FEB. 28, 2014
“Don’t ever in your life do a World Cup and the Olympic Games at the same time,” Mr. Paes recently said. “This will make your life almost impossible.” Credit: Marizilda Cruppe for The New York Times
By SIMON ROMERO
RIO DE JANEIRO — IN his fits of rage, Eduardo Paes, the mayor of Rio de Janeiro, has thrown a stapler at one aide. He threw an ashtray at another. He berated a councilwoman in her chambers, calling her a tramp. Stunning diners at a crowded Japanese restaurant where he was being taunted by one constituent, a singer in a rock band, he punched the man in the face.
While Mr. Paes, 44, has apologized to the targets of his wrath after each episode, he adds that he is under a lot of stress. Normally clocking 15-hour days as he tears up and rebuilds parts of Rio in the most far-reaching overhaul of the city in decades, Mr. Paes is finding that consensus over his plans is elusive.
“Don’t ever in your life do a World Cup and the Olympic Games at the same time,” Mr. Paes recently said at a debate here on Rio’s transformation, making at a stab at gallows humor over the street protests that have seized the city over the past year. “This will make your life almost impossible.”
Mr. Paes has a point. Political leaders across the country may have thought that landing these mega-events would open the way for widespread celebrations of Brazil’s emergence as a developing-world powerhouse, with Rio dazzling in its resurgence. But as Mr. Paes acknowledges, things have not quite worked out that way.
“I’m not cut out to be a masochist, to be someone shouted down and cursed at,” he said in an interview, referring to the way some of his more vocal critics approach him on Rio’s streets. “But this process reflects democratization, the development of citizens in Brazil,” he added. “I don’t think the protests are over.”
Instead of widespread jubilation, Brazil is confronting embarrassing delays in getting stadiums, airports and transit systems finished before the World Cup even starts in June. Protesters are questioning why funds are being lavished on sporting venues when public schools and hospitals remain underfunded. Evictions here of slum dwellers are fueling resentment over big development projects.
Meanwhile, the explosive Mr. Paes, whose political fortunes were rising before the street protests, finds himself at the center of increasingly fierce disputes over what kind of city Rio is turning into.
“I think this guy is a 171,” said Gilva Gomes da Silva, 40, the owner of a tire-repair shop in Favela do Metrô, a slum where his home was demolished. The term 171 is slang on Rio’s streets for someone deceptive, a reference to the penal code number for the crime of fraud. While Mr. Gomes da Silva said that his new public housing unit was acceptable, he complained that the project for which his home was destroyed, a large commercial area for car repairs, had not even materialized. “He’s fooling us,” the tire repairman said of the mayor.
For more than a decade, Brazil has been led by two leftists famous for their struggles. President Dilma Rousseff is a former urban guerrilla who was jailed and tortured during the military dictatorship. Her predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who rose to the presidency after making his name as a union leader, was born into a family of sharecroppers and never made it past elementary school.
Mr. Paes stands in stark contrast to that. Born into privilege and raised in exclusive districts of Rio, he was educated as a lawyer at the city’s top private university before going into politics.
He cut his teeth in the early 1990s as an aide to César Maia, a former Rio mayor, joining a total of five political parties over the span of his career, finally landing in the centrist Brazilian Democratic Movement Party.
After stints as a city councilman and a congressman, he defeated Fernando Gabeira, an iconic leader of Brazil’s Green Party, in the 2008 mayoral race. And even though Rio’s left rallied around Marcelo Freixo, a human rights activist, in opposition to Mr. Paes in 2012, the mayor glided to re-election with 65 percent of the votes.
But in the space of a few months, the landslide victory gave way to scenes in which Mr. Paes was hounded by protesters. Despite being faced with frequent criticism, Mr. Paes, an aficionado of the short, narrow cigars called cigarrilhas, shows few signs of growing a thicker skin.
Lashing out at the masked protesters called the Black Blocs, named for their black clothing and face-concealing scarves, he called them morons. He defended costly endeavors like the $100 million Museum of Tomorrow, an ambitious project designed by the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, saying, “We need icons.” And he insisted on putting his aggressive overhaul of Rio into context.
“I don’t want to compare my city to Zurich, thank God we’re not that boring,” said Mr. Paes over breakfast served by uniformed servants at Rio’s imposing City Hall, a tower commonly called the Piranhão, or Big Harlot, since it stands in an area where the authorities razed a red-light district in the 1970s and ’80s.
“Rio is advancing fast,” he said, “but we’re at a different phase in our civilization.”
FEW people here dispute that Mr. Paes has put into motion a construction spree with few parallels in Rio’s history. Work crews are feverishly rebuilding areas around the port, a dilapidated district of decaying buildings that resembles old Havana, while tearing down eyesores like the elevated highway cutting through the old center.
At the same time, Mr. Paes is overseeing ventures like the Transcarioca, a roadway linking the international airport to Barra da Tijuca, a sprawling zone of residential towers, slums and gated communities, and an array of new installations for the Summer Olympics in 2016, when his second term is scheduled to end.
Mr. Paes’s real estate frenzy has drawn comparisons to the vision of Francisco Pereira Passos, the mayor who ripped apart swaths of Rio at the start of the 20th century to put in Beaux-Arts buildings and boulevards inspired by Paris.
But Mr. Paes insisted that the Pereira Passos era was different because it largely involved attempts to Europeanize coveted areas of Rio. “My projects aren’t in the most noble areas,” he said, contending that the exclusive beachfront districts are mostly absent from his plans.
The bonanza for developers and construction companies is accentuating tension on Rio’s streets, with the huge demonstrations over rising transportation fares and unsatisfactory public services in 2013 evolving into a steady drip of smaller but violent confrontations between protesters and the police.
Some of the animosity is related to efforts by officials to assert control over some of Rio’s favelas, or slums, with new protests erupting over killings of favela residents by the police. Armed gangs in some favelas have aggressively countered police forces in recent weeks, pointing to the erosion of gains made in lowering crime rates.
Mr. Paes argues that certain developments are beyond his control. Responsibility over the police rests with the governor of Rio de Janeiro State, Sérgio Cabral, who may be the only elected official in Rio to have attracted more ire from protesters than Mr. Paes.
Indeed, Mr. Paes seems more admired abroad than at home. At a summit meeting in South Africa in February, he succeeded Michael R. Bloomberg, New York’s former mayor, as the leader of the C40, a network of cities seeking to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
WHEN in Rio, Mr. Paes insists he is having the time of his life as mayor. He says that he appreciates the vibrancy of Brazil’s democracy and that he still enjoys drinking draft beer at Rio’s botecos, the street dives that are an elemental part of the city’s social fabric. He clearly revels in the perks of his job.
He said Gracie Mansion had nothing on his home, comparing the residence of New York’s mayor to Gávea Pequena, the luxurious palace, replete with tropical gardens and, at least during a stretch in 2013, protesters camped at the entrance, where Mr. Paes lives with his wife and two children.
Mr. Paes argued that the disillusionment with Rio’s political class was generalized and not necessarily directed just at him. Some of Rio’s residents, including those who have grown accustomed to hearing that the city’s time to shine has finally arrived, agree.
“I have nothing against him,” said Gilmar Mello, 47, who owns a small store selling motorcycle gear in Favela do Metrô. His business sits next to a pile of rubble after recent evictions and demolitions in the slum, not far from the refurbished Maracanã soccer stadium. “Everyone who gets into the mayor’s office will do the same thing.”