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Favelas, the Cheapest Vote on the Market: An Interview with André Luiz Lima, Part 1

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This is the second article in a two-part series covering an interview about Brazil’s upcoming elections produced by community media group Fala Manguinhos! for RioOnWatch. Read the second part here.

Every two years, favelas turn into stages of dispute, drawing attention from Rio’s politicians on both the municipal and state level. Between one election and the next, our favelas remain in need of attention to address old and well-known social dilemmas (such as health, education, housing, basic sanitation, flooding, shootings, etc.). Yet these problems only become important in the mouths of politicians when they need to use these systematic inadequacies to construct their discourses as saviors of the country, as creators of better plans and promises, saying that they will guarantee everything that the favela has always asked for but never received.

We are in an election year, and the scent of candidates’ imported perfumes already fills the alleys and roads of our favelas. We need to seriously discuss the real value of our vote, and why we should not trade our votes for a basic food basket or private consultation. While we have urgent needs, we must understand that specific problems (disease, lack of food, lack of employment) only exist because they constitute part of a much larger problem: the negation of our constitutional rights. What we ought to do with our vote is guarantee that those who gain parliamentary seats fight for these basic human rights, so that we are not held hostage by these promises of mere crumbs every two years. Voting is just the first step in the process of participation and democratic transformation. If on the first step you fall down a hole, you can’t expect the rest of the journey to be secure.

To understand the political-electoral history of Brazil more deeply, I, Edilano Cavalcante—coordinator of Fala Manguinhos!interviewed André Luiz Lima. Lima has a bachelor’s degree in History from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) and a Ph.D. in the History of Science and Health from Fiocruz, and has been a resident of Manguinhos for over 14 years. Lima has a permanent role in many public movements, notably as an activist with the Community Council of Manguinhos as coordinator of the Employment and Income Working Group, and as Intersectoral Manager of the TEIAS Manguinhos School. Lima was also present in important debates at the National Forum and in the Rio Pact project, always fighting to ensure that favela residents were heard when it came time to conceive and plan any policy or project that would impact those territories. Today, he serves in the Fiocruz Social Cooperative, constructing new models for democratic territorial governance.

In this first part of the interview, we explore broad themes of democratic politics. In the second part, we address its specific territorial applications in favelas. See below:

Edilano Cavalcante: Where does the word politics come from? In practice, does this meaning apply to everyone in Brazil?

André Lima: Well, first of all, this term has a historical relationship to the ancient Greeks, especially in the relation to members of a city. Therefore, we have the polis, and its political citizens. Writings attributed to Aristotle suggest that this important Greek philosopher understood that all men are political animals. As a historian, it is important to say that this concept has changed over time and space. Nonetheless, if we consider politics to be a dimension of power in which men and women come together to address common issues, we can affirm that in any context of human groupings and relationships, a dimension of politics is involvedeven if we do not call it such.

I also would highlight that politics is the sphere of the dispute of power. As such, whether one is in a position of command or submission, politics is always involved. Politics permeates relations not only in government, but also in religious matters, and in neighborhood and business affairs—among other dimensions of the human experience. So, even if some people say that they are not political, this affirmation itself is a political position! In the realm of government, politics is responsible for the success or failure of access to education and healthcare; it conditions people’s access to employment and income, and also structures the possibility to access one’s own home, for example.

EC: Brazil’s redemocratization is recent, yet the process for choosing representatives through voting in this country is much older. How has the system changed over the years? Have these changes guaranteed effective public participation, or are some adaptations still necessary to include all?

Lima: We live in a republican liberal democracy—that is, the population can choose representatives for elected offices in both the legislative branch (councillors, deputees, and senators) and the executive branch (mayors, governors, and the president). Every Brazilian citizen has the right to join a party and run for elected office. However, this has not always been the case. Initially, in the electoral process, there were no political parties and voting was limited to white male property owners. The poor, the illiterate, black people, and women were kept out of decision-making. This is an important point: access to political rights—that is, voting and being voted for—for the entire Brazilian population should not be seen as a gift, a present from those in power, but rather as the result of political struggle.

Now, on the other hand, voting itself does not mean that we are in a democracy. Recently in Brazilian history, we experienced a dictatorship. The possibility of elections [for other political roles besides that of the president] existed, but we saw the curtailment of in-depth debate about national problems, the suppression of political parties, and the persecution of opponents by those in power. To fully exercise democracy, the voter must have the freedom to join a party or political group and express their opinions without facing threats to their life. Yet more, it’s necessary to have oversight mechanisms in place to ensure that elections are not fraudulent, as they routinely were in the Old Republic. There must be laws that protect citizens and ensure that punishment for failing to comply with them applies to everyone.

I believe that there are at least five major obstacles to the development of our democracy: low levels of education among our population, social inequality, the financing of electoral campaigns through slush funds, the concentration of information by the media, and judicial superpowers.

