Urban Development in Rio de Janeiro During the ‘Pink Tide’: Bridging Socio-Spatial Divides Between the Formal and Informal City?

  • Celina Myrann Sørbøe
Open Access
Part of the Approaches to Social Inequality and Difference book series (ATSIAD)


This chapter takes the Rocinha favela in Rio de Janeiro as the starting point for reflecting on efforts at addressing social justice and constructing citizenship in Brazil during the ‘Pink Tide’. Recent public interventions have addressed economic inequalities through policies of redistribution. This has led to a degree of social inclusion through lifting people out of poverty and providing them entry into middle-class consumer markets. The interventions have however been less successful in building a foundation for addressing inequalities beyond economic concerns. The PAC programme of infrastructure investments was co-opted by elite interests, while the UPP police programme failed to improve security. Advancements that did take place have been countered by a revanchist reaction to the gains made by the poorer segments of society.


A few weeks after the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, residents from the upper middle-class neighbourhood São Conrado organised a protest. The combination of ‘Rio residents’, ‘sports events’ and ‘protests’ has appeared in countless headlines since June 2013, when millions of Brazilians took to the streets in mass demonstrations. A cacophony of demands, from broad citizenship issues to state inefficiency and corruption to protesting the disproportionate spending on the hosting of mega sports events, were fronted. Demonstrations have continued to bring Brazilians to the streets, but the agendas of protesters have radically changed character:

Away with the bus stop! São Conrado does not accept a final stop/bus stop. Disorder for the residents of the neighbourhood. Noise, filthiness, occupied lanes, traffic. The municipality does not listen to us!!! We demand action.

The above message appeared on several banners that were draped on buildings in São Conrado in September 2016, demanding that the local bus stop would be removed. The City obliged to the demand, and according to one of its users, the bus stop was moved to:

A dark, one-way street behind an old hotel that has been abandoned for decades. It is a deserted street, with no sidewalk, next to a forest (…) unlit, and without a shelter for people to sit and wait for the bus.

Anyone who has travelled on the over-crowded, under-air-conditioned buses in Rio’s blistering summer heat knows that they are not the prioritised means of transportation for those with alternatives. The majority of the users of the bus stop are not the residents of São Conrado, but those of neighbouring Rocinha, Rio and Brazil’s largest favela (urban informal settlement). While only metres away from each other, the two neighbourhoods seem worlds apart. In a 2016 Social Progress Index measuring human development, Rocinha scored 44.9 on a scale from 0 to 100. That ranked Rocinha in 29th place of 32 administrative regions in the city. São Conrado’s region ranked second with a score of 85.18 (IPS 2016). This contrast between São Conrado and Rocinha illustrates the prevalence of uneven urban development and socio-economic differences in the city. The recent protest in São Conrado also testifies to a deep-rooted class struggle that has resurfaced in later years.

With the 2002 election of the Worker’s Party’s (PT) Inácio ‘Lula’ da Silva as President, many hoped Brazil’s entrenched inequalities could be confronted. Lula placed Brazil at the forefront of the centre-left ‘Pink Tide’ in Latin America. The socially oriented policies introduced in Lula’s first term increased minimum wages and strengthened worker’s rights. Cash transfer programmes helped keep children from underprivileged families in school, while affirmative action granted their elder siblings access to universities. Lula’s second term operationalised an ambitious developmentalist agenda, implementing national development programmes in industries and infrastructure. In Rio, these programmes were connected with the city’s preparations for the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Olympics . The City pledged to use the unique opportunity of the mega sports events to respond to the legacy of socio-spatial inequalities, and targeted favelas with investments in infrastructure, security and social housing. Rocinha was one of the favelas at the receiving end of investments.

The PT years did bring a profound change to the composition of the Brazilian society through the programmes of redistribution, social inclusion and poverty reduction. As argued throughout this book, the ‘Pink Tide’ in Brazil was however marked by continuities as much as ruptures. The inequality-reducing measures introduced may have eased the lives of the poorest while there was economic and political will to uphold these policies. But they were less successful building a lasting foundation for inequality reductions beyond economic concerns. From 2013 onwards, PT became the scapegoat for the deepening political and economic crises enveloping the country, and the party’s reign ultimately came to a brutal end with Dilma’s impeachment in September 2016 (Jinkings et al. 2016). Advancements that did take place in terms of efforts at addressing social justice and constructing citizenship are currently being rolled back in what can be termed a revanchist (Smith 1996) counter-reaction to the gains made by the poorer segments of society. This chapter will reflect on these issues through the case of Rocinha.

