Future of Latin America will be determined in its cities where more than 80% of the population lives; signs of concern, signs of progress

Mar 22, 2015 | 0 comments

By Fernando Luiz Lara

Anyone trying to understand Latin American politics should pay close attention to urban areas. Of the 600 million people in the southern part of the Americas, 80 percent now live in cities. However, old narratives die hard, which explains why English-speaking articles about Latin America still disproportionately focus on rural issues, peasant struggles, land reform and related topics. Of course, these issues remain relevant, because land ownership, rural or urban, is still a major source of conflict. But it is clear that urban issues will increasingly dominate the region’s political future.

Modern mass transit is helping to transform cities like Medellin.

Modern mass transit is helping to transform cities like Medellin.

Take for instance Venezuela, the most polarized —not to say troubled— of all Latin American democracies. To understand contemporary Venezuela, one must go back almost half a century to an urban revolt on Jan. 23, 1958. On that day, an angry crowd invaded the unfinished housing blocks commissioned by dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez that were to be inaugurated soon.

Named “2 de Diciembre” after the day in December that Perez Jimenez took “legal” power in 1952, the dozens of high-rise slabs were being built on what had been the largest informal settlement in Caracas, and the apartments in them were being given to those favored by the ruling political party, rather than the original inhabitants to whom they were promised. The invasion of the construction site on Jan. 23 triggered the fall of Perez Jimenez. To this day the site is known as 23 de Enero, or 23rd of January, and has been a hotbed of political and social activism.

While this history is well-known by Latin American sociologists, political scientists and urban historians, few people pay attention to the fact that it was in the highly energized and politicized community of 23 de Enero that young army officer Hugo Chavez Frias started his career. It was from the barracks neighboring the site that he launched his failed coup in 1992. In April 2002, the inhabitants of 23 de Enero were among the first to take to the streets to protest the coup against then-President Chavez, bringing him back to power 48 hours later. In short, anyone who really wants to understand Venezuela today must study the urban social movements that unfortunately have not been sufficiently and thoroughly historicized.

Venezuela is perhaps the most extreme case, but elsewhere in Latin America urban issues are also driving local politics. How else to explain the progressive policies on abortion, gay marriage and marijuana regulation implemented by President Jose Mujica in Uruguay, if not for the fact that cosmopolitan Montevideo, the capital, houses half of the country’s 1.4 million inhabitants? Or, Ecuador’s massive spending programs on infrastructure and social programs initiated by President Rafael Correa.

Protests in Brazil.

Protests in Brazil.

However, the socially progressive issues that put Uruguay and its humble, Volkswagen Beetle-driving president in the spotlight worldwide are not likely to be the driving forces of Latin American politics in the 21st Century. Rather, the region’s priorities still more closely resemble those that characterized Venezuela’s 23 de Enero, and what is happening today in Ecaudor.

Latin America’s contemporary urban struggles are characterized by three main issues: public safety; mobility and accessibility; and resources and climate change. These topics are inextricably linked, as this article will show.


Survey after survey conducted in the largest cities of Latin America inevitably points to the issue of public safety as a major problem. People in cities as safe as Buenos Aires and Santiago seem as concerned as people in famously dangerous cities like Sao Paulo or Mexico City. One reason is the perception of the police as a repressive entity, something inherited from the dictatorships of the Southern Cone or the pseudo-democracy of Mexico’s long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Without efficient and community-oriented police forces, Latin Americans feel unprotected even in cities that statistically are safer than London or New York.

That said, urban violence in Latin American cities is as unequally distributed as everything else. The periphery of every major city where the working class can afford to live is many times more dangerous than the middle class areas. In the former neighborhoods, people are in constant fear for their lives, subject to all kinds of constraints imposed by local gangs and organized crime syndicates. The police in many cities, meanwhile, are famous for shooting first and asking questions later. In Brazil, the death rate for young black males in the periphery is four times higher than the national average for their age and gender group. In January, while global social media was inundated by the Charlie Hebdo tragedy in France, an online campaign drew attention to the fact that 63 young black men are killed every day in Brazil.

There are other areas where violence is simply out of control, such as the periphery of Tegucigalpa in Honduras, which has the highest murder rate in the world, or some areas in Mexico. In Mexico, in particular, the issue of violence will dominate the political discussions for a long time. The Indignados movement that started in 2011 continues to mobilize the frustrations of the Mexican society, and the death of 43 students last year just proved to the whole world how endemic and entrenched in governmental institutions the problem is.

Elsewhere in Latin America, the fear of violence is fueling a new cohort of socially conservative leaders pushing for stricter sentences while blocking any attempts at police reform or the demilitarization of public safety. In Brazil, for example, the Pacifying Police Units model of community engagement in Rio de Janeiro, which had achieved significant success in recent years, seems doomed by the failure to more broadly reform police institutions and get rid of corruption and brutality. The last congressional election in Brazil resulted in a major loss for human rights and minority movements and significant gains for those defending tougher sentences and tougher policing as a response to urban crime.


