RIO DE JANEIRO (Interview) — Brazil’s federal government, led by President Michel Temer, gave the green light for a military takeover of all police duties in the state of Rio de Janeiro on February 16. His justification for the move? The restoration of law and order. Criminal gangs and violence had, in his words, “virtually taken over,” and something had to be done.
Almost three months later, data compiled by the Intervention Observatory (Candido Mendes University) reveal that massacres have doubled and the number of shootouts has increased since 3,200 warfare-trained soldiers assumed control of Rio’s police force. Untold numbers of soldiers served in the 37,000-strong Brazilian military detail dispatched to Haiti as part of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) mission. Over a 13-year period (2004 – 2017), the Caribbean country served as a test laboratory for new military hardware in live operational conditions.
Joao Fernando Finazzi, a researcher at the International Conflict Study Group (GECI), reiterated that, during its stay in Haiti:
The most visible pay off for Brazil is witnessed in its arms industry and training for the military and police forces….The interventions and occupations of (Haitian) favelas…facilitated the training and fine-tuning of pacification measures that were later employed, in a similar context, in Carioca favelas during the World Cup and Olympics.”
To be clear, the present military intervention in the state of Rio de Janeiro, notwithstanding the everyday military police and militias, is focused on Africa-Carioca — the favelas — of which Rio is home to more than 700. Monied zip codes — Leblon, Ipanema, Copacabana and the likes — are not sprawling with tanks and machine gun toting troops who stop, search and photograph residents at will.
What do such unforgiving streets mean for homeless women?
To find out more we speak with Denize Adriana Ferreira. Having experienced homelessness firsthand for five years in her hometown of Rio de Janeiro, she established the Movimento Internacional de Mulheres em Situação de Rua, (International Movement of Women Living on the Streets) in 2013. The collective shows solidarity with and provides assistance to women who, as a result of public policy indifference, are forced to live rough.
Since the organization’s humble beginnings, Denize has attended to the needs of many people, highlighting a case in 2016 where she helped a homeless family secure its own home through a popular government program called Minha Casa, Minha Vida (My House, My Life), which was implemented during the administration of ex-President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. “Their two children are now in school and vaccinated. … And their youngest child has had surgery to remove a hernia,” Denize says.
She’s sent homeless pregnant women to prenatal care, and children, adults and elderly people to hospitals and clinics for surgery as well as dental treatment. She’s directed people to shelters, obtained ID’s for homeless people to access social programs such as Bolsa Familia (Family Grant), another popular program initiated during Lula’s presidency. She’s organized and helped facilitate public campaigns on nutrition, and provided hygiene kits, clothes and footwear to Rio’s street dwellers. “Our movement has also helped women deliver babies and hosted weddings.”
It’s no surprise that Denize’s social engagement in Rio led her to participate in and speak at the event called “Black Women Changing Structures” at the Casa das Pretas in central Rio de Janeiro on March 15. The talks were led by black activist and city councilwoman Marielle Franco. Shortly after the event was over she was fatally gunned down, along with her driver, Anderson Gomes, in a drive-by shooting.
Denize was kind enough to speak with MintPress News (MPN) about the intersections between the lives of homeless women in Rio and a military intervention described by the Intervention Observatory as being “Pointless: No Program, No Results, No Guidance.”
MPN: How has the military intervention in Rio de Janeiro affected women who live on the streets?
Denize: First, we must fully understand that homeless people are also referred to as the invisible population. Society passes us by and they fail to acknowledge our existence, or pretend that they don’t see us, or they get the impression that our condition is normal.
In the case of homeless women, we are the invisible of the invisible ones. What that means is that there’s a lack of public policy geared exclusively towards us. There’s not even a framework on the part of public social services for us. It’s as if they take action to address homelessness as if we don’t exist. What happens, or will happen, in respect to the military intervention and homeless people is something very old called social cleansing.
I often say that homeless people are the first to be affected by everything that goes down in Rio de Janeiro, precisely because we’ve been made invisible, just like during these large events: JMJ (World Youth Day 2013); FIFA World Cup (2014); Olympics (2016). When I speak about people living on the streets and social cleansing, I instinctively suggest watching the film called Topografia de um Desnudo (Topography of the Naked).
Here, people living on the streets of Rio say, fearfully, that it will be as if Hitler returned.
Men from the armed forces — the navy, army, air force, as well as firemen, municipal guards and their vehicles — are positioned in strategic places, such as touristy areas, like the Museum of Tomorrow, Municipal Theater, central Rio. For this reason, many homeless people decided to migrate to the west zone — Campo Grande, for example — to live beneath the Caixa Economica Federal (state-owned bank). It’s jam packed with homeless folks. Up until 2017, the largest concentrations of street dwellers were located in (1) the south zone (Copacabana/Ipanema), and (2) Central Station of Brazil (Rio de Janeiro’s most important bus station), which is a transitory point for homeless people across the board, including children and adolescents who come from other states in Brazil.
