I came across Rio Radar by way of Rio Real Blog, and quickly discovered that I had a lot in common the writer, editor and translator behind it. A graduate of George Washington's Elliott School, Andrew Fishman speaks Portuguese and Spanish, studied abroad in Latin America and moved to Rio de Janeiro after graduating. In fact, he's in Rio on the very same fellowship that nearly brought me there (instead, I ended up doing the same project, but without funding). His project is his blog, Rio Radar, which is a mixture of media coverage and unique content. He provides English translations of news articles about public security, crime, drug trafficking, militias, and favela pacification in Rio, and also shoots videos of excellent interviews about these subjects with people on the ground, with English subtitles. He also keeps the blog layout simple with easy navigation, so it's easy to find what you're looking for. I spoke to Andrew about the blog, his interest in Brazil, and his views on public security in Rio.
How did you become interested in Brazil, and how did you become fluent in Portuguese?
I came to Brazil by something of a coincidence. I was looking for study abroad programs in Latin America and found that GW was offering a $4,000 scholarship through the US Dept of Ed to study at UFSC in Florianópolis or the Federal University in Curitiba. There was almost no support structure and a lot of challenges—principally learning a new language in two months—and that’s what most appealed to me. Nobody else applied. I mean, you'd have to be a sucker to turn down $4,000 to live in an island paradise like Floripa.
I studied Spanish since I was a kid, but was never that dedicated. Classes started in August and I got there in June. I moved into a house with seven Brazilian guys, memorized 25 flashcards a day, did some online lessons, spent hours every day watching Two and a Half Men, Friends, and The Simpsons with Portuguese subtitles (something I would never do back home), and spent a lot of time with two very patient friends who helped me out a lot! I also watched the same Brazilian movies over and over again with English subs, then Portuguese, then without. MSN messenger with people I met was also helpful. Way more coffee than I was used to drinking…and a beer or two never hurts either in the beginning.
What was your major and area of interest at GW?
I studied International Affairs with a concentration in International Development at the Elliott School. I lived in Ghana for a while before going to college, but started moving towards Latin America over time. Some of my favorite and most influential classes were National Security Decision Making with Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, the Anthropology of Development with Steve Lubkemann and Jose Muñoz, Arts and Culture with Leslie Jacobson, History of Latin America with Peter Klaren, and US Diplomatic History after WWII with Chris Tudda. I wrote my senior honors thesis on the geopolitics of US foreign policy in Colombia and the pending military base deal that Obama was pushing through that eventually fell apart under regional pressure. I also worked for the Institute of Brazilian Issues/Center for Latin American Issues with former acting US Ambassador to Brazil, Jim Ferrer, which was a great way to prep for my fellowship.
What inspired your fellowship project?
I was sitting in one of my less engaging classes at UFSC one day and decided that I had to find a way to get back to Brazil, and preferably on somebody else’s dime. Brazil had won their World Cup bid and Rio had just won their Olympics bid the week before. The UPP program had just taken off and was receiving a lot of positive international press; Paes, Cabral, and Lula were all working in harmony and talking about huge infrastructure investments; and the pre-salt oil fields had just been discovered off of Rio’s coast and were being talked about as the biggest find in the past thirty years—I realized that Rio was going to be the hot spot for the coming years. Studying a new security policy, based on successes in Colombia, that seemed to be entirely structured around the 2014 and 2016 mega-events, but done in a way that was supposed to be very different from what happened in the 2007 Pan-American Games, really interested me. So I started talking to a lot of professors, past Fulbrighters, and anyone else I could find about how I could do this project and what I could reasonably achieve. I figured applying for the Shapiro fellowship would be good training for the Fulbright and then I could modify my (failed) proposal to get that, but I ended up getting lucky the first time around.
What are your goals for your blog? Do you plan to continue it after your fellowship ends?
The proposal was originally to write a research paper, but I realized that, even if I could get it published, aside from my mom, few people would read it. Once I got here I suggested a multimedia blog centered around subtitled video interviews. When I am interested in a new subject, the first thing I usually do is try to get my hands on as many documentaries and YouTube videos as I can because it is a quick and easy way of getting a feel for the basics.
Rio Radar is essentially designed to target someone like me three years ago—a non-Portuguese speaker who probably has never been to Brazil but wants to hear the view from the ground straight from the mouths of people directly involved in the process. I try to keep the videos short and sweet but all of my interviewees have just had way too many interesting things to say.