Part 1: Decades of Change

The Divided City

The name Rocinha means ‘little farm’ and stems from the initial occupation of the territory in the 1930s by small-scale farmers. Rocinha’s growth accelerated from the 1950s, a period when rapid urbanisation brought millions of rural workers from the agricultural states in the northeast to the large industrial centres in the centre-south, such as Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo (Leitão 2009). Unable to find affordable housing, the migrants innovated and built their homes on the steep hillsides wedged between the middle- and upper-class neighbourhoods lining Rio’s shoreline. According to the latest census (IBGE 2010), one quarter of Rio’s population resides in favelas. Rocinha’s privileged location, between São Conrado and Gávea, two of the most affluent neighbourhoods of the city, has for good and for bad continually placed the spotlight on the community.

Urban informality is often associated with marginality, precariousness, socio-economic vulnerability and conflict in what Ananya Roy (2011, 224) has termed an ‘apocalyptic and dystopian narrative of the slum’ (see, e.g. Neuwirth 2005; Davis 2006). Urban informal settlements have often been presented as ‘diseases on the social body’, providing urban reformers justifications for razing them (Stepan 1991; Holston 2009). In the 1960s and 1970s, the government initiated forced removals in many of the centrally located favelas in Rio, and Rocinha was no exception. The community suffered three partial removals in this period, but residents returned to Rocinha because of its location. The removals therefore did not stall the favela’s growth. Rather, it accelerated as the construction boom in Rio’s infrastructure and real estate sectors provided work opportunities, including in the construction of São Conrado. The latter expanded in the 1960s, and is today a high-end neighbourhood of gated communities and luxurious shopping centres.

In the decades that have passed, starch differences have consolidated between the two neighbourhoods. The favela’s narrow, winding pathways contrast with the formal city’s straight streets and avenues. The favela’s makeshift economy, where everything from basic services such as sewage, water and electricity to transportation, commerce and security has largely been arranged informally, differs from the urban economy of the formal city. There, business is mainly on the books and workers’ wages and working conditions conform to labour laws and standards. A 33-year-old man born and raised in Rocinha takes it so far as to claim that “there is a frontier here, where all that is missing in order to prevent people from crossing is border customs”. Perhaps more important than material differences, he refers to symbolic, behavioural and cultural barriers that have excluded favela residents from mainstream society (see also Larkins 2015). A perception of favela residents as a dangerous ‘other’ (Said 1979) representing a threat to ‘civilised society’ has prevailed since the favelas first appeared over a century ago (Valladares 2005; Leite 2012). This perception was reinforced when the international drug trade found a stronghold on the unmapped, unpatrolled hillsides of Rio’s favelas from the 1980s onwards. Drug traffickers often had the resources to maintain order and provide social assistance in areas where public services were limited at best. As armed drug gangs started filling the vacuum of the weak state presence, regular residents within these territories were seen as accomplices of the drug traffickers because of neighbourhood relations, kinship or economic and political ties. The police took a militarised approach to combating the drug trafficking in Rio’s favelas, and the social conflict in the city became formulated as a ‘war’ (Machado da Silva and Leite 2008). This war has legitimised illegalities in the state’s handling of the favelas.

In his writings on what he terms a ‘state of exception’, Agamben (1998) describes a condition under which normal principles of law and order are superseded by exceptional acts or displays of force in the name of protecting citizens. Judith Butler (2004, 98) points out that this can produce a state of ‘desubjectivation’ where “certain subjects undergo a suspension of their ontological status as subjects”. Drug traffickers were envisioned not merely as common criminals but as enemy combatants at war with the state. Due to their perceived connection with drug trafficking, regular favela residents also became a kind of nonperson stripped of citizenship, a condition Agamben calls ‘bare life’ (1998, 11). An illustrative occurrence is a large police operation in Rocinha on May 20, 2016. Around 3:30 pm on that Friday afternoon, the BOPE special police force entered Rocinha with military helicopters and trucks in an intense shoot-out with local drug traffickers. Rio’s largest newspaper O Globo reported on the event under the headline “shoot-out in Rocinha scares students at PUC ”, the catholic university in the nearby upper-class neighbourhood Gávea (see Papo Reto 2016). The angle of the article, focusing on the fear of upper middle-class students in an adjacent neighbourhood rather than the fate of Rocinha residents caught in the crossfire, is telling of how favela residents have been rendered as ‘bare life’.

