Marielle Franco's Rio Murder Could Spark Change in Brazil

(Bloomberg View) -- Rio de Janeiro city councilwoman Marielle Franco had little following outside her native city, and no known enemies, according to her family and party. So when she died in a hail of bullets after an apparent ambush Wednesday night, even the crime-calloused Brazilians were shocked.

Yet what happened next was even more remarkable: Huge crowds poured into public squares across the country in protest. When was the last time a Brazilian politician became a symbol for anything but corruption and venality, or grist for a Netflix series?

Franco was the opposite of all that. A black woman raised in a crime-torn favela, or slum, the 38-year-old legislator was in many ways a living riposte by a rising Brazilian generation to an encastled political caste that uses public office as a Monopoly board.

Instead of turning her back on politics, she embraced it. Franco earned a diploma from one of the country’s most prestigious universities before jumping into the national debate and then into electoral politics. In 2016, in her maiden campaign, she handily won a seat on Rio’s city council.  

To be sure, not all Brazilians mourned Franco’s death. She was an unrelenting critic of official neglect of blacks, women, homosexuals and the poor. Her strident defense of human rights was pepper spray to the police, whom she frequently called out for rogue behavior, as she did just last week. Sadly, the gangland-style slaying followed by outbursts of schadenfreude suggest that the pushback was more than rhetorical. All indications are that she was killed because she was bothering all the right people. Police are still investigating the hit.

Skeptics have seized on the brutal crime as confirmation that Rio de Janeiro is a lost cause, and the federal intervention intended to rescue Brazil’s most storied venue from crime’s tightening hold badly flawed.

But the outpouring over Franco -- young, black, bisexual and unapologetically political – also underscores something bigger and far more encouraging. Brazilians aren’t so much desperately anti-authority or hungry for messianic outsiders as they are anxious for legitimate leaders. That’s one reason why headline politicians knew to keep their distance from the streets this week, where young protestors took the lead in turning a eulogy into a revolt.

Tellingly, right-wing presidential hopeful Jair Bolsonaro, whose pro-gun, torture-friendly, anti-establishment rants have galvanized many disgruntled voters, said nothing.

Will the diffuse outbursts of anger that have occasionally shaken Brazil since before the 2014 World Cup finally gain critical mass? Perhaps. In her first political campaign, Franco won 46,000 votes, more than all but four of Rio’s 51 city legislators. With machine politicians on the defensive, and public anger rising, the followers Franco inspired have the opportunity in this October’s elections not just to rail against Brazil’s dysfunctional leaders but to recall them.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Mac Margolis writes about Latin America for Bloomberg View. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”

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