MPN: Is the number of homeless people in Rio de Janeiro, and Brazil in general, increasing or decreasing?
Denize: The number of homeless people increases with each passing day. This country’s [political/economic] crisis, which runs parallel with real estate speculation, pushes whole families onto the streets. Some observers say that it’s seven men for each woman. Homeless people, in their overwhelming majority, are men and people of African-descent.
There’s also another group of homeless people that endure a great deal of suffering; that is the LGBTQ community. At a young age, generally between 13 and 15, they’re thrust onto the streets.
Public policy is absent in the case of homeless women. If they’re not on the streets, they take other routes, like brothels or “informal” (no love involved) marriages, just to have a place to lay their heads.
Eighty-five percent of the people living on the street in the state of Rio come from the interior and northeast – Bahia, Minas Gerais, São Paulo — attracted by mega-events and the deceit of the “cidade maravilhosa” (marvelous city).
Also, many elderly folks with disabilities and special needs, people confined to wheelchairs, with mental problems, who use crutches and are blind, etc. live on the street. This deeply saddens me. I get upset as I’ve suffered from depression because I too was once homeless.
MPN: Why do you think there is a military intervention in Rio de Janeiro now?
Denize: Good question. However, I believe only Michel Temer, the creator of this madness, and his pro-intervention allies could answer this question in full. People in Rio ask the same thing and we try to come up with a coherent response. We are certain of only one thing, it’s not to combat violence and drug trafficking. Because you can’t fight violence with more violence. There’s a famous printed shirt here in Rio that reads “Violence spawns violence.”
Thirty days into the army intervention and it has become clear that the situation has only worsened. Military operations are concentrated in the favelas, amplifying the use of repression against the poor, black population. So many beautiful lives are lost.
And if the objective of the military intervention is to fight drug trafficking, it must start at the top, not at the bottom. That’s to say one must focus on where the problem begins, along the borders, with weapons’ suppliers of exclusive use by the armed forces.
The military intervention transfers control of public security into the hands of the army. It spreads terror in underserved communities, without any positive outcome in the fight against drug trafficking and organized crime. The militarization of the city during the FIFA World Cup and Olympics only criminalized poor people and protestors.
Public coffers will be stripped of millions as a result of the federal intervention. The occupation of Mare favela cost the army more than R$600 million (approximately $168 million in today’s exchange rate). With this money, public projects could have been implemented to create employment. Late wages could have been paid to public workers. Some 900 educators who were approved in state-wide examinations could have assumed their positions. The state’s chaotic healthcare system could have been improved and so much more. We live in times of retrocession in Brazil. Rights we’ve already achieved are being dismantled. In my opinion, it’s a return to the military dictatorship.
Another possibility for the intervention is that while the attention of the masses is distracted, Temer and his allies proceed with passing “reforms” slowly, beyond our sight.
MPN: Some defend, with teeth and nails, the military intervention in Rio de Janeiro as the only solution to crime in the city and state. Others say that the use of force cannot solve Africa-Carioca’s problems, which are, primarily, social ills prompted by local and state government indifference. What is your opinion and what would be your solution?
Denize: In my opinion, the problem is social. Where poverty exists, so does crime. Robbery, prostitution, drug use, alcohol, being an aviãozinho (a literal translation means “little airplane,” or a youngster tasked with selling drugs to buyers and bringing the money back to the drug dealer) are problems derived from poverty.
No question, Brazil is unequal and unjust, even hypocritical. Its motto says: “Rich country, Country of all, Country without poverty… A secular Country, free Country.” That’s the biggest lie of all. I detest the national anthem. I’m not patriotic.
Basic rights in the Constitution must be upheld. All of the rights and laws written on paper must be made a reality. The system — the secretariats, governments, projects, social movements, et cetera, do not function in a unified manner. Everybody operates in their own square box. That’s why nothing really happens. It’s a massive game of push and tug. We must bind our loose points. We must make a strong net, without holes.
Us poor people, we are all inside of a massive slave ship. Fighting among ourselves, taking isolated positions won’t do any good. In my view, Brazil fails because popular participation is absent in the decision-making process. The wealthy, the bourgeoisie, the politicians, white people, the holders of capital, are always deciding matters related to our lives. We are too passive. For example, public policies geared toward favelas must be elaborated by someone who lives in the favela, someone who loves the favela. We must take a stand to have our voices heard. We must occupy spaces of power.
