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Is Brazil 'shedding its skin'?

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• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, riorealblog.com. The views expressed are the author's own.

“How do we dialogue with a cynic?” two young people asked during a Rio de Encontros gathering this past week, at the Casa do Saber. Others, also university students who live in favelas, echoed the question.

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Luiz Eduardo Soares, anthropologist, activist, public safety specialist, and state public safety coordinator from 1999 to 2000, was the speaker. The title of the gathering, “How to make dialogue in the city feasible?” assumed such dialogue was possible in the first place.

But the young people in attendance had doubts. Cínico, cynic, is the word they use to describe those who maintain the traditional power structure in Rio. The kids are rappers, journalists, human rights activists, artists, community organizers. Many are critical of pacification.

One asked Mr. Soares, a student himself during the military dictatorship, if we’re living in a dictatorship now (Soares said no).

Harking back to the punishments of slavery

“Why are people taking justice into their own hands?” asked one audience member, referring to the emblematic case of a group of justiceiros who last month stripped and chained a robbery suspect to a post, using a bike lock. Soares believes that beyond the knee-jerk response of cariocas [people from Rio] who feel neglected by their public safety and justice systems, something else may be going on. He says that on another, more symbolic level, the traditional middle class could be responding to what they see as the encroachment of those emerging from poverty.

“The rolezinhos (social media-coordinated occupations of shopping malls, often by lower-class youth) are evidence of a redefined geopolitics of society,” he explained. “Lynching is a reaction to this. [The] poor and blacks are starting to inhabit new spaces.”

It’s impossible to prove this theory, just as it’s impossible to prove that street protest violence is a reaction to decades of top-down violence in Brazilian society, Sores noted. To many observers on the left, these ideas are intuitively correct. Whether or not they truly are, living with such phenomena is not a tenable national proposition. And so we must move to strengthen our institutions and values, rather than rely on ad-hoc violence or justice to make a point or solve a problem.

One aspect of daily life here that needs no proving is a pervasive top-down attitude. Soares, a proponent of a constitutional amendment to de-militarize the Brazilian police, said that this attitude is largely to blame for the difficulties that pacification now faces in Rio. Police, he explained, need to help manage public safety, not simply follow orders from above. “Professional pride is the the biggest obstacle to police corruption,” he added.

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Speaking up and out

How to engage? Is it worth even trying? Is Rio spinning its wheels, putting on a show? Huge questions for all of us, but particularly for those starting out in life. Disillusioned middle- and upper-class cariocas can always take their skills and dreams elsewhere, but what about the kids in the public university quota system, kids on ProUni scholarships at private universities, kids whose parents never dreamed of higher education?

Brazil’s biggest issues arise from inequality and the uneven application of democratic values. Over centuries, weak institutions with spotty access led to the creation of a parallel authoritarian system of networks of favors and payoffs, of justice and retribution, of lawmaking and information flows.

“It’s depressing, to keep on making the same old errors,” noted Soares. But then he went on to point out that, twenty or thirty years ago, “this auditorium would be unlikely.”

On the one hand, he said, many people blame an unspecified eles, “them,” for all that’s wrong. “This speaks of impotence, there’s no ‘we.’ It’s about a corrosive individualism, victimization. People say, ‘Damn ‘em, I’m just gonna look out for number one’.”

On the other hand, last winter’s street protests didn’t follow the traditional pattern of preparatory meetings to determine demands and activities, then a march with protestors behind a single banner. “Each person made his own sign, with his own message. We’re weaving the ‘we,’ it’s a moment of collective reinvention.” Soares added that Rio’s collectives, such as Norte Comum, are key to the process.

In a sense then, the answer to the young people’s question is to simply keep on making art, communicating, organizing. Soares says even cynics have their weak moments: ”No one is a rock”. Yet, in the midst of growing urban violence and misunderstandings, the personal investment involved is arguable.

What remains to be seen, with a mounting dose of patience, is if Soares is correct when he says Brazil is “shedding its skin.”

– Julia Michaels, a long-time resident of Brazil, writes the blog Rio Real, which she describes as a constructive and critical view of Rio de Janeiro’s ongoing transformation.