Politics of Citizenship

There are still stark socio-spatial differences in Rio and Brazil, entrenched inequalities do not erase easily. But since the 1980s, Brazil has come a long way in establishing a legal framework and institutions that work to promote a more inclusive society. Citizenship has been a key concept.

With the end of the military dictatorship in the mid-1980s, social movements of all sorts, including favela, workers’, landless’, urban, health, feminist, black and student movements, emerged as protagonists of a new kind of politics. The reference to citizenship was not only a tool in their specific struggles but also a powerful link among them. The notion of citizenship in terms of ‘cultural’ inclusion, political representation and especially social rights (see Stokke forthcoming), became the mean through which the traditionally excluded masses gained a voice in the public sphere . The fruits of their struggle were manifest in the 1988 Constitution, often referred to as the ‘Citizen Constitution’ (Dagnino 2010). It recognised social and economic rights such as housing, employment, education and health. In terms of specifically urban challenges, it also incorporated new ideas about the ‘ social function’ of cities and urban property. The 2001 City Statute further recognised the ‘right to the city’ (Lefebvre 1968; Harvey 2008; Júnior 2005), the right of all urban dwellers to appropriate urban space and to participate centrally in its production (Purcell 2003). As a result, the 1990s and 2000s saw important advancements in policies and politics towards the favelas. Favela residents called for public investments with the Constitution in hand, and removal policies were put to an end. The public debate shifted to concentrating on the necessity of integrating the favelas in the city (Burgos 1998). When Inácio Lula da Silva from the Worker’s Party (PT) won the presidency on a pro-poor platform in 2002, many were optimistic that the old divides between the favela and the formal city could slowly be erased.

PT Under Lula: Combining Social Concerns for the Poor with Economic Concerns for Growth

The election of Lula represented an historic opportunity for significant change in Brazil. The worker’s union leader, who was illiterate until the age of ten and did not receive much in terms of formal education, represented something radically new in Brazil and in Latin America. At the same time, there were powerful forces of continuity. As Strønen and Ystanes point out in the introduction to this volume, the scope of possibility the Pink Tide governments operated within was largely defined by traditional elites. The re-democratisation of Brazil was a gradual opening (abertura in Portuguese) rather than a rupture, and the country preserved the historic structures of an oligarchic-bourgeois political society (see Teles and Safatle 2010). Lula had previously run for president three times without success. In order to win in 2002, he modified his once radical socialist orientation and reached out to the conservative political and financial elites. In an open letter addressed to the Brazilian people, but whose intended audience was rather these elites, Lula promised to adhere to fiscal responsibility, make low inflation a priority, and generally play by the rules of the market (Singer 2012). A pragmatic dealmaker, Lula accepted the neoliberal reality but sought to address the downsides of those policies through redistributing to the poorer segments of society. The elimination of the previous radicalism of PT and the search for a broad government coalition mark a transition from petismo to lulismo—‘the Lula way of governing’ (Sampaio jr., 2012; Singer 2012).

Mega Sports Events and Entrepreneurial Governance

In Rio de Janeiro, both the governor from 2007 and the mayor from 2009 were from PMDB, the business-oriented party within Lula’s broad governing alliance. The three levels of government were thereby aligned for the first time in decades and would converge around a common project: the hosting of mega sports events. Brazil and Rio de Janeiro bid successfully on both the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Olympics , the largest sports spectacles in the world. This would present a unique window of opportunity for investments in Rio’s favelas.

Lula’s great ambition was to take Brazil out of the shadow of being the eternal ‘land of the future’ (Zweig 2017) to becoming an economic and political power to be reckoned with. His hope was that the 2016 Olympics would become a stamp of approval on the South American giant’s coming of age, just as the Beijing Olympics of 2008 marked China’s revival as a world power (Broudehoux 2007). Rio’s local level government, on the other hand, had its own interests in hosting these events. Compelled to compete on the global arena over increasingly mobile capital, cities have adapted entrepreneurial styles of action and communication (Harvey 1989). The summer Olympics is the ‘holy grail’ of the entrepreneurial city competition, and Rio has bid on the event since the 1990s as part of its entrepreneurial governance (Vainer 2011).

