Rio Olympics: A Case Study In PMDB Governance

As the Economist and the Washington Post cheer-lead for a PMDB takeover of the Brazilian government, it is worth looking at how PMDB mayor Eduardo Paes managed World Cup and Olympic preparation in Rio de Janeiro. PMDB, the direct descendent of the military dictatorship era MDB party, is the largest political party in Brazil. A large percentage of its elected officials collaborated with the neo-fascist military dictatorship and emerged unscathed. It was always a weak coalition partner of the PT at best, blocking repeated attempts by PT legislators to eliminate the military police, effect agrarian reform and regulate the media. No post-dictatorship president has ever been able to govern without them and they have run the Rio de Janeiro City and State governments since 2009 and 2007 respectively.  In this interview, parts of which will appear in the forthcoming book , Os Megaeventos esportivos na cidade do Rio de Janeiro e o direito à cidade: uma análise do marco jurídico local, (CDES:Porto Alegre) Orlando Santos Jr. talks about the Rio de Janeiro city government’s approach to legal  human rights issues related to the World Cup and Olympics. Orlando Alves dos Santos Junior is an urban planning professor at Rio de Janeiro Federal University (UFRJ) and one of the directors of Observatorio das Metropoles, Brazil’s largest urban affairs think tank.

How did Rio de Janeiro’s city laws change due to the Olympics and how does this relate to the city’s 2011 Master Development Plan?

This is a complex issue because Rio de Janeiro first positioned itself as a candidate for the World Cup and Olympics during the César Maia (PFL/DEM) administration in the 1990s. So this city restructuring project began a few administrations before Eduardo Paes became mayor (in 2009) and canceled the project for a new Master Plan that was underway in the City Council. The new plan that he submitted was synchronized with the municipal management project, so unlike in other cities you can’t cite big changes in the development plan after the city was chosen for the World Cup and Olympics. The current Rio de Janeiro development plan is totally in synch with the Olympics project.

When we look at the new laws that appear to be related to the mega sporting events, it looks like the vast majority of them were ratified in the city council during a legislative vacuum or state of exception, after the expiration of the 1992 Master Development Plan and before February 1, 2011, when the new plan was ratified. How does the Mayor’s Office justify this? Why aren’t there criminal suits against the Mayor’s Office for violating the Statute of the city due to the lack of popular participation during the approval of these laws?

There are a series of issues at stake here. First of all, the idea of exception, because the fact is that the government operates on the margin of the law. In other words the law itself has vacuums as you say, it has loopholes that enable to government to operate within them. So, for example, it holds public hearings according to determinations of the federal Statute of the City but they are controlled and manipulated as they were for urban consortium operation that was set up in the Porto Maravilha project. In this case the city government operates on the margin of the law. I believe that the government itself as characterized in any capitalist state  systematically acts on the margin of the law and within its loopholes. So the exception isn’t an exception but a characteristic of the capitalist state, as Polyani says, what changes in this process of neoliberalization is that this margin increases and the state operates more and more on this margin. But it is not a new characteristic, its not that the previous state, which was also a capitalist state, did not act on the margin of the law.  It is also not a singular characteristic of the Brazilian capitalist state. It’s a characteristic of all capitalist states including the developed countries. The only difference is that the margins are much more restricted in the central countries than in the peripheral ones. But what you can see now is an increase that brings us back to the question, its a law that is brought to the city council in a vacuum between two master development plans, so, in quotation marks it isn’t illegal but at the same time it operates in a hole, a vacuum, on the margin of the law. It is clear that it would be possible to challenge this now but the judiciary is not a neutral power, it is also a political power. The alliance between the judiciary, the executive branch and the legislative branch in the current context of the city of Rio de Janeiro is very clear.  There is cooperation between these three branches that legitimizes the Mayor’s actions in Rio de Janeiro. It’s clear and evident that these actions are contrary to the federal Statute of the City. But the very Statute of the City can be seen as a law that generates certain paradoxes in Brazilian legislation because on the one hand you have the primacy of private property, you have the affirmation of private property in Brazilian legislation and therefore in all conduct of the Brazilian judiciary and on the other hand you have the Statute of the City affirming that the social function of property overrides it, putting limits on this privacy. There is a paradoxical situation in which the Statute of the City puts limits on the freedom of private property. And the  this paradox is resolved through political and social conflict. There are no possibilities of resolving this paradox outside of the political sphere, in my opinion. So the political sphere resolves the paradox between the affirmation of private property rights and its limits due to the social function of property established by the Statute of the City.

How do you view the use of decrees on the part of the Mayor’s Office related to mega sporting events like the Olympics.

Unfortunately the decree has turned into a mechanism regularly instituted by the government.  Decrees have turned into a mechanism used here, in São Paulo, in Recife and nationwide by the federal government. It’s not specifically limited to Rio de Janeiro. It is one of the instruments used by the state act on the margin of the law. It’s not totally illegal but its on the margin, the border of legality. So in this context largely used to enable agility, enable action on the border of the law, and it affirms an anti-democratic character on the part of the government because it weakens the political debate of you have actions based on decrees.

