Monica Benicio has made headlines countless times since the murder of her partner Marielle Franco in March 2018. The killing of Franco, a Rio de Janeiro councillor who was Black, openly gay and outspoken in her criticism of the police, sparked protests across Brazil. Instead of getting married, as the couple had planned, Benicio has spent the past three years campaigning for justice. Her face, raised fist, and the T-shirt she wears inscribed “Fight like Marielle Franco” have become enduring images.
In November, Benicio, an architect by profession, was elected to the Rio city council. It was, she says, a symbolic victory against the politics of hate. Life for Brazil’s LGBTQ+ community has become harder and more dangerous since the election of president Jair Bolsonaro, a right-wing former army captain who once stated: “I’m homophobic with pride.” Benicio, who says she wants to fight Bolsonaro’s politics of hate, is campaigning for women’s and LGBTQ+ rights.
The activist spoke to Agência Diadorim via video link about politics and keeping Franco’s cause alive. It is important, Benicio says, that we keep pushing to find out who was behind her murder.
Agência Diadorim: What is it like to be in politics in an extremely macho environment, considering that just ten of Rio de Janeiro’s 51 councillors are women?
Monica Benicio: It is certainly a challenge. We are talking about a macho and patriarchal society and a Brazilian government that is misogynist. I’m not just a woman, I’m a leftist woman and a lesbian woman. There is an intersectionality that makes it more difficult. Mine is an anti-racist feminism: it is anti-capitalist, against LGBT-phobia, against transphobia and it is ecosocialist.
The truth is that those in power in Brazil today have no interest in a dialogue on this agenda. On the contrary, they aim to eliminate it. So there is a difficulty. At this moment, in the city council chamber, we have been setting up committees and I was put forward to chair the Women’s Commission. This is still under debate, but civil society and social movements are trying to make the council more inclusive, so that our bodies become a tool for the transformation of that space and of institutional politics.
If you look inside a chamber that is occupied by a Marielle, by a Monica, by a Tainá de Paula, by a Thaís Ferreira, it is inspiring that the space is occupied by everyone. In less than two months, we have put forward three bills – one on Lesbian Visibility Day, which was Marielle’s bill, one against femicide and another against fake news. So that’s a start and it shows where we are coming from and what kind of work we will do.
As you pointed out, there are 51 councillors and only ten women – and they are not all from the Left. So it's not enough to be a woman there, you need to represent their interests and their lives. It is challenging, but I have a mandate.
AD: The Commission for the Defence of Women met only twice in 2020. Marielle chaired the commission in 2017 and 2018. What’s your plan for it?
MB: The Women’s Commission was marginalised for a long time, precisely because it had right-wing women sitting on it. Marielle was the first left-wing woman to assume its presidency and she did an outstanding job. That's why the Women’s Commission became visible. It is not enough for a woman to head the commission; it needs to be a woman who is interested in an agenda that addresses women’s struggles.
Regardless of whether or not I chair the commission, I will continue to raise issues of feminism, gender and making the city safe for women. Regardless of the position I occupy, my politics will revolve around transforming the lives of women in this city.
AD: I understand that the LGBTQ+ agenda is a priority. What’s the situation of the LGBTQ+ community in Rio de Janeiro?
MB: Look, I could tell you that the situation at this point is serious or tragic, but that would be optimistic. The most neutral analysis would be that the LGBTQ+ situation today is very serious. In general, Rio de Janeiro is a reflection of the national picture. It’s no wonder that this city, which was the birthplace of Bolsonaro’s politics, was a kind of laboratory for his policies at the national level. When we say that Brazil is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for LGBTQ+ people, that it kills more LGBTQ+ people, this is very serious.
Rio de Janeiro, for example, once ranked second as a gay tourist destination, but today, if I’m not mistaken, it's in 49th place. This is due to the increase in violence after 2018, when Bolsonaro was elected. We don’t have policies to combat LGBT-phobia; we don’t have the incentive to prevent such behaviour. And speaking of Rio City Hall, it’s very serious, because we're talking about a body that is extremely fundamentalist.
