She Was Rio’s Biggest Hope. Then She Was Assassinated
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because politics the world over is being driven by battles over identity.
By Anna Jean Kaiser
OZY first published this profile in September 2016, tracking the trajectory of a young political rising star. In March 2018, Marielle Franco was tragically gunned down and killed in Rio de Janeiro, sparking protests nationwide. Learn here about Franco’s efforts to bring positive change to Brazil.
On a Friday night just before Rio de Janeiro’s municipal elections, city council candidate Marielle Franco arrives at a warehouse party in her neighborhood of Maré — a favela, a low-income informal settlement, located in Rio’s North Zone. An Afrobeat band sings of the luta (the struggle), racism, machismo. People sport orange stickers bearing outline of an Afroed woman: Franco’s campaign image.
“I am because we are,” her campaign slogan reads, a nod to the African philosophy ubuntu, and a surprisingly telling message. Franco, an up-and-comer in one of Brazil’s new leftist parties, the Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL), is appealing to locals because of a shared identity. The 37-year-old, who’s making her first run for elected office, is telling a story of a new era of progressivism in Brazil, one that draws on her childhood history growing up in a favela. The Olympic dust has settled; Rio is facing a deepening financial crisis and ever-deteriorating security issues, and all this is cast against the specter of ex-President Dilma Rousseff’s ousting in September after a lengthy impeachment process.
Amid all this, Franco, who’s won her election, hopes to begin her ascent into the highest echelons of Brazilian politics. Franco and her small but plucky party, which is just 11 years old, see themselves as the counterbalancing force to the current center-right government. They’re calling for wider social safety nets, new public housing projects, community policing.
In addition to her party’s platform, Franco has her own wish list: She wants standard bus routes rewritten so women can get off at designated brighter or safer spaces late at night. She wants more government-funded day care centers so moms can work. As Franco issues many of these calls for change, she uses her personal history expertly to compensate for a lack of experience in elected office. Day care is a case study in this Francoism: Though other politicians have been trying to up the number of centers for years, Franco says they didn’t understand the complex cartographies of the city of 6.5 million, didn’t see the invisible borders drawn by gangs or drug factions that might make a seemingly accessible center dangerous for a mother to reach.
She’s the chance to bring politics closer to here and fight for our interests.
Shyrlei Rosendo, Maré resident
João Feres, a political science professor at the State University of Rio, says the PSOL is not realistic. “It’s idealistic leftist policies. They’re more concerned with sticking to their own principles and not meddling with the dirty aspects of Rio politics.” City council politics is a messy business, peopled both with ideological opponents and, in some cases, members of actual criminal militias. Franco and colleagues will have to negotiate with sundry types. And the idealism may come crashing down.
Feres also thinks solutions are, in PSOL discourse, less favored than raw hope. He gestures to one of the PSOL’s — and Franco’s — favorite targets, police efforts to gain control of favelas run by drug traffickers, under the moniker “the pacification police.” The program, Feres says, “can be criticized in many ways, but [PSOL] seem to think there is some other magical solution to public security.” We reached out to the main center-right party in Rio, the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, for their take on policing and Franco, but they did not reply to request for comment; other local politicians declined to speak on record mere days before an election.
Maré, Franco’s home where we are stumping today, is one of Rio’s most precarious neighborhoods. Frequent school closures and lockdowns prevent people from getting to work. Franco, who’s raising her teenage daughter here, says it wasn’t always like this. As a kid in the ’80s, she played on the streets without worry. She was around 14 the first time she saw an armed trafficker. Today, that’s commonplace.
Franco got pregnant at 18; her child’s father wasn’t around after the first few years. She took a job as a preschool teacher making minimum wage — about $200 a month — to support herself and her child. While her daughter was still in grade school, Franco got a scholarship to a prestigious private university, continuing to teach to pay her way. After college she kept teaching, and, in 2007, started working for the PSOL, drawn in by the idea of a new leftist party where she could “sink her hands into the dough.”
Her profile is a rarity in Rio and Brazil’s political sphere — currently, six of the 51 seats on the Rio City Council are occupied by women. She pitches herself as change itself: “It’s important to have someone like me because it’s a direct identification.” Residents believe that Franco would fight for her own: “She’s the chance to bring politics closer to here and fight for our interests,” said Shyrlei Rosendo, 33, a Maré resident. And that appeal is crucial for PSOL, says José Eduardo Leon Szwako, a professor and social scientist who specializes in civil society movements at the State University of Rio. Franco’s party “has not been able to win over large slices of the Rio electorate,” he says — it’s been mostly young, educated liberals cheering PSOL along. Feres says the party will not go far without more support from lower income citizens. “They’ve never been able to break the class barrier, and that’s a major problem for a leftist party in Brazil,” he says, pointing out that their core support remains middle-class.
The party spills out into the street, heralding the weekend. Music blasts from speakers while residents drink beer and eat barbecue on the streets. Franco takes selfies with supporters. The scene recalls the kind of policy promises only a local girl can make: In the favela, she’s pledged to hold more events valorizing Afro-Brazilian and favela culture like baile funk, parties devoted to the musical genre that originated in Rio’s favelas. Those fetes? They’ve been banned by police in some areas. The state identified them as security risks.
- Anna Jean Kaiser, OZY Author Contact Anna Jean Kaiser