Pride and politics over a pool for Rio's poor

With a faint stench of garbage in the air, and a view of the main Rio-São Paulo highway, no one would mistake this little beach for the sugar-white silicon of the Copacabana.

But this huge new swimming pool wedged between a Brazilian favela (slum) and a fetid bay is the place to bronze as far as the residents of Ramos are concerned. And it's emerging as a kind of super-chlorinated icon of populism that one local politician hopes to ride to the presidency.

Some weekends during this Southern Hemisphere's summer, 50,000 people have turned up to lounge on the sand, splash around in the water, or simply hang out at the small gym, children's playground, and skateboard park.

"The pool has given a new life to Ramos," says Alexandre Azevedo, one of the 400 locals authorized to run a beach-side concession stand. "It has changed everything around here. Now we have something to be proud of."

It is hardly an idyllic spot, especially not in a nation that is home to some of the most gorgeous beaches in the world. But for residents of an area with no clean beaches and precious little civic pride, the piscinao - or big pool in Portuguese - is a breath of fresh air.

More a manmade lake than a conventional swimming pool, the piscinao was dug out of an abandoned strip of land alongside Rio's Guanabara Bay. Less than six-feet at the deepest point, the pool is the size of three football fields and holds 30 million liters of treated sea water, a quarter of which is changed every day.

The idea was the brainchild of Anthony Garotinho, the governor of Rio state. Mr. Garotinho sank more than $7 million into building the pool and has created 1,300 jobs for lifeguards, security personnel, and concessionaires, bringing some much needed vitality to the often forgotten area.

The piscinao has also brought great publicity for Garotinho in the months before he plans to kick off his presidential campaign. The pool's construction - and the plans to put a second adjacent to another favela just a few miles away - has cemented his populist credentials, which were already on the up following the opening last year of three restaurants selling basic three-course meals for less than 50 cents.

Many of those sunning themselves at Ramos last weekend praised Garotinho as a champion of the city's poor and pledged to support him in October's presidential race.

"Whether he's done it for votes or not, at least he's doing something," says Onivaldo Pereira, as he worked out on the gym's parallel bars. "If he does something for us now, then we have to believe that he'll do something for us as president."

Opponents, however, criticize Garotinho for not doing more in the first three years of his term and say underprivileged areas in Rio's working-class north side need hospitals and schools more than they need swimming pools.

"I think it is shameful that the government is spending so much on something like this," says Luiz Carlos da Silva, president of the Ramos residents' association. "We should be spending money on schools and healthcare. I have been trying to start a computer course, for example, but no one will give me the funding."

As important to people like Mr. da Silva are the security concerns the pool has raised. The pool is situated close to areas where the city's notorious drug gangs control the illegal narcotics business. Residents and police fear the pool is becoming a strategic point for the traffickers in their bid to exercise control over the area.

Last week, scores of panicked bathers fled when shots were heard. And there was outrage after a 15-year-old boy walking home from the pool was beaten to death by a gang who, according to police, thought he was a member of a rival faction. Some bathers say they are afraid to wear red swimming trunks or bikinis in case it is interpreted as a sign of support for the Red Command, one of the two gangs.

The adverse publicity - along with two drowning deaths and unseasonably rainy weather - prompted some people to stay away from the pool for a few days last week. Their absence did not last long, however. With the mercury rising, the Ramos pool has become one of summer's obligatory stops.

"All my friends come here now," says Vanissa Sousa, a 17-year old student who stood under an umbrella just yards from the water's edge. "We've forgotten about Copacabana. This is our place."

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