I think the great difficulty in the council will be to seek dialogue with the new leadership camp, which claims to be progressive and says it wants to rebuild the city. Well, the Lesbian Visibility Bill failed to pass by two votes in 2017, when Marielle presented it. Let’s see how willing this council is to conduct a dialogue on the feminist agenda and the LGBTQ and anti-racist struggle. Let’s see how this will work in practice. Will it be just talk or will we actually put things into practice to bring about change?
AD: Has your Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL) caucus in Rio been talking to other left-wing parties to build a united front on LGBTQ+ issues?
MB: We haven’t, but it’s early days as the session only effectively started on 18 February. Before that I was on the budget committee and it’s only now that we are starting to talk about the composition of various committees. The council only really starts work after the committees are agreed. And then we start to do the work of building alliances on policy.
In the opposition, we have the PT [Workers’ Party] and the PSOL. The PT has a policy that aligns, in some respects, with PSOL and I believe that there is no divergence on LGBTQ+ issues. But that does not mean we have a majority for policy on LGBTQ+ issues, so this will have to be done very carefully. PSOL does not have much practice in the politics of compromise or give and take. It’s a bit difficult but I’m optimistic that we will be able to do a good job on the LGBTQ+ agenda.
AD: As the pandemic surges, people are impoverished and going hungry. How has the black community, which is marginalised and vulnerable, been faring?
MB: The favelas are the most affected places. This has been a constant struggle. In the budget committee, for example, it was suggested that we use tax money to fill economic holes in the municipality. That was very serious because we know that the most affected population is on the outskirts – Black women, Black people in general, people in the slums. So you can’t provide help by cutting spending. You need to inject capital and stimulate the economy.
So we asked for a Universal Basic Income, to help those in extreme poverty, because, as you said, there are people going hungry. We’re not talking about luxury – some councillors think that a Universal Basic Income will cause people to stop working and become lazy. The most barbaric things you can imagine are heard in the council in defence of the argument that we should not have a universal basic income. But we must make people understand that we are talking about a question of humanity.
AD: March 2021 marked three years since Marielle Franco’s assassination. What’s your view of the way the inquiry into her murder has progressed? And how do you intend to press for justice?
MB: I think that my election campaign was a beautiful and powerful sign, because Marielle’s partner won. That keeps Marielle’s memory alive. And, in the midst of a pandemic, and with very little money, the fact that we won so big is in itself a kind of message and a demand for justice. So we will not accept a non-response from those who ordered the assassination of Marielle and Anderson (her driver, who was also shot dead).
Regarding the investigations, I think the situation is very worrying. There have been arrests of people accused of being the perpetrators of the crime. But they have not been brought before a jury. So it is important that we demand this happens as soon as possible. We want to see them held accountable, and not only them. We want all those involved [to be held accountable]: the intermediaries, and, especially, the people who ordered this crime against democracy.
In January, a new investigating prosecutor and Rio de Janeiro public prosecutor were appointed. Last year, too, there was a change of prosecutor and public prosecutor. So there have been many changes, but inevitably there is a lot of concern because we are talking about a three-year-old investigation. I follow it very carefully, very closely. We are talking about a murder that, unfortunately, was very sophisticated and very well carried out. There were mistakes in the investigation at the beginning, which are now proving to be damaging.
This is no reason to be discouraged or to wonder if we will ever find the ringleaders. On the contrary, the more pressure we bring, the more we keep this investigation going. What personally worries me a little, considering Brazil is a country known for having a short memory, is that at some point, Marielle becomes only a resistance fighter to be mourned and there is no will to force out the truth on who ordered those murders. It is important not to lose sight of this. And at this point the situation is very delicate, because there have been changes [in the Public Prosecutor's Office team].
Until the new investigators, prosecutors and the attorney general himself become acquainted with the entire investigation, there is a lot of work to be done. The impression I get now is that very little has been done since the change, that there is now inertia regarding the investigation. In any investigation, the more time goes by, the more difficult it becomes to reach a result. It is important that we keep up the pressure to reveal who was behind it and that this investigation does not lose steam. This is very important.
AD: Rio de Janeiro is a barometer of national politics. Bolsonaro's family is from Rio and he started his political career on the city council. And Rio is also emblematic of Brazil’s record of political violence against women. How have you been dealing with security issues now that you are a councillor?
