Peripheries in motion: Change and continuity in Brasil’s marginalised urban territories during the PT era

Peripheries in motion: Change and continuity in Brasil’s marginalised urban territories during the PT era


It’s a cool late-April evening in São Paulo and locals have packed out the União da Juta community centre in the residential neighbourhood of Fazenda da Juta, some twenty kilometres east of the city centre. The theme of the meeting is the same one that has dominated Brazil’s airwaves, social networks and dinner tables for weeks – namely the ongoing political crisis and how on earth to make sense of it. Here though, the discussion takes a somewhat different path to those heard in mainstream forums. Rather than focussing on corruption scandals, judicial processes and political intrigue, the central concern instead is what it means for people who live in areas like Fazenda da Juta – that is to say, on the peripheries of Brazil’s great cities.

The legacy of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT, Workers’ Party) in places like Fazenda da Juta is complex, as is the Party’s current relationship to the local population after thirteen years in power. Edilson Henrique Mineiro (pictured), lawyer and a leader of the branch of Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra (MTST, Landless Workers Movement) in the Eastern Zone of São Paulo, captures some of this complexity when he tells the audience they must fight to hold the government to account for promises it has made and still not delivered on. “It is not enough to fight for goods […] for housing”, he exhorts, “we need to fight for the citizens who live in those houses.” He is clear, however, that this is a task that is best achieved by being a critical friend, rather than an enemy, of the PT. He worries that the population of the peripheries are not making their voices heard at this critical moment. “The silence of the favela is worrying. The poor should be at the front of this resistance to the golpistas (“coup-mongers”, or those supporting the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff).” And this, he argues, is not just a matter of joining anti-impeachment demonstrations in the city centre. “It’s great to go and march in Anhangabaú or Paulista, but we need to occupy Sapopemba and the Largo de São Mateus and mobilise the people of our own surroundings. Because often they don’t pay attention to the advances and reverses we’re experiencing.”

Mineiro’s words speak to many of the contradictory changes that the peripheries have experienced during the PT era. Incomes and consumption have increased significantly, as have access to important state benefits and services, dramatically improving living standards in diverse ways. However, other services remain precarious and many rights enshrined in the country’s constitution continue to be remote abstractions in areas where gang dominance, police abuse and political clientelism remain rife. Meanwhile, many argue that there has been a co-optation of formerly independent social movements and perhaps even a wider de-politicisation of the working classes under the PT – arguably one of the causes of their current political isolation.

As Professor Gabriel Feltrán, a leading sociologist, has remarked, a somewhat schizophrenic view of urban peripheries has emerged in Brazil during this period. The traditional stereotype of the gun-toting “bandido” (gangster) still dominates the public imaginary, but now increasingly vies for attention with the ideal-type of an upwardly mobile consumer. The image of an engaged citizen, on the other hand, has if anything retreated from view. And for all the contradictions and simplifications that characterise Brazil’s national conversation about the changing fate of its peripheries, international understandings lag far behind. Indeed, the latter seem trapped in the dystopian portrayal of violence and poverty offered by the hit film City of God – released before the PT even came to power. Now that both the political and economic cycles in Brazil are coming to an inglorious end and with the country entering a period of renewed uncertainty, the moment is ripe to examine the “advances and reverses” of the PT era at the urban periphery, in its economic, social and political dimensions.

First, though, a clarification is needed. Brazil’s favelas, most commonly associated with Rio de Janeiro’s hillside settlements, are but one among many types of urban neighbourhood that can be grouped under the label of “peripheries”. This term refers to the most common pattern of urbanisation in Brazil in which poorer areas tend to be located far from historically wealthy city centres; a pattern in which Rio’s central favelas are an outlier. In addition to favelas, urban peripheries include loteamentos (semi-formal land subdivisions), which occupy varying shades of legality and precarity, closely resembling favelas at one end of the spectrum and practically indistinguishable from formal neighbourhoods at the other. Also common in the periphery are social housing projects built by successive governments since the 1930s to cater to diverse low-income groups. Finally, we might add formal, working-class suburbs, such as those of São Paulo’s ABC region or Rio de Janeiro’s North Zone, which combine legal formality with social conditions often similar to those found in areas of informal and social housing. Every large Brazilian city contains these different types of neighbourhood, though the prevalence of each varies. For example, in Rio de Janeiro around 22% of the population lives in favelas, whereas in São Paulo, where loteamentos have historically been the primary mode of peripheral urbanisation, this proportion is closer to 11%. The peripheries are, by definition, diverse and are steadily becoming more so.

A “new middle class”?

