Interview. Monica Benício, a Rio de Janeiro city council member and widow of the murdered councilwoman Marielle Franco, was in Italy to discuss her wife’s legacy. Post-Bolsonaro, ‘we continue to be protagonists in the fight against fascism.’

Monica Benício: A future of struggle in Brazil

Five years ago, architect Monica Benício gave her first interview to il manifesto. She was in Italy for one event among many in a busy international schedule in the aftermath of the murder of her wife, Rio de Janeiro city councilwoman Marielle Franco, and her driver Anderson Gomes on March 14, 2018. Back then, Monica lamented that she hadn’t had time to grieve: the death of her partner had generated a worldwide upswell and an extraordinary demand for justice, with more and more voices paying tribute to Franco’s path and legacy in defending human rights and the rights of Black people, the marginalized, LGBTQ+ people and women.

Monica tells us that her grief necessarily had to be transformed into struggle. Over the past five years, the exact circumstances of Marielle’s death have still not been clarified. And the world has changed so much in the meantime. Marielle Franco has become a symbol, and the causes she championed are of even greater strategic importance. Monica is certain: “If Marielle were alive, what she would do would be to continue the fight.” In 2020, Monica was elected city councilwoman from the PSOL, the first openly lesbian member of the Rio de Janeiro Chamber, one of 10 women among the 51 councilors.

This week, Monica Benício is returning to Italy for the Sherocco festival, which is taking place from Thursday, June 29 to Monday, July 2 in Ostuni. She took part in a panel discussion on the memory and struggle of Marielle Franco, along with Titti De Simone, a historical LGBTQIA+ movement activist, journalist and politician, and Porpora Marcasciano, a militant trans activist, sociologist and writer.

Five years ago, you called yourself a “street activist,” but in the meantime you’ve taken on a new role as a city councilwoman. How has your way of doing politics changed? 

Before, my space of militancy was the university and the popular movements. After that tragedy, I put myself out there before the world, denouncing and demanding justice for Marielle and Anderson. Along this path, I got to know different kinds of struggles and various activists, gaining a broader perspective on the forms of resistance. Especially in a country like Brazil, marked by deep inequalities that have been exacerbated by Bolsonarism, Parliament has a dual role: that of curbing attacks on the most disadvantaged people and that of building public policies that promote inclusion and full citizenship. It is a place where the political struggle is rife with complexities and challenges.

In 2020, there was a record number of LGBTQI+ people running for office in Brazilian politics. Three years later, how do you assess the effects of their presence?
There is much greater female and LGBTQI+ representation in all spheres of national politics. However, we’re also seeing an increase in gender-based political violence and homotransphobia. The backlash is clear when we’re talking about trans, lesbian, Black and indigenous women in politics. Our “non-place” in the institutional circles of power is reaffirmed daily, whenever we are made to feel that the public arena continues to be a space where white men express opinions on any issue, even without knowledge of the topic, while we are criticized and judged for everything and even become victims of assaults, from sexual harassment to other forms of violence. Confronting this insecurity is one of our main agenda items, to have more representation and to make progress in formulating public policies for the most vulnerable populations.

Five years later, we still have no concrete answers about Marielle Franco’s death. Why is that? 

The political group that came to power in 2018 never had an interest in solving the case, because of its relations with militias and those nostalgic for the civilian-military-corporate dictatorship. For them, eliminating political opponents is a way of doing things. The State of Rio de Janeiro is governed by Claúdio Castro, an ally of that group, who had Allan Turnowski as his Police Secretary, arrested for involvement with the gambling mafia.

The investigation discovered messages on his cell phone in which he was making jokes about Marielle’s death. The leadership of the homicide investigation police has been changed five times. Two prosecutors, Simone Sibilio and Letícia Petriz, whose investigative work led to the arrest of Marielle’s executioners, Ronnie Lessa and Elcio Queiroz, dropped out of the case, complaining of outside interference. In April we won a legal victory, the right to access the investigation records, which until then had been refused to the families of the victims. Another important step will be the impaneling of the popular jury in the trial against Lessa and Queiroz. It will not be the definitive answer, but it will be a big step on the road to justice.

With Lula’s victory, there was a sense that normalcy and democracy had returned to Brazil. Is this really the case?

We have experienced dark years in Brazil since 2016, which were made even worse by the arrival of Bolsonaro as president in 2018. Breaking this cycle of darkness is undoubtedly a great victory. However, the breakdowns and the steps backwards have been huge. There is still a very significant presence of Bolsonarism in the National Congress. I think Lula did well to choose very diverse staff for the ministries. However, his victory came through a broad coalition, which also included neoliberal sectors that have their own political agenda aimed at shrinking the state, squeezing wages, making fiscal adjustments and dismantling social policies. Reconciling these antithetical agendas, reducing inequality and countering the Bolsonarist project are the biggest challenges of this government.

How do you see the feminist movement in Brazil today as a political force?

We have bravely resisted for the last four years. It was women’s organizing that ensured that there would be food for the people in the favelas, for the workers during the pandemic, when the federal government left the people to their own devices. Women were at the forefront in the streets to fight for Bolsonaro’s defeat, and we continue to be protagonists in the fight against fascism. Some of our battles right now are opposing gender-based political violence, legalizing abortion and guaranteeing it, fighting against all forms of violence against women, recognizing domestic and care activity as work, the demands of motherhood, and many other struggles that unite us.

What were your main agenda items and achievements as a city councilwoman, and what would you like to accomplish in the future?

We have passed some historic bills, such as the Municipal Program to Fight Femicide, welcoming the LGBTQ+ population, stimulating the employability of trans people, and Lesbian Visibility Day, a project that had been presented by Marielle Franco and rejected back then. We stand in opposition to the neoliberal policies of Mayor Eduardo Paes and the far right in the city, which is seen as the cradle of Bolsonarism. But it is not enough to just be a woman – we also need elected women who are interested in promoting public policies for the empowerment and autonomy of others. We need feminist groups and for all women to be represented: trans women, lesbians, Black women, indigenous women, women from favelas, etc. bell hooks wrote: “What we cannot imagine cannot come into being.” So, let us continue to imagine better futures and work to make them possible.

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