Discussing Urban and Rural Reform in Latin America

By Sergio Villegas

The Department of Latin American Studies hosted a discussion on the implementation of progressive public policy and its limits in Chile during the 1960s and Brazil during the 2000s last Friday, April 13.  Dr. Renato Balbim and Ph.D. candidate Joana Salem were invited to present and discuss their research on urban and rural reform in Brazil and Chile.

The discussion began with Salem presenting her research on revolutionaries’ agrarian reforms in Latin America during the 1960s and 1970s and the relation between left-wing politics and peasantry in the Cuban and Chilean transitions to socialism.  Currently a visiting doctoral candidate at the University of Sao Paulo, Salem has an M.A. in economic development which led her to write the book “História Agrária da Revolução Cubana: Dilemas do Socialismo na Periferia.”  In this book, Salem explores and tries to understand the tensions between agrarian reform and agrarian revolution in 20th century Latin America.

Salem spoke about the three fundamental frameworks that have shaped her main questions: the history of colonialism in Brazil, Latin American economic theory of development and underdevelopment and dependency and Marxist theory.  Salem began her research in Cuba seeking the answers to numerous questions such as what were the dilemmas of the socialist transition, as well as how the Cuban revolution transformed plantations, the most representative institution of the economy.

“My theoretical references took me to agrarian reform because it was the place where colonial power was structured and where underdevelopment and dependency most … and also because it was the place where Marxist ideas were tested,” Salem said.

Salem described how the era of the Cuban Revolution was a sort of historical “laboratory” for agrarian policy.  There were many different strategies for agrarian reform that created tension and controversy. These new policies were based less on an economic basis and more on ideology.  For Salem, the Cuban revolution sought two incompatible goals: that it would emancipate the agrarian labor force from oppressive conditions and that it would increase productivity and expand national profit from this same labor force.  Because of tension created from these two opposing goals, the revolutionary government faced many obstacles.

“The revolutionary leadership was trapped in a paradox: they should create conditions to discipline the labor force they promised to emancipate,” Salem said.

A debate began within Cuban leadership as to how to attract workers to plantations and how to discipline them.  New ideologies such as workers being required to work longer than eight hours a day emerged to support the viability of the new economy.  These ideologies clashed with the changing ideologies of workers, who thought that better work could be found outside the plantations.

Salem went on to talk about her research on the Chilean revolution and how the political dispute between Christian democrats and the different Marxist parties affected the educational programs for the peasantry.

During this era in Chile, it was a commonly held belief that the peasantry was ignorant, inarticulate, subordinate and passive.  Paulo Freire, an educator living in exile in Chile, reformed education radically. He sought to educate the peasantry by using everyday language to teach literary and changed classroom to be more receptive, one in which teacher did not hold complete power (as they had previously in the conservative society), but instead one in which the teacher learns with their students.  Freire’s methods are so radical as to upset the conservative government and lead them to terminate his contract as educator.

Dr. Balbim, who has a doctorate in human geography from the University of Sao Paulo, continued the conversation on urban reform in Brazil.  As the former Director of Urban Planning Ministry of Cities (Brazil 2008–2009), the Coordinator of Urban Rehabilitation Ministry of Cities (Brazil 2003–2007), Senior Consultant at Cities Alliance-World Bank (Brazil, 2005), Balbim was directly involved in urban reform in Brazil during this period.

Balbim began the discussion with a map showing over 5500 municipalities that exist in Brazil.  Though the federal government invests in urban planning, each one of these municipalities is an autonomous entity that makes its own urban policies.  The control over urban space rests in their hands.


“The most important thing was to put together a social policy in Brazil … to put together social programs in Brazil,” Balbim said.

Balbim went on to describe many of the reforms that were implemented during this time such as “Bolsa Familia,” which alleviated the poverty of over thirty-six million people,  and “Minha Casa, Minha Vida,” which led to the creation of jobs and lowered the unemployment rate to five percent. There were many other programs passed during this period which led to the creation of schools and hospitals, better sanitation, and improved living conditions in urban areas in Brazil.

“We made a kind of revolution in urban planning in Brazil … We invested a lot of money to produce a participatory master plan,” Balbim said.

Balbim concluded that reform can lead to many new and improved solution facing urban areas in Brazil.