In June 2013, millions of Brazilians took to the streets to demonstrate for a variety of causes. Sparked by a transportation tariff hike and fueled by a widespread perception of corruption and waste that included spending on the impending World Cup, the protests were described by the mainstream media as a novelty in Brazil.

The reality is that there is a long Brazilian tradition of urban protests. There were 11 major protests between 1894 and 1991, and hundreds of smaller incidents in which the Brazilian people took to the streets to demonstrate and express their grievances. In the large majority of cases, the protests —large and small— were in reaction to transportation problems and police brutality, both typical working-class issues.

The major exception was during the presidency of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva from 2003-2010. Lula had all kinds of trouble with Congress and the judiciary, but little pressure from the streets, perhaps due to his own roots as a union leader and his ability to interact with and galvanize social movements. On its own initiative, the Lula government created a gigantic plan to infuse the economy with investment in much-needed infrastructure. Devised and implemented by Dilma Rouseff, who has since succeeded Lula as president, the Accelerated Growth Program (PAC) invested $200 billion in infrastructure, half of it in sanitation and public space improvement, all over the country between 2005-2009.

The social housing program Minha Casa Minha Vida (My House My Life), for instance, was created in 2009 and has so far built over 1 million units. However, there are problems in the program that make it less progressive than it seems at first glance. To begin with, the construction companies that are contracted to build the units have a strong incentive to do so as inexpensively as possible to maximize their gains. That of course includes purchasing the cheapest possible land, which inevitably is found in the farthest periphery of the largest Brazilian metropolitan regions, with little or no infrastructure. In addition, the Minha Casa Minha Vida program finances the houses only, leaving the respective cities responsible for everything else, from sidewalks to bus stops to parks and public spaces. The result is an absolute “lack of urbanity,” in the words of U.N. housing envoy Raquel Rolnik.

This well-established model of relocations to the farthest periphery comes loaded with problems. It forces residents to endure hours upon hours in crowded buses stuck in traffic jams; isolates the poorest from the infrastructure that is mainly concentrated in central areas; and confuses property rights with quality of urban life. The market test says it all: Compare the value of any house at Minha Casa Minha Vida developments with the value of any other housing in favelas of central areas in any Brazilian city, and it becomes evident that people are still willing to pay more to live in the favelas.

Demonstrating the importance of mobility and accessibility to urban residents, the first organized protests in Brazil last June were triggered by a 20-cent hike in transportation prices in Sao Paulo. They were brutally repressed by the state’s military police, and soon there were larger protests in Sao Paulo and other large Brazilian cities.

Soon, the protesters began expressing a wider range of grievances. But there were also unspoken grievances, particularly for the middle class, which saw the consumer-based cycle under Lula turn sluggish under Rousseff. On one point, however, the working class, the middle class and the elite all agree: Brazilian cities have not improved at all during the Lula-Rousseff years. The focus on consumer-induced economic growth has brought millions of new automobiles to the same old roads, without any equivalent investment in public transportation. Meanwhile, a large increase in housing prices has pushed the working poor even further away, a lose-lose situation for the 85 percent of Brazilians who live in cities.

A real improvement in public transportation, whether in the form of significant cost reduction or quality improvement, would have a transformative effect on the urban structure because it would affect the value of land. With good and cheap transportation, land in the periphery would instantly increase in value.

The issues of transportation and access to infrastructure are expected to drive much of municipal politics, and these challenges are in no way unique to Brazil. In Colombia, two consecutive Bogota mayors —Antanas Mockus and Enrique Penalosa, who between them governed from 1998-2003—invested in public transportation, and the city still enjoys the political benefits of that decision. In the 2010 presidential election, Mockus made it to a run-off against eventual winner and current President Juan Manuel Santos, despite running with the tiny Green Party against the party of the popular outgoing President Alvaro Uribe.

In Lima, Peru, Mayor Susana Villaran was elected in 2010 on a platform of urban planning and regulation. Villaran had an uphill battle from the start. Most of the transportation infrastructure in Lima relies on private micro-buses, controlled by informally owned cartels. Lima is the worst city in Latin America for pedestrians, with more traffic deaths than in any other place in the region. Moreover, the city is constantly battling terrible levels of air pollution, worsened by Lima’s minimal yearly rainfall.

Villaran’s attempts to regulate informal markets and bus routes were met with fierce opposition by traditional political forces. Both the city markets and the micro-buses operate in a similar manner, with all-powerful bosses controlling the business through pseudo-independent individual vendors. Villaran survived an impeachment process and a popular referendum in 2013, but lost most of her support in the city legislature. The impeachment process paralyzed the administration and she was not able to implement many of her proposals, eventually getting voted out last December.

In Ecuador, hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested in improving roads and highways, but also in mass transit systems. New rail projects are underway in Quito and Cuenca and Guayaquil, the country’s largest city, is streamlining its bus fleet.