I tried to come into it as neutral as possible—to be an interlocutor and represent the views of people who understand the situation better than I do. When I head back to the States I will write up and post my own analysis. I don’t know if the blog will continue when I go back, but I would like to keep it going.
After the fellowship, what do you hope to do?
After the money runs out, I will move back to Washington DC and jump into the job hunt. I have spent so much time and energy getting into Brazilian issues that it would be a shame to start working in a totally unrelated field. That being said, a Brazilian friend from college and I are working on putting together a new online project related to Brazilian issues. More on that later…
What do you think is the least complicated public security issue to tackle in Rio? The most difficult?
The easiest problem to solve (theoretically, of course) is to remove the primary profit source of criminal gangs in Brazil (and thereby simultaneously increase border security) by legalizing narcotics…good luck getting reelected. However, one thing you can see with the rise of militias is that a culture of informality and corruption allows criminal syndicates make large profits without drug sales. There is no drug dealing in Rio das Pedras, but militias are making serious profits there through monopolies on gato telecom and gas sales, taking a cut on real estate sales and irregular transport, and straight out extortion. The culture of corruption and impunity is the most intractable problem in Brazil—it has existed since the country’s founding, whereas armed drug trafficking is a relatively new phenomenon. While the Police Pacification Units (UPPs) may be dealing a blow to drug dealers—on a limited scale—they are incapable of combating corrupt politicians, militias, death squads, a 92% rate of unsolved homicides…in June of this year, just June, the police were officially responsible for 63 murders in greater Rio. One way of dealing with this—and this is not a universal truism by any means—is greater pay, better training, and a renewed institutional culture. Professionals who are better paid, better trained, and more respected are more likely to think twice before making that poor decision, be it pulling a trigger, taking a bribe, abusing their position, etc.
This applies to civilians as well. Security Secretary Beltrame talks about this, but little is being done about it—but it’s a hard area to tackle: creating legal, well-paying, viable alternatives for potential criminals. The only way to do that in the short term is basically a direct government stimulus plan, and that is unsustainable. It’s a long-term process that starts with education and ends with the private sector, preferably with some government incentives.
What's your take on the murder of Judge Acioli? Do you think it will create more pressure to reduce impunity for the militia?
This story immediately made international news. Killing a respected and controversial judge is a big deal, even in Rio de Janeiro. This is the first killing of a major public figure obviously perpetrated by a militia in Rio to my knowledge. On Monday three judges came together to take over her seat at the head of the 4th Criminal Court of São Gonçalo, but is this going to change anything? I don’t think so. Professionals and regular citizens have already feared these groups—from what I can see, more so than drug gangs. Now that there are three judges fulfilling her role, perhaps they can be three times as effective, but they probably won’t stick their necks out as much. Plus, as Judge Acioli mentioned in the final interview before her murder, the court has a backlog of 7,000 killings by police officers in São Gonçalo alone; what can one judge (or three, for that matter) realistically do about it?
In terms of public security, how do you think Rio will fare in 2014 and 2016?
Even the most critical voices that I have interviewed seem to readily believe that the 2014 and 2016 games will go off without a hitch security-wise and they will be wonderful exhibitions of the best side of Rio. The federal, state, and municipal governments are pouring some serious money into expanding the police forces, creating a “security belt” in the areas that most tourists will frequent, upgrading technology and equipment, and so on. The military will probably provide some level of tactical assistance and, as it was during the 2007 Pan-American Games, police presence on the streets will be through the roof.
The question that people are worried about is, “what about 2017?” With so much investment in infrastructure and security and construction being games-focused, how much of this will serve to benefit the people of Rio after the last medal is awarded? And like all things in this world, it will probably be a mixed bag. Hopefully Rio will end up being a safer city, with a better equipped, better trained police force, with a more cohesive transportation infrastructure, but billions of the reais invested will be pocketed or pilfered and little of this investment will serve the communities further removed from the city center and zona sul that are most in need and that tourists never see.
That said, these concerns are not unique to Rio or Brazil and I really do believe there is forward momentum here. It’s just that things move slower than people would like. Always. And when your governor makes huge promises and then raises the advertising budget of the state by 40% while his new police recruits are undertrained, people who are paying attention reasonably tend to get a bit cynical.