Mauricio Santoro is a man of many hats. He's a political scientist by trade, and is working as an advisor at Amnesty International in Rio. He's also a university professor and a columnist, and is active on social media. And in this age of the proliferation of experts, he's someone who really knows what he's talking about, making him a great asset for journalists.
I've known Mauricio for years through social media, and in April I had the chance to finally meet him in person and chat about his work. Here are edited excerpts from our conversation.
Working at Amnesty International
In Brazil, there are several human rights crises a week, says Santoro. "The Amnesty office was created in part to work on Brazilian issues, but also to bring Amnesty's global issues to a Brazilian audience," he explained. "For example, we did a campaign on homophobia in Russia, which went really well because people identified with it. It's the same thing whenever we talk about the United States, because Brazilians love to criticize the U.S.," he laughs. "The Middle East is hard; it's very complicated and tends to divide our base." Santoro focuses on four main areas: foreign policy and human rights, education and human rights, indigenous peoples, and issues related to the dictatorship. But he notes that things can come up unexpectedly with such frequent crises.
What's the Most Important Human Rights Issue in Brazil?
"If I had to choose one, it'd be homicides," says Santoro, "because Brazil is the country that has the largest number of murders in the world."
"Proportionally, it's not the most violent country, though it is in the top 10. It's the most violent in terms of absolute numbers of homicides. Brazil alone has more murders each year than the United States an the European Union combined. More than China, more than India, and these are countries with much bigger populations than Brazil. We're talking about something around 50,000 homicides a year. There are countries at war that don't reach that annual number."
Murder, perhaps, is the most serious violation of human rights, says Santoro, "because there's no turning back." The most you can do is to try to compensate by ensuring justice for the family and to provide support to those close to the victim, he adds. "With 50,000 murders a year, that means around 130 murders a day. It's such a big number that it ends up creating a feeling of insensitivity and apathy."
There are two ways Amnesty is dealing with the issue. "The first is what we call the 'symbolic deaths' in order to mobilize people. Nobody goes out to protest because of a statistic. People protest because they found out about the story of a life. The story of Amarildo last year was the most important case of human rights in Brazil because it was an individual story that illuminated this greater trend of human rights violations, and it brought together the issues of death, disappearance, torture, and the pacification debate."
But there's a challenge to this approach. "The classic homicide victim in Brazil is a young, black man, who lives in a favela or a neighborhood on the city's outskirts. Our director says there's an epidemic of indifference in Brazil with relation to the death of these young people. It's rare to find a case like that of Douglas (a dancer who was killed in Rio in April), that one of these murdered people has a first name, a last name, a face."
The second way is a new study. It aims to compile information about the murders of young black men in Brazil, because "the data on this is still shaky," Santoro explains. "We don't have official documentation about how they died, whether in a shoot-out with organized crime or in a fight with a neighbor, or if they were killed by police. So this research is to fill the gap. We're also going to launch a sensitization campaign to convince people that these young people had a life story, they had dreams."
Santoro gives an example of last year's fire in a club in Santa Maria, in Rio Grande do Sul. "It was very interesting the way that tragedy was covered in the media and played out in public opinion. I remember seeing several newspaper and magazine covers showing the faces of the people who died. And there were several of their stories. 'This girl wanted to be a doctor. This guy was trying to join the Air Force.' It wasn't just a statistic: 200 or so people died there. There was a life story. And that's the correct way to deal with this type of tragedy. The problem is that we're talking about an audience that's largely middle class, and the people who are dying in Brazil are largely young and poor."
There's a flipside to the coverage of the Rio Grande do Sul tragedy. Santoro gives the example of Salvador, the city that has the largest number of homicides in Brazil. "The New York Times did a very good special on Salvador, talking about violence and urban decay. I never saw that in a big Brazilian publication," observed Santoro. "It's partially because the Brazilian media does a lot of coverage of Rio, São Paulo, and Brasília, and does little about the North and Northeast. During one of Salvador's police strikes, over 80 people died in the metropolitan area. I don't know the names of these people. And it's possible that more people died in Salvador in those three days than in Syria during its civil war. The media didn't talk about these people's stories."
Public Transportation as a Human Right
Because transportation affects the right to come and go and the right to the city, it's considered a human right, Santoro says.
"Last year, an official from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights visited and met with mothers who had lost children to violence in Rio. She asked them what they considered a priority human right, and which rights they thought were being violated. And their answer surprised me. They said it was the 'right to time.' And they explained that they have to work and care for their families, but waste a lot of time in traffic during their commute. They felt bad for leaving their children with others who may not have been the best influence."