What do you think of Rio de Janeiro’s 2011 master development plan? Do you think it meets the Statute of the City’s requirements?

It does not fulfill the requirements of the statute of the city. It mentions the requirements, like most Brazilian master development plans do, but it doesn’t designate the statutes territorial instruments, it doesn’t make this instruments self-applicable. So it it doesn’t enable these instruments to operate effectively. It affirms the directives but does not translate them into effective city management tools.

Can you give an example?

One example is the creation of social interest zones (ZEIS). Rio’s development plan does not designate territory to apply these zones. So you have a plan that affirms these directives but does not link them to any territorial area within the city. These instruments have to be regularized to be implemented.

Complimentary law 101 of 2009 establishes guidelines for an urban consortium operation in the Port Area as part of the Porto Maravilha project. What do you think of it?

The biggest problem with the Porto Maravilha project is the subordination of decisions related to urban investments to a public private partnership.  So you are privatizing management of a large urban space in the center of Rio de Janeiro, subordinating investments to market interests.

Do you think that, in a general manner, the Mayor’s Office is following the directives for public participation established in the Rio de Janeiro Master Development Plan?

No. Not in relation to the Porto Maravilha or in relation to any urban project whatsoever in the city of Rio de Janeiro.  For example requirements for public  discussions on budget and community involvement of the in the construction, the discussion and decisions about urban development projects – none of this is being done. When the Mayor’s Office is required to hold public hearings they are absolutely controlled and effectively prevent any kind of public participation.

After the Morro de Bumba landslide disaster Mayor Eduardo Paes passed a decree  (N.32080 of 07 April 2010) authorizing evictions in so called risk areas. In your analysis, is this decree being used by the Mayor’s Office to violate the rights of poor people in Rio de Janeiro? What is the relationship between this and the Olympics? What measures are being made to block the political use of this decree?

The fact is that the Mayor’s Office enacted a series of evictions that have been associated with human rights violations. And these evictions are legitimized through various arguments. The first argument is environmental, such as the issue of the at-risk areas. The second argument is over legality of land ownership, the third argument is due to public interest such as the interventions related to the World Cup and the Olympics. So the argument used by the city government depends on the location. One moment it argues that the area is at-risk for landslides, another moment it’s due to construction in the public interest, another time it’s illegal land occupation. The Mayor’s Office acts according to its interests using one of these arguments to legitimize forced evictions. This was exacerbated because  the World Cup and the Olympics are used symbolically as a legitimizing argument in the eviction process. The affected communities organized against the evictions and have gone  to the public defendants office repeatedly but the Mayor’s Office has a lot of power and we only began to see a slight easing up against this resistance process after the 2013 protests.

How is this related to the Olympics?

Mega-events express  city development projects. If you talk about mega-events you talk about a city project, this is how they relate to each other. A mega-event is really an urban restructuring project that is symbolically legitimatized by the relationship with the games. You don’t have to do the urban interventions that are taking place to hold a World Cup or Olympics. So the truth is that it is impossible to talk about mega sporting events without talking about city restructuring projects. The city project is aggressively implemented because it is symbolically legitimized by the mega-event.

Rio de Janeiro’s organic law stipulates that in cases of forced evictions the residents should be relocated to new housing as close to their former residence as possible. How can the Mayor’s Office  legally justify the relocation of families who lived in places like the favela do Metro da Mangueira or Vila Sambadromo and relocating them to places over 40 km away in Kosmos? What actions can be taken to guarantee these families’ rights?

What are the tools that the Mayor’s Office uses to do this? Coersion, threats and misinformation. It creates a climate of fear in the community that is being threatened by eviction and all negotiations are done on an individual basis. There are no collective negotiations so some residents accept moving somewhere far away. The lack of adherence to the law is done in this way, misinformation, individual negotiations, threats, coersion, fear, and so on. This is the way that they manage to bypass the Organic Law.

What are the legal measures that are being made, to your knowledge, to guarantee that people can have their rights in this context? What else could or should be done?

In the case of Rio de Janeiro, the Mayor’s Office has won all civil and criminal charges that have been filed against it. This shows that the Judiciary is not a neutral force. There are suits defending communities that have been filed by the public defenders office, there are actions by the state’s attorneys office and spaces of dialogue promoted by the states attorney’s office but for now they have been insufficient to block these human rights violations. This shows that any effective strategy can’t be based only on legal actions despite the fact that we shouldn’t abandon this sphere. This shows that it is important to combine legal action with political and social actions and strategies for mobilizing society, strategies for interventions in political spheres and intervention strategies in the judiciary. I believe that a combination of these strategies can successfully counter this situation of human rights violations. On the other hand the Mayor’s Office is skillful at using the judiciary against its citizens. So this can also be a trap because at the same time that the judiciary can be a sphere to defend citizens rights, it can also be used as a sphere to legitimize the actions of the city government and human rights violations.


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.