The View from the Favelas on Recent Protests

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For the original article by Renata Malkes and Fernando Caulyt in Portuguese published in DW Brasil click here.

Residents of a favela in Copacabana in Rio’s South Zone don’t hide the extent of their disappointment with the government and fears surrounding the current crisis. But there are still very few of them who see a reason to come down from the hilltop and join the protests against President Dilma Rousseff.

Saint Roman Street, the main point of entry into the Pavão-Pavãozinho favela, is only 500 meters away from Copacabana beach. But even though they are facing an uncertain future, it was from the top of the favela with the best view of the sea, rather than the beachfront, that the majority of residents followed the protest calling for the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff on Sunday 13 March.

The current political crisis has divided residents of this South Zone favela, home to approximately 20,000 people. In the bars, people make a point of watching the latest news from the protests on TV. And even though the subject of the protests features heavily in conversations in the stairways and narrow streets of the favela, few residents saw any reason to go down and join the protestors. One of the reasons given: the belief that corruption (one of the main motivations for the protest) goes beyond the ruling Workers’ Party (PT) and the governments of Dilma and her predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

Protest in Copacabana on March 13. Photo by Tânia Rêgo/Agência Brasil

Pavão-Pavãozinho received a Pacifying Police Unit (UPP) in 2009, but still suffers with the incomplete public works promised by the government’s Growth Acceleration Program (PAC) in 2008. Residents don’t know what happened to the R$43 million set aside for public works in their community. The area still lacks investment to improve mobility and basic services such as sanitation and electricity.

But despite the extent of resentment felt towards the federal government, people like supermarket worker Maria de Lurdes Silva, 44, believe that problems affecting Pavão-Pavãozinho and Brazil as a whole are the result of corruption that has ravaged the country since well before the PT came to power in 2002. She preferred to stay at home during the protests and confirms that the majority of her neighbors did the same. For her, the protests are “the height of stupidity.”

“They want to remove Dilma but who will they put in her place? She’s being used as a scapegoat. Everyone steals in Brazil, and I even believe that Lula has stolen too. Who hasn’t? But Lula’s government improved the lives of the poor. When Fernando Henrique Cardoso was president [1995-2003] he stole too. The problem started because Lula didn’t manage to put the brakes on all the stealing,” Maria de Lurdes says.

“They all have their hands dirty.”

The links between Pavão-Pavãozinho and politics are longstanding ones. In the 1960s, when removals were taking place in other favelas in the South Zone ordered by then-governor Carlos Lacerda, the community received its first upgrading works with improvements made to stairways and water supplies. In 1984, during Leonel Brizola‘s first term as Rio state governor, further upgrading works took place in Pavão-Pavãozinho, such as the installation of a funicular tram in the favela.

Residents such as Carlos Alberto da Silva, a 52 year-old driver, remember this well. He is unemployed and survives by making a bit of money selling flip-flops and says he is unhappy with corruption but believes that overthrowing the president is not the solution to the crisis.

“I chose to go to church on Sunday [instead of the protests]. Here everyone voted for Brizola, he used to come and spend the day here, sit down, chat with everyone in the bar. Later we voted for the Workers’ Party. I voted for Dilma and I am very disappointed in her, but she was elected and she has to finish the job. Life has got better in recent years, even though I have been unemployed for the last six months. If Dilma and Lula stole money, they will have to pay for their mistakes,” he says.

Protesters last Sunday. Photo by Tânia Rêgo/Agência Brasil

In 2012, a socioeconomic study of 16 pacified favelas in Rio carried out by the organization Firjan showed that Pavão-Pavãozinho had the largest per capita income (R$755) and the second lowest unemployment rate (5%). But despite having four schools and a kindergarten, the favela was recorded as having the third worst average education level for people aged 25 or over. The average education for this age group was just 5.9 years of schooling.

“When you talk about the so-called white elite taking to the streets, you allow the government to sustain the narrative that the protestors are a bunch of sore losers. This narrative is becoming increasingly unsustainable. We can see, including among classes with lower levels of wealth and education, a certain level of consensus that the President and her party are responsible for the crisis,” says political scientist Rodrigo Prando from Mackenzie University.

And those who fear the crisis getting even worse, such as Cátia Maria Marcelino, 33, thought it best to stay away from the protests. Marcelino, who owns a clothing and accessories shop in the favela, says she’s worried about a fall in business and fears an even larger economic downturn. In her opinion, removing the president without concrete alternatives is “absurd and dangerous.”

“The problem is that all the parties have their hands dirty. They need to continue investigating and punish the politicians that steal. If they remove Dilma from office, she’ll only be replaced by her vice president, who’s corrupt. If it’s not the vice president who replaces her, there’s Brazil’s congressional president Eduardo Cunha, who is corrupt too. Who is left after that? The Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB) and the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), which are also full of politicians suspected of corruption? Those two parties only think about helping the rich. I feel like we’re moving backwards,” bemoans Cátia.

“All the rich went to the protests”

Manoel, 40, who works as a doorman, has a similar opinion. He lives at the top of Pavão-Pavãozinho and works in a building on the seafront. He was working on Sunday but guarantees that even if he’d been free, he wouldn’t have taken to the streets because “there were only rich people at the protests.”

“I saw it all from the building where I work. All the rich people went. Rich people don’t like the Workers’ Party or the poor. The rich only like the poor as a source of labor. We cannot trust people who defend the rich. I voted for Lula and then for Dilma and if Lula runs for president in 2018 I’ll vote for him again. At least they think about us. Dilma was elected and has to stay. I just don’t know if she’ll have the strength to do so, because all this is very embarrassing,” says Manoel, who did not want his surname to be revealed.

According to political scientist Valeriano Costa, a researcher at Unicamp, there is a reason why people from lower social classes did not go to the protests. Beyond the fact that they don’t have much trust in what the protests were arguing for, the discourse of the protests’ organizers isn’t directed at the interests and concerns of this part of the population.

“Firstly, because they are people who face basic issues affecting their survival, they have a very large fear of losing what they have earned. Those who went to the protests on Sunday are not talking about issues to do with social and public policies; they are concerned with an issue that directly affects a middle class that, in reality, sees itself as the big victim of the State due to high income taxes and high levels of state intervention in terms of social policy,” he says.

For Jacinto Pedro da Costa, 42, there’s no point in protesting. He voted for the Workers’ Party in the last elections and now, disappointed, says he doesn’t intend to vote for them again. He was born and raised in Pavão-Pavãozinho and declares himself to be a political independent, promising to do a lot of research before deciding who to vote for in the future. But he thinks it is unfair to attribute the problems facing the country to the Workers’ Party alone. He ventures that if the other parties were better, perhaps they would work together for political reform.

“There are lots of rich businessmen who don’t just want to remove Dilma but get rid of the Workers’ Party altogether. This is unfair, even if mistakes have been made. It was thanks to the Workers’ Party that I managed to open my first bank account, got credit to buy things and put more food on the kitchen table. Corruption mixed together all the powerful politicians from all the parties,” complains Costa, who works as a doorman in a neighboring building.