Porto Alegre: Progressive now - and then

28 January 2005
Porto Alegre is a warm, welcoming city. I spent half my life gallivanting around the world as a student and journalist, but it is still the place I consider home. Nestled by a river whose reflected sunset evokes pure childhood dreams, its muddy shores welcome me like a lost child every time I land back in its arms. But what’s this ‘idyllic’ place all about? It’s certainly not your typical ‘third world’ city. Brazil’s southernmost capital has the road infrastructure to rival many European cities, and stands as a bizarre anomaly to Brazil’s violent and profoundly unequal urban centres. Its roads are cleaner. Its slums are rarer. Its street kids are fewer. ‘Porto-alegrenses’ are proud of the city they affectionately call Porto. Try criticizing the place and locals will rebuke loud and clear that it is ‘the best city in the world’. This blind parochial patriotism has only grown since Porto Alegre became host to the first, second, third – and now fifth World Social Forum. But why Porto Alegre? For starters, the state capital of Rio Grande do Sul has a long history of democracy and very active social movements... (there's more if you click on the link below)The tradition dates as far back as the Revolucao Farroupilha in 1835, where an army of cattle-ranchers and liberal elites fought imperial forces to win an independent republic in the south. Thousands died – mostly peasants, former slaves and other rural workers – before imperial troops finally crushed the insurgency ten years later. Many significant political figures also hail from the area. Local son Getulio Vargas stands out as one of the most iconic presidents in Brazil’s history. He spearheaded an authoritarian-corporatist regime that was responsible for Brazil’s leap from a rural economy to a modern industrial one, before committing suicide in the early 1950s. The late governor of Rio Grande do Sul, Leonel Brizola, also figures prominently in history books. In 1961, he led the resistance that overturned an attempted military coup following the resignation of President Janio Quadros. The military, backed by the United States and local elites, eventually succeeded in 1964 and hurled Brazil into a 20-year dictatorship. Paradoxically, the long years of military rule helped strengthen civil society in the city. The political situation made political struggle so impossible, that communities focused on strengthening less conspicuous organisations like trade unions, neighbourhood groups, and football clubs. This explosion of single-issue groups, was the beginning of a vibrant and diverse popular movement that later became deeply involved in local politics. Brazil’s workers party, PT, was born out of the labour movement in 1980, and was crucial in the struggle against military rule. When elections were reintroduced in the late 1980s, former teacher and union leader Olivio Dutra won the municipal vote in Porto Alegre. This was the first of four consecutive mandates for PT in the city. Dutra introduced “participatory budgeting” as the main pillar of his administration, giving ordinary citizens unprecedented power to allocate public resources. This bottom-up approach to local governance has resulted in a radical redistribution of wealth, the urbanization of slums and building of popular housing, improved public transit, an archetypal recycling system, increased enrollment in elementary and secondary schools, and helped convince the middle classes that raising taxes is not always a bad thing. Participation in the process has increased significantly over the years. According to the mayor’s office, fewer than 1,000 inhabitants took part in the first participatory budget in 1990, while today the yearly average stands at over 40,000 people. It was because of this profoundly democratic climate and alternative economic environment that Porto Alegre was chosen to host the first World Social Forum in 2000. Only five years after its visionary debut, more than 100,000 participants have again flooded the city this year in what may be the best-organised Forum ever. PT lost the municipal elections in 2004 to a centre-right coalition spearheaded by former Senator Jose Fogaca. The defeat came partly because people felt PT’s long run in power had somehow undermined the democratic process. Disillusionment with President Lula’s government may also have affected the voting mood. It remains to be seen what the new administration will do with the participatory budget and how suitable forum organizers will find Porto Alegre in the coming years.
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