While the peripheries have made significant social and economic gains under the PT, the widespread claim that they are now predominantly “middle class” is misleading. Some Brazilian social scientists unhelpfully define class primarily in relation to income, thus ignoring other core components like education, occupation, access to services and political behaviour. Those mobilising such an approachpoint out that between 2003 and 2014 “Classe C”, the middle of five income bands, grew from around 38% of the population to become the overall majority, at around 54%. At the same time the higher-income groups, A and B, grew far more slowly, while the poorest groups, D and E shrank in absolute terms. Clearly, this represents a significant and positive change. It is a complicated task to identify exactly where these changes took place in geographical terms, but it is clear that a large part of the so-called “nova Classe C” (or “new C Class”) is located in the peripheries of the country’s major cities. A national study of favelas, for example, found that between 2003 and 2013 the proportion of residents in the C band increased from 33% to 65% (The key findings of the study are presented in the 2014 book ‘Um País Chamado Favela’ by Renato Meirelles and Celso Athayde). Although the figures have not been aggregated to include the urban periphery as a whole, it is certain they would have both begun and ended that period at a higher level than those for the favelas alone.

What accounts for these trends? A modest part of the increase can be attributed to the PT’s famous income transfer policy, Bolsa Família (“Family Purse”), in which households are paid a monthly stipend per child on the condition of school attendance and regular health checks. However, this would have been more likely to raise households from poorest income band E up to D – that is to say from extreme to absolute poverty – rather than into the relative security of the Classe C. This is especially applicable to the country’s poor North Eastern region, where receipt of Bolsa Família is considerably higher. More substantially, though, rising incomes in general and the growth of the Classe C in particular are the result of formal job creation combined with the PT’s assertive minimum wage policy. These factors, alongside policies facilitating increased access to consumer credit and falling prices for some consumer goods imported from China, have undergirded a veritable consumption boom in the periphery. White goods and mobile phones have become ubiquitous in these areas, while even car ownership – if still far from the norm – has increased significantly. Peripheral housing markets in both the formal and informal sectors have boomed, pushing up real estate values.

However increased incomes and consumption should not be conflated with the growth of a broad “middle class” at the periphery. In fact, most of the new Classe C is merely a more affluent working class. In terms of its educational and occupational profile most of the new entrants to income band C have not made a fundamental break with the past. This has been partially masked by a growth of services and particularly of new sectors like telemarketing, which despite their veneer of formality and professionalism are similarly de-skilled and even more casualised than traditional manual jobs. On the other hand, a small but significant minority of the peripheral population has seen a more substantive shift in terms of their social outcomes. Entry to higher education in Brazil has more than doubled and significantly diversified since 2002, largely as a result of the PT’s two landmark higher programmes: Reuni (Reestruturação e Expansão das Universidades), which has created hundreds of new higher education centres and commits federal universities to meeting racially weighted quotas for admissions from public high schools; and ProUni (Programa Universidade para Todos), which funds scholarships at private universities for low-income students. A noteworthy number of peripheral residents has benefitted from these policies, enabling them to progress into professions traditionally monopolised by the established middle class.

In terms of access to quality services the story is similarly mixed. Most of the peripheral population continues to be educated in poor quality schools and to be treated in overcrowded and under-resourced public health centres and hospitals. Public transport networks have grown little in most cities, while increased car ownership has aggravated problems of traffic and pollution. The PT’s housing and infrastructure policies have had more positive impacts in the periphery, though the situation remains far from ideal. Notwithstanding notorious problems in gathering and interpreting the data, the Minha Casa Minha Vida (“My House My Life”) programme seems to have made a significant dent in the country’s huge and long-standing housing deficit. However, it has done so at the cost of reproducing other long-term problems – building segregated, low-income dormitory zones lacking core services and employment opportunities, and saddling poor residents with mortgage payments they often can’t sustain, leading to sales on the black market. The Programa de Aceleração do Crescimento (PAC, Growth Acceleration Programme), meanwhile, has carried out large infrastructure projects in strategic low-income districts in several cities, often with positive impacts. In other cases however – particularly in Rio de Janeiro in its preparations for the Olympic Games – such interventions have been characterised by a failure to properly consult residents about what interventions are desired, and by arbitrary removal of favelas.

If at the periphery the PT years have been characterised by positive economic trends and more ambiguous social ones, it is an as yet unanswered question whether these material gains may also be under threat as the economy hits the rocks. The signs since the downturn intensified in 2014 are that lower-income groups are being particularly badly hit. The official unemployment rate has risen to over 10%, while high inflation is gnawing away at real incomes. However, such were the gains of the boom years that it seems unlikely they will be entirely wiped out. Air travel – a powerful symbol of growing consumer power – grew 150% between 2005 and 2014, and has fallen only 7% since. The depth and duration of the recession will, of course, be important in determining how far indicators fall from their peak. Perhaps even more decisive, though, will be the extent to which different parts of the peripheral population are able to defend their gains and demand further improvements from whatever future political settlement is reached.