In my view, the low quality of education in schools offered to our population is the first of these issues. Under the Constitution of 1988, education should serve to form citizensand this has not been happening. To the contrary, education has been scrapped at all levels of government, with the exception of some specific interventions. And who is responsible for this? The politicians who we elect. Therefore, the disinterest in improving education serves to preserve the machinery that maintains certain sectors of societythose served by the politicians in power.

Social inequality goes alongside the phenomenon of low educational attainment. Population groups that live in poverty do not have many political options since they are mainly concerned with daily survival. It’s something along the lines of “selling lunch to buy dinner.” Thus, basic food staple baskets, donations of dentures and eyeglasses, and tubal ligationsamong other favorsare common in the everyday political balance of this group. On the flip side of the coin, we see wealth concentrated in the hands of the few, who seek to influence the political machine so that their way of life can continue endlessly.

Another important question that still needs to be considered is campaign finance. Even though large businesses can no longer make donations, it’s clear to the population that campaign slush funds will continue to exist for a long time. This is apparent when a politician arrives in the favela and funds barbecues, soccer tournaments, team jerseys, free medical consultations, basic food basket donations, and more. This all comes at a price and it does not go through the formal accounting system—in other words, it comes from the slush fund, which is always tied to corruption!

It’s also worth noting that voting, within the democratic context, is subsidized by information. That is, the voter makes a decision based on what they follow on TV, the radio, the Internet, and in print newspapers. And in this case, in Brazil, we need to increase the range of available options for radio and television communications. Major broadcasters—hostage to advertising funds, large banks, and corporate groups—will not upset their funders. And while the Internet is an important mechanism, one downside is the spread of fake news that distorts facts and events. On that point, there are also metadata analyses, the regulation of which is a worldwide problem.

As for the judiciary, it is extremely conservative, regressive and privilege-laden, and lacks any social oversight of its actions. Jail in Brazil is for the poor! And yet more, we have a selective criminal justice system and judges who want to legislate. It would be better if they simply ran for the Assembly or the Senate.

We need to defend democracy—a democracy that has not truly become a reality for all Brazilians, but that certainly will always be superior to any dictatorship.

EC: Why is it so difficult to achieve public participation in making choices for the direction of the country? Why do favela residents, rural workers, quilombolasand the entire working class that forms the base of the pyramidhave such difficulty in entering these spaces of participation and dispute?

Lima: We began our conversation speaking about how politics exists in the various realms of human relationships, and that it is present in what we call power relations. Thus, social distinctions are used by the groups in power to maintain social inequalities, which reach absurd levels in Brazil. In this way, social groups are stigmatized in their daily relations and are either physically or symbolically prevented from accessing certain rights in the political sphere. The groups you cited, quilombolas and favela residents, are good examples. Thus, the very right to participation needs to be fought for on a daily basis.

In fact, we are speaking here about participation in terms of the process of choosing our representatives in the executive and legislative branches. But since 1988, we have also had other institutionalized forms of participation, such as public policy councils and referenda. If we consider participation to be a social phenomenon—through which individuals organize themselves to create, influence, oversee, or terminate any project, program, law, or government initiative—its exercise cannot be restricted to formal means. Marches, petitions, and public demonstrations are also forms of participation. Obviously, for certain social groups, the obstacles they face are too severe!

Therefore, I support the idea of Portuguese sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos that we need to “reinvent democracy”—maintaining regular elections, but strengthening other mechanisms of participation such as public councils and consultations. I believe that the Internet will soon become a great forum for citizens to protest and participate more actively, though we do already have some important examples of this today.

Returning to the core of your question, for participation to exist, there must be—at minimum—a guarantee of survival, access to information, and the freedom to take a [political] stance. In general, workers in Brazil are struggling for survival. When combined with the collective feeling of political distrust and the various forms of misinformation, this forms a scenario that is not conducive to participation. Regarding access to information, this also relates to education: many are unable to understand certain terms and concepts that are involved in the public sphere. This limits the capacity for action. And finally, in favelas and peripheries, territorial control by armed groups directly affects the capacity for free expression.

This is the second article in a two-part series covering an interview about Brazil’s upcoming elections produced by community media group Fala Manguinhos! for RioOnWatch. Read the second part here.

This article was written by Edilano Cavalcante and produced in partnership between RioOnWatch and Fala Manguinhos! (Speak Up Manguinhos!). Cavalcante is coordinator of the community communication agency Fala Manguinhos!. As a community communication initiative produced by and for Manguinhos, Fala Manguinhos! was set up to defend human and environmental rights, and to promote citizenship and health with the direct participation of residents in the decisions that involve the Community Communication Agency of Manguinhos, from the meetings of the communication group and the Community Council. Follow Fala Manguinhos on Facebook here.