Covid 19 and the right to the Brazilian city

The following speech was given by Brasil Wire editor Brian Mier on a World Social Forum webinar entitled: The Right to the City: Towards Social and Ecological Justice, which was hosted by ActionAid India.

I have a long history of working on urban issues in Brazil but as the 2016 coup began, I got involved in this kind of war of narratives that was underway because in Anglo media and academia, there was a giant character-assassination campaign initiated against the Brazilian organized left. This campaign performed the function of normalizing the coup, normalizing the political imprisonment of former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva that illegally removed him from the 2018 elections and normalizing the illegitimate power grab by Bolsonaro, who is a neo-fascist holdover from the dictatorship era in Brazil, and the power coalition behind him which is made up of international capital with some sections of the local comprador bourgeoisie.

I cover these issues in my new documentary, Dismantling Brazil. But what I’d like to do here is give a snapshot of what’s happening in the right to the city movement right now. A few minutes before I logged into this event I was looking at the news and one of the first ever Afro-Brazilian woman city councilors in São Paulo had her house riddled with gunfire last night. So the challenges that are faced in this kind of geography of fear that Councilwoman Dartora talked about are very real. Anyway, all my solidarity goes out to Carol Iara in São Paulo.

Before I get to the situation in Brazil, I would like to start with a definition of the right to the city, as David Harvey explained to us in the World Social Forum in Belem in 2009. The right to the city is the right for everyone who lives in the city, especially the poor, to not just to enjoy the goods and services that the city provides, but to be able to change the city to best suit their needs. In this sense, Brazil has some of the most progressive right to the city legislation in the world. When the dictatorship ended in 1985, a movement began to create the new constitution of 1988. There were participatory elements included in the drafting process which meant that any group that provided a petition with one million signatures on it could create a people’s amendment to the Constitution. The urban social movements, together with unions and organic intellectuals, introduced articles 182 and 183, which declare that the social function of property overrides the profit motive. What this does is ban a lot of common practices that take place in cities around the world. The common slumlord practice of land banking is one. You cannot sit on an empty property or an empty building in a Brazilian city. If the property sits empty after a designated period of time and if the real estate taxes are behind anyone who doesn’t own property has a right to squat on it, to occupy it. At this point it legally falls on the responsibility of the mayor’s office to dissapropriate the property from its owner by compensating them for market value, deducting the value of back taxes owed plus interest, plus a 50% fine on the back taxes, and then convert the property to ownership based social housing. This is just one example. Other examples of of laws that guarantee the right to the city in Brazil include the fact that every city over 20,000 is responsible for facilitating a participatory development plan every five years. According to law, this plan has to be facilitated in a way that every citizen has a right to vote on elements of the plan and submit changes to it. The annual budget, also has to be open to public scrutiny and the public has the right to suggest changes to the budget within certain limitations that are stipulated by the federal government, which requires minimum payments for things like public education and health.


On paper this looks great, right? Except that what happened is that immediately after the Constitution passed and then after the Statute of the City in 2001, which regulates these these right to the city issues in the Constitution… What happened is that all of the corrupt conservative mayors around the country figured out loopholes so that they didn’t have to obey the law. I’ll give an example. I wrote a book about the changes in municipal law in Rio de Janeiro related to the World Cup and Olympics that was published in 2016. During research for this book I discover that every single law that passed related to the mega-events was illegal technically, because they were passed within a legislative vacuum that was caused by not having any participatory development plan in place. When the time period designated by the previous plan expired, Rio went for several years with no plan. This was illegal, but the the punishment mechanisms are very, very weak. No one ever gets really punished.

So what we have is a situation where, in order to implement these kind of right to the city democracy deepening measures, we need a benevolent mayor. So historically, what that means is it has primarily only been the Workers Party. Officially, the PT respects the Statute of the City and articles one 182 and 183 Constitution but even then, in some cases this does not happen 100% in practical terms. Of course there are other examples of mayors from different political parties who also respect these laws. We have a political party in Brazil called PSOL which t markets itself as a kind of radical left party but they haven’t really had enough experience managing cities yet to make any kind of impact. Last year, for example, they elected five mayors while PT elected 189 and the Communist Party of Brazil elected something like 65 mayors. So basically that’s the scenario we’re dealing with.

Recently we had a PT mayor in São Paulo, Fernando Haddad, who at the time implemented what was the largest participatory development plan in the history of the world at the municipal level, because the population inside the city limits of São Paulo at the time was over 12 million. So his administration held around 700 planning meetings in public schools and other municipal buildings around the city and invited the population to come in and vote on all of the measures that they wanted to include. There were hundreds of changes made to the plan due to popular participation.

But then a right wing mayor took over afterwards and just ignored the plan. And this is the problem we always have in Brazil. We suffered from a coup in 2016 against democratically elected President Dilma Rousseff over nothing. She was impeached for a non-impeachable budgetary infraction called fiscal peddling, which she was later exonerated from. In the meantime, she was attacked in the international media and negatively associated with corruption. There were never any charges filed against her for corruption. And now we’ve seen that the United States was heavily involved in this process through its participating in the Lava Jato or Car Wash anti-corruption investigation. We now know through leaked telegram messages that a group of 18 FBI agents was meeting every 15 days with Lava Jato task-force leaders form Curitiba to give guidance and orientation on the case against Lula, which put him in jail during the election season and opened the door for Bolsonaro’s victory. Once elected, the first thing Bolsonaro did was to appoint the Lava Jato judge who helped him get elected to be his justice minister, Sergio Moro. And since he was elected in 2018 we’ve seen a generalized attack against all rights, all human rights, not just the right to the city but for black and indigenous people, the right to exist.

