Cities For People

1 June 1999
Daniel Chavez
Daniel Chavez describes how two experiments in participatory democracy have transformed the political culture in Brazil and Uruguay

The participatory politics of the PT, Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers' Party) in Brazil and the FA, Frente Amplio (Broad Front) in Uruguay has transformed the corrupt, wasteful municipal government of South America. These experiments in determining local budgets through extensive citizen involvement and in decentralising the administration of services provide a laboratory from which the left can learn how to govern in a new way.

Decentralisation and participatory budgeting challenge neoliberalism. They increase the accountability of local government and introduce decision making and negotiation from below in place of the traditional centralised and secretive process. This model seeks to transform powerless urban residents who, after decades of authoritarianism were used only to casting an obligatory vote every five years, into active subjects with growing power over the decisions that affect their daily lives.

In the cities of Montevideo and Porto Alegre, left parties have reorganised the local state to play a co-ordinating and faciliating role in the process. Such progressive local governments face a double challenge. They must be effective and efficient in providing basic urban services and administering financial resources; they also have the goal of overthrowing repressive decision making systems.

Participatory budgeting and decentralisation to sub-municipal districts are underway in some 80 cities of Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina where progressive parties hold office. Guided by the values of the PT and the FA, they are not mere imitations of what has been done in Montevideo and Porto Alegre but are a response to the political realities of each location.

Montevideo and Porto Alegre have similar economies and social structures, and both are closer to European cities than those of Latin America. Before the collapse of the Brazilian currency last January, the per capita income in the two cities was above US$6,000. Both cities have high literacy rates. Democratic civil society is relatively strong and well-organised. However, when the left won office it was faced with the challenge of high levels of social exclusion and polarisation.

Porto Alegre, capital of the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul, has 1.3 million residents. Montevideo, capital of Uruguay, has a population of around 1.6 million, roughly half of the country.

Between the late 1960s and early 1980s the population of Porto Alegre grew rapidly while inequalities widened. In 1989, when the PT won control, one third of the population was ghettoised on the urban periphery. Streets were unpaved; there were no sewers and few schools and health centres. The participatory budgeting process revealed that some communities had been unsuccessfully striving for 30 or 40 years for minimum improvements in the neighbourhood. Similarly, Montevideo in 1990, when the FA took office, was scarred by deep economic and social gulfs. After decades of political authoritarianism and economic neoliberalism, Montevideo and Porto Alegre had both become dual cities: people living along the coast had high, European-level living standards; inland there was a growing belt of squatter settlements, the cantegriles and "vilas".

In 1988 the PT won the municipality of Sao Paulo (the second largest city in Latin America), Porto Alegre, Vitoria, Santos and more than 30 other local governments throughout Brazil. The Workers' Party was founded in the early 1980s, by activists from autonomous labour unions, urban and rural social movements, former guerrillas, Marxist intellectuals and Christians close to liberation theology. It was shaped by its role as a militant and imaginative opposition. The 1988 victory in municipal elections opened a new phase in the party's development, requiring it to apply its principles to the design of institutions of local government in the context of a hostile government.

Not all the PT's attempts at 'alternative governance' were successful. In Sao Paulo, after one term of office, right wing parties regained the government. The Brazilian left learned from its mistakes and, after 10 years of participatory budgeting, Porto Alegre has become the PT's flagship. In each election its percentage of the vote has risen despite vicious opposition from the economic elites and the mainstream media.

Participatory budgeting has three objectives: first to achieve citizens' direct participation in decision making about urban management and local development; secondly, to encourage greater political awareness and power of urban residents and their social organisations; and thirdly, to build a genuinely democratic culture. This was believed to be the only way to transform the extremely polarised social, economic and political inequalities that prevail in Brazilian cities.

In 1991, the city was divided into 16 administrative areas or regions through negotiations between urban residents and the municipal authorities. During the first two years (after 1989) there were frequent protests by community-based organisations complaining against 'lip service', claiming that the municipality did not really care for the poor, and that the public administration was still controlled by the rich and powerful. From the start it was clear that different sections of the community had different priorities: while the poorer areas demanded basic services the richer neighbourhoods were concerned with street cleaning and parks.

Two years later, five city-wide 'thematic plenary sessions' were created around the issues of public transport and traffic, education, culture and leisure, healthcare and social security, economic development and taxation, and city management and urban development. The aim of these plenaries is to define an integrated vision for the whole of the city.

Thus the process of participatory budgeting involves two major structures: the Regional Assemblies and the Participatory Budget Council. The Council is composed of delegates from the regions, from the thematic plenary sessions, from the municipal workers' union and from the neighbours' unions association, plus two representatives of the local government. In each region, the assemblies are established with representatives of neighbourhood-based associations. The process is organised around two rounds (rodadas) of meetings which include thematic and regional meetings, where the population expresses its demands and sets priorities for municipal investments and policies

Critics claim that 'only' 16,500 people took part in the rodadas of 1998, and those who participate are, like squatters, only there with a personal interest in obtaining material improvements. Nevertheless, even the opposition recognises the qualitative change in local management and planning, and its potential.

Olivio Dutra, former petista (PT) mayor of Porto Alegre and, since November 1998, first petista governor, has approved the extension of participatory budgeting to the whole of Rio Grande do Sul. The start of the process at the state level, which will concern 10 million people and nearly 500 municipalities, is scheduled for next May.

