Autonomy in Brazil: towards a new political culture

  • November 25, 2013

Anarchism & Autonomy

The old modes of struggle no longer correspond to the needs of the moment, but a new political culture of autonomy and horizontalism is already emerging.

This is the second part of an article by Raul Zibechi on the recent Brazilian uprisings (read part one here). The full piece was originally published by the Observatorio Social de América Latina (OSAL Nº 34). English translation by Ramor Ryan for Upside Down World.

The Pan-American Games as a Rehearsal

“People have the illusion that they will profit from the World Cup events, but the truth is that they will be brutally suppressed,” said Roberto Morales, deputy adviser to Marcelo Freixo of the Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL), a year and a half before the Confederations Cup. (Zibechi, 2012b) Morales participates in the Comitê Popular da Copa (Popular Committee for the World Cup) that was created during the Pan-American Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2007, when local people began to resist forced relocation to make way for games’ facilities.

The experience of the Pan-American Games was instrumental in convincing the activists working with the popular sectors of the coming disaster. In the ensuing years the city was to host four mega sporting events that would lead to long-term changes in the urban infrastructure, affecting mainly poor residents: the 2011 World Military Games, the 2013 Confederations Cup, the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games.

For activists with the Popular Committee for the World Cup, the Pan-American Games were a watershed as they revealed the Brazilian government’s inability to manage public funds in a democratic and transparent manner, or to open a space for effective dialogue with civil society on the legacy of the Games (Comitê Popular da Copa e Olimpiadas do Rio de Janeiro, 2012). For the social movement, the games were an opportunity to create a broad and stable coordination that could bring people together, overcoming localism and fragmentation.

At this time, urban movements in Rio were in a state of “extreme fragmentation”, as were student and land reform movements, and separate from the NGO sector also working with popular sectors (Marques, De Moura and Lopes, 2011:242). According to this investigation, demonstrations and street actions against the Pan-American Games began in 2006 focusing on the forced evictions caused by the construction of sports infrastructure. Between April 2006 and October 2007 there were as many as 45 demonstrations protesting the Games in Rio held in July (Marques, De Moura and Lopes, 2011:245).

During the first stage, from April 2006 to April 2007, demonstrations were organized by groups directly affected by the public works, such as neighborhood groups resisting evictions, generally supported by professional associations (geographers in particular), municipal councillors, the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST), the association of Rio favelas and the Order of Lawyers of Brazil. Street actions, meetings and seminars were organized to highlight how these publicly funded mega-events benefited the private sector and hurt the poor. Three months before the Games, five thousand activists participated in “The City: A Right For Everyone” seminar in São Paulo, an event that had the support of the MST, the Intersindical and Conlutas trade unions, as well as the PSOL and other left parties (Marques, De Moura and Lopes, 2011:247).

On May 1, 2007, more than 40 organizations convened a rally in a favela threatened with eviction, led by local social and political organizations and joined by social groups from across the city. The coordination had organized numerous demonstrations throughout the year and decided to hold an event on the opening day of the Games, July 13. More than 100 activists from 60 groups organized the protest on the opening day of the Games. Defying the climate of fear against protest in the city, 1,500 protesters attended. Inside the Maracaná Stadium, President Lula was booed by protesters to the extent he was unable to finish his inaugural address. (Folha de São Paulo, 2007)

The coordination of social movements continued organizing resistance to favela home demolitions caused by the Pan-American Games and is considered a key element in creating the network of social movements that came together in the lead up to the June uprising. (Marques, De Moura and Lopes, 2011: 247-252)

The two main organizing groups – the Popular Committee for the World Cup and the Rio Olympics and the National Popular Committees for the World Cup – built on the experience of the Pan-American Games and formed groups in each of the twelve cities chosen to host the 2014 World Cup matches. The Committee’s report, Mega-Events and Human Rights Violations in Brazil, claims that a total of 170,000 people will be affected by the construction works and outlines the numerous problems accompanying the mega-events, from the violation of housing rights to labor issues on the work sites, as well as the lack of environmental impact studies.