The anti-crime bill that was passed in the first semester of Bolsonaro’s term grants military police the right to kill if they are afraid of anything. In practice, this means they can shoot anyone and justify it by saying they were scared. The person doesn’t even have to be armed. So we have a kind of genocide going on against the Afro Brazilian population in the slums and favelas. And all of the participatory spaces for communication with the government are basically shut down on the federal level. The National Conference of the Cities, with its delegate and councilor system which exercised popular control over the federal Ministry of the Cities was shut down. This attitude is reflected in the mayor’s offices ruled over by members of Bolsonaro’s coalition. For example, Rio de Janeiro shut down all spaces for dialogue. Fortunately for us, Bolsonaro’s coalition took a beating in last Octobers mayoral elections. They lost control of almost all of the cities in which they had mayors and failed to gain many new ones. The big electoral gain was the center right, which is made up of traditional political parties ruled by oligarchies which pass power down through the generations. But the left did make moderate gains. There’s never been a moment when the left has controlled a lot of mayors offices in Brazil. However, in October, the PT elected 189 mayors and 2665 city councilors across the country. It took a huge beating in the 2016 municipal elections, but in 2020 it increased its number of mayors in cities over 400,000 from one to four, and it now controls seven mayors offices of cities over 200,000. And it’s become the second largest political party in the city councils of the twenty six state capitals. I mention this because this media war, this narrative war continues. If you looked in The Guardian and The New York Times and any Anglo newspaper that covered the 2020 mayoral elections, they presented it as if the left had taken losses in this election, while actually made gains.

So what’s the situation we’re in right now? For the last year, we’ve had this covid-19 circus going on. You guys in India must know about this ridiculous plane Bolsonaro sent there, uninvited to pick up vaccines two weeks ago. I understand Bolsonaro wrote a letter to Modi and Modi didn’t even answer it. He’s a conspiracy theorist, a lunatic who copied everything Trump did. So now we have the second highest number of deaths in the in the world from covid because we have this president who’s having Facebook chats live saying things like that women will grow beards if they take the vaccine and that people shouldn’t wear masks. But Covid has destabilized resistance in the cities, it’s destabilized the fight against this dismantling of the state and the dismantling of human rights and because the issue of social isolation and wearing masks has become politicized. So we have more people on the streets who support Bolsonaro’s anti-science that people who support the left. Even though he has taken a major hit in popularity – his approval rating just dropped just dropped from 37% to 26% last week – there are still a lot of people who support him. And one one place he has a lot of support is in the cities. For example, I live at the entrance of a favela on the periphery of São Paulo. I talk to people all the time and I see people outside my window with no masks on walking by every day. It’s a myth like it was in the case of Trump to say that the majority of the working class support Bolsonaro. That’s a lie, but like the case of Trump you see this lie being spread in the media down here too. But Bolsonaro does have working class supporters and what we have probably similar to Modi, he probably does the same thing Trump did it too. Bolsonaro twists around common sense. It sounds like he’s saying things that are just common sense, but it’s really perversely twisted around. So he’ll say things like, “we’re not communists. We don’t believe in privileges for anybody. We believe black people are just as intelligent as white people, which is why we don’t support affirmative action.”

These are the kinds of arguments you have to deal with when you’re doing political organization at the base level. So with covid now, the schools are still closed. There’s this constant pressure from national and international capital in the cities to reopen everything. And so we have this yo-yo effect where for the last year they’ve been opening things, closing things, opening things, closing things. And the covid keeps coming back like a boomerang. And this is why the left has come up with new strategies for protest. There’s a new push for impeachment against Bolsonaro that we saw last week. Car caravans rode through 89 cities across the country demanding Bolsonaro’s ouster. Unfortunately, an automobile is not something accessible to the working class but there was a large bicycle protest in Curitiba. We have also had protests with people going into their yards and balconies at a designated time to make noise and yell “out with Bolsonaro.” So it looks like there is some momentum building right now. I’ll just end here by saying that it’s really fundamental to the right to the city movement in Brazil that we get rid of Bolsonaro as soon as possible and don’t let. international and national elites simply exchange him for a polite guy who uses polite language but continues the same neoliberal economic policies. This is the battle we’re facing right now and it effects in all levels of government: municipal, state and national. We have to get rid of Bolsonaro.


By Brian Mier

Writer, geographer and former development professional who has lived in Brazil for 26 years. Former directorate member of the Fórum Nacional de Reforma Urbana (National Urban Reform Forum). Has lived in São Luis, Recife, Salvador, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Author of “Os Megaeventos Esportivos na Cidade do Rio de Janeiro e o Direito á Cidade” (CEPR: Porto Alegre. 2016). Editor of "Voices of the Brazilian Left" (Sumare: São Paulo. 2018). Editor of "Year of Lead: Washington, Wall Street and the New Imperialism in Brazil" ((Sumare: São Paulo. 2019) Irregular correspondent for the Chicago radio show This is Hell.