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Rio’s Long Road to Full Citizenship for All

What does it mean to be a citizen? At bare minimum, formal citizenship refers to membership in the political community, based on the concept of national belonging. A more inclusive citizenship means the right of all citizens to be included in society on equal terms, with access to the same rights and entitlements. Formally, all members of Brazilian society do. In practice, however, a history of racism, inequality, and socio-economic exclusion has prevented some from enjoying the same rights as others.

While residents of Rio’s favelas have the right to vote (or rather, the obligation–as it is mandatory in Brazil), they have to a large degree lacked opportunities at a hands-on relationship with the state. Historically, the most intimate relationship favela residents have had with the state has been with the police apparatus, which is an accomplice–and often perpetrator–of multiple abuses against favela residents.

Since the re-democratization of Brazil in the 1980s, the country has come a long way in establishing a legal framework and institutions to promote more inclusive citizenship. Citizenship has become a powerful concept, appropriated by different segments of society to encompass a variety of meanings. Both civil society actors and the government today refer to “expanding citizenship” or “promoting inclusion” to legitimize their projects. How they envision these processes is however not necessarily the same.

Towards a rights-based approach

Traditional notions of citizenship in Brazil functioned as mechanisms of division and exclusion by defining people based on what they did or did not have–such as legal status of land ownership or formal work–thus delegitimizing the rights of the disadvantaged. References to the citizenship of those “without” (formal land or employment) include the concept of o cidadão qualquer (“any old citizen,” or a nobody) as a mean of differentiating someone as lesser than you. For favela residents, the first struggle was simply for the right to have rights. In recent decades the notion of favelas as inherently violent and uncivilized spaces has been used to deny resident rights by virtue of the image of favelas in opposition to the formal order of the rest of society. Favela residents are then put in the position of having to prove they are not criminals and marginals, as they are assumed to be, but rather decent working citizens who therefore should be seen as bearers of rights.

As a result of civil society’s organized demands as part of the urban reform movement initiated in the 1960s, the understanding and political significance of citizenship changed. All of a sudden, citizenship was about rights–the right to be included and part of society. Rather than passive recipients of a set of pre-defined rights, rights also depended on citizens being active social subjects. The definition of something as a right became in itself the object of political struggle. The politicization of urban problems served as a fundamental element of the democratization of Brazilian society. As the country entered the transition from military dictatorship to democracy in the 1980s, the building of citizenship became a struggle for the expansion of democracy itself. From the 1988 federal Constitution to local level Master Plans this proactive conceptualization of citizenship has reigned.

Urban integration?

As a result, the 1990s saw some important advancements in policies and politics towards the favelas. Favela residents called for public investments with the Constitution in hand. The removal policies that had targeted centrally located favelas in the past came to a standstill and the public debate shifted to concentrating on the necessity of integrating the favelas with the city. Programs like Favela-Bairro brought (at least in theory) long-missing public services to favelas, and the slogan “the favela has won!” was repeated in the media.

When Lula and the Labor Party (PT) won the presidency on a pro-poor platform in 2002, many were optimistic that the old divides between the ‘favela’ and the ‘asphalt’ (formal city) could slowly be erased. While social programs previously had been seen as gifts or charity, mainly handed out by private philanthropic entities, the Constitution recognized them as rights in a welfare society. Under the PT administrations, state distribution programs such as Bolsa Família have translated this into practice, lifting millions out of extreme poverty. Large-scale programs for favela upgrading, social housing and improved infrastructure have also been introduced under the federal Growth Acceleration Program (PAC) and Minha Casa Minha Vida and the municipal Morar Carioca program. These programs have invested unprecedented amounts in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, allegedly to address the legacy of social and spatial inequality. The state Pacifying Police Unit (UPP) program initiated in 2008 also speaks in terms of citizenship and integration. It states in its goals to “give back to the local population peace and public security, which are necessary for the full exercise and development of citizenship.”

On paper, then, vast improvements have been made towards promoting a more inclusive citizenship. The picture on ground, however, is inevitably more complicated.

Urban governance for private interests vs. citizenship

In spite of progressive social policies, economic policies over this same period have been increasingly oriented towards private interests. At the urban level in Rio de Janeiro, private sector-oriented governance has meant not only market-friendy policies, but market-oriented planning. As the market fluctuates in Rio, urban governance exclusively focused on markets works to legitimize actions outside the institutional order in order to attract tourists, capital and investments. This marketization of urban governance at a local level challenges the conditions for and conceptualizations of inclusive citizenship.

