Citizenship hunger

Could things be better?

“The multitudes nibble at the edges, with patience and moderation, slowly but surely, but the hunger of these people is insatiable.”

–Daniel Aarão Reis, writing in O Globo (Sept. 7, 2010)

Lula’s presidency has been a great help to the city of Rio de Janeiro, since he and the governor and mayor get along well and his government supported Rio’s successful bid for the 2016 Olympics. After decades on the outs with the rest of the country, this in itself is earth-shattering for Brazil’s former capital.

But an article in last week’s Globo suggests that Lula may leave a greater mark than we realize on the “marvelous city”.

With Lula’s candidate Dilma Rousseff so far ahead in the polls (she’s got over 50% while PSDB contender José Serra has under 30%), it’s clear that the working classes plan to vote with their wallets –although Dilma has never run for office. But, as UFF contemporary history professor Daniel Aarão Reis writes in “A Great Inversion”, something else is at work in Lula’s surprising capacity to elect this untried (and often tongue-tied) sucessor:

“…the gradual acess of the working classes to citizenship. Lula is the best expression of this. He is seen as the politician who pushed for this access more than anyone else. This has to do with material goods, of course. But there are other goods, symbolic, more important than our daily bread. This is what the rabid right and the radical left don’t perceive. Common people, since the 1980s and in growing numbers, are starting to discover the appeal of institutions and institutional struggles. Politics, the domain of rich white people, has begun to belong to brown, black, indigenous and poor white people, too.”

Reis notes that back in 1964 access to politics was on the agenda. “However,” he writes, “the popular movements wanted a great deal and they wanted it fast. It couldn’t happen. We had the coup, which paralyzed and then rolled back the process. “

Things are different now, he says. “When regular people understand the benefits of democracy, they want it, too. It’s shallow to think that it’s all about bread… They want to play the political game like big people, the way only white rich folks did. It’s a great inversion.”

The way the big people have played the political game so far in Brazil leaves a great deal to be desired. Lula’s government has often come under attack for corruption and other questionable behavior; the nightly “political hour” on the runup to the election is more of a comedic pastime than a chance to learn about platforms and positions. In São Paulo, the clown Tiririca is running for congress

Tiririca’s motto is “It can’t get worse than this”– and he might be right. The political game certainly needs better players, referees, and cheerleaders, as well as public at large. More intelligent politics require better education, which Lula hasn’t spent nearly enough on. The state of Rio de Janeiro led the nation in the number of candidates investigated by the Federal Police for electoral fraud between 2006 and 2008, according to O Globo.

But one aspect of politics, as Brazil’s neighboring President Chávez has wisely observed, is access to information. And this is without question growing in Brazil: the new members of the middle class are snapping up televisions, computers, and cable tv. O Globo reports that of the record 63 million domestic passengers expected to fly this year, about 10% will be flying for the first time in their lives.

There’s nothing like watching The Big Bang Theory for discovering that knowledge is power.

Whether Lula is an institutional expression of a long-due tsunami, or the leader of a social inclusion trend, as it’s called here, isn’t important. What we do know is that Rio’s transformation has jolted property values, even in favelas; charmed investors; fostered pay raises and created jobs. And, as Reis points out, people don’t live by bread alone: cariocas are also capitalizing on less paranoia, more freedom to move around the city and an expanding view of other people’s lives. Sounds like a healthy environment for citizenship.

Will the “great inversion” work? “We’ll see,” writes Reis. “But one thing is for sure: it’s not going to be easy to keep the wave from coming”. Which could hold true not only for Brazilian politics, but also for the growing connections between Rio’s favelas and the rest of the city.

About Rio real

American journalist, writer, editor who's lived in Rio de Janeiro for 20 years.
This entry was posted in Transformation of Rio de Janeiro / Transformação do Rio de Janeiro and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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