The report says that in 21 villas (townships) and favelas of seven cities hosting the World Cup, the state is implementing “strategies of war and persecution, including marking out houses with paint without explanation, the invasion of homes without court orders, and misappropriation and destruction of property,” on top of threats, cutting services and other acts of intimidation. (Articulação Nacional dos Comitês Populares da Copa, 2011:11) All those affected live in low-income areas with varying degrees of precariousness and informality. “The lack of information and prior notification creates a climate of instability and fear about the future,” says the report, which paralyzes the affected families and places them at the mercy of the authorities or speculators. (Nacional Articulação Nacional dos Comitês Populares da Copa, 2011:8)

The Popular Committees, like the Free Fare Movement, devoted a lot of energy to research, followed up by widespread dissemination of their findings. Their report concludes that the huge public work programs for the mega-events are carried out by only a handful of construction companies which benefit from the privatization of the stadiums. As well as benefiting from the construction contracts, the small group of companies also take long-term control of the privatized facilities constructed with public funds. The sheer scale of the infrastructure construction (highways, airports, stadiums and transport) allows the report to come to the same conclusion as the Free Fare Movement – namely, that the right to the city for citizens is being violated.

Researching and publishing such reports is one side of the Popular Committees’ activities, the other is organizing mobilizations and working with the affected communities. In March 2010, the political climate changed when the Urban Social Forum was held in Rio, consolidating the coordination of movements against mega-events. In 2011, the Popular Committees organized thirteen public activities in Rio alone, involving mobilizations, public hearings, seminars, demonstrations of support for affected communities, and a protest march outside the preliminary events of the 2014 World Cup qualifiers. (Comitê Popular da Copa e Olimpiadas do Rio de Janeiro, 2012:77)

The change in political climate can be seen on the Rio de Janeiro electoral landscape. The PSOL activist Marcelo Freixo was elected a state deputy in 2006 with 13,500 votes. He became president of the Human Rights Commission of the Rio parliament, and chaired committees investigating militias and arms trafficking in the city. On the back of his notable work against corruption and mafias, his grassroots support grew and Freixo was re-elected in 2010 with 177,000 votes. In the 2012 municipal elections, he ran for mayor without any major financial backing and very little television time, relying instead on grassroots support, youth social networks, popular artists like Caetano Veloso and Chico Buarque, and personalities like Frei Betto.

Freixo chose Marcelo Yuka as candidate for vice-mayor, a former rap musician who was shot in an assault and left in a paraplegic state. His campaign finale was attended by 15,000 people despite heavy rain. Caetano Veloso said he had not participated in a political event since Lula’s campaign for president in 1989. “I’m here as a resident and elector of Rio de Janeiro to simply say what a joy and honor it is to vote for a candidate like Marcelo Freixo, who represents dignity in Brazilian politics.” Freixo didn’t win, but obtained more than 900,000 votes, 28% of the electorate. (O Globo, 2012)

Construction work on stadiums for the 2014 World Cup – some premiered during the 2013 Confederations Cup – remains the most controversial public issue, even among athletes. Much of the criticism has been focused on the refurbishment of the legendary Maracaná Stadium, symbol of the country’s great football and sports tradition. Renovation work took three years, longer than its initial construction, and cost more than $600 million, double the cost of South Africa’s Soccer City stadium where the 2010 World Cup final was held. The Maracaná stadium has been leased for 35 years to a business consortium with 90% of the shares held by Odebrecht, Brazil’s primary construction company and a major donor to political parties, in particular the governing Worker’s Party. (Comitê Popular da Copa e Olimpiadas do Rio de Janeiro, 2013:54)

However, even more than the cost of the construction works, the football-mad public is angry about the sense of being excluded from the national sport. The 1950 World Cup final in a newly opened Maracaná was attended by 203,000 spectators, 8.5% of the population of Rio de Janeiro. The general public made up 80% of the total attendance in the ‘general’ and ‘popular’ standing room only sections. After several remodels, the stadium’s current capacity is 75,000, less than 1% of the population of the city. The gentrification of the sport can be visualized in the reconstruction of Maracaná to suit the requirements of FIFA. The once rowdy, swollen and disorderly bleachers have been replaced with sterile seating rows where crowd participation is limited to choreographed “waves” and the orderly fluttering of individual mini-flags. The aim of the refurbishment is to create a “multi-purpose arena” to host concerts and shows with segregated corporate boxes equipped with private bars, television screens and air conditioning, accessed directly by car via a private ramp avoiding any contact with the “multitude”. (National Articulação dos Comitês Populares da Copa, 2011:11-12)7

