Nation sportswriter Dave Zirin interviewed Rio de Janeiro mayoral candidate Marcelo Frexio on September 18, 2012.
No matter the host city, no matter the country, the International Olympic Committee depends on compliance from local politicians to achieve its objectives. It needs to displace locals, a massive security apparatus and access to public funds. But there may be a “fly in the ointment” waiting for it in Rio for the 2016 games, and he is mayoral candidate Marcelo Freixo.
Currently there are eight people running to be mayor of this city of 6.3 million people. Leading the pack is the longtime incumbent, Eduardo Paes, who has fit very snugly in the back pocket of the IOC, not to mention the real estate and private transportation barons funding his campaign. Second is Marcelo Freixo from PSOL, the Socialism and Freedom Party. Paes is polling at 54 percent of the vote and Freixo stands at 18 percent in the field of eight, with no one else over 2 percent. But what matters when the polls close on October 7 is whether Paes finishes at under 50 percent. Then he would face Freixo in a one-on-one runoff with equal television time mandated by law. Paes’s financial advantage, which is thirty times Freixo’s, would be blunted. It would become a battle of grassroots enthusiasm and on that score, based on the rallies I’ve attended and posters in the favelas, Freixo could win. This would prompt a massive change in Rio’s Olympic agenda.
The October 7 elections may not attract the eyes of the world, but they have captured the nervous attention of Lausanne, Switzerland, and the IOC. They’re right to be nervous. As Freixo says, “They don’t want [to deal with] a mayor. They want a functionary.”
Freixo is 45 years old but appears ten years younger, topped by a thick head of dark hair without a hint of gray. He’s a state assemblyman, former schoolteacher, human rights activist and prison educator. He achieved renown by challenging Rio’s brutal private militias after they murdered his brother in 2005. Freixo speaks with a scratchy, hoarse voice under hooded eyes, a sign of the 24-7 grassroots campaign that has him speaking constantly across the city.
Here we speak to Marcelo Freixo.
Dave Zirin: Why are you running for mayor and what do you hope to bring to the city?
Marcelo Freixo: This is possibly the most important election in the history of Rio. What’s being contested is the future of the city. Rio is on a schedule of change now that no other city in the world has and this calendar [this pace] is bringing very profound changes to the city. The hegemonic project that is being developed right now will create a more unequal city. In this context, I accepted when I was asked to enter this contest for mayor. It will be a very difficult fight, but it’s very important.
What is your assessment of the preparations for the Olympics and the World Cup here in Rio?
The truth is that the preparations are attending to the interests of big corporations and not of society. We had the experience of the Pan American games in 2007 where no benefits were brought to the city. We have currently a city with enormous investments, but also enormous social aggravators. The federal ministry of health recently released a study showing the Rio has the worst public health system on offer in all of Brazil. Additionally, we have precarious and very expensive public transport. We also have a very low-quality education system—one of the worst. So it’s a city with enormous investments taking place, but one that can’t guarantee a minimum standard of living for its citizens.
If you are elected mayor, what would you be able to do differently with regards to the Olympics and World Cup—which of course are coming to Rio no matter what? What would you be able to do in power to mitigate the worst effects of these mega-events on the poor?
The investments being brought here should be thinking about the city and not just profits. They should be directed towards things that will benefit the poor like transportation and increasing transparency. These are things that can improve with the staging of these events.
The transparency of how these resources are being spent would change [if I’m elected]. Right now there’s absolutely no transparency in the investments or in the construction that’s happening. The construction works are being made to benefit the construction companies and not the population. The Olympics must leave a positive legacy for the population.
If you are elected mayor, would you be able to promise that there would be no involuntary displacements for the Olympics and World Cup?
I’m radically against the politics of evictions. The way they are happening today is illegal and arbitrary. The law determines that the priority should be the upgrading of the resident’s home. And that if it’s necessary that the house is removed, that the residents are relocated nearby. That’s not what is happening today. The evictions today are just attending to the needs of real estate speculation. Take the federal government’s “Minha Casa, Minha Vida”—my house, my life—program. [This is a federally administered public and affordable housing program]. For residents in this program who earn zero to three times the minimum wage, the lowest income-earners, 87 percent of them have been relocated in the extreme west zone which is without basic sanitation, schools or hospitals.
