10/04/2008 07:55 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Green Party's Gabeira May Be a Troubled Rio de Janeiro's Best Hope

Brazilian iconoclast Fernando Gabeira, who is running for mayor of Rio de Janeiro in the Sunday, October 5th election, may be the best hope for turning things around in the troubled city. The federal congressman, a revolutionary during Brazil's military dictatorship, is a member of the Green Party (Partido Verde or PV). He is full of pragmatic ideas about making Rio a more sustainable city, and is a staunch supporter of human rights. Gabeira has a reputation of being one of the country's few honest politicians, and has been outspoken in challenging corruption in Brasília.

A long shot in the race, partly because of a severe lack of funding in his campaign, Gabeira has come on strong in the last few days to contend for second place in the polls with Marcelo Crivella, a bishop in the powerful evangelical church Igreja Universal. Whoever places second will probably enter an Oct. 26th runoff election against current leader Eduardo Paes, who is not expected to gain a majority in the first round.

The contest is especially dramatic because of ongoing interference by drug lords and urban militias in the electoral process. An estimated 20% of Rio's six million people live in some 700 favelas (hillside slums), which are largely controlled by drug traffickers or mafia-like militias, the latter formed mostly of former policemen. The militias are especially well-organized and force residents to vote for certain candidates, which has resulted in the election of city councilmen and state lawmakers who have left the militias to operate freely. Recently, they have compelled favela residents to photograph their votes with cell phones, as proof of loyalty. In addition, both militias and traffickers have made it difficult or dangerous for non-favored candidates to campaign in their domains.

As a result of all this, the TRE (Regional Electoral Tribunal) has banned cell phones from all voting booths. And, in an unprecedented move, the federal government has mobilized 5,600 Army and Navy troops, and stationed them in 27 large favelas to provide security for candidates and TRE officials, and to protect voters during the election.

If Gabeira makes the runoff and defeats Paes on Oct. 26th, he will face a daunting challenge in dealing with Rio's urban blight and lawlessness. "I had been concentrating my work on national and international issues. But I recognized that the city is not doing well, and is in a crisis that we must overcome," he told me in his campaign office on Avenida Rio Branco in downtown Rio de Janeiro.

Rio de Janeiro, the once "Marvelous City," is coming apart at the seams under the strain of corruption, crime and urban woes. Along with being terrorized by militias and drug gangs, favela residents have almost no basic services and receive zero police protection. The murder rate in favelas resembles that of a war zone, and crime throughout Rio is astronomic. The city police are inefficient and often corrupt. The public health system is falling apart, and failed utterly in dealing with the recent dengue outbreak. And government funds that should shore up the crumbling infrastructure of the city as a whole are largely diverted by corruption, a plague throughout the nation. Most cariocas (residents of Rio) I've talked to feel that the current mayor, Cesar Maia, has slept through his third term in office, communicating mostly through email and coming alive only when city projects involved large numbers of tourists (such as the Pan American Games in 2007).

If he becomes mayor, Gabeira promises to put his progressive ideas into action, including those drawn from his years of research into urban environmental issues (he has a website, Cidade Sustentável (Sustainable City) at He will put an emphasis on recycling waste, improving mass transit, and the reforestation of green areas in and around the city. For Rio's health-care system, he would use the internet to coordinate hospitals and centralize purchasing for greater efficiency, and work together with seventy nearby cities to upgrade local health care throughout the region, so that Rio's hospitals aren't deluged with patients coming from throughout the state. He sees the internet as important on many levels, and hopes to provide wireless access throughout Rio de Janeiro.

Regarding the favelas, Gabeira promises to treat their residents as full citizens, with rights and respect not given to them in the past (most maps of Rio have blank spots where favelas are located, as if their communities didn't even exist). He says, "The best thing to do is to liberate those areas from this armed occupation. It depends on the political will of the state government and president of the republic and they don't seem very oriented towards this solution. They deal with the problem, but not in [a way] to solve the problem. You can not do that without reforming the police, and the police are very dangerous when you try to change things.

"You need money and a territorial policy. It's a bad thing if you go up and exchange some bullets with drug traffickers and you come down again. Even if you kill five or six, then tomorrow six, seven, eight will appear. In order to break the whole thing, you have to stay there and give them some services. You must think in the long-term. The biggest problem is how to begin. I think we have to do many things for them in order to gain their confidence."

Ironically, if Gabeira does win the mayoral election and manages to improve Rio's situation, he may be hailed as a hero at home but a terrorist or enemy combatant on American soil. That is due to a notorious episode nearly thirty years ago during the dictatorship that made him famous in the first place. I blogged about it here: Rio's Next Mayor Could Be Gabeira, Who Kidnapped U.S. Ambassador in '69. I will post more about the election results.

*Note: Those who read Portuguese can visit Gabeira's website at

**Update (20 October): Fernando Gabeira succeeded in making the run-off election and will compete on Oct. 26 with Eduardo Paes to be mayor of Rio de Janeiro. At this moment, Gabeira is a few points ahead of Paes in the polls.

***Update (27 October): Gabeira lost the election to Paes by one percentage point.