The tickets are far more expensive than previous World Cup’s: Categories 1, 2 and 3 are priced at $203, $192 and $112, compared to $126, $75 and $57 in the 2006 World Cup in Germany and $160, $120 and $80 in South Africa, 2010. Only category 4 tickets are cheaper than in Germany ($25 vs $45) but more expensive than in the last World Cup. (Comitê Popular da Copa e Olimpiadas do Rio de Janeiro, 2013:59) In addition, facilities built for the 2007 Pan-American Games such as the velodrome and Aquatic Park were demolished because they did not conform with the World Cycling Federation requirements, at the cost of $50 million for public expenditure.

In 2011, Atletas pela Cidandania (Athletes for Citizens) was formed as a platform for promoting a public debate around the sports and social legacy of the mega-events, supported by 60 top athletes, including popular footballers Kaka, Dunga, Dani Alves and Cafu. During the 2012 municipal election campaign, Atletas pela Cidandania petitioned mayoral candidates in 11 cities to make a commitment to supporting public use of the facilities of the mega-events. Shortly before the large demonstrations that marked the Confederations Cup in April, 57 top athletes from varied disciplines signed a petition against the demolition of the Maracaná complex that includes swimming pools, running tracks, a municipal school and an Indian Museum, to make way for parking lots and shopping centers. The petition read: “Sporting [in Brazil] is now in a sad state. There is long-term planning and evaluation for construction and infrastructure investments, but none for the development of sport.” (Atletas pela Cidandania, 2013)

Reflecting the opinion of many Brazilians regarding the myriad construction works for the World Cup, the Popular Committees noted: “The historical stadiums are being destroyed to be rebuilt as consumption and tourism centers, like shopping malls. Tickets to national and state championships are too expensive and out of reach for the ‘traditional’ fan.” (Comitê Popular da Copa e Olimpiadas do Rio de Janeiro, 2013:53)

Debating the Character of the June Mobilizations

Considering the trajectory of the new urban movements, the massive demonstrations in June 2013 do not come as such a surprise. The sheer scale and duration of the protests alongside the radicalism of many of the protesters is indeed striking, but not the general outrage against the increase in transport costs and deep criticism of the Confederations Cup set-up.

Taking into account this brief overview of the work of the Free Fare movement and the Popular Committees, I wish to challenge some of common misunderstandings formed around the June demonstrations, with the intention of contributing towards the debate on today’s popular struggles. I am attempting to approach the events from the perspective of the people themselves rather than that of the government or political parties. While the perspective of the government and parties are always relevant, when millions take to the streets it does not seem ethically appropriate to explain the decisions they take as if they were in response to external stimuli. That would be a rather colonial way of thinking. As Ranahit Guha, founder of the school of post-colonial studies stated, “the farmer knew what he was doing when he revolted.” (Guha, 2002:104)

It was not a spontaneous act, but the massive expansion of existing movements. Every time since 2003 fare increases have been met with demonstrations, rallies, street blockades, destruction of turnstiles, disruption of bus services and occupations of transport terminals. There have even been significant uprisings against fare increases, such as Salvador in 2003 and Florianópolis in 2004 and 2005. The Free Fare Movement has been organizing street protests for over eight years, legitimizing struggle and establishing the custom of mobilizing against the fare increases that make Brazil’s transport costs the highest in the world. Thus a binomial has been established in the minds of the public in large cities: fare increase = protest.

While the media has mostly focused on transport issues as the catalyst for the June protests, one aspect has received scant coverage. The Popular Committees have succeeded in changing public perception around the impact of the infrastructural works for mega-events; there is widespread understanding that cities are being redesigned for the speculative market and the benefit of a few. Beyond raising consciousness, the Committees have mobilized a sizeable sector of the affected population and expanded their base of operations, similar to the MPL. “The Popular Committees started to have an impact in resisting evictions in entire neighborhoods,” MPL activist Duques Lima points out. (Zibechi, 2013) Six months before the June demonstrations, activists from the Popular Committees were organizing intensely with the inhabitants of Vila Autódromo and Morro da Providencia in Rio de Janeiro, resisting the demolition of buildings and eviction orders. (Zibechi, 2012a)