Transportation affects many in Rio, Santoro explains, and it impacts citizens' participation in their communities. "You imagine someone, for example, who lives in Rio's West Zone, which is now the most populous area of the city, where it easily takes three hours to get to and from work in very poor conditions. Buses, trains, overcrowded and dangerous vans. These things accumulate and make Cariocas' day-to-day very hard and there's a loss in quality of life. It affects families and community life. Someone who spends three or four hours a day on public transportation every day won't want to participate in a community board meeting, or would want to sit and debate what's happening in their neighborhood. It's also very common for transportation to not only be very bad, but very expensive, so that people don't circulate much in the city of Rio and instead stay confined close to their neighborhoods. In a city like Rio that's unequal in terms of access to culture, this means that generally these people won't be able to get to see much of the city's cultural side, which is largely concentrated in downtown and the South Zone."
There's also the issue of prejudice. Back in April, an actress was photographed on a public bus. "It was absolutely a normal thing, but it became a scandal," Santoro notes. But because the middle class uses public transportation, there's more pressure to improve the quality of service, he adds.
This differs from the issue of sanitation, for example. "For the government, sanitation is an investment that has low electoral returns, and it takes a long time to build sanitation infrastructure. So it's probable that a government that starts one of these projects won't finish in a single term, and the person that finishes the projects is the one who will get the visibility of victory, likely the original person's successor. So this acts as a strong mechanism to not incentivize this type of activism. It's different from, say, constructing a school and putting up a plaque."
Favela Protests: A New Phenomenon?
I asked whether favela protests represent a change, and he said yes--with a caveat.
"The novelty is not that there's protests in the favelas. This is something that dates back to the 1970s, if not before. What I think is new about these favela movements is that in general it's something very local in each community, and now they're managing to create alliances with middle class movements and other activist groups. So for example, during last year's protests, there were protesters who left en masse from Rocinha and Vidigal and crossed Leblon, Rio's upper-middle class neighborhood, and went to demonstrate in front of the governor's house. That, I'd never seen before. Maybe it happened at some point, but I'd never seen anything like it. Also, it was interesting because they knew they had to take certain precautions, different ones from that of the middle class activists. None of them had their faces covered, no masks or bandannas. Because the kids who come down from Vidigal or Rocinha to protest know they have to be very, very careful not to give any excuse to the police to intervene."
The World Cup's Human Rights Legacy
I spoke to Santoro a few months before the games started, and he said that ahead of the games, the Cup had had very negative consequences. "There were a certain number of favela removals associated with the World Cup, and perhaps the most symbolic one was the Metro Favela close to Maracanã where a good portion of homes were removed to build a parking lot. This is very powerful symbolically, removing people from a favela right in front of the stadium."
Another question is the future of the stadiums. "In places like Brasília and Manaus, who is going to use them? Is there really no better destination for those funds? I don't mean to say that the money used for the World Cup could solve Brazil's social problems. Not even close. These investments represent a small fraction of the Brazilian federal government's budget. But it's clear that when people have access to poor-quality public schools, public health, and public transport, these stadiums stand in contrast, and it's like rubbing salt in the wound."
Santoro added that it's possible many Brazilians won't use these stadiums. "Because what's happening in Brazil is also happening in Europe: the gentrification of football. It's becoming very expensive to attend games. Where there used to be standing-room only, there are now seats. And this is happening in a very unequal country like Brazil, where a football stadium is one of the few public spaces that were in fact frequented by all social classes. It was a place where the poor could go together with the middle class and the elite to watch a game and cheer for the same team. So this has a negative social, psychological effect, and I don't think we understand its totality yet in Brazil. Last year, I noticed that during the Confederations Cup, the spectators you saw in the stadiums were mostly white, in a country where the majority of the population is black or mixed race." (Sidenote: this turned out to be the case during the World Cup, too.)
Gentrification: In Rio and Beyond
With a rise in the cost of living, it's not just stadiums that are becoming gentrified. "It's happening in various Brazilian cities, but it's especially acute in Rio due to geographic and policies. Rio is a city that historically has been squeezed between the ocean and the mountains. There's not a lot of space, and Rio apartments are generally small in comparison to other cities. In the 1940s and 50s, the city began to grow west, with neighborhoods like Barra da Tijuca, Bangu, Realengo, Vargem Grande, the same parts of the city that are growing today and the only place left for the city to grow. And because of limited heights for buildings, you're not going to see a South Zone with highrises like in São Paulo."
As a result of limited space, Rio has become an expensive place to live, Santoro says. "There's also things like the mega-events and the pre-salt discovery. And then there's the public security policy to construct pacification units in favelas. This resulted in security improvements in several middle-class neighborhoods that used to have problems like stray bullets and shoot-outs. This raised prices, too, in the neighborhoods and in the favelas themselves. Vidigal is one of the best examples; it's becoming a bohemian neighborhood, with lots of artists and foreigners moving there."
Photo: Mauricio Santoro at Rio's Amnesty International offices. Image by Eliseu Cavalcante.