The marketing of Rio as a potential host city depended on constructing an image of an exotic but tame city. This required that Rio confronted the statistics where it exhibited poor rankings, such as indicators on crime, violence and inequality. These were all issues that to a large degree were associated with the favelas, which had become an ‘anti-postcard’ (Ventura 1994) for Rio de Janeiro and for Brazil. Public policies in the favelas had to be revised. Interventions in the favelas became a central part of the Olympic development plans. Rio’s Olympic bid pledged to use the Olympics both to improve living conditions for the poor and improve security in the city, leaving the city with a ‘social legacy’ after the Games (Braathen et al. 2013). Programmes were developed at all three levels of government targeting the favelas in particular, the main references being the federal Program of Accelerated Growth (PAC), the state Police Pacification Program (UPP) and the municipal Morar Carioca (Rolnik 2011). An additional ‘legacy’ from these interventions would hopefully come in the form of ‘branding’ Rio within the entrepreneurial city competition. In the next section, we will look at how the PAC and UPP programmes have materialised in Rocinha.

Part 2: Towards Urban Integration?

Rocinha: From Favela to Formality?

With his long white beard and never-faulting khaki shorts and sandals, 70-year-old José Martíns de Oliveira is an easily recognisable resident of Rocinha. A member of the community for nearly half a century, Martíns has accompanied Rocinha’s growth from a once-small community to a densely populated neighbourhood of nearly 200,000 residents. Rocinha today is a far shot from the ramshackle wooden houses Martíns encountered when he migrated to Rio from north-eastern Ceará in 1968, when he tells me “there was no water, no transportation, no banks, commerce or supermarkets”. Today Rocinha offers all the services found in the formal city. While today’s unfinished brick houses still may not look like much from the outside, appearances can deceive. Nearly all residents have access to electricity and running water. Inside, flat screen TVs, sound systems, and latest-model refrigerators and other domestic goods are common. The latter items are a visual confirmation of the improved material living standards brought on by PT’s socially oriented policies. The family allowance Bolsa Familia, higher minimum wages and facilitated access to credit has allowed low-income families to purchase once unattainable goods. According to Meirelles and Athayde (2016), the average income of favela residents rose by 54.7 per cent between 2003 and 2013.

Different urbanisation programmes have provided improvements in Rocinha since the 1980s, but the largest one by far to reach the community is the federal Program of Accelerated Growth (PAC), initiated by Lula in the very beginning of his second term in 2007. PAC’s main investments were large-scale projects within the areas of construction, energy, transport and logistics, but it also had a subprogramme called PAC-Favela that provided urban upgrading in some of Rio’s favelas. Rocinha was promised investments for US$ 400 million through two phases of PAC. PAC’s stated aim in Rocinha was to “transform physical interventions of urban upgrading (…) into processes of sustainable development” (EMOP 2007). PAC was to build on grassroots-driven struggles for urban developments in Rocinha that date back to the mid-2000s, when a ‘Socio-Spatial Master Plan for the Sustainable Development of Rocinha’ was produced. The architect behind the Master Plan, Carlos Luis Toledo, is well-known for his strong belief in participatory planning, and the Master Plan was the result of nearly 2 years of discussing Rocinha’s needs with residents in a bottom-up manner. According to a community leader, “[Toledo] did something that rarely happens, which was to hold assemblies, here in the community, discussing with the residents. It was democratic, there was participation”. The process thus marked a step away from clientelist practices that have tended to steer interventions in Rio’s favelas, where politicians have exchanged upgrading projects or other services for votes (Maricato 2000). The Master Plan’s main proposals included completing infrastructure and facilities of basic sanitation, ensuring better accessibility, establishing limits on Rocinha’s horizontal and vertical growth, and constructing a series of urban facilities, all while ‘valuing Rocinha’s culture and identity’ (see Toledo 2011).

