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In Brazil, Pacification Paves Way For Baby Steps To Democracy

Two young men play street soccer in the Rio de Janeiro shantytown of Vidigal on May 14.
Marcelo Sayao
Two young men play street soccer in the Rio de Janeiro shantytown of Vidigal on May 14.

As World Cup travelers in Brazil flock to Rio de Janeiro for the tournament's final, many are staying in newly pacified favelas, or low-income neighborhoods.

Among the most popular is Vidigal, which rises up a steep hillside over some of Rio's most scenic beaches and offers some of the city's most beautiful views. A government program to drive crime from the historically violent slum has attracted entrepreneurs and investors and also nurtured a step toward democracy.

It's a Tuesday night at the entrance to Vidigal, and than 100 people have gathered at a forum to debate the recent changes in their community.

Maria Souza, who is retired, takes the microphone.

"The electricity bill for my neighbor, Vera, is 762 reais and 80 cents [about $345]," he says. "Here it is! Electricity, in Vidigal."

Paying for public services is new to many favelas. But even so, the electricity bill is 10 times what it should be.

One of Rio's most famous tourist attractions, Ipanema beach, is visible from Vidigal.
Felipe Dana / AP
One of Rio's most famous tourist attractions, Ipanema beach, is visible from Vidigal.

Raymundo Santa Rosa from the power company is among the state and government agencies at the forum to answer questions. He says he'll look into the charge.

"I will go personally to your house. I will go with a team to see what is happening," he tells the crowd. "Everyone who is having a problem with this will get the same procedure."

This favela used to be controlled by a drug gang. The government was absent. And speaking up could get you killed.

In advance of the World Cup and the Olympics, a program called pacification was put in place where police units were stationed in areas like this one.

While its impact has been hotly debated — there have been cases of police brutality for example — here in Vidigal it did bring a step toward democracy.

The community held its first-ever election for a governing body two years ago and chose political outsiders who had long been grass-roots leaders. One of these is Andre Kosi, who drives a delivery truck. Kosi says having a voice has been a game changer.

"We didn't know anything about public management, and now we're learning how the government machine works. I see there are a lot of flaws. Essentially, the government is set up to serve its own ends. So things like health care continue to be precarious, because the government was not even paying attention," Kosi says. "Now they are finally serving us a bit better because we are creating a voice."

Among recent successes, he says, is that the neighborhood association persuaded the government to increase its public bus service. But he says there's still a long way to go.

Igancio Cano, a State University of Rio sociologist and adviser to the pacification program, says that five years in, it's very far from what it should be.

"The police and the community are still far apart from each other," he says. "There is a lot of mistrust on both sides, so we've advanced very little."

Part of the problem, Cano says, is that pacification was originally presented as a cure-all. It came with a social services arm that was supposed to address needs like health care and education.

When that arm was cut back, it became easy to simply blame the police instead of going to the secretary of health, for example.

"We need the community to take over this role, and the police to provide the security that allows the community to represent itself," Cano says.

That security has been slipping in Rio. Despite the fact that more than 9,000 police in the state have been newly trained to be part of pacification units since 2008, deadly conflicts with police have risen sharply in the past year.

Cano says that's because the police have continued their old ways: running dramatic, shoot-em-up operations to hunt for drug traffickers instead of listening to the community's security preferences, which is for keeping homes safe from break-ins.

"It's because we have this 'war on drugs,' 'war on crime,' and that's what the police are used to doing," Cano says.

The communication that's going on in Vidigal with police and government officials, Cano says, is the reason why Vidigal has become safer in recent years, and why it's an example for the rest of the city.

As the debate in Vidigal came to an end, Police Chief Carlos Veiga said pacification and wider political reform in Brazil will work only if people take part in the kind of dialogue that is happening in Vidigal.

"It's always a search for citizenship in Brazil," Veiga said, "and Vidigal is in the front."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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