Slums with democratic muscle

Hard Times in the Marvelous City: From Dictatorship to Democracy in the Favelas of Rio de Janeiro
Bryan McCann
2014, Duke University Press
248 pages, plates, paperback

BRAZIL owes a debt to its favelas. It seems like ancient history now, but redemocratization in the early 1980s within this South American giant was as much a product of popular mobilization in the shanty towns and irregular slums of Rio de Janeiro as it was of the new unions, environmental groups and other social movements that were spawned by rapid modernization under military rule and gave the country its transformative Partido dos Trabalhadores. Favela mobilization was driven by a popular defence against eviction but also by the appalling social conditions in which residents lived. Bryan McCann traces this socio-political phenomenon from its beginning as a movement in the favela of Vidigal that, by the end of 1978, had encompassed dozens of similar settlements struggling against removal and demanding infrastructure spending. As the author suggests, this was also a struggle to reimagine citizenship – and a country in which the people of the favelas shared the same opportunities as the propertied classes that were trying to evict them. The author writes: “The favela association movement became a vanguard in the national mobilization against the dictatorship, pressuring the regime to speed its transition towards redemocratization. The favela movement, however, heralded something more than a mere return to electoral democracy: it held out the promise of a new imagination of Rio de Janeiro, one in which the gulf between rich and poor could be bridged and the children of Vidigal and Leblon would attend the same schools and share the same opportunities.” [p5] McCann describes how the wave of mobilization for urban reform helped pressure Brazil’s then military regime to legalize the formation of new political parties, resulting eventually in the country’s democratic transition. The sad truth thereafter, however, is that many of the limited gains won by the favelas were circumscribed by subsequent social changes, not least the seizure of key favelas by drug-trafficking gangs and the emergence of paramilitary vigilantes wont to massacre innocent civilians in their increasingly bloody war on the cartels. Since then, urban renewal and new money has also returned to overturn the lives of so many favela residents, with displacement and removal again reaching a high point as huge construction projects characterized Brazil’s preparations for the World Cup in 2014 and Olympic Games in 2016. As this superb documentary by the journalist Jo Griffin for the Thomson Reuters Foundation reveals, there are people in Rio who have been evicted from their favela homes not once, not twice – but three times. The human cost of Rio’s transformation continues to be high, but as McCann concludes with considerable optimism, “the dream of the extension of full and complete citizenship to the residents of Rio’s favelas did not die”. – GO’T