Latin America and the Caribbean

27 November 1995

Political Commentary by Carlos Castilho

SAN JOSE (IPS) - Impotent in the face of a growing wave of abductions, murders and massacres, the residents of Rio de Janeiro - Latin America's most violent city along with Bogota, Colombia - decided to take to the streets on Tuesday in a march expected to attract more than half a million people.

The march, designed after the pacifist methods of India's late leader Mahatma Ghandi, is the third of its kind to be held in seven years.

What is unique about such protests is not the expression of collective indignation, but the fact that the population has decided to react against official inaction.

In 1988, Brazilians took to the streets to demand direct presidential elections. Four years later, they did the same to call for the resignation of President Fernando Collor de Mello, the first president to be directly elected since 1964, who was later impeached on corruption charges.

Today, the population of Rio de Janeiro has once again turned to ''street democracy'' - an expression coined by sociologist Herbert Souza - in order to confront a problem that affects them even more directly: a general sensation of impotence and desperation in the face of today's rising wave of violence.

The "Rio Reacts" movement, which organised Tuesday's march, emerged one month ago, triggered by the kidnapping of three young people in Copacabana.

The movement is even broader and more non-political than those that arose during the marches for direct elections and against Collor.

''In that sense, street democracy has won an even greater space, and is generating a collective awareness that people have to take things into their own hands instead of leaving everything up to legislators and political leaders,'' psychologist Izabel Carvalho wrote in a commentary published by 'O Globo', Rio de Janeiro's most influential daily.

The stance being taken by the inhabitants of Rio de Janeiro differs from the reactions that have predominated in other Latin American cities in the face of similar situations: they are not calling for solutions such as the death penalty, extrajudicial executions or emergency measures.

They seem to no longer believe in that type of radical solution, and are taking to the streets in order to create a social consciousness capable of changing not only legislation, but something more profound - people's attitudes.

After living on a day-to-day basis with kidnappings, with death squads that have killed thousands of street children and others in what they term ''social cleansing,'' and alongside a police force that often oversteps its legal jurisdiction, the inhabitants of Rio de Janeiro seem to be moving towards what U.S. expert Daniel Yankelowitz calls ''reflexive opinion.''

That term describes a less passion-motivated attitude, one that takes into account the causes and consequences of crime and the lack of public safety.

If that is true, this will be the first non-violent reaction against the widespread wave of growing crime in Latin America.


Copyright 1995, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS). All rights reserved

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