In the same period the PAC programme was being implemented in Rocinha, another initiative to intervene in Rio’s favelas was developed at the state level: the Police ‘Pacification’ Program (UPP). UPP was designed as a combination of proximity policing with a social component, the municipal programme UPP Social (later re-named Rio+Social) that would provide social services like job training and cultural activities. The stated goal was to take back state control over territories controlled by drug traffickers to provide the local population “peace and public safety”, seen as “necessary for the full exercise and development of citizenship” (Henriques and Ramos 2011, 243). It thus aspired to break with the logic of ‘war’ that had steered police interventions in favelas. The BOPE special police force occupied Rocinha in November 2011 to prepare for the implementation of the UPP, which was inaugurated in September 2012.

The combination of the improved security through UPP, the PAC investments in infrastructure, and policies that aimed at reducing income inequalities, presented a promise of significant changes in Rocinha. Together they constituted a politics of citizenship; that is, a pursuit of redistribution, representation and recognition as three interrelated dimensions of injustice and citizenship politics (Stokke forthcoming). How and to what degree did these programmes and policies live up to their expectations?

PAC and Participatory Development

PAC started as a prolongation of the Master Plan, and Toledo was hired to oversee the process. However, as the process went from the planning stage to the implementation of PAC works, it changed considerably. Toledo claimed “the government chose what was not our priority”, and Martíns lamented that “the PAC works were implemented from the top-down”. While the Master Plan explicitly listed basic sanitation as the community’s most urgent need, the State Company of Public Works (EMOP) cherry-picked for execution prestigious infrastructure projects such as a large sports complex and a footpath designed by the internationally renowned architect Oscar Niemeyer, which connects Rocinha and São Conrado. It is an ‘architectonical masterpiece symbolically and physically bridging the formal and the informal city’ according Ruth Jurberg, responsible for PAC-Rocinha at EMOP, while Martíns regards it an expensive ‘white elephant’ replacing an already existing, fully functioning bridge that had strong historic and cultural value for the community. Many residents have denounced the PAC projects of being ‘for tourists to see’: architectonical masterpieces that are doing a specific symbolical work with impacts that reach beyond the immediate locality. As one resident puts it,

They are works that you can see, basic sanitation on the other hand you cannot. If you show off a cable car in a favela, the foreigners taking photos, it is something that calls attention. It is just that it is not what the resident needs.

The cable car he refers to was a proposal from the federal government when a second round of PAC investments were promised Rocinha in 2012. Local civil society groups rejected the idea of the cable car in several preliminary hearings, asking for the completion of works that had been contracted through PAC but stalled in 2011 when 70 per cent of the work had been completed yet the initial budget was overrun by about 35 per cent (Daflon and Berta 2011). They also asked for PAC 2 to prioritise basic sanitation. Nevertheless, when Dilma officially launched PAC 2 in Rocinha in June 2013, half of the budget was earmarked for the construction of a cable car.

UPP: ‘Opening Up’ the Favela

As for the UPP ‘pacifying’ police, it pledged to pacify police and drug traffickers. Of equal importance for the Olympic city, it also pacified the anxieties of the middle classes and tourists in adjacent formal neighbourhoods, who reported feeling safer as the drug-related violence was displaced out of centrally located pacified favelas into the peripheries of the city (Cavalcanti 2013, 205). Real estate prices in São Conrado increased by nearly 200 per cent after the pacification of Rocinha (Ibid., 2014). The UPP police was however less successful in making residents of Rocinha experience increased safety. According to data from the Institute of Public Safety, the rates of crime increased significantly in Rocinha from 2011 to 2012 (Rousso 2012). The pacification also increased insecurity for residents in a different sense, through ‘opening up’ the favela for a range of outside actors.

While the hills and mountainsides of the favelas were seen as wasteland a century ago when the favelas first emerged, they are today considered prime pieces of real estate in central areas of the city (see Rolnik 2016). As areas to a large degree outside of the formal economy, they also represent areas of capitalist interest. As Governor Cabral bluntly put it in 2011, when commenting on the public interventions in Rocinha, “we have to keep doing construction projects, but capitalism has to enter more and more” (Schmitt 2011). On the heels of the BOPE special police force that occupied Rocinha in 2011 came another invading force, the so-called formalisation task forces that were to formalise businesses and real estate (Urani et al. 2011), along with corporate actors eager to tap into the lucrative favela market. Services like the gato networks providing affordable electricity, internet, cable TV and motorcycle taxi services were formalised with a resulting multiplication of costs. This is what Harvey (2003) has termed an ‘enclosing the commons’, a privatisation of services that used to be informally taken care of. Local business owners struggle to compete with national and international franchises that have established a local presence, offering 24-month down payments on credit-bought electronics. A resident interviewed in 2012 remarked the following:

The big companies that enter ruin the local economy. A product in Casa Bahia [electronics store] might be 900 Reais [250 USD], while it is 500 Reais [130 USD] in a local store. But because you can pay in instalments there, a lot of people prefer it. Local business is not surviving…it is not better for the community, but people are short sighted.

