining of a visible drop in cleanliness. His attempts for popularity were no use, as the municipal government was forced to suspend the salaries of public servants, essentially declaring bankruptcy at the end of another catastrophic financial year.

All it took to transform Rio de Janeiro from a revitalized, cosmopolitan destination into a bankrupt and religiously conservative city were three years under Marcelo Crivella. Now, the poor and lower-middle-class who rely on public services—and who voted in droves to elect the current mayor—have been left to their own devices.[/restricted]

By Alcysio Canette

Alcysio Canette is a lawyer who lives in Rio de Janeiro. He hosts the podcast Lado B do Rio, a show that talks about the hidden side of Brazil’s wonderful city — which is “only wonderful to some.”