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Brazil: back to the future

Even if mired in a deep crisis affecting the three brands of power, Brazil’s civil society still believes in democracy. Recent women and student’s mobilizations show the way into the future. Español. Português.

Protests in Brazil. Flikr, Samilla Luz, some rights reserved

“Brazil: land of the future” is the title of a 1941 classic book by Stefan Zweig. Ithe title became a popular saying: Brazil is the land of the future. Every Brazilian has heard it and, until 2000, it was a customary joke to say that “future would never come”. 

However, in the last decade, the future seemed to have arrived. Brazil was no longer part of the FAO Hunger Map. Among the most populous countries in the world, Brazil had the highest decrease of undernourished people from 2002 to 2014: 82 per cent. At that same period, according to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics, unemployment was reduced to the praiseworthy rate of 4.9 per cent, and the minimum wage raised 75 per cent.

Numbers substantiate what was not simply a feeling: there were important social developments, as well as considerable income distribution. In 2003, the then recently elected President Lula, from the Workers Party (PT), promised a “Brazil – country of all”. Lula is a capable and charismatic leader; a master when it comes to increase hopefulness (using successful data to support his claims).

Hopefulness languished, and now there is a growing feeling that the right path was lost. Are we going back to the past? Will future remain just a promise?

The decay of politics, the deterioration of the economy and the society, is the talk of any conversation. Newspaper headlines mobilize thousands to take into the streets and challenge the government. We live a very tense period, and biased opinions make it hard to leave stereotypes aside – there is almost always a simplistic attempt to identify a single person to blame.

The three brands of power

To understand Brazil’s current political situation, it is essential to analyse the three brands of power (the executive, the legislative and the judicial).

In Brasilia, President Dilma Rousseff (PT), Lula’s successor now in her second term of office, leads the Executive Power. Dilma was re-elected by the end of 2014 with 51.6% of votes, against the 48.3% of votes in favour of opposition leader Aécio Neves (PSDB). At the same time, the PT (the President’s party) has been involved in plentiful cases of corruption and is now in need of new strategies. Dilma’s government faces a 65% disapproval rate, and she has now become vulnerable to dubious coalitions and alliances in order to be able to uphold power.

In terms of Legislative Power, Federal Representative Eduardo Cunha (PMDB-RJ) is now president of the House of Representatives. Cunha was elected as a conservative leader and confirmed himself as an unambiguous opposition to the government.

Legislative Power is as well linked to many corruption cases, concerning presidents, deputies of the House of Representatives and of the Senate. Many conservative MPs have been fighting against rights granted since the Federal Constitution of 1988, which is a