Urban Entrepreneurialism and the Favela’s Place in the City

The public interventions in Rocinha formed a three-part strategy focusing on urban infrastructure, security and formalisation of the informal economy. This package of interventions has provided security and the necessary infrastructure to attract market forces and investments into the favela. Rocinha today is among the top tourist attractions in Rio, and a range of (mostly non-resident run) agencies provide ‘favela tours’ to give foreigners an exotic taste of the ‘authentic’ Rio (Larkins 2015). The UPPs have also made the city of Rio as a whole, and in particular areas of the city close to pacified favelas, safer (at least for a while). As a consequence, these interventions have helped with the rebranding of Rio as an Olympic city in order to attract international capital, tourists and investments. Along the way, the promise of enhanced citizenship for local residents seems to have lost focus in favour of other interests guiding the interventions.

In spite of the legal framework guaranteeing the ‘right to the city’ and popular participation in governance, the grassroots-driven struggles for urban development in Rocinha that led to the Master Plan in 2004–2006 were all but co-opted by elite interests. The visual prestige projects that have been completed, along with the proposed cable car, provide a branding factor far more favourable to the entrepreneurial city governance than invisible sewage improvements. Another likely reason for the large-scale projects is that they have good conditions for graft and super profits. The massive Lava Jato corruption investigation that exploded in 2014 has exposed the corrupt connections between politicians and domestic firms who gained lucrative contracts through state development programmes, and the PAC works in Rocinha have been connected to this scandal (Agência Brasil 2017).

As for the UPP, it constitutes a police practice that is exercised according to the spatial configuration of the city. While promoted as a programme to spur an approximation process between different parts and populations of the city, one can ask to what degree a differentiated policing of space can counter the differentiated citizenship in the city. Rather, it can be argued that such location-specific policing reinforces divides (Samara 2011). The logic steering the pacification programme can also be connected with Rio’s entrepreneurial mode of governance. Rather than abandoning the logic of ‘war’, it installed a militarised state of exception in pacified favelas (Freeman 2014). It can thus be argued that the programme serves to protect the rest of the city, tourists and capital rather than ensuring increased security for favela residents. A 33-year-old journalist born and raised in Rocinha describes residents’ disillusionment with the recent government interventions as follows:

PAC entered with an absurd force, and the hope was that there would be a great change (…). Afterwards the pacification came, and we started believing in it (…) but we saw that everything that was being done was for the sake of the World Cup and the Olympics. We saw that if there were structural changes in Rocinha, it was for the sake of tourism. If security was to be improved, it wouldn’t be for the favela but for the ‘asphalt’,1 it is about securing the criminals within the favelas so they don’t go to the asphalt. Everything was because of the World Cup and the Olympics. We always thought so (…) [and] we saw that it was exactly what happened, everything was very superficial. PAC didn’t do half of what should have been done, UPP came in saying it would guarantee security and we did not get security, and the other services that were promised never came.

To summarise, the recent public interventions for enhanced citizenship in Rocinha have addressed economic inequalities through policies of redistribution. This has led to a degree of social inclusion through lifting people out of poverty and providing them entry into middle-class consumer markets. The interventions have however been less successful in building a foundation for addressing inequalities beyond economic concerns. While some residents have experienced material enfranchisement and heightened access to goods and services, one can ask, following Larkins (2015, 157), to what degree their new consumptive habits has bestowed them acceptance into the middle or upper classes or whether their skin colour and place of residence trump their increased purchasing power as a marker of class status (see Bourdieu 1984).

