RIO DE JANIERO – José Paulo Simplicio de Souza was devastated when the government forced him out of his home near the commercial center of Rio to make way for a luxury waterfront property three years ago.
The 33-year-old food vendor’s sorrow later turned to disgust when he found out the 45th U.S. president’s name was set to adorn the complex.
“If Donald Trump came to my stand for a hot dog, I’d throw it in his face,” he said. “If it were up to me, he wouldn’t construct anything here.” De Souza’s wish may be coming true. When Trump Towers Rio was announced in 2012 to local fanfare, developers said it would be the largest corporate office complex in Brazil: five skyscrapers towering almost 40 stories high overlooking the city’s revitalized Port Zone, which was being developed ahead of the Rio Olympics.
“I want the son of a bitch to go bankrupt.”
Yet more than four years after the announcement — and nearly a year after the planned grand opening — developers haven’t so much as broken ground. The nearby Port Zone was transformed from a dangerous and dilapidated shoreline into a tourist destination with public squares and museums in time for the Summer Games. Yet the neighborhood immediately surrounding the Trump Towers site is still packed with abandoned warehouses. A fetid canal demarcates one of its borders, and a crowded bus terminal separates it from the water.
The director of the Towers’ exclusive U.S.-based leasing agency, Cushman & Wakefield, confirmed there are no plans to build in the near future. In other words, the entire project has been put on hold indefinitely.
For Trump, the setback isn’t necessarily a problem. His company isn’t financing or building the complex, and it has withdrawn from any other involvement in the project. The Bulgaria-based development company MRP International licensed the Trump name to build the office complex together with Brazil’s Even Construtora and the Salamanca Group. Similar licensing deals worldwide provide a significant source of revenue for the business mogul’s organization.
Nevertheless, Trump boasted in 2013 that his company would “revolutionize” downtown Rio.
The Trump brand hasn’t fared well in Rio, however. In addition to the stalled Towers project, the Trump Organization announced in December 2016 that it would no longer be managing the Trump Hotel, a beachfront property near the Olympic Park that had opened unfinished in August for the Olympic Games. The announcement came amid scrutiny regarding the funding of its construction; the federal prosecutor named both the hotel and Trump Towers Rio in a criminal investigation into alleged favoritism from public pension funds in exchange for bribes.
The derelict neighborhood around Trump Towers Rio, like many abandoned projects throughout the city, is a reminder of dashed hopes in the aftermath of the country’s sudden descent into economic recession. Rio declared a state of financial emergency in June 2016, less than two months before the Olympic Games. Brazil is also facing the biggest corruption scandal in its history. Operation Lava Jato [“Car Wash”] exposed a bribery scheme in which private companies funneled money to politicians through the state-run oil giant Petrobras in exchange for favorable contracts. The financial and political crises have made the realization of an ambitious project like Trump Towers Rio look less likely by the day.
“In just a week our whole lives changed forever.”
That Trump has no involvement in the project beyond licensing his name means little to the 50 families whose homes were demolished to make way for the complex. And they were thrilled to hear that, three years on, construction of the Trump-branded property shows little sign of starting.
“Thank god,” de Souza said. “I want the son-of-a-bitch to go bankrupt.”
In 2006, several families, including de Souza, began building a community in a warehouse that Rio’s Docks Company had left abandoned for more than two decades. (This kind of squatting is relatively common in Brazil, and according to the country’s constitution, if people live somewhere for five years unchallenged, they have the right to remain.) The occupation, which consisted of both private rooms and public spaces, became known as Quilombo das Guerreiras (“Quilombo of the Women Warriors”) in a nod to Brazil’s historic settlements established by escaped slaves.
Former residents describe the Quilombo as a self-managed and safe community that included a library, a community center, movie screenings, free capoeira classes, and a variety of other social services.
On Feb. 26, 2014, the government started ripping down their home. “It happened really fast,” de Souza said. “In just a week our whole lives changed forever.”
One of his former neighbors, who now lives in another occupation, says the government increasingly used intimidation tactics to try and force the residents to leave before they were ultimately kicked out.
“What they did to us was a great injustice,” Paulo Cesar de Paula said.
De Paula had envisioned raising his children and grandchildren in Quilombo das Guerreiras, but his wife of 18 years, Damianna Alves de Paula, said they were forced out of their home so quickly they didn’t have the chance to gather their belongings or furniture. “We left half our stuff behind, and when we tried to go back, the security was already there and wouldn’t let us retrieve our things,” she said.
Many others lost everything, as demolition crews pulled down walls with families’ possessions still inside. For de Souza, the destruction of Quilombo didn’t just mean losing a home. Thirteen years ago, he came to Rio from the Brazilian state of Paraíba to look for work, a typical migration pattern in Brazil. He remains in Rio, but his wife and 2-year-old son still live in the country’s northeast. He rarely is able to see them, and the people living in Quilombo had become a surrogate family to him.
Many of those former neighbors now live on the other side of Rio, often a two-hour commute by public transportation.
“We were a really tight-knit community,” he said. “I had a lot of friends who I never see anymore now that they live far away.”
The residents’ fight to stay in their homes near Rio’s central business district was one of many such stories in Rio ahead of the 2016 Olympic Games, as the government removed poor communities living on prime real estate with the stated goal of revitalizing neighborhoods. In 2013, Brazil authorized Rio to declare Quilombo das Guerreiras an area of public utility, which in turn sped up the process of removing residents before the government had finished building alternative housing, according to a 2015 report by the civil society group Rio Popular Committee for the World Cup and Olympics.
Ana Claudia Diogo Tavares, a lawyer from the legal aid organization Mariana Criola Center for the People’s Counsel, defended the residents in court, arguing the Docks Company had not fulfilled the social function of the property in accordance with Brazil’s Constitution of 1988. Although the case suspended the residents’ eviction for four months, the municipal guard eventually forced them out of their homes anyway.
“The government was supposed to do something with the space to serve the public,” de Souza said. “The way it is now, there’s nothing.”
Vice News reached out to representatives of the Trump Towers Rio project for comment. A representative for the Trump Organization said the company no longer has any involvement with the project in Rio. MRP International declined to comment, and Cushman & Wakefield have yet to respond.
Clare Richardson reported from Brazil on a fellowship from the International Reporting Project (IRP). Additional reporting by Anna Jean Kaiser.