The challenge of mobilizing the poor in Brazil

(originally written in July 30, 2013)

During the demonstrations in Brazil, many said the giant – the Brazilian people – finally woke up. While it is true that many young people, especially the well-off, have been more active as citizens for the past weeks than they were before, mobilizing lower-income populations remains a hard challenge. This challenge is very familiar to civil society actors from favelas (Brazilian kinds of slums) who have for years been engaged in civil society networks. A current example of the difficulty in mobilizing the poor is perceived in the struggle against the impacts of mega-events in favelas of Rio de Janeiro.

The preparations for the FIFA World Cup (2014) and the Olympic Games (2016) have been marked by human rights violations. The evictions are the best-known cases. The relocation of poor for the constructions of roads and venues has been very arbitrary. Some problems include threats and truculence preceding the evictions.

The situation is outrageous, but not new. In the early 1900s, Rio’s central district was made poverty-free for the construction of a “Tropical Paris”. In the 1960s and 1970s, entire favelas (Brazilian types of slums) were removed for the construction of fancy residential buildings.

Today, Rio sweeps poverty away to benefit the real estate and tourism markets. When evictions are not possible, the pacifying police units (UPP) are installed to keep surveillance in favelas close to tourist attractions and main roads.

The arbitrary Olympic process has motivated various civic actors to join forces. In favelas, dwellers’ associations, NGOs and youth-led collectives have tried both to create awareness and to mobilize locals against arbitrary evictions and police violence. Outside favelas, they have partners like national and international NGOs, activist groups, academics and students.

Internet has been an important tool. Alliances are built and demonstrations are articulated online. Counter-information is also generated. For example, web-documentaries and photo-essays circulate to denounce the truculence of city agents during evictions and the wrongdoings of the police. Despite all efforts, most participants in the events organized by these actors are civil society groups and activists. Favela dwellers who are not involved in civil society networks are few.

In June, the mass demonstrations were organized similarly. Civil society groups articulated joint actions against the raise in the public transportation fares. Internet was used to mobilize people to demonstrate also against corruption. In this case, lots of people – mostly well-off youth – decided to go to the street. If the strategies are the same, why is it that the demonstrations against the impacts of the mega-events in favelas attract only a few hundreds of already-engaged citizens at most?

I believe the reasons relate to social inequality. Brazil has a big gap between higher-income and lower-income populations. That affects mobilization. The protests in June appealed to young people with higher-income background. The anti-corruption causes circulated online and broadcast on radio and TV motivated a crowd of young first-timers to claim the streets all over Brazil. A similar engagement of well-off youngsters for the causes of the poor is not common.

For civil society groups that struggle against human rights violations in favelas, the mobilization of the locals is indeed a great challenge. Lower-income Brazilians work long hours. Thus, they have little time or interest to participate political demonstrations. There is a concern of losing jobs. In favelas, people also fear the police’s reactions when the dust of the protests goes down. Finally, there is a general disbelief in changes in both politics and society.

Therefore, the situation in Brazil is more complex than the metaphor of the giant implies. Some activists from favelas say that while many woke up to claim the streets in June, others like themselves have never really been asleep. However, I believe that without the poor the giant will not fully rise. Will it ever happen? When? One cannot predict. But considering how Brazilians are starting to see civic action and protesting can make a difference, that may not take so long after all.