MB: This issue of political violence against women is a theme that needs to be debated and denounced, as we have been doing. What we have today is a politics that is not ashamed of oppressing women. Marielle was a democratically elected councillor, a Black woman who was in a lesbian relationship. She represented the LGBTQ+ agenda, the minority agenda, she denounced the killing of Black youth. But that’s what the council does not want to talk about. When such a woman is executed, in a political crime, the message is that her politics cannot occupy this space.
The message that society sends is precisely the opposite of that, because there has been no retreat: on the contrary, there has been progress. In 2018, more women put themselves forward and were elected, and this is growing. When society takes all this barbarism, all this pain, and turns Marielle into a symbol of the resistance, this is a response and is not merely symbolic. It should be understood as resistance in itself.
However, without knowing who the people behind [Marielle’s murder] were, we have to assume that what we have today, in Rio de Janeiro and in Brazil as a whole, is a group capable of murder as a way of doing politics. Therefore, the murder of female councillors and parliamentarians in the interior of Rio and elsewhere in the country is not surprising.
What was different in the case of Marielle was that she was murdered in one of the largest capital cities in the world, at nine o’clock at night, while returning from a work meeting, and that she was executed as a political warning. So that makes us understand what is in dispute – it is democracy vs barbarism, it’s not the Left or the Right. Until we respond to Marielle’s murder, it becomes legitimate to perpetrate violence against women, especially in politics. After all, there is a sense of impunity.
Of course there was a debate about my security, about whether I should be a candidate at all but this was never a question for me. I would never refuse because of that. But we did it with responsibility and also the understanding that my security is a collective responsibility. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the OAS [Organization of American States] has issued a resolution, which means that if something happens to me, it becomes a problem for the Brazilian state and I become a diplomatic incident.
In addition, I am part of the Program for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders in Brazil. We also take security measures. In short, thinking about security is important for all women in politics. We even saw right-wing women being attacked, but mainly, those at risk are women in the progressive camp, who are fighting for democracy and are defenders of human rights.
[Look at] the violence against Benny Briolly, who is a Black trans woman, in Niteroi, an extremely conservative city. Issues of race and class must be factored into the debate on security and politics, because they are fundamental markers and because attacks on women are Bolsonarist politics. This is what we need to confront.
Marielle’s legacy is for women not to retreat, but to keep going, for her and for us
AD: You speak a lot about Bolsonaro’s politics of hate: how does one confront this as a Rio city councillor?
MB: In the three years [I have spent in search of] justice for Marielle, I have built up a record as a human rights defender, as a socialist, feminist and lesbian woman. By denouncing to the world what happened to Marielle, I automatically denounced Bolsonarist politics, because they are related.
The violence against Marielle and what she represents is, in fact, related to Bolsonarist politics, because Marielle's image is what Bolsonarism wants to destroy. Marielle’s struggle, the policies she defended, goes in the opposite direction to Bolsonarist policy. With fascism we don’t do dialogue, we destroy. From City Hall, we will engage in actions like those we have already started – the bill on Lesbian Visibility and the fight against fake news. Fake news is the backbone of the Bolsonaro government’s politics of hate. To speak of the fight against femicide, this in itself confronts Bolsonaro’s policy.
My body – and here I mean Monica, not the councilwoman – is at the disposal of this fight against fundamentalist, misogynist, racist and LGBT-phobic policy.
AD: What do you think Marielle’s main legacy for women in politics is?
MB: Mainly as an inspiration for resistance. By respecting and considering the memory of Marielle, we are refusing to accept the violence that has gone on for so many years and that ended in executing a woman who fought for us. I think her legacy is built on the actions of the women who went to the front, who did not retreat, who understood that disputing something, however dangerous, is urgent.
It is urgent because when we are disputing the city, when we are disputing politics, we are no longer talking only about our safety, but the safety of those who will come after us. Marielle had a lot of respect for this, especially when she said that our steps come from afar, speaking from her place as a black woman. I think Marielle’s legacy is for women not to retreat, but to keep going, for her and for us.
Débora Britto is a Black journalist and activist who writes about racism and human rights issues. She has reported for the independent investigative outlet Marco Zero Conteúdo. She is a member of Coletivo Terral de Comunicação Popular and is doing a Master’s in Communication and Digital Culture at the Federal University of Bahia. Contact her at [email protected]
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