For the first time since the creation of Brazil, public resources are being allocated for the benefit of the majority. This means securing the 'right to the city' for the subordinated classes. This was demonstrated in the resettlement of Vila Planetario, a squatter settlement of refuse collectors in the centre of the city. Instead of the usual policy of the bulldozer, of benefit to property speculators, participatory budgeting secured the right of the inner city residents to stay, and for them to be provided with decent housing.

In Montevideo the Frente Amplio was founded as a coalition of diverse left currents against the military dictatorship. The founding document was signed by Marxist parties - PCU (communist); PSU (socialist); and other secondary groups: the Christian Left, dissident fractions of the two mainstream parties, intellectuals, labour activists and progressive military officers. Besides being a political coalition, the Frente Amplio had a social movement identity. Its fundamental structure was a decentralised network of comit¶s de base throughout the country, based on associations of workers, students or neighbours.

During the early years after the dictatorship, the FA was active in the reconstruction of civil society. While leading the opposition to neoliberal policies at the national parliament, the FA supported labour unions, housing co-operatives, students' associations, women's groups and human rights organisations. In 1989 the Frente Amplio finally won in Montevideo, obtaining 33.6 per cent of the votes. Simultaneously, the most conservative fraction of the National Party won control of the national government. While the national government pursues a programme of further privatisation, deregulation, liberalisation and rigid control of social investment, the programme of the left emphasises radicalising democracy, socially and politically.

Its main municipal objectives were efficient and accountable administration based on political and administrative decentralisation. This meant a gobierno de puertas abiertas (open door government), with power being transferred to the grassroots. The municipal cabinet would meet publicly; there would be transparency in the use of public funds and managerial practices. The second objective was to prioritise social investment and promote social justice in access to urban goods and services. The aim was to assure equal 'rights to the city' to all the social groups living and working in Montevideo. It meant public-private partnership between the local governments and NGOs, CBOs and even some elements of the for-profit sector.

The FA tried to reinvent democratic local government through municipal decentralisation. Besides the elected councillors, members of existing community-based organisations were supposed to take part in the process. In practice, opening the councils to the broader participation of neighbours did not work as expected in every neighbourhood. In some communities it resulted in a 'delegative dynamics' that dried-out the original initiative.

The preparation of the current municipal five-year plan and budget, passed by the city legislative body in 1995, was preceded by a year-long discussion in each of the 18 districts. With enthusiastic participation by municipal social workers and NGOs in the preparation of workshops and participatory action research projects, the Neighbourhood Councils elaborated proposals and set priorities for social policies and the extension of urban services.

The latest initiative took place between August and October of 1996. Organised by the municipality and implemented by local NGOs, Montevideo en Foro II, the second city wide debate, aimed to evaluate and correct flaws in the unfolding process of decentralisation.

The clearest difference between urban management before 1990 and the present situation is the fact that previously decisions were taken by a few bureaucrats and politicians. Now there are hundreds of ordinary men and women, with or without technical or political background, collecting information, arguing with the municipal agencies about the best use of the resources in each neighbourhood, proposing alternatives, demanding and supervising the overall development of the five-year plan, and designing the city of tomorrow.

In Porto Alegre and Montevideo the left is proposing and practising a new set of ethical principles and political values. The success of these experiments is gradually being acknowledged not only by a range of progressive forces throughout Latin America, but by international agencies as well. Awkwardly, even mainstream agencies such as the Inter American Development Bank (IADB) are seriously considering these experiences 'for export', though they separate the political, democratic objectives from their most 'technical' features and try 'to pasteurise' the project.

One important issue to consider is the cross-class character of these experiences. At the beginning, both within the FA and within the PT, an ideological dispute had to be resolved: to govern for 'the poor and the workers' or for all the urban residents. The latter position finally won, and at the moment participatory budgeting and decentralisation are strongly supported by the middle classes - a large section of the population in both cities - as well as the poor. Their support is based on a belief that the left governments have clean hands and have improved municipal services.

For the poor and the workers, a decade of the left in local government has meant a degree of access to social policies - housing, health, education, gender and youth programmes, and job and income-generation programmmes. This would have been unthinkable under previous authoritarian municipal governments. Moreover, these experiences have an important cultural dimension, meaning a new understanding of 'politics' and the 'city'. The first involves a break from the old idea of politics as exclusive negotiations between a lucky few; the second is understood in terms of a place, space and resources over which the people have a right rather than as a dormitory and a place of work.

The sustainability of these experiences, however, is not fully secured. Particularly in Brazil, where the dependence of the municipal budget on federal transfers means that macroeconomic or political considerations may threaten the municipalitiy's capacity to run autonomous policies under the pressure of increasing social demands. This is the problem facing Porto Alegre as the government of Fernando Henrique Cardoso - Tony Blair's Southern Third Way partner - is cutting the social budget as a way of 'solving' the current crisis.

Despite the many differences in practical strategies between the PT and the FA in local government, Montevideo and Porto Alegre are components of a common project of the (new) Latin American Left. This assumption is based on a shared set of core values and practices as well as in the permanent exchange of information and expertise at the level of municipal staff and political leaders. It would be desirable to extend the exchange to urban residents and social and political activists between these two cities and other interested parties in Latin America and other parts of the world.

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