Territory, power and violence

In contrast to the considerable socio-economic gains of the PT era, there is a far less to be cheerful about when it comes to Brazil’s long-standing problems of urban crime and violence. Between 2002 and 2012 the homicide rate rose by 7% to 29 per 100,000, preserving the country’s position as one of the most violent in the world. This violence overwhelmingly takes place at the urban periphery. A combination of continued poverty among a significant part of the peripheral population and an absence of meaningful public security in these areas has created the conditions for local armed groups to pursue various illegal activities, most notably (though not limited to) the cocaine trade. These groups engage in episodic cycles of conflict and negotiation with other criminal actors and with the police. Meanwhile, despite endemic problems of corruption, the police have been empowered by the state and much of public opinion to act with impunity at the periphery, leading to brutal and indiscriminate use of violence. All residents of peripheries are affected to some degree by these multipolar conflicts, forced to live with the presence of unaccountable armed groups and exposed to the possibility of open conflict between them. However, overwhelmingly, and increasingly, the victims behind these statistics are young black and brown-skinned men in the 16-24 age range.

These trends, during a period of improving socio-economic conditions, gives lie to the claim of a simple relationship between economic growth and rates of urban violence. Instead the latter seems to be far more closely linked to other factors, in particular the continually mutating supply routes of the drugs trade, the degree of centralisation of a given city’s criminal ecology, and the nature of the local state in both its proclivity for violence and its vulnerability to the infiltration of criminal influence. During the 2000s, as policing responses have intensified in established transit points and markets for the international cocaine trade, supply routes have shifted towards points of least resistance. These are particularly in the North and North East of the country, where state capacity is weakest. Between 2002 and 2012 there were astronomical increases in the homicide rates of major cities like Natal (up 301%), Salvador (161%) and Manaus (133%), all of which – like many others – now maintain rates well in excess of 50 per 100,000. Given that the police in Brazil are controlled at the state and not federal level, the PT has had little practical influence over policing, though the depressing experience of long-standing PT states like Bahia and Ceará suggests the party does not have any simple solutions. More than a political problem then, urban violence in twenty-first century Brazil continues to be societal and systemic.

That said, the experience of the two megacities has been somewhat anomalous, and viewed superficially, seem to give cause for optimism. Between 2002 and 2012 Rio de Janeiro’s homicide rate fell by 66%, from 63 to 22 per 100,000, while São Paulo’s fell by an even greater 71%, from 53 to 15. These trends may have been affected to some extent by state-level policing strategies. Rio, under the control of the Partido do Movimento Democrático do Brasil (PMDB, Democratic Movement Party of Brazil), has created the famous Unidades de Polícia Pacificadora (UPP, Police Pacification Units) to establish permanent police bases in dozens of strategically significant favelas around the city. Evidence suggests that levels of violence in pacified favelas has fallen (though there are indications that other forms of crime in these favelas and violence in non-pacified areas may have in fact increased). São Paulo, meanwhile, under the Partido Social Democrático do Brasil (PSDB, Social Democratic Party of Brazil) has pursued aggressive policies of stop-and-search and mass incarceration. There is less to link these approaches directly to the falling murder rate, though it is plausible that, notwithstanding its corrosive effect on civil liberties and community resilience, it may have contributed.

However, in both cities the fall in violence is primarily the result of other dynamics – ones that are far from positive and which may presage the future for other Brazilian cities. In Rio, alongside the UPPs the most significant development in recent years is the massive expansion of militias in the city. These groups, formed primarily of off-duty police, have taken control of many favelas and other peripheral neighbourhoods. Although with the expressed aim of preventing drug trafficking, militias also operate beyond the law, extorting residents for the “security” they offer and for the provision of various utilities and local transport services. Their effective use of intimidation and greater influence within the police means their activities require less frequent violence than those of drug traffickers. In pacified favelas, meanwhile, traffickers continue to operate, but have adapted to the presence of the police by lowering their profile and rationing the use of violence against rivals and residents. There is evidence in some pacified areas of implicit co-operation between traffickers and police to preserve the state of fragile peace. In these ways, traffickers, militias and the police all continue to operate with impunity in the periphery, albeit with reduced levels of conflict.

In São Paulo, meanwhile, the 2000s saw the gradual takeover of the urban periphery by the city’s hegemonic prison-based criminal group, the Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC, First Command of the Capital), much as Rio’s drugs gangs had done a decade or two earlier. This was the overwhelming cause of the reduction in urban violence, as small local groups were replaced by a single structure regulating all criminal activity at the periphery. Notwithstanding periodic confrontations with police at a local scale, and across the city as a whole during the disturbances of 2006 and 2012, the PCC are for the most part left by police to enforce order in the areas they dominate. As the rise of the militias and the UPPs in Rio and of the PCC in São Paulo demonstrate, the trend in both cities has been towards the consolidation, rather than weakening, of armed groups at the periphery, and of their increased collaboration with one another. Residents of Rio and São Paulo’s peripheries may be less likely to die at the hands of these different groups than they were a decade-and-half ago, but they are still subject to arbitrary power and abuse and their access to the law remains as remote as ever.