Between March 2011 and May 2013 the Committee held 78 events in Rio de Janeiro alone, including 15 street demonstrations. They organized a campaign to preserve the Maracaná Stadium with the slogan O Maraca é nosso!/The Maraca is Ours! supported by popular artists like Chico Buarque who sported the slogan on his shirt at media events. Four demonstrations were held in front of the Maracaná, including two marches to the stadium and a protest on the day of its reopening. (Comitê Popular da Copa e Olimpiadas do Rio de Janeiro, 2013:113-124)

In truth, the most astonishing factor of the June demonstrations was the sheer number of people doing more or less exactly the same as what the activists had been doing for years. I want to emphasize two significant occurrences: firstly, there was a popular overflow from below and secondly, a mass reaction of solidarity and outrage against police repression. These cannot be considered acts of spontaneity. Following Gramsci, Guha argues that there is no place for pure spontaneity in history and to consider popular revolts as acts of mere spontaneity is an elitist attitude, implying that mobilization from below is “completely dependent on the intervention of charismatic leaders, advanced political organizations or the upper classes.” (Guha, 2002:98) In the same sense, the supposed prominent role played by social networks in mobilizing the masses can be seen as another example of this kind of elitist analysis, detached from reality.

This is an anti-capitalist struggle. FIFA is one of the largest multinationals in the world, controlled by a cabal of corrupt businessmen. It’s power is such that it can dictate policy to countries, demanding the introduction of special legislation, privileges and tax exemptions in the sale of FIFA products. It even has the power to force governments to stop local companies selling unauthorized products. Brazil adopted the controversial World Cup General Law on June 5, 2012 after years of debate. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court has been requested to intervene by the Federal Public Prosecutor, charging that several articles are unconstitutional. (O Estado de São Paulo, 2013) The protest marches at the Confederations Cup matches in June should be considered a direct and explicit challenge to the World Cup General Law negotiated by the government and FIFA.

The anti-capitalist character of the June protests and the movements behind them is revealed in their resistance to capitalist accumulation around mega-events and mega-projects — a model that we could describe as “urban extractivism”. The Zero Fare campaign is a response to urban extractivism, promoting access to social rights such as health, education and culture, and “the right to be able to move around the city itself, and from that to meet up, to reflect and to produce the tools to transform it.” (Legume and Toledo, 2011)

Another member of the Free Fare Movement, Marcelo Pomar, argues for the de-commodification of public transport, transforming it into an essential public service, the costs of which should be borne by those who benefit from the flow of goods and people. “Public transportation costs are a sophisticated mechanism of social control,” argues Pomar, functioning to allow the dominant class to enclose the popular sectors in the slums and peripheries of the city. (Coletivo Maria Tonha, 2013)

How can we not consider the fight to break this control mechanism an anti-capitalist struggle, when those from below actively change the place in society designated to them by the ruling class? The MPL argues that the Zero Fare campaign is a struggle for all and changes everything; it is a means to subvert the transport system and, thus, the whole structure of the city. Urban mobility is restricted by spatial, social, racial and gender segregation, to the point that, to give one example, people living in Brasilia’s satellite towns and working in the cities’ planned city center feel like prisoners in their suburbs. As night falls,”a kind of curfew takes hold in the city, affecting those who depend on public transport.” (Saraiva, 2010:99)

The huge construction works for the World Cup and the Olympics are creating a similar dynamic of exclusion in other cities. Rio’s poor are being shifted to the Northern and Western peripheries while the city center is being converted into a space for tourism and business. The construction of Puerto Maravilla dock to accommodate cruise ships is one example, allowing tourists to visit the Morro da Providencia by cable car in order to avoid the surrounding favela. Construction works around sporting mega-events are an opportunity for authorities to implement plans for new city centers and demarcate “sacrifice zones”, in reference to centrally located poor neighborhoods earmarked to be moved to the peripheries, its inhabitants sacrificed to make way for the new plans.

How can we not consider the fight against property speculation as anti-capitalist struggle? The best way to understand rebellions of those from below is to recognize that they are conscious of who they are, where they fit in the system and what they themselves can do to change it.