From a neoliberal perspective, expanding citizenship results from integrating the individual into the market, as a consumer and producer. This stands in stark contrast to the participatory model advocated by social movements, which focuses on the state’s role as a guarantor of rights. While both the municipal government and civil society advocate increasing citizenship in Rio de Janeiro today, both the means through which to achieve this and their visions of the goal itself are very different.

“Opening up” the favelas

While favelas are not separate “states within the state,” as some characterize them, they do function largely outside the formal–and in particular global–economy. Local businesses far outnumber national and multinational chain stores, and an informal organization of everything from cable TV to electricity has been developed in the absence of the state. While large hillside and low-lying favelas have traditionally been seen as stains on the urban landscape, they are today considered prime markets and real estate and are increasingly valued as areas of private capital interest.

The PAC, Morar Carioca and UPP programs all aspire to bridge the gap between the favelas and the asphalt. This is supposed to happen not only through infrastructure improvements, but also by including favelas in the formal order and economy of the rest of the city. When Rocinha was occupied by military forces in 2011, for example, then-Governor Sérgio Cabral stated that “we have to keep doing construction projects, but capitalism has to enter more and more.” The discourse is as if an expansion of citizenship will be an automatic trickle-down effect of these processes. In reality, it often has the opposite effect.

The pacification program and visually striking PAC projects like the cable car in Alemão have done much to remedy the reputation of favelas as threatening, dangerous spaces outside of civilized society. “Outside” actors, like tourists, multinational fast-food chains, banks, and other businesses are gaining access. Electricity and television companies are formalizing previously informal structures, integrating the favelas with the formal economy. As these new actors move in, however, original businesses and residents are forced out. Real estate speculation and rapidly increasing costs of living are now common difficulties across the city’s favelas and even unleashing gentrification in central and South Zone communities.

Despite an institutional framework–again, stipulated in legislation at all levels of government–to guarantee participatory governance, there has been little dialogue around these processes. Favela residents criticize interventions for not being based on participatory and empowered planning within the targeted communities themselves. In some cases they manage to bar such interventions using legal tools. But ultimately, “white elephant” projects have been prioritized over much-needed investments in sanitation, health and education are largely at a standstill.

With these projects, removals have managed to return to the agenda. Tens of thousands have been evicted or are facing threats of eviction as part of current urban interventions. Replacement housing being constructed through MCMV has overwhelmingly been located in the distant West Zoneof the city, where land is cheap, employment opportunities are limited, and infrastructure and transport connections are poor. Meanwhile the UPP program is far from fulfilling its promise to bring peace and public safety to the favelas as reports of police violence and shootouts in UPP favelas remain ongoing and “pacification” begins looking more like “occupation.”

Public officials talk in terms of urban integration and inclusion. If inclusion has been promoted by these processes, it appears to be of favela territories, not residents. Responsible for the UPP program, Rio’s Governor Sérgio Cabral frequently spoke of the “reconquest of territories,”  perhaps not aware of just how transparent he was being. The logic that steers the machine of favela upgrading is doing more to improve Rio’s international image and attract foreign tourists and capital than it is improving the quality of life for those who actually live in the targeted communities.

Claiming citizenship

As we see, a gap remains between the legal and technical apparatus that has been created to promote more inclusive citizenship and the reality of the continued effective exclusion of poorer and more marginalized citizens. Disillusioned, people resort to creating their own spaces and terms of engagement. Neighborhood Associations in several favelas have been revitalized by threats of removal. Community actors have connected with external networks of support, such as the People’s Committee on the World Cup and Olympics and public defenders dedicated to the defense of citizens’ rights. Campaigns like “Where is Amarildo?” and “I don’t deserve to die assassinated” have erupted in response to UPP police killings of favela residents. The rolezinhos in upscale shopping malls are another example of people claiming their right to the city.

These alternative practices of citizenship become the means through which those who are marginalized negotiate and contest their right to universal inclusion. They claim their right to the city and to participate in decision-making processes concerning their communities and city development in general. The massive street protests that have taken over Brazilian cities since June 2013 also demonstrate these issues do not just concern favela residents. Millions of people from all segments of society have united in demanding inclusive urban development.