Within the framework of this year's "Fearless Cities" summit, Fundación Avina and DemocraciaAbierta established a special collaboration to explore some of the most exciting poltical experiences arising from Latin America.
Bringing together relevant actors in the field that are directly involved in political innovation at the local level, in Latin America, we have sought answers to four major issues shared by all the projects: a) Vision of innovation; b) National political context and limitations of local power; c) Influence of the international political context, and d) The question of leadership.
In this page, Sâmia Bomfim addresses these topics. Sâmia is a Brazilian activist focusing on human rights and women's movements with experience in building bridges between social movements of various causes. Member of the PSOL, she is a councilor in the municipality of Sao Paulo for the candidacy Bancada Ativista.
TOPIC 1: VISION OF INNOVATION
Considering what politics is in Brazil, I believe that our Bancada Activista candidacy does indeed have some elements of innovation. In the way of doing politics, however, I think that it is more of a rupture than an innovation, because it is something completely new. The usual relationships in politics here are very fraudulent, and financial and economic power totally dominates them: it buys representation, political position, chooses candidates and the causes to defend, and those not to defend. So, in that sense, I believe that the Bancada represents a complete break with what is considered to be normal in Brazilian politics.
We understand the need to rebuild politics, to elect representatives, parliamentarians and figures that are part of specific causes, of social movements, of specific niches, of social groups organising for particular purposes and demand changes in society. In that sense, our option represents a rupture.
But it is also true that, in certain respects, it is also an evolution. From the very beginning in the history of humanity, people have organised themselves, they have come together to try transforming things - and that is what we are now trying to do: uniting people, so that they can claim their rights. Only, this time, we want to do it within the political institutions. And this is where we can talk about innovation: what we are doing is bringing what already exists in society to spaces where it was not present before. In this sense, we can say that our political option is a mixture of rupture and innovation.
TOPIC 2: NATIONAL POLITICAL CONTEXT AND LIMITATIONS OF LOCAL POWER
There is a tension between the scope of the city and the national level. São Paulo is a very large city, with a population of 12 million and very extensive. It is much larger and more populated than many countries in the world. This dimension also makes it powerful at the national political level.
I usually say that São Paulo is many cities within a single one, and very unequal. Some elite neighborhoods are very rich, with a very strong cultural, even political life, but there are some city districts where housing is very precarious, and people have no access to health and education. This means that the forms organisation and social participation take in the city are very different.
In the neighborhood where I live, Pinheiros, a central one and more elitist, there are organisational spaces: many NGOs, groups, plazas, places to meet. But if you go to a neighborhood on the outskirts of the city, you will find that sometimes the only contact with other people happens in the church. And when there is a local cultural centre, it is very precarious and usually lasts a short time. In that sense, I think that local issues are often more difficult to deal with than some national issues, because there are huge inequalities: there is nothing that unifies the discourse of the city, it is necessarily very fragmented. The narrative of the city depends on each neighborhood’s specifics, while the narrative at the national level is unitary.
In this context, promoting movements and political organisation is very hard. And because São Paulo is a very large city - the largest economy in the country -, national issues have a great impact. The leading national political cadres come from São Paulo. What happens in São Paulo has consequences across the whole country. This was the case with the protests of June 2013, for example. Although the protests had already happened in a small city in the south, Porto Alegre, when they hit São Paulo they acquired a national dimension. Politics in Brazil since then has revolved around the contradictions and disputes that were brought out into the public space, onto the streets - first by the Left, and then by the Right.
We were born out of the lack of any other option, everything started from this. I think it is important to make local templates flourish, because they dialogue necessarily with national ones. Now, for example, from my mandate in the city hall, I understand the functioning of the culture movement much better. Culture in São Paulo is conceived through many projects in the periphery, territorial projects - musical education, artistic education, theatre projects – which end up becoming political movements.
Recently, we have had severe financial cuts, a freeze of almost 50% of the culture budget. So, these movements people did not know existed are now occupying the streets and going downtown to voice their demands before to the mayor, before the city council - and this, I believe, is a channel. There were cuts in Sao Paulo because they are cutting the budget at the national level as well. President Temer is holding back the money, and so the mayors do the same. The territories are mobilising for that too. We will see how these general issues end up being reflected in the territories, for the territories are where public, State-financed policies are most inadequate.
In the case of São Paulo, the city council is very large – there are 55 councillors -, and it is in permanent contact with the national level. It is the largest city council in Brazil, one of the largest in Latin America, maybe the largest, and so what happens there has a lot of visibility. Also, our mayor is a presidential candidate at next year’s elections, and he uses São Paulo as a political laboratory for his electoral program.