Part 3: Challenging Entrenched Inequalities

‘Not Far Enough’: The June Uprisings

On June 25, 2013, thousands of Rocinha residents marched roughly 5 kilometres to the upscale neighbourhood Leblon where they occupied Governor Cabral’s home. The theme of the demonstration was ‘Basic Sanitation, Yes! White Elephants, No!’, a clear rejection of PAC’s prioritisation of large-scale, visual projects over basic sanitation improvements. The demonstration happened in the midst of the massive ‘June uprisings’, an unprecedented wave of mass protest that rocked Brazil. When a small protest against the increase to the bus fare in São Paulo in early June was met with massive police repression, it became the ‘last drop’ of Brazilians’ increasing frustrations with a deepening ‘urban crisis’ (Rolnik 2011), government inefficiency, corruption and overspending on mega sports events. By the end of the month, millions of Brazilians from across the socio-economic scale took to the streets in hundreds of cities all over the country.

Both the shape and demands of the ‘June uprisings’, as well as the responses to and consequences of them, varied across the cities in Brazil. In Rio, the demonstrations synthesised the increasing discontentment with the mega event-driven urban governance and a deep disjunction between the politicians and their vision for the city and the interests of the population they were supposed to represent. The prospect of the benefits of the interventions that would come with turning Rio into an ‘Olympic city’ allowed for stepping outside the institutional framework (Vainer 2011), and as seen through the case of Rocinha there was little or no dialogue with the population when it came to the selection of investments and projects. While the Bolsa Familia increased minimum wages and other federal programmes improved the living conditions of the poorest of the poor, this increased income , which enabled the growth of consumption, did not solve the precarious nature of public education, health care, security or public transport, nor did it address the fragmentation that characterises the duality of the urban landscape in Rio.

In addition to the demonstration on June 25, Rocinha had another large demonstration in July 2013, this time against the UPP police. On July 14 the UPP had taken local resident Amarildo da Souza Silva in for questioning, and he never returned home. It was later revealed that he was tortured, murdered and his body disappeared by the UPP police. His disappearance would mark a watershed for the UPP programme’s legitimacy. Young favela men of Afro-Brazilian heritage, mainly those living in favelas and other marginalised communities, continue to be associated with violent crimes and are disproportionally targeted by extra-judicial executions and other human rights violations committed by the police in Rio’s favelas (Amnesty International 2015). While it was far from the first case of its kind, the timing—in the midst of a city in revolt—spurred massive mobilisations that would gain international repercussion. People from around the world posted pictures on social media holding up signs demanding to know: ‘Where is Amarildo?’

The two demonstrations in Rocinha, as part of the wider ‘June uprisings’, expressed frustrations with the limitations of the inequality-reducing measures introduced under lulismo and its alliance with urban entrepreneurialism in Rio. At the same time, they show some of the strides forward that had been made. As outlined in the introduction of this volume, the protests reflect how popular movements—building on decades of struggles for the citizenship rights people are granted in the legal framework but do not see reflected in their everyday lives (see Dagnino 2010)—managed to take advantage of the political space opened up by socially progressive governments. The PT governments did have an important impact in terms of placing citizenship on the agenda and challenging entrenched inequalities. They did introduce policies and politics to contest the privileges of occupational status, of masculinity, of whiteness and of heterosexuality. The symbolism of having an uneducated ironworker and a woman as presidents can also not be ignored in a country where the majority of the people have not seen themselves reflected in the traditional class of white, middle-aged, male politicians. As a result, the traditional upper and middle classes have found themselves sharing universities, airports, shopping centres and other venues with the ‘new’ middle class (the so-called class C, see Ricci 2013) that grew from lulismo politics. As long as the PT governments answered also to the upper classes’ interests through maintaining a strong economy and low rates of unemployment, they remained silent. With the deepening economic and political crises from 2014 onwards, elaborated on in the chapter of Costa (this volume), this would change.

‘Too Far’: Revanchism

According to Chaui (2016, 21), the traditional middle class in Brazil has always had a weak position, and has therefore substituted their lack of economic and political power for the search of symbols of prestige within the consumerist society. With the economic crisis, it became increasingly problematic to maintain this lifestyle. People who had accumulated debts with high interest rates in the consumption-led, credit-fuelled economy found themselves in a difficult position. This can result in frustrations pointing in different directions. In June 2013 it was expressed as an anger directed ‘upwards’, against the economic and political elites. Gradually, however, this has been replaced by an anger directed ‘downwards’. Their position threatened, the middle class ‘waged a war’ (Ibid.) on people they perceived to have encroached on their privileges. The conflict has a clear class distinction and can be read in light of what Neil Smith (1996) terms revanchism; a discourse of revenge on behalf of the bourgeois political elite and their supporters against those who benefited the most from the redistributive policies, affirmative action and antipoverty legislation introduced under PT.

