1992 Earth Summit was just over. Rio inhabitants suffered from an exceptional
worrying period of violence and widespread poverty. In this depressing year of
1993, an exceptional person stood up, a man called Betinho. He started a new
“NGO”. This concept had become popular to the Brazilian public opinion
thanks to the Summit. They suddenly found out that not just the State and
business are entitled to act, but also people : “civil society”. In Rio, 58
inhabitants per 100.000 inhabitants got killed by gunfire, whereas Brazil’s
average (which is pretty bad) is 17... Something needed to be done about it.
Betinho wanted to de-glorify violence and egocentric wealth. He became
extremely popular and was lovingly referred to as “the Gandhi of Brazil”.
The then president of Network Cultures, Rubem C. Fernandes, worked hand-in-hand
with Betinho and developed a very interesting and unusual citizens’ movement
in Rio, called “Viva Rio”. What follows is a report on what I saw, when in
Rio last fall, at the occasion of Network Cultures’ Board Meeting.
was a good feeling to be back in Brazil after so many years, ten
years I think. Andre Porto, our friend who co-ordinates activities
for the Viva Rio movement with Rubem C. Fernandes, took us to our
first visit of the day. The van stopped in front of the main
barracks of the Rio State Police ! We entered this place, once the
very symbol of evil, of brutal repression under the military
dictatorship. Today, part of Rio’s police is notoriously brutal,
corrupt and arbitrary. Conversely, some enlightened officers are
open to constructive citizen dialogue and to a positive, friendly
approach of their job. To be driven into this ill-famous place by
an NGO looked almost surrealistic. There we were, NGOs having
supported people, organisations and human rights, greeted by
bemedalled colonels, military police in flashy uniforms and ...
our own partner Rubem Cesar Fernandes. It was not a bad dream. It
was part of a campaign initiated by the “Viva Rio” movement to
invite policemen to become aware of their potentially positive
role in society. This is the alternative to the old
confrontational approach : tell the police how important they are,
what expectations civilian population has from them ... The
miracle is : it seems to work ! Arbitrariness is on the decrease
as people cajole “their” police into playing their role
properly, without violence and with less corruption ... We were
taken to these barracks to witness a most astonishing event. This
was the celebration of the end of a big anti-weapons campaign
entitled “Rio deixa esta arma”, “Rio, put down this gun!”.
Violence, murders, stray bullets took an unbearably high toll on
the daily life of Rio inhabitants. Our friends from Rio started
this campaign and they were able to gather 1.300.000 signatures of
people in this megacity. They will be sent to the President of the
Republic who contemplates to present a bill banning the sale of
weapons in Brazil. The holding of the celebration in the barracks
was a subtle invitation to police to exercise restraint and to
become aware that peace and order are ideals cherished by a great
deal of civilians. In other words : they are not all potential
criminals; civilians are developing a culture of peace and the
trigger-happy police is asked to adhere to this new culture.
This is just one example of the imaginative actions launched by
“Viva Rio” (which means “May Rio live”). Rubem’s vision
is revolutionary. He thinks that left-right confrontational
politics have a limit and that it must be complemented by a new
vision of holistic citizenship. The idea is : nobody is happy in a
city where people die of hunger and violence. To be proud of one’s
city means to get involved so as to stop these unbearable
situations. The bishop and the prostitute, the banker and the
student, the manager and the housewife ... are all interested in a
more humane city. So let them all join efforts : the “Hare
Krishna” adepts, the black radicals, the tourist industry people,
gays, the samba schools and the Evangelicals ... The beauty of it
all is : it works !
visited the Rocinha favela, Latin America’s biggest slum.
“Viva Rio” has developed there, besides its anti-violence
campaign, a number of fascinating and innovative actions. They are
further explained in this issue. I loved talking to Teófilo who
created a bank for the poor, offering micro-credit to
slum-dwellers; to Monica, a young lawyer giving assistance to
people to resolve their conflicts; to Marcio helping brutalised
youngsters to rediscover beauty and tenderness by tending (public)
gardens and flowers; to Jorge Luis who sets up an insurance broker’s
company specialising in cheap insurance for the poor, to Fulano
who co-ordinates a schooling programme for young and adult
slumdwellers who dropped out of school, to Pedro who heads various
“law shops” which help favela dwellers solve their problems in
common. All of them enthusiastic and creative people.
strikes me in the “Viva Rio” is that this is not an ordinary
NGO. I will try to say why :
“Viva Rio” is a fully autonomous Brazilian NGO. It was not set
up by a donor agency nor does it depend on foreign funding. It
gets state and municipality subsidies and is increasingly
self-sufficient thanks to its own profit-generating activities,
e.g. the insurance brokers company, the microcredit bank, etc.
Business is sponsoring its activities. Airlines offers it their
unused lunch and dinner packages. The electricity board adds a
bank document for its clients so they can make a donation to
“Viva Rio” in addition to paying their electricity bill.
“Viva Rio” works along a new paradigm which is insisting on
consciousness, change of mentality, the gradual acquisition of a
culture of peace and of renewed citizenship. Rubem C. Fernandes
says : this is a “post cold war” paradigm, where we must learn
to look at society as a whole and seek synergy among the various sectors of society, be they trade unions
or multinationals, churches, sports clubs or discotheques, social
activists or yuppies. Of course, this approach does not ignore
existing contradictions but it chooses to ignore them while
pursuing its immediate and important aims. Still, that raises
criticism among some in the classical left. My feeling is that
there is room for both approaches : the necessary confrontation of
wild capitalism; and the synergy to turn this megacity in a better
place to live in as of now.
“Viva Rio” is a brilliant example of a lively social and
cultural movement engendered by civil society and looking for a
change of mentality at large and the empowerment of civil society.
In this sense, it is a deeply democratic movement. Yet it is not
reduced to US-inspired democracy, based on individualism and
laisser-faire capitalism. On the contrary, Viva Rio is encouraging
community initiatives and alternative approaches to economics.
This may not be socialism. Yet, it is not tooing the line of
neo-liberal ideology either. It is original, genuine, Brazilian,
“Carioca”. And it works ! It leads slowly to another culture
of citizenship. That is why we, in the South North Network
Cultures and Development believe in “Viva Rio”. It is a deeply
Cultural Movement. It renews self-esteem and gives meaning to life.
asked about the reasons of Viva Rio’s success, Andre Porto
Inclusiveness and neutrality.
Viva Rio was open to all, parties, religions, MNCs, trade unions,
- Media coverage, as
directors of major media are on Viva Rio’s Board.;
Strengthening existing NGOs and civil society initiatives
rather than competing with them.
favelas, we worked with existing NGOs. Our projects provided them
with equipments. 300 NGOs in poor areas were strengthened. Our
policy was one of empowerment and inclusiveness. A lot of NGOs
used to work in an isolated way. Now they are part of a strategic
plan and form a broad family : “Viva Rio”. Today “Viva
Rio” works with 200 of the 600 favelas. We aim to work in all of
Today “Viva Rio” is a concept. People can even choose for a
credit bank carrying the logo of “Viva Rio”. Is this
corruption of NGO “purity” or simply an effort at common
sensical efficiency sought by a new style NGO ? The question is
worth asking. As far as I am concerned, I know may answer :
“Viva Rio” makes a lot of sense and works hard at producing a
new culture. This is not enough to change society. But it helps a
lot to relieve problems which might last too long if one keeps
waiting for a hypothetical radical revolution. So, good luck
“Viva Rio” ! And bravo Rubem and Andre, Monica, Teofilo,
Marcio and all the others. Keep the faith !