Meanwhile, Lima faces a serious shortage of water. Since it does not rain in the Lima region, all the water supply of this metropolis of nearly 10 million people comes from melting snow from the adjacent Andes Mountains. The snowcaps are melting fast, and the city of Lima is facing dangerous floods in the near future and absolute water scarcity in the decades ahead. Scholars such as Teofilo Altamirano are correct to point out that the decades ahead will witness an explosion of “climate change refugees,” with millions of people displaced by the adverse effects of global warming.

Cities like Sao Paulo and Belo Horizonte in Brazil, which used to experience yearly tragedies due to flooding, are now battling a severe drought. With reservoirs at 5 percent capacity as of February 2015, Sao Paulo might not have enough water in a few months. Nothing seems more urgent than the threat of not having enough water for a metropolis of 20 million inhabitants, but to make matters worse, Brazilian electricity production is strongly based on hydro-electrical plants. Less water in the reservoirs means less electricity, which will trigger more use of thermo-electrical plants, burning more fossil fuels and thereby further raising the atmospheric temperatures that are seen as the main cause of the current drought.

In a recent heat wave in December 2013, the city of Buenos Aires erupted in protest against mandatory power cuts. Brazil and Argentina have integrated their electricity grids in such a way that one country’s system rescues the other in short periods of peak demand. But with not enough water in Brazil to generate electricity, and growing demand for air conditioning all over the region, the prospect of chronic emergencies is looming on the horizon.

So far, the only city to experience mass protests related to climate change has been Buenos Aires, where a heat wave sent temperatures well over 100 degrees in December 2013, overwhelming the electrical grid and causing power outages throughout the city.

Unfortunately, most of the region’s media and political establishments insist on portraying these events as isolated crises, not as chronic problems that will only get worse in the near future. These are not momentary, naturally occurring events such as earthquakes or major storms. The case of water scarcity in Sao Paulo and other Brazilian cities is more the result of poor management and misplaced public finance priorities.

For the past three decades, the state governments responsible for water services postponed major investments in the system. It is true that environmental concerns have made it more difficult to build new reservoirs, but that alone cannot explain the fact that the last reservoir in the metropolitan region of Belo Horizonte was inaugurated in 1991. Since then, dozens of large mining projects have been licensed, many of them using gigantic amounts of water.

To make matters worse, in Sao Paulo the state water company, SABESP, was privatized in 2004. For over a decade, SABESP sold more water than was being collected in its reservoirs, prioritizing profits— $2 billion per year, on average—over reinvestment. Now, with empty reservoirs and an old system of pipes that leak 30 percent of the water that passes through them, the federal government will probably come to rescue SABESP in order to avoid a health catastrophe in Sao Paulo.


The dire situation of public safety, mobility and infrastructure described above will no doubt dominate the political debates and policy decisions in most of Latin America. But the outlook is not so gloomy everywhere. There are plenty of good examples of urban policies that can be put to use to avoid crises and improve quality of life. Uruguay and Ecuador provide good examples but there are others.

In Monterrey, Mexico, a deactivated steel mill has been transformed into a beautiful urban park, La Fundidora. In Rosario, Argentina, public officials, architects and investors are finding ways to improve public spaces such as Parque Independencia and the city’s riverfront. In Sao Paulo, the dumping grounds between an informal settlement and a lake have been turned into a magnificent park, Cantinho do Ceu, that both filters water runoff and provides amenities for the poorest inhabitants. In La Paz, Bolivia, an urban park called Parque Urbano Central stitches together rich and poor parts of the city, providing spaces for all.

The jewel of the region is Medellin, Colombia. Once famous for drug violence and its infamous cartel, Medellin has experienced an urban renaissance like no other city in Latin America. Former Mayor Sergio Fajardo, now governor of the province of Antioquia, capitalized on a powerful citizen-based movement and started building manicured parks and cultural facilities in the poorest parts of the city. Buildings like Orquideorama and Biblioteca de Espana have won multiple awards, and Medellin now exports its designers and its urban improvement processes to the entire developing world.

Less discussed in the international literature is the fact that Medellin’s success is based not only on a visionary mayor and a strong citizen movement, but also on a public utility company. EPM, or Empresa Publica Municipal, is the city company responsible for water, sewage, electricity, gas, telecommunication, Internet service and garbage collection. Publicly owned and well run, the EPM has an annual budget of $1 billion for improvement of infrastructure.

Other Latin American cities will continue to protest lack of water and energy, insufficient public transportation and alarming levels of urban violence. Those subjects will surely dominate the political debates of the continent’s major cities in the near future. Medellin has all those problems too, but the fact that its municipal utilities are owned by the public and run like an efficient private company makes all the difference. Unfortunately, few other cities in the region are acting to bring together the resources that Medellin has at its disposal to fight all those battles.

Fernando Luiz Lara is associate professor of architecture and chair of the Center for Brazilian Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. This essay first appeared in World Politics Review, www.worldpoliticsreview.com


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