From 2014, an unremitting rejection of the PT governments took centre stage in street demonstrations. There is a clear class distinction between those who participated in the June 2013 protests and the anti-PT protests from 2014 onwards. The grand majority were white with levels of income and education high above the average (Mello and da Costa 2017). In September 2016, after months of anti-PT demonstrations, Dilma was impeached (on highly questionable grounds, see Jinkings et al. 2016). Dilma’s successor, former Vice President Michel Temer (PMDB), wasted little time before scaling back many of the social policies put in place by PT and unveiling an agenda of liberal economic reforms. These austerity measures were presented as necessary to tackle the budget deficit and restore market confidence in Brazil, arguing that PT and its extensive social welfare policies had drained the Brazilian economy. I will however argue they are best understood within a framework of revanchism, where the object is to reverse the victories and safeguards of the working class and the poor that were achieved during the 13 years of PT governments and to pre-empt further redistributive reforms.

As a result, those who rose to the ‘new’ middle class during the PT years now find their new class position to be quite uncertain. For the case of Rocinha, this chapter started with outlining a recent request to (re)move a bus stop in São Conrado. The protest is an illustration of how the strides forward of the poorer segments of society have been met with a revanchist counter-reaction on behalf of the middle and upper classes. The protest against the bus stop is just one among many situations where residents of Rocinha feel their rights violated or less respected than those of their neighbours. It is neither the most serious nor offensive one in a context of deep structural inequalities, rampant police violence and profound social and racial discrimination. Residents of Rocinha however explicitly place the protest against the bus stop within a context of class relations. “They want to take our buses. They treat us like crap, in fact, if they could put up a high wall so that they could not see us, it would be perfect [to them],” a 30-year-old man tells me. A 29-year-old female resident sees it as a “classic case of class struggles, not accepting the poor dividing the same territory”. She also argues this protest would not have happened five years ago. The climate of protest that has characterised Brazil since June 2013 has given revanchist segments of society a newfound confidence in the streets as a place to raise their demands.

As to the other public interventions in Rocinha, PAC 2 is unlikely to materialise as the Temer government has abandoned state investment programmes in favour of privatisations. While this puts an end to the contested cable car, urgent needs for basic sanitation investments are also not being responded to. The UPP police, on the other hand, have largely lost legitimacy and their presence has been scaled back due to the severe economic crisis of the State of Rio. The weakened police presence has opened up for drug traffickers from different factions reclaiming control over pacified favelas, and violence is resurging. Residents of Rocinha thus experience a sense of increased insecurity both in the literal sense and in terms of uncertainty as to what their future beholds.

Final Remarks

This chapter has taken the community of Rocinha and its relation to neighbouring São Conrado as the starting point for reflecting on the inequality-reducing measures introduced since Lula became president in 2003. Public interventions in Rocinha during the PT years came with the promise of reducing social and spatial divides between the favela and the surrounding city and enhancing citizenship rights. The generation of 20-something in Rocinha that became adults during the PT years has seen important changes in their lifetime, and many are better off than their parents and grandparents. At the same time, many are disillusioned with the PAC and UPP programmes’ failure in living up to their expectations and frustrated with the limits of their own social mobility. The advancements that did take place in terms of a (limited) upward mobility of poorer segments of society is currently being rolled back, while ‘cultural’ discrimination is coming to the forefront through a revanchist counter-reaction.

To conclude, it must however be remarked that the last years have seen important advancements in terms of creating a climate of debate on the historical, structural foundations of inequality. When Dilma was impeached and her successor appointed a cabinet consisting of only elder, white men from the traditional political class, it spurred harsh criticism and clearly showed an elite that is out of touch with the strides forward Brazil has indeed seen these last decades. What we are left with is an increasingly polarised and politicised social landscape, with hard lines of debate, societal unrest and protests. This is unlikely to decrease in the years to come.


  1. 1.

    The formal city is often referred to as the ‘asphalt’ because of the paved streets, as opposed to the narrow pathways in the favelas.


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Authors and Affiliations

  • Celina Myrann Sørbøe
    • 1
  1. 1.Norwegian Institute for Urban and Regional ResearchOslo and Akershus University College of Applied SciencesOsloNorway

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