This is a grouping of urban movements demanding the right to the city. Rural movements have traditionally been the backbone of popular movements in Brazil since the colonial period, but now centers of resistance are becoming concentrated in the cities. The struggle for urban reform carried out by the main social movements (Free Fare, MST, the World Cup Committees, CMI, etc.) has many similarities with the rural struggle for land reform. The latifundista (large farms) system and agribusiness are to the countryside what spatial segregation and real estate speculation are to the city.

Two aspects should be highlighted. Firstly, these are new kinds of movements, formed during the period the Worker’s Party (PT) came to power, are confronting a new configuration of state power. The new form of state power is an alliance between PT leadership and the Brazilian bourgeoisie, who share not only excellent relations, but also the same national project and global perspective. Secondly, a group of high-ranking trade unionists have entered the financial sector through management of pension funds and control of the BNDES, the largest development bank in the world. (Zibechi, 2012c)

Governments have changed how they deal with protest and social movements. Recent struggles in Brazil, from resistance to the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam to the campaign for free transport and against mega events, are coming up against a different form of governance. With the apparent decline in the level of poverty in Brazil today, a less obvious form of inequality remains which cannot be measured quantitatively. Spatial, racial, class, gender, and generational segregation is not seen as part of the overall systemic oppression. Sometimes massive rebellions are necessary to break the everyday routines that hide oppression.

Brazil’s new configuration of power uses disproportional force against the social movements. On 24 June, the Special Police Operations Battalion (BOPE) entered the Complexo da Maré favelas – the most heavily populated favela complex in the city – with guns blazing. Nine people were killed, including one policeman. Despite this, demonstrations convened by the official trade unions two weeks later failed to mention the Maré slaughter or police brutality in their long list of demands. As journalist Eliane Brum points out: “Brazil will not change while the middle class feels more for the wounded of São Paulo than the dead of da Maré,” and points out that while the police use rubber bullets to injure in the city center, they use live ammunition to kill in the favelas. (Blum, 2013)

A new political culture. When a new political culture emerges it needs to differentiate itself from the hegemonic culture that went before it. In this case, it seems clear that the modes of struggle and organization created towards the end of the dictatorship with the formation of the CUT trade union and the Worker’s Party no longer correspond to the needs of current anti-systemic struggles. We recall that the riots of 2003 and 2004, and the foundation of the MPL in 2005, flatly rejected the traditional bureaucratic culture and instead emphasized horizontalism, which is to say, collective leadership, consensus to avoid the consolidation of majorities, and autonomy from state and party.

Until now, the social organizations shaped by this political culture have maintained their distance from the mainstream sector of the labor movement but collaborate with the more militant trade union factions, as well as other social organizations with different organizational patterns and praxis. Many of the new urban groups have found inspiration in Brazil’s principle organization of resistance, the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST, known as Sem Terra), respecting their deep experience and adapting some of the MST’s forms of struggle to the urban environment. The main difference between these two political cultures is found in their form of organizing, the MST’s top-down structure contrasting with the urban movement’s horizontalism.

Nevertheless, the MST and the new urban movements could coalesce in the coming years if both can work together on concrete struggles, as has already happened in some campaigns. It would represent a decisive step forward for political and social struggle in Brazil, and offers a positive incentive for other social movements around the continent. The approximation of Brazil’s two main emancipatory movements — rural and urban — would most likely lead to a qualitative leap in Latin America’s anti-systemic struggles.


i. A calculation of work minutes needed to pay for a bus ticket based on the average salary in twelve cities of the world, places São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro as the most expensive cities for transport: 13.9 and 12 minutes of work respectively compared to 5.5 in Madrid, 6.3 in New York, 6.2 in Paris and 1.4 in Buenos Aires (Folha de São Paulo, 2013).


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Raúl Zibechi

Raúl Zibechi is a writer, popular educator and journalist who accompanies organizational processes in Latin America, received an Honorary Doctorate from Universidad Mayor de San Andrés (La Paz, Bolivia) in 2017. He has published 20 books on social movements in which he has criticized the old “state-centered” political culture. He publishes in various media in the region, among others La Jornada (Mexico), Disinform, Rebellion and Correo da Cidadania.

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