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Interview with Melina Risso, co-founder of Agora!

Interview with Melina Risso, co-founder of Agora!

A co-founder of the movement Agora!, Melina Risso is currently working toward a PhD in Government and Public Administration at the Fundação Getúlio Vargas, a prominent Brazilian business school and research center. She is a former director of the Sou da Paz Institute, an organization that works to reduce armed violence in Brazil. Melina is also a former member of the Municipal Council on Drug and Alcohol Policy (COMUDA), the National Council of Public Safety (CONASP), and the National Council of Youth (CONJUVE), where she actively worked to improve public policies on violence prevention, police reform, and social development.  She is a visiting scholar at George Mason University, studying public policy implementation with a focus on examining “stop and frisk” practices by the Brazilian military police through an interpretive perspective that considers differing perceptions between the policy and the populace and the challenges this divergence poses to policy implementation.

The following conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity. The views and opinions expressed below are the interviewee's own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brazil Institute or the Wilson Center.

Of the current political movements emerging in Brazil, which ones do you believe have the most concrete and realistic proposals?

It is necessary to distinguish between the different movements in Brazil because there are many that are forming at the same time. Brazil’s civil society is very active in several sectors, such as public safety, education, and healthcare. Of course, not all proposals are the same, but we have many organizations and a civil society attentive to what needs to be accomplished in order to improve each sector.

What is new to Brazil is the recent focus on how we look at politics, how we think about proposals for political reforms, and how to reform the political system itself. There are people and movements that think that the participation of civil society is important, but they understand that achieving these goals also requires becoming part of institutional politics. There is a lot of pressure from the outside-in [outside pressure on politicians and agencies], but now it seems necessary to have pressure from within as well. For the first time, there is a generation willing to engage in politics that previously never considered it: people who were very comfortable in their place in civil society, but who now see the need to enter politics and take a stance.

This trend has grown since 2013, starting with street demonstrations [in June and July 2013, following an increase in bus fare in São Paulo] that opened a space for ordinary people to learn about their own capacity to push for public policy reforms. The protests spread throughout the country and, as a consequence, the mayors of large Brazilian cities reversed their decisions to increase public transportation fares. So it was a movement that empowered people.

Concurrently, several other groups formed with the objective of addressing the population’s various frustrations; the groups that managed to turn this dissatisfaction into an agenda have made real gains.  For example, the movement Passe Livre (Free Fare) focused on reducing public transportation fares succeeded. Another group that was very clever was the Public Prosecutor's Office. In 2013, when Congress was considering Constitutional Amendment No. 37, federal public prosecutors shrewdly characterized this proposal as the “impunity amendment.” People did not know exactly what the amendment was, but there was a strong enough popular pressure against it that Congress rejected the bill. The Public Prosecutor's Office, a functioning federal entity, was able to shape general dissatisfaction into a specific public policy agenda.   

Following the World Cup in 2014 (which faced many domestic critiques) and the 2014 elections, Brazilian society grew more polarized. These divisions produced other movements, such as Vem pra Rua (Come to the Streets) and Movimento Brasil Livre (Free Brazil Movement, or MBL), which mobilized society to accomplish a very specific goal: the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff [who had just been reelected in October 2014]. Yet aside from the impeachment issue, in my opinion these movements had no other narrative strong enough to unite people. The problem with some of these groups is their “denial of politics” narrative.  Looking at MBL and at Vem pra Rua in its early days, they focused too much on the message that “we are not politicians, all politicians are corrupt.” When the movement Agora! (Now!) was created, its members were able to assess and learn from these other groups.

Agora! is premised on the idea that reform must come from within politics, not outside of politics. It is a generational movement to build a bridge and help us get out of this “Fla v. Flu” dispute of one against the other, where there are no alternatives.[1] Only by moving beyond polarization can we understand what is working—what is improving in people's lives—and determine what can be done within the political process.

[The fact that different people] have different ideas is not an impediment to collaboration. In the end, politics is premised on the debate of distinct ideas. We need new voices [in politics], and this moment is the first time that these new actors, who are all interested and motivated to improve Brazil, are beginning to see politics as a possible path.

Theoretically, political parties should connect civil society to the political system, but this does not happen in Brazil today. Do you think that this failure is what motivates new movements to look for a different way of entering politics?

I truly think that the political parties have failed, largely because our reliance on presidential coalitions [in which the president’s party forms the governing coalition in Congress] corrupts the system and its processes. How do you negotiate an agreement with the 35 [registered] political parties, or with the 28 parties [with seats in Congress] which are no longer guided by societal interest? We have lost the capacity to have dialogue between the parties and society: the people are completely shut out.