Being as I am in the opposition, I am fully aware that what I do ends up having some impact, some visibility, because many eyes are focused on São Paulo. São Paulo sets the trends and determines the politics in Brazil. The media also pays a lot of attention to what happens in São Paulo, and this stimulates other areas: many people from the north, and the north-east – places I have never been to – are getting in touch with us because they say they like my mandate, they are interested in having someone pugnacious in the largest city council in the country.
Others have suggested that I should run nationally, so that my mandate could benefit them too. If I stay in São Paulo, these people can see the potential of what we are doing here, but it does not affect their local policies. For example, Áurea Carolina, from Belo Horizonte, has been carrying out a really interesting mandate - really democratic, open, horizontal -, but she has ended up with less visibility than us because she is not in São Paulo - even though she has really interesting experiences to show, more so than mine.
TOPIC 3: IMPACT OF THE INTERNATIONAL POLITICAL CONTEXT
The international context, after the rise of Trump, has made room for outsiders, for people who come from fields other than politics but who have been welcomed in institutional spaces, which comes to show the failures of the democratic representative model. These failures entail real danger for democracy, because in the end the way out of the mess is not always the strengthening of the instruments of popular participation, of real, radical democracy, but rather the denial of the instruments of democracy. Something like this is currently happening in Brazil.
I do not make, as others do, a direct connection between Temer and Trump, because I think they are phenomena of a different nature. Temer has a distinctive element - his lack of legitimacy - which translates into his complete denial of democracy. When we say that he has not been elected by anyone, it is not so much because we miss the former government - after all, Temer was Dilma's Vice President - but because of his program: social security reform, labour reform, no women in government. These, among several other things, are issues citizens would never vote in favour of. This is why he is illegitimate, because that is the only way in which such a conservative policy, so devastating for our rights, can be implemented.
Hopefully, perhaps, this experience the country is currently undergoing can help us to further strengthen democracy. It is useful to widen the perception of the importance of having new representatives, with a program, a political platform in line with our interests. On the other hand, we have the right-wing presidential candidate, Bolsonaro, who currently ranks second in the polls. I am suspicious, because he is an outsider, he says what he wants, he is brave, he is audacious, and people like that. But the electoral race has not yet officially started and during the race there is a campaign, there are debates, and I am not sure that people will embrace the conservative discourse. When they get to see their rights going down the drain, that their daily life is affected, they will not vote for it. This is the reason why experiences like our Activist Bench are important: they show that democracy, as it is, is a defective politics, and that we need to challenge and improve it. The hollowing out of politics is not going to solve us anything.
TOPIC 4: THE QUESTION OF LEADERSHIP
One of the main problems of Brazilian politics is the lack of alternative options, of tools with which to challenge power. Especially when there is polarisation between two major parties: the PT and the PSDB, the old left and the old right. Both are involved in the same schemes, defend the same political platform, have the same figures, the same completely worn out leaders.
We do not have a third party representing a front of movements, groups, social organisations that can challenge power. This has to do, I think, with media coverage, which is very much oriented by what happens in the United States - bipartisanship - and tries to transplant the same dynamics in Brazil, as if there were only two possibilities.
But it also has to do with the Brazilian electoral system. We do not have independent candidates, there is no such possibility, it is very difficult for a candidacy without big money behind it to get elected. This is indeed very anti-democratic, because the power-wielders end up electing their representatives, while people from social movements cannot reach that party structure. Even the most democratic, most progressive parties still have “bosses” in Brazil – we call them caciques, which is a term that originally referred to the indigenous communities’ chiefs. The parties still have their caciques, the big names in politics, and this is an endemic dynamics to the way politics is done in Brazil.
I think social leadership experiences like mine, like that of Áurea Carolina, like those spontaneous movements in the cities, need to be courageous and try to pierce the blockade and occupy politics, because there are examples that show that it can be done. Brazil has opened up a discussion on political reform. Some proposals could make it difficult, but others can help. For example, the question of whether the district vote should be allowed or not. That is currently being discussed in Brazil but, at the same time, they want to eliminate small parties, such as PSOL, for example – that is my party. So, people like me, where would they go? How would it be possible for us to campaign in this two-party challenge, dominated by their caciques?
On participation, democracy and leadership, we find ourselves today at a crossroads. There is a crisis of representation, an economic crisis, and a discrediting of politics. So, our challenge is to get people to discuss the directions this political reform should take, at a time when people do not trust politics. That is the challenge: to regain confidence. And, for that, we must bring new people to the institutions.
Check out our webpage for this special project: https://opendemocracy.net/info/avina-interactive-roundtable-english
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