‘We are favela!’

Kathleen McCaul Moura

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A dead man lies on the floor with arms outstretched, his legs crossed. Beneath him are the words: ‘seja marginal, seja herói’ (‘be an outlaw, be a hero’). The image, created in 1967 by Hélio Oiticica, became an emblem of the resistance movement against the military regime that ruled Brazil between 1964 and 1985. When they displayed the picture on a flag at a concert in Rio, the musicians Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil were arrested, jailed, then sent into exile in London. But the word marginal does not only mean outlaw, it also means, simply, ‘from the margins’. Oiticica’s dead hero demands status for the marginalised in a country where the poorest have always been exploited by those in power.

In São Paulo, there’s a movement called Literatura Marginal. Jardim Angela was once known for being the most dangerous neighbourhood in the city, but it’s now famous for its weekly poetry salons. At the boteco Bar do Zé, surrounded by beer crates and plastic tables, former cleaners, reformed drug addicts and local students recite verses to a packed house.

I went along just as the biggest corruption investigation in Brazilian history, Operação Lava Jato, was gathering steam. The news showed footage of once powerful businessmen being escorted to prison by Newton Ishii, nicknamed Japonês da Federal, ‘the Japanese Cop’. Despite the terrible recession, there was a feeling that Brazil was entering a new era: the elite were finally being brought to justice, while the marginalised poor were finding their voices. One poet, a former cleaner called Tula Pilar, laughed at her former employers: ‘When they found me reading they’d get angry, saying I was there to clean. Then they saw the kinds of books I had and they thought it was absurd. They’d tell me I couldn’t understand good writing because I was from a favela, I was poor and black and I hadn’t been educated.’ She published her first collection, Palavras Inacadêmicas (‘Unacademic Words’), in 2009.

When a nervous teenager received a watery round of applause at one event in Jardim Angela, the compère shouted: ‘Come on people! We are better than that! We are favela!’ The audience cheered. But one poet I interviewed was not optimistic about the future. Dirceu Villa grew up in a working-class neighbourhood in the North Zone of São Paulo. He taught himself poetry by reading the great European poets; his work has a distinctively Baudelairean character. He believed the marginalised were kidding themselves if they thought they were becoming more powerful, and that it was only a matter of time before the elite re-established itself. ‘It’s a coup,’ he said of the corruption investigation. The crowds calling for the impeachment of the president, Dilma Rousseff, were growing larger and louder.

A few months later, with Dilma suspended and the impeachment process begun, the Japonês da Federal was arrested on bribery charges. Eduardo Cunha, the speaker of the lower house, who led the impeachment campaign, has been accused of greater crimes than the president’s. The Swiss authorities have claimed that Cunha has millions of pounds in secret bank accounts. He has been suspended from duty for attempting to block investigations into his own fraudulent affairs and intimidating the judiciary. The lawmakers responsible for initiating Operação Lava Jato, including Sérgio Moro, the judge who was much praised for his efforts to root out corruption, appear to have been discredited. Gazeta do Povo reported that their salaries were 20 percent higher than the legal ceiling. Who was paying their bonuses? (There’s an internet quiz in which you have to guess whether an incident happened in the Brazilian senate or in House of Cards.)

The Brazilian media are owned by a handful of the richest families. The largest network in the country, Globo, has admitted to being the propaganda arm of the military dictatorship. Before the impeachment, there were endless attacks in the press on Dilma, Lula and the Workers’ Party (PT), while Moro was held up as a national hero. In response, Villa and 120 other writers and poets have published an anthology that rails against the ‘band of rats’ trying to destroy democracy. ‘The country was manipulated by Rede Globo, Brazil’s most popular TV channel, as well as other newspapers and channels,’ Naomi Jaffe writes.

They created a massive process of disguised propaganda, were totally biased. When there was a demonstration for Dilma, they never showed it and when it was against her they focused on the most crowded parts of the event, faking numbers and filling the screen with misinformation.

After Dilma’s suspension, the Estadão de São Paulo reported that the acting president, Michel Temer, cut 8 million reais of funding – more than £1.6 million pounds – to blogs and news operations that were seen to be protesting against the impeachment. Thirty-five libel suits have been brought against the journalists who reported the Lava Jato judges’ excessively high salaries. Reporters without Borders has criticised the litigation, calling it ‘persecution … censorship … a clear violation of freedom of information’.

Villa’s emails to me have become increasingly ominous. He joined a peaceful march to support Dilma that was met by riot police and soldiers, who forced the protesters to disperse. The unarmed protesters finally found a place to gather, but were attacked during the night by a riot squad using tear gas, water cannon and concussion grenades. Before the suspension, Villa pointed out, anti-Dilma demonstrators were able to occupy São Paulo’s busiest and oldest street, Avenida Paulista, without being harassed. On 10 June, thousands of Brazilians gathered in forty cities to demand Temer’s resignation, calling his appointment – as Villa had done – a coup. There were too many people and too many cameras for the protest to be dispersed or ignored.

Temer has already begun rolling back many of what the novelist Luiz Ruffato calls the ‘small victories’ won for democracy over the 13 years that the PT has been in power. There are now moves to repeal legislation protecting minorities and the environment; social funds are being cut, agricultural reforms are under threat. ‘The new cabinet has ties to the military dictatorship,’ Villa told me. ‘They represent violent, anti-democratic governance for the richest 1 per cent. The worst thing they are doing is trying to end workers’ rights … These laws have been in place since the 1930s and this government says it now needs to end them to help the economy grow. And the rich get richer of course.’

I arrived in Brazil just as Lula’s presidency was coming to an end and Dilma was beginning her first term. Their Bolsa Família programme, which gave cash incentives for keeping children in school and attending health clinics, had more than halved extreme poverty in the country, and reached a quarter of the country’s population. The woman who cleaned my house had to endure a four-hour commute from the outskirts of São Paulo to work eight-hour shifts in the city centre with no holiday rights or health insurance. But her daughter was in college and worked as a receptionist at a technology company. Dilma may have made mistakes, but under her leadership Brazil was a place where a girl from the favela could get a decent education and a good job, or become a poet and join a grassroots literary movement. Lula was the seventh of eight children born to a single mother in the arid backlands of the North-East, imprisoned for his political beliefs before rising to become a national leader: his story embodied Oiticica’s notion of the marginal hero. But the new administration wants to tell a different tale, in which the heroes of the working class are criminals again.

Read more in the London Review of Books

Perry Anderson: Crisis in Brazil · 21 April 2016

Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro: Rio’s Favelas · 21 January 2016