It is also challenging to think about democratic representation in the 21st century. Do we still need parties to mediate [between government and the people]? Given the possibility of direct consultation [with the people] through technology, what system of representation—direct or indirect—would be best? This is huge debate in democratic theory. I do not have an answer, but I think the current representation model is in crisis, and not just in Brazil. There are experiences around the world that show us other possibilities and new models for us to learn from. The model that we are accustomed to in Brazil—with certain institutions that act as mediators [between the people and government]—needs to be rethought and retooled. We are in a different time, a new era where things can be done differently.

Do you think it would be feasible to implement the reforms that various movements are developing before the 2018 elections?

Some reforms are feasible, but I doubt we will have a perfect system by 2018. We will never have a system that is perfect for everyone, but together we all need to debate and decide on a starting point. The democratic process is slow. We need to understand that it takes time for ideas to mature and advance. Some reforms may be implemented, but it depends on several variables, including societal pressure—and it is always a challenge to maintain a strong popular mobilization effort over time. People are dissatisfied [but they are also] tired. The period from 2018-2022 will be a true moment of transition. The more new actors that are able to enter politics with a new vision, the more we will be able to enact reforms.

You pointed out that the population is tired. We have seen that people are less involved now than they were in 2013, when protesters took to the streets across Brazil. How can movements mobilize people to hold the government accountable? How can they mobilize citizens to demand political reforms?

I think we cannot judge a mobilization effort solely by the number of people on the street. Of course, there have been moments in Brazil's recent past where many people took to the streets, so it is one indicator, but it should not be the only one. Today, there are various forms of popular mobilization, such as online petitions and apps for lawsuit proposals. There are many ways of thinking about the mobilization structure. Now we have to mobilize people to work also on the drawing board of political reform, developing ideas and initiatives that can produce change. In other words, we have started on the hardest part of the work that needs to be done to renew Brazilian democracy. 

In terms of online petitions, are movements worried that civic participation will only be passive?

I think the challenge [for people] lies in understanding the proposals. One way to improve mobilization strategies and increase participation is to learn how to explain reforms, proposals, and issues to those who are uninformed. We need to invest in improving communication. People are capable of thinking and choosing what is best for them. They can learn to discuss without attacking others. We must debate ideas and proposals, evaluate evidence, and show what works and what does not.

With regards to candidates for the upcoming elections, do you know anyone from one of the new movements who could become an emerging leader and who has the capacity to implement these reforms?

I find it difficult to answer this question because the process in Brazil in itself is complicated. A national campaign requires visibility, and that demands significant resources. It is difficult for a movement to have the structure needed to launch someone new into the world of politics. There are many good and competent people, and many who are willing to be candidates, but it would nonetheless be a challenge.

Most new movements are considered non-partisan, but is there a way to place them on a political spectrum?

These movements and groups are trying to break away from such categorization, since the limited nature of “right” and “left” no longer makes sense. Now is a time to reinvent: to break pre-existing models and boundaries of political categorization in order to build new ones

From what I understand of Brazil’s party system, many parties identify with the right and the left, but there are also many that do not have a concrete identification.

We have the center-right, like the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB) [the party of the current president]. But when we look at the alliances that different parties make at a municipal level, for example, they are completely different from the alliances made at a national level. The policies that a party supports in one city are often inconsistent with the policies that the party supports in a different part of the country.

Especially since we currently work within a proportional representation model in Congressional elections, rather than an electoral district model, the Brazilian system is much more complex. People vote for people. It is much less about the parties.  This is another defining characteristic of the Brazilian system. The identity of the individual candidate is the important issue at hand [for most voters], and research strongly demonstrates this in all regions of the country.  

Part of our project’s goal is to explain what the movements are and their proposals, not only for the Brazilian public, but for the American public and others that follows us. Can those who live outside of Brazil help support the movement to renew and strengthen the country’s democracy?

There are several ways to do this! The first step is to understand what is happening and which movements are active. Your work is important in informing people about what is currently going on. The second step is to understand how each movement is progressing with respect to its work and goals. Agora!, for example, will begin soon  to host public conversations (both in person and virtually) to provide a way for people to participate, listen, and offer opinions. It is also important to contribute with resources, questions, registrations, and even participation through volunteering. Agora! is also in a moment of agenda building, and we want everyone to participate during the consultation phase as we consider the future of Brazil and how to build it.  We encourage people to visit our website to learn more about our movement and how to get involved. 

[1] Flamengo and Fluminese are Brazilian soccer teams and long-time rivals based in Rio de Janeiro: the first Flamengo-Fluminese game was played in 1912. Journalist Mário Filho coined the abbreviation “Fla-Flu” in 1933 to describe the hotly-contested matches, which have become a classic of Brazilian soccer. 

Brazil Institute

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