MPN: In what way does this military occupation, something that leading General Walter Braga Netto described as a “laboratory” for the rest of Brazil, coincide with the political situation taking hold of Brazil presently and the South America as a whole?
Denize: “Laboratory.” I do recall that statement, as if we are rats or guinea-pigs.
The website DS Diálogos do Sul (November 9, 2017) says: The presence of the United States military is, in effect, a type of intervention sponsored by right-wing governments in Latin American countries with the objective of appropriating its natural resources in the region and finishing off progressive governments.
That phrase says it all. For centuries these countries try to appropriate our natural resources and enslave people and, in one way or another, always use force, as is the case with indigenous lands of the Amazon, and rural workers’ land where constant battles are waged.
The only thing we’re certain about concerning this human laboratory is that where Brazilian troops have ventured, such as Haiti, things only got worse. There was bloodshed, hunger, thirst and suffering. They left a trail of destruction.
MPN: Is there a question that you would have liked me to ask you but I didn’t? If so, please feel free to respond to it.
Yes. Honestly, I was waiting for the question: How and why the International Movement of Women Living on the Streets emerged?
I created the organization while living on the streets of my hometown, Rio de Janeiro, and attending the FAETEC (Support Foundation for Technical School) network as a student. At the time, I was very upset, distressed and without a home.
I decided to present myself at spaces of power — debates held at the Public Defense, International Human Rights Forums, town councils and all possible and impossible places. My goal was to pierce the blockade where the lives of homeless people are discussed.
I also began occupying spaces where public policies for women were elaborated. I attended short courses, funding my own travel fare to most of the events, which, at times, lasted for three consecutive days. Oftentimes I’d sleep on benches in public squares and bus station terminals to be able to participate.
As time went on, our group occupied spaces where Minha Casa, Minha Vida (My house, My Life), as well as the right to public housing, healthcare and education were discussed. We teamed up with the LGBTQ struggle, the struggle of women deprived of their freedom; we attended debates about homeless minors and even Red Cross lectures about tuberculosis.
To be clear, the state of Rio de Janeiro lacked public policies for homeless women. Most of the available projects are directed by churches, priests and pastors, to such an extent that we fell victim to machismo. Notwithstanding being ill-seen for being street dwellers, we are pre-judged and, many times, attacked by a female passerby by who frowns or speaks about us negatively.
At the beginning of this struggle, there were only male shelters, rehabilitation centers for male drug addicts and vocational courses only for men leaving prisons. Also, there were two hotels, very well situated in the center of Rio de Janeiro — Hotel Santana and Santa Pomba — just for men to spend the night. They were allowed to bathe and provided a snack or dinner, as well as social assistance services — such as information on how to apply for duplicate IDs, job training and donated clothes and shoes. These hotels were in the Gamboa neighborhood near Maracanã stadium.
In Lapa neighborhood, nuns provided food only for men, shelters were available only for men with HIV and, until this day, there’s a church that allows baths and provides breakfast only for men.
Women were left abandoned, vulnerable, depressed and with low self-esteem. Many became insane. We suffered a great deal and were harassed and raped in shelters for men and women. We were rendered voiceless, blamed for everything, like Eve.
But, it must be pointed out that women are much more vulnerable in such circumstances and, in general, unaware of their rights. If they have a family, the survival of the whole unit is threatened if they are living on the streets. Therefore, an entire family benefits when a woman is provided housing. So, priority should be given when attending to them. We should understand this reality and take into account the differences in relation to men and women. This is my objective and what I do as part of the International Movement of Women Living on the Streets.
It’s also very important to point out that only white people with doctorate degrees and high salaries spoke in those places where policies for homeless people were discussed. Not a sole homeless person was given a chance to say a word. Some fell victim to corruption and colluded with politicians for minor perks like a mere R$20.50 hot meal.
In the beginning, the International Movement of Women Living on the Streets represented homeless people in general. After some years, however, we noticed that men, primarily, benefited. So, we had to revolutionize our efforts. We designed our own flag; created a Facebook page; made flowery shirts; organized our educative Pink Picnics, which are well known in Rio; and we joined groups in African countries, India and elsewhere that also defend homeless women.
Just to host our Pink Picnic is a struggle. I get upset afterwards. So few people responsible for public policy are interested in homeless women. They say we don’t vote.
However, we remain organized and have made achievements through our struggle. Nowadays, there are religious folks, NGOs, fascist street-dweller movements crafted and supported by politicians. They are copying our movement, our picnic and other ideas. Some groups have popped up in Sao Paulo and Belo Horizonte. I hope their objectives are similar to ours, and not based on opportunism, because the situation of homeless people is just a source of income, fame and fashion for many people.
Feature photo | Mounted military police patrol in the Paraisopolis slum of Sao Paulo, Brazil, early Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2012. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)