I know people connected to the IOC who say that it’s their worst nightmare, the thought of you being elected mayor. Do you want to say anything to calm their concerns?
The people from the IOC need to know the city a bit better. My only objective is to ensure the interests of society are higher than private interests. But I’m happy to know that they are worried…. The IOC does not want a mayor, they want a functionary who will carry out their plans.
A question about the social movements of which you are part: do you think that whether or not you are elected that the social movements will grow and take a strong stand to make sure that people are put ahead of profit with regard to the Olympic and World Cup planning?
The social movements are growing increasingly strong here. In the 1990s we suffered a decline in the movements, but I think now in this moment they are increasing. And that’s what is giving our campaign increasing dynamism. Our campaign has managed to bring together many of these movements, which is rare because the social movements rarely dialogue with electoral politics. Independently of the outcome of the election, I believe the social movements are gaining strength, and after the elections they will emerge stronger. Today there was a very interesting article in O Globo newspaper that’s worth reading. It talks about “rebellious Rio” and it mentions our campaign. It talks about the rebellious side of Rio that is coming back, and that is reflected in this campaign.
The Olympics are seen as the “crown jewel” of [former Brazilian President] Lula’s tenure as the leader of Brazil. Has the reign of the Workers Party been helpful or destructive to the growth of the left in Brazil today?
The arrival of Lula in power actually weakened social movements initially because it co-opted them. These were people who had historically fought side by side with the PT [Lula’s Worker’s Party] and with Lula. So they naturally wanted to go with Lula, but many of them were co-opted as Lula moved to the right during his time in office.
One of the damaging aspects of this is that for young people, it looks like all parties are the same. That they all form coalitions and come to power and behave in a similarly corrupt way.
Lula is now allied with Fernando Collar who was impeached in the early 1990s, and with Sarne, who was a corrupt politician, Brazil’s first democratically elected president [after the end of the military dictatorship]. They’re all now aligned in the government. This generated amongst the population a sense that “they’re all the same.” That’s very difficult to reverse. We are working on this, trying to reverse this perception: that’s why our campaign has involved social movements as well as many young people.
What do you say to people who say that neoliberalism has been good for Brazil? That there’s more stability, not just for tourists, but for the poor as well, that people have been lifted out of poverty, etc?
We have some social assistance programs that are very strong, that is true. But in terms of distribution of wealth, Brazil is still a country of latifundios: there is still an enormous concentration of land ownership that actually has gotten worse. It’s still one of the most unequal countries in the world. There’s a prevailing idea of growth that is more focused on corporations and agribusiness than on the people who need the land. But of course, if you compare Lula with his predecessor Cardoso, there are advances but fewer than we could have had. And that’s the problem. Because we compare him with Cardoso, and not with what is possible in terms of really eliminating inequality.
It’s very common to hear political commentators in the United States say that “socialism” is a word for the twentieth century and not the twenty-first century. But your candidacy has been very successful here as a PSOL candidate. What do you say to people who say that socialism is an ideology of the past and not the future?
Of course, we are not going to create socialism by winning one election in Rio. I’m running for office, and not running a revolution. But there are political principles at stake: the conception of the public servant, what is the role of the state, transparency, the relationship with youth. Why education and healthcare should be priorities. Even well short of a revolution, we can achieve significant changes in all these areas.
I believe you once headed a union of teachers—is that correct?
Yes, many years ago.
The teachers of Chicago just ended their strike of the third-largest teacher’s union in the United States. Do you have any words of solidarity for them?
The ideal is that we never need a strike. That teachers are always seen as important and that they are valued as such, and the importance of public education is recognized. But many governments don’t see it in their interests to have quality public education—they are actually fearful of quality public education, because they fear people being educated and informed. The more the people can think, the more they can act. And in this sense, there is no other path, the teachers have to fight.
For more on the politics of the 2016 Olympics, read Dave Zirin’s previous “Letter from Rio.”