Free Pass Movement and Other Blind Spots of the Brazilian Left

The undeniable advances of the last decades in Brazil—economic growth with income redistributions and political stability, among others—are being contested, and why not say, threatened by protests that took over that country in the last months. And this is good.  A bit of discomfort and pressure can do wonders to move the Brazilian leaders, whether they are the heads of the three branches of government, the press, the unions, or businesses.


Fernando Lara

The southern hemisphere autumn of 2013 (and here I would extend the timeline to include the relative conflicts in Belo Monte, the demarcations of Indigenous lands, and the scandals at the Commission of Human Rights in Congress) marks a turning point that reveals the downfall of the neo-developmentalist project as a solution to all ills. More specifically, I see three blind spots in the current government: environmental policies, public safety, and urban policies. All of which are linked to questions of ownership, control, and exploitation of the land, an evil that has afflicted Brazil since Colonial times.

The Brazilian left, in which I humbly place myself, urgently needs a new project for environmental policy and any project for public safety. On these two issues I do not venture to write about, having just opinions as good as those of any other well informed Brazilian citizen.

Therefore, in this text I limit myself to urbanism that is incumbent upon me as a professional and an academic: it is urgent to rethink the cities where 85% of Brazilians live. This is what I saw and heard at the streets of Brazil.

The current model favors way too much the automobile and urban sprawl of cities in search of cheap land. We have come to a point where buildings almost don’t matter, only the buying and selling of land is important. The government policy titled “My house My Life”(Minha Casa Minha Vida- MCMV), for example, transforms cheap land in the furthest fringes of any metropolitan region into expensive land. Houses are just a detail here.

This model comes loaded with problems:  it forces residents to hours upon hours in crowded buses stuck in traffic jams; isolates the poorest from an infrastructure that is mainly concentrated in central areas; and confuses quality of urban life with property rights. Do the market test: compare the value of any house at MCMV developments with the value of any other in favelas of central areas in any Brazilian city and it will be evident where living quality is better.

In the long run, the process is even more perverse. Vicente Fox promised to build 5 million houses when he took  office in the Mexican government in 2000 with a program called INFONAVIT that resembles MCMV. The goal was accomplished under the government of his successor Felipe Calderon. After 12 years of allotments in the more distant peripheries of Monterrey, Chihuahua, Ciudad Juarez, Guadalajara, and Tijuana, almost 40% of these houses are abandoned and any relation with the alarming violence is not mere coincidence. In the Brazilian case, we have Cidade de Deus as an example and the film of Fernando Meirelles demonstrates to the entire world what can happen when a community is removed to the most isolated places of a city.

The protests for the free pass have the merit of bringing these issues to the national debate. A few Brazilian cities, including the city and state of São Paulo, did reduce the cost of public transportation due to intense public pressure and because nobody knew the cost of resisting the protests. Certainly it was too little too late.

A real improvement in public transportation, whether it is a significant cost reduction or quality improvement, would have a transformative effect on the urban structure because it affects the value of land. With good and cheap transportation the periphery would be  instantly valued . This equates to a revolutionary income transfer and an even greater impact on quality of life for millions of Brazilians. It is important to note that the only way to improve our congested roads is by investing in public transportation. As someone said recently, widening the streets to solve the problem of traffic congestion equates to loosening the belt to solve the problem of obesity.

Unfortunately the developmentalist obsession took over the PT in the federal government and has now been accentuated as the trademark of Dilma’s government which keeps pouring more asphalt and concrete as a solution to all problems [link 12.140/4253].

While on one hand Brazil has improved in areas such as accessibility and sanitation of villages and slums, they have on the other hand spent billions to subsidize the car when we should be thinking of transportation of 2050, not of 1950. Popular pressure was on the streets and it alone, on this scale, has enough strength to challenge the lobbies of automakers, asphalt, heavy construction and others.

We need to radically rethink urban policies and it is urgent to do this from within the left.

Fernando Luiz Lara is the Chair of the LLILAS Brazil Center.

This article was first published in Portuguese at the Newspaper Brazil 24/7, June 20th, 2013 [link]


DISCLAIMER: The views expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position and views of LLILAS BENSON Latin American Studies and Collections.

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