There was a different type of celebration happening in Rio this past weekend. After a violent week-long stand off in one of the city's most dangerous slums, national security forces seized control from the notorious drug cartels who had held sway in Rio's poorest districts for close to three decades. In true national fashion, residents in Alameo, a favela of close to 100,000, took to the streets with Brazilian flags to cheer the government's victory, jumping into swimming pools in the formerly-private residences of drug lords, and greeting police and soldiers as though they had returned home with the World Cup in hand.
For Brazil, the raid marks more than just an aggressively-scripted defeat of the bad guys, and is also a crucial if not controversial component of its efforts to prepare for its role as host of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics. Despite the country's remarkable progress in the past decade, poverty remains high, and Rio still posts one of the highest murder rates in the world, largely due violence wrought by drugs. Last week's raid was the culmination of a two-year campaign to wrest control from the cartels and secure the city's marginalized communities in advance of these high-profile sporting events. It also marks a dramatic coup de grace for the administration of outgoing President Luis Inácio Lula de Silva, who at the moment is enjoying a level of global adulation generally reserved for athletes, action heroes and rock stars.
But it is far too cynical, and simplistic, to consider the raids as a mere political ploy. Lula may be a crafty politician, but he has also proven himself a skilled leader with the chops to leverage Brazil's current growth streak and cultivate global goodwill, while still working to rout the more insidious qualities that threaten the country's long-term security and self-respect: poverty, crime, corruption. The raids in Alameo did more than just rid the area of a pesky gang, it established a secure foothold in a district that had long hampered peace in one of the world's foremost -- and increasingly most progressive -- cities. Long after the medals have been handed out and the athletes have gone home, the country and its most put-upon citizens will only continue to benefit from efforts made now to improve conditions in the favelas, and shore up the expanding middle class.
Brazil is not the only country out there who is rapidly positioning itself to pull ahead. India and China, of course, also immediately spring to mind, and all three face domestic stumbling blocks that offset the great economic strides they've made globally. India, despite its long-standing democracy, could not bypass the corruption and inefficiency that marred its execution of the Commonwealth Games earlier this year, and social mobility is still stymied by extreme poverty and ethnic violence. China, perhaps currently the most prolific economy in the world, remains a cipher for most of the West and seems ambivalent about addressing what many consider an abysmal record on human rights.
Brazil so far has stood out by managing a tricky balance of courting international investors with its responsible fiscal management while still aggressively addressing the micro conditions that have the potential to destabilize the country in the long-term. The raids in Rio were just a start, and despite the massive round up this past weekend the cartels and their corrupting influence are far from broken. But the country has won an impressive round and, once again, has shown itself to be a disciplined, capable and intelligent contender on the world stage. The Olympic sprint has only just begun, but I'd bet on the Cariocas in 2016 and beyond.