Life and Death in Rio: Marielle Franco

IMG_0887Source: author’s photo of Veja magazine cover

I arrived in Rio on Mar. 14, 2018 the same day that Marielle Franco was assassinated. Unless you reside in Rio, Marielle was not well known. Certainly she was not the national figure that she has become since her execution. Elected to the Rio City Council with 40 thousand plus votes, she was the 5th leading vote getter and seen as a woman of great political potential. She was different from traditional politicians. Ms. Franco was born in the slums, was mixed race, and open and comfortable in her homosexuality. She received her BA from Rio Catholic University had master’s degree and had published on race, gender and human rights. On the left of the political spectrum, she courageously spoke against political and economic inequality, crimes perpetuated against the poor and black and to a significant extent against police brutality in the slums. On the night of her execution, she was returning from a meeting of black women about discrimination, struggles and the means to empowerment. In sum, she was a rising voice seeking to be heard in the cacophony of Rio’s decadent and corrupt political environment.

Political assassinations have gradually become more common in Brazil but most are related to local disputes often among feuding and traditionally powerful dominant families. Marielle’s assassination reminds us more of the killings of Chico Mendes or Dorothy Stang in the more remote regions of Brazil with the almost total lack of institutionalized systems of law and order. While Rio is certainly a crime center and notoriously dangerous, almost all of the weekly double-digit death toll is that of young black men somehow caught up in territorial disputes over drugs, arms and the control of other criminal activities. The situation in Rio reached what many considered its limits in February of this year after an even greater crime surge during “Carnaval”. President Temer, looking to gain some political advantage, declared a military intervention and the Army assumed control of public security in Rio. Given the timing, Marielle’s shooting must be viewed as a serious challenge to the Army and, indeed, the President declared that the attack was aimed at Brazil’s democracy.

Brazil is formally a political democracy with regular elections and an active and fairly open press.  Brazilians regularly reject control although many long for an imagined but totally unreal security of the authoritarian rule by the Generals (1964-1985). On the other hand, all types of inequalities undermine Brazil’s formal political system and almost all institutions are tainted and function as might be expected in a poor underdeveloped country. The elite corporations depend upon extractive industries and a highly protected internal market that barely requires increased productivity or an informed and competent workforce.

As in the United States where mass killings fail to mobilize the electorate or create a critical mass for change, it is unfortunate that this most recent stain on Brazil will have much effect. True, there have been some important public manifestations and protests here and even abroad, but still Brazil is typically more passive than aggressive. Public rage can set a tone and the streets can grab the attention of the political class but thus far the beaches are more crowded than the squares. People are upset but outside of the social media channels, there are few suggestions that this tragic death will change anything. Thus those who planned and hired this hit have sent their message. They have intimidated, they have stated their case for the status quo of uncontrolled crime, violence and malfeasance which strain, stain and sustain Brazil’s political status quo.

Some suggest that Brazil’s violence has metastasized and will eventually lead to the death and collapse of the system. The problem with this view is that fails to account for the resilience of accommodation. People continue to accept criminality, inequality, stupidity and corruption as the norm. Live with it or leave.

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