Peripheral politics

The precarious rights of peripheral residents may help to explain their apparent absence from Brazil’s intensifying political battles. The protests of June 2013, which spread out from São Paulo across Brazil’s major cities and beyond, seemed to span a broad spectrum of participants from the lower-middle class to the elite – perhaps including significant numbers from the periphery (though this is difficult to substantiate). During the political crisis that engulfed Brazil in March and April of 2016, however, the anti-government protestors who took to the streets in São Paulo, Rio and the capital Brasília seemed to be overwhelmingly composed of Brazil’s traditional upper-middle class. The smaller anti-impeachment protests that emerged in response, meanwhile, were more socially diverse, but apparently dominated by organised groups like the labour movement and students. In both cases, the voice of the peripheral population has been muted. This contrasts strongly with the previous period of sustained political mobilisation in Brazil, the democratic transition of the 1980s, when peripheral social movements agitating for housing, services and democratic rights were at the forefront of change.

What accounts for this conspicuous absence? Part of the story lies in the complex relationship between the periphery and electoral politics. Although voting is compulsory in Brazil, voters tend to behave inconsistently. While peripheral voters typically vote on grounds of ideology or party (or individual) identification in presidential elections, for state and municipal elections they are often directed towards the more immediate gains to be had from forming clientelistic relationships. This is particularly the case for residents of precarious favelas and loteamentos, who may stand to receive immediate investments in local infrastructure if they collectively deliver their votes to a given candidate. These complexities tend to weaken party affiliation among peripheral voters, and indeed Brazilian voters generally report lower levels of party loyalty than is found in most democratic electorates. That said, since Lula’s first victory in 2002 peripheral populations have consistently turned out for the PT in presidential elections, including Dilma Rousseff’s far narrower victory in 2014. While the PT’s voter base has progressively shifted from South to North and from the middle class to the poor – in particular the rural poor of the North East – the peripheries of the major cities continue to manifest as stubborn red rings around increasingly blue urban cores (São Paulo provides a clear example of this).

If the peripheries have continued to turn out for the PT though, their apparent reluctance to defend the Party on the streets seems to suggest a long-term decline in enthusiasm. There are multiple possible explanations for this. One is the fact that the energies and leaders of peripheral social movements were to some extent co-opted under the PT, producing important conduits for participation like health councilsand participatory budgeting, but neutering the ability of these groups to mobilise independently. Another possibility is that, paradoxically, class solidarity may have declined as a result of the PT’s success in raising living standards, so that the politics of upwardly mobile residents of the periphery are now shaped by individual rather than collective concerns. A variation on this argument, frequently made by liberalcommentators, is that today Brazil’s “new middle classes” are more focussed on improving the quality of core public services and fighting government corruption than immediate economic concerns, all areas in which the PT has been less consistently effective (though the periphery’s similar lack of enthusiasm for anti-government movements should make us suspicious of this argument).

There may be at least some truth to each of these claims, and, indeed, as the peripheries have diversified during the PT era it should come as no surprise that a wide range of views are represented. Overall, though, it seems that the main reason for the relative silence is that, at present, they do not have a dog in the fight. With endemic violence an overriding concern for many there is little motivation to engage with more remote question of party politics. Indeed, why should residents of areas where democratic rights have little meaning take to the street in defence of democracy? Furthermore, the skewed mainstream coverage of the Lava Jato corruption scandal, relentlessly associating it with the PT and downplaying the role of other parties, cannot help but have had an effect on residents of the periphery. If they are disgusted with the PT however, it speaks volumes that they have not shown any enthusiasm for any of the alternatives. This can only reflect a total failure by other parties, and particularly the main two opposition forces, the PSDB and PMDB, to broaden their appeal beyond their established bases.

This scenario perhaps gives us some clues as to what may eventually bring an end to the current stalemate, if and when the residents of Brazil’s urban peripheries begin to perceive that the gains they have made are under the PT are coming under deliberate and sustained attack. The obvious fear of the opposition to openly advocate scrapping Bolsa Família attests to their awareness of this threat, but the post-Rousseff austerity package being muted by the PMDB could have much the same effect. Not only might such a policy remind peripheral voters – just in time for the 2018 election – of why they have stuck with the PT for so long, it may also reinvigorate many to take more direct forms of political action to defend their interests and expand their rights. The surprisingly large turnout at Fazenda da Juta’s recent political debate speaks to the presence of a dormant force that may be beginning to stir. The periphery has, so far, largely been silent. But those plotting the PT’s downfall should not bank on it staying that way.