Experiences of urban contestation; Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro

Experiences of urban contestation; Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro

On the 19th of February Leeds school of geography hosted  the talk “experiences of urban contestation”, benefiting from the presence of Pablo Vitale, a visiting researcher from Buenos Aires and Federico Venturini a researcher from Leeds recently arrived from Rio de Janeiro. The two researchers addressed different aspects of neoliberal urbanization in Latin America, although both using the research “lens” of activism-scholarship. On Buenos Aires the focus was on self-management of residents of informal neighbourhoods and their links with public policy, whereas in Rio the focus was on the recent urban uprising in Brazilian cities and the experience of doing fieldwork in “revolutionary times”.

Vitale illustrated the pattern of development of “shantytowns” in Buenos Aires, with the purpose of identifying the different types of linkages between public policies and territorial organizations in the “slums” regarding neighbourhood conflicts. Three main paradigms of public policies can be found. The “villas” appeared for the first time in the 30’s, and rapidly grew in number and in size between the 40’s and 1976. In this first long period the dominant policy was that of evictions, with relocation in the city or in the surroundings through big social housing projects. In a “substitution of imports” economic plan, workers were still needed to be near the urban productive fabric. The seize of the power by the army in 1976 coincided with a shift in the economic agenda, allowing the first radical attempt by the government to remove all the slums from the city by transferring the people in other regions. Although reducing shantytowns to some 10% of their previous population, slums weren’t completely erased, and entering the third phase (1983 to nowadays) they began to grow again, being in the last years the only parts of the city to actually augment their inhabitants.

This last paradigm is characterized by reurbanization and spatial integration in the city, for the first time openly recognizing the role of “villas” in the urban dynamics. The tendency of slums repopulation and strengthen of “villeros” movement is faced by the city government with programs of integration and radication, and from 1996 laws are created in recognition of their “right to the city”. Nonetheless, the manipulative role of the city government is not over, with episodes of forced moving and reurbanization of parts of villas.

The best example of the hypocrisy of the contemporary policy is reported to be blocked city’s council attempt to evict “villa 31”, followed by the 2009 urbanization law dedicated to renew this slum. This effort should be led by a participatory project developed since 2002 by slum’s representatives but actual results have been scarce so far.

On the other side, “villeros” need to organize to provide the slums with all the basics services that in the rest of the city are in charge of the city council, from power lines, food and water to community self-organization around education and  health issues. Here Vitale’s direct participation in some groups’ activities in “Villa 31” helps describing a situation in which people unite to build infrastructures on their own and then fight to keep them, with the local council having an ambiguous role:  “institutionalising” some services and opposing others. The presence and action of “governmental” and “non-governmental” organizations is therefore blurred and overlapping.

The acknowledgment of the existence of different “layers” of analysis and multiple tensions around different scale of needs, from the urgent one of householding to infrastructures and integration and consolidation of the neighbourhood, brings Vitale to devote the research to some questions around the concept of “territorial public action”:

Is it possible to acknowledge a popular public management, a “know how villero”? Since the incorporation of legal action in to the territorial repertoire (laws e judicialization process) and the formal access of slums to a legal right to the city but with contemporary evictions by market forces (formal and informal) is the urbanization law an achievement or law standardization is a cheap way of governance?

Venturini focused instead on Rio de Janeiro urban reality, using a “solidarity approach” and social ecology as a research lens, in the attempt to directly participate in processes of urban contestation and “decolonize” knowledge to the benefit of both the researcher and local activists. A comparison between experiences in the West and in the South is considered by him useful in improving a common understanding of the neoliberal urban tendencies and an effective popular contestation of them.

Looking for the strategies adopted by the social movements to address the urban crisis, Venturini finds himself involved in the big urban protests of June 2013, started in the context of an already generally deteriorated urban living conditions. It is the opposition to the “Confederations Cup” FIFA event that fuelled a nationwide but mainly urban movement in fact, but the radical increase of the people’s participation in the street protests is due to the convergence of many other social issues, like urban mobility, social inequality, privatizations, corruption.

Comparable with the demos of “Direta Ja” in 1984 or with those of Collor impeachment in 1992, the mobilization lost momentum at the end of June, after 15 days of daily protests, but saw a revival from August to October, with a three-months long national teachers strike and other minor events, as the disruption of the military parade on the 7th September national independence day or the eviction of the indigenous occupation of a building in central Rio. This prolonged popular uprising saw a violent repression by the government resulting in arrests, wounding and killings, with the contemporary implementation of “ad hoc” laws, the “world cup” laws, in the attempt of “securing” big events (“Confederations cup”, 2014 world cup, 2016 Olympics) by closing up space for public dissent.

But Venturini’s research is much more concerned with the ways in which the contestation developed and organized, in a variegated but effective way. The ultrapower of right wing “Globo” media colossus has been balanced by a widespread direct coverage by the activists, implementing alternative media and streaming online the protests. The role of public assemblies was also empowered, both as the tactic and strategic core of the movement and as a mean to involve people from the city neighbourhoods. The “Black Block” tactic invented by German activists to contrast police repression saw a revival, ending up as a widely accepted presence to defend the mobs, even during the teachers strike, and to attack symbols of capitalism. Finally, the movement often resorted to “occupy-style” encampments, retained successful in targeting political leaders, providing a decision-making “locus” for assembly and action, giving the opportunity to do political work with homeless people and ensuring strong visibility. To such an extent that any public encampment has now been banned by law.

Since the relevance of future political and sport events such as the football world cup and general elections in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016, the movement is probably far too be exhausted, and therefore a final word on the events is difficult to be articulated. Nonetheless, Venturini resorts to his focus on social ecology and his direct participation in the events to try to assess the actual victories of the movement.

Whereas unheard-of spaces of people’s participation in urban struggles have been opened, with some results (prices of transports momentarily blocked, stop to demolition of some buildings, block of anti-homosexuals and abortion law and offers of political reforms), the political changes occurred are believed to be too little and precarious to signify a deep turn in local and national politics, also considered the situation of mainstream criminalization of social movements and the heavy (11 people killed) death toll since June.

Dario Clemente


Listen to the talk here:

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