Favelas Offer the Cheapest Vote on the Market: An Interview with André Luiz Lima from Manguinhos, Part 2

Pezão visits the community of Santo Amaro during his gubernatorial campaign in 2014. Photo: Marcio Cassol

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This is the first 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 first part here.

In anticipation of the upcoming elections, I, Edilano Cavalcante—coordinator of Fala Manguinhos!—talked to André Luiz Lima to hear his opinions on the subject. Lima is a resident of Manguinhos and an activist with a Ph.D. in the History of Health and Science from Fiocruz, Brazil’s national health institution where he currently works. The first part of the interview addressed broader issues of democratic politics, including changes to voting and its impacts on the level of active public participation during elections. In this second part, Lima talks about the impacts of political management on favela territories, and about residents’ political participation and their relationship with candidates who only enter the communities during electoral periods.

Edilano Cavalcante: In this election year, once again, the candidates must contend for votes, one by one. I would like to hear your analysis of this type of campaign, especially in favelas. Can we recognize candidates’ actions as a legitimate part of the democratic process?

André Lima: Look, among citizens, there is a general feeling of repulsion towards politics and its traditional organizations, such as associations and parties. This did not start yesterday. We have seen this growing distrust at least since the 1990s. I believe that this is a result of what I stated earlier: poor quality education; elections characterized by expensive campaigns, in which donors (and not the electorate) are in control; the maintenance of social inequalities; our abusive judiciary; and the control of information in the hands of just a few media groups. Thus, the idea spreads that all politicians are equal and that no one will deliver. In this way, it doesn’t really matter who you vote for. “So what if I vote for someone who is giving me a basic food basket, or renovating my church? At least I’ll have an immediate gain,” the politically illiterate assume.

In favelas, for example, every two years thousands of people earn money by working for certain candidates. These leaders organize themselves like they would during soccer pre-season when a coach assembles his team. Presidents of residents’ associations, pastors, soccer match organizers, and June festival organizers, among others, offer to help a certain candidate. They set up teams to distribute pamphlets and hang up pennants. They organize meetings at religious services or at soccer matches, where the candidate pledges their commitment to the community! The same politician, when elected, often votes in the interest of his sponsors rather than in the interest of the people who had welcomed him [to the community].

In addition, religion has gained a space that would normally belong to political parties and social movements with regard to political education and organizing. I think that it’s something like going to an eye doctor with a toothache. The lack of confidence [in politics] is greater in favelas because civil, political, and social rights are constantly violated—as in territories of exception—which makes residents more vulnerable to this political-religious discourse. So I view the advance of neo-Pentecostalism in politics with great concern. These people become attached to their candidates, who have an agenda that is not always favorable to workers. An example of this was [interim President] Temer’s labor reform and the freeze on government spending on health and education for twenty years. The Evangelical bloc overwhelmingly voted with this illegitimate president!

EC: We also have a complicated scene in contemporary national politics. Uncertainty, fear, and outrage have been the main symptoms felt by the population, and this will directly interfere with the choice of new leaders. How can history help the population with this difficult choice?

Lima: Look, times are difficult. The impeachment of Dilma was, in my opinion, a blow to democracy since Michel Temer initiated a government program which was not voted on in an election. His plan is not only to cut investments in health care, education, social programs, science and technology, and the environment, but also to pass laws that take away workers’ rights and reduce important poverty reduction programs. In fact, in a few months, Brazil already got dangerously close to levels that would put it back on the World Hunger Map, which clearly demonstrates the current government’s inability to assist those who are most in need!

Yet more, we have a segment of the judiciary that condemns some to jail and allows others to remain free. This is true with regard to accusations of corruption by the media, as well as punishment for crimes, for which poor black youth are overwhelmingly convicted. In the case of the state of Rio de Janeiro, for which we will elect the governor and state assembly members this year, we’ve had a gang [of politicians] that emptied the public coffers. Members of the group in power have joined other parties as if they had no responsibility in this process! The population must be vigilant.

In this sense, I think that every citizen has the right to sympathize with candidate A or B. But I also think that it is important to conduct research about their past, the parties they’ve joined, and which causes they defend, among other issues. I think that this research should also include sites and media sources that I consider important, such as RioOnWatch, The Intercept Brasil, Mídia Ninja, Agência Pública, and others. For the favela crowd, we have a number of community media groups, but I will limit myself to mentioning Fala Manguinhos!.

EC: What were the most drastic changes that the territory of Manguinhos—and favelas, in general—have suffered as a result of theft from the state of Rio’s public coffers? How has this affected local social development?

Lima: Favelas exist because our development model is exclusionary! The favela was the solution to housing provision for millions of workers in the face of a government that left them to their own fate. Real estate speculation, stigma, prejudice, paternalistic actions, and electioneering mark the history of favelas. As for violence, favela residents are simultaneously the victims of armed groups and the State. Executions, arbitrary arrests, and deaths by stray bullets are combined with other forms of physical and symbolic violence in these places. Less than a month ago, I was warned by my step-daughter, in despair, that police officers had invaded our house and knocked down the door to my room! That same day, we learned about other violations at our neighbors’ houses. If we then delve into the data on these violations, we will see that besides the territory itself, black youth are the greatest victims of armed violence in our society.

Politically, the population is constantly the target of electioneering and paternalistic actions in a favor-exchange relationship. In recent years, due to the mega-events, billions were directed to the favelas. However, these projects (especially Morar Carioca and the Growth and Acceleration Program) were characterized by low levels of participation among impacted residents; a lack of transparency on the part of public authorities with regard to projects and expenditures; and corruption, now publicized in the newspapers. Moreover, in the projects that included favelas, unfortunately, evictions became a problem once again.

We know that many community leaders were bought with allowances, home renovations, jobs in construction, and other [forms of compensation]. However, we can mention some important movements that took actions aimed at broadening the debate on these projects, reducing evictions, and generating transparency around project implementation. In Manguinhos, the Social Movement Forum played an important role from its founding in 2007 until around 2010, and since 2011, the Manguinhos Community Council and the Intersectoral Steering Council have played important roles. We can mention the struggles of residents in Alemão, Borel, Providência, Pavão-Pavãozinho, and Rocinha, among many others, but with a particular emphasis on the emblematic struggle of the residents of Vila Autódromo, in the West Zone of the city.

In the face of threats to the election, I conclude here urging people to analyze the candidates! Vote for new blood, but also look at the party’s ticket. You can’t vote for a militant friend from the favela, who is a nice guy but represents a party that traditionally votes against workers. And don’t fall for the misconception that we will have new elections if the majority does not vote, or that the situation will improve with a military intervention. When you don’t vote, you lower the electoral coefficient and favor the candidates that already have the best opportunities. And with regard to the military, it’s needed, but not as the head of the executive branch. We have had some traumatic experiences with the suppression of freedom of expression; deaths and torture of [political] opponents, orchestrated by the State itself; and corruption in cases of large, overpriced works (such as the Trans-Amazonian Highway, the Angra Nuclear Plant, and the Rio-Niterói Bridge).

The role of social movements is to denounce what is wrong, and together with progressive parties, to point out new directions—always including the population in discussions and proposals. It is also up to social movements to create strategies for the political education of workers, adding value to concepts such as democracy, rights, citizenship, human rights, alterity, and social justice.

Finally, I close with a quote from Winston Churchill, who, despite having been proclaimed a conservative, has much to say about our times: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”

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.