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The last progressive government of Rio?

April 5, 2009
Leonel Brizola, 1922-2004

Leonel Brizola, 1922-2004

One question that has been preoccupying my thoughts recently has been the question of why the simple things are not being done in Rio to address the problems of the favelas: sanitation, education, healthcare etc… many of the people we have talked to look back to the regime of Leonel Brizola, the Governor of the State of Rio de Janeiro from 1983 to 1987 and then again from 1991 to 1994. Brizola was a left-progressive populist, a social democrat and a former opponent of the dictatorship who had had to live in exile for much of the 1970s. Sadly he died in 2004, but we had the opportunity this week to talk to his former Secretary of State for Public Security, and also briefly Governor himself from 1994-5, Nilo Batista.

We met Professor Batista in the Instituto Carioca de Crimonologia (ICC), an independent research organisation, which he runs (and funds from his legal work), along with his wife, sociologist, Vera Malaguti Batista. The Institute is housed in a sleek modern building up in the hills of Santa Teresa, from whose picture windows the city below is all but invisible and the bay appears almost as it was when Europeans first arrived. However, the concerns of the Institute are very much with the reality of the city today.

We had a long and wide-ranging conversation, which would be impossible to recount in detail here, but the basis of it was an understanding of Brazilian society, and in particular that of Rio, based on the ongoing legacies of the past, in particular slavery and authoritarianism. Vera Malaguti’s book, O Medo na Cidade do Rio de Janeiro: dois tempos de uma historia (Fear in the City of Rio de Janeiro: one story in two periods) examines previous periods of revolt by Africans in Brazil and argues that the often unspoken elite fear of the africanisation of Brazil. They argue that repressive public security strategies today are founded in this same fundamental fear, driven by the media that serves the powerful middle classes who aspire to elite values and lifestyles.

In opposition they place Brizola and that brief (and they argue, unrepeated) period at the end of the dictatorship when social justice and in particular, education, were priorities and favelas were provided with services in the same way as any other neighborhood. The security strategy of Brizola and Batista was effectively one of anti-stigmatisation. They argue that since then, media-driven fear and repression has been far more the norm and this had undermined the progress made under Brizola.The current public security-based strategy of the Governor Cabral and the ‘choque de ordem’ of Giuliani-wannabe Mayor Eduardo Paes, is one example. By concentrating on ‘pacifying’ one or two places as examples (Santa Marta and Cidade de Deus at present) without being able to afford the same strategy elsewhere, it constitutes simply a public relations exercise, and elsewhere repression without development continues as normal.

The Batistas are passionate and well-motivated, but there are many who argue that this picture of a progressive Brizola regime subsequently undermined by repressive policies is at the very least, a limited view. It was, after all, under Brizola that the traffickers grew in power and acquired weapons; the mid-eighties was the key period here as the cocaine trade grew from almost nothing to being the driving force of gang activity in Rio. This isn’t just a view held by political opponents: whilst he certainly does not (and could not with any justification) claim that the rise of the cocaine trade was anything to do with Brizola, Enrique Desmond Arias in Drugs and Democracy in Rio de Janeiro, argues that the personalist populism of Brizola undermined the leadership of the Community Associations in the favelas and left them open to co-option by drug gangs. When we visited the office of the current Secretary of State for Security, Jose Mariano Beltrami, and talked with his representative, it was quite strongly argued that Brizola neglected the issue of the growing arming and violence of drug traffickers, and also did nothing to solve the massive problem of police corruption (on which I will write more later). The current longer-term strategy is now to recruit a lot more Military Police, in the hope that numbers will do what force has not, and enable the gangs to be beaten.

We also visited the office of a leading critic of human rights abuses, Alessandro Mollon, a Deputy in the State parliament. He said that Beltrami is actually shifting, without ever having admitted to it, from a very macho and repressive approach when he first arrived from the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, to a more considered (but hardly progressive) strategy now, of which the emphasis on police officers on the streets, rather than invasions, is one aspect.

Former Mayor of Rio, Cesar Maia

Former Mayor of Rio, Cesar Maia

The claim that Brizola was the last real progressive figure to lead Rio also neglects some others, particularly those who have held the office of the Mayor. Under Cesar Maia (1993-7; 2001-2008), the ‘Favela Bairro’ program had much in common with what Brizola did in social terms. Indeed when we asked the leader of the Morro dos Prazeres Community Association what would be the one thing she wanted above all else, it was ‘more Favela Bairro’. In Dona Marta they also had some time for the former governor, Anthony Garotinho (1999-2002) a frankly quite foolish evangelical populist, currently under investigation for corruption, as is his wife, Rosinha, who was Governor from 2003-7. However, we heard from others that the things that they attribute to Garotinho were actually planned or initiated under previous administrations and just did not see the light until his.

What is certainly the case is that Brizola had a better attitude to the favelados as people, than other administrations, regardless of his mistakes. The current regime certainly seems to be more driven far more by middle-class fears than by social progress, but it is also the constant undermining of the progress of previous administrations like Brizola’s and then later Maia’s terms as Mayor by new waves of media-courting repression that is so depressing in Rio. It happens in every democratic country, but here in Brazil there is the most blatant inequality of any wealthy country still crying out to be addressed. If it was, then most of the issues of ‘crime’ and ‘insecurity’ would start to disappear. It would, as Deputado Mollon also pointed out, be a lot cheaper than the massive amounts of money now going into the hands or private security companies – who, as Professor Batista noted are often run by the families of senior police officers, who therefore have no actual interest in reducing crime and every reason to want to see fear continue to grow.

(With thanks to Nilo Batista, Vera Malaguti Batista, Alessandro Mollon and the staff of the office of Jose Mariano Beltrami for their time and patience. In particular, I hope to return to the Instituto Carioca de Criminologia sometime in the future to talk about the findings of this project, and to submit something to their excellent journal, Discursos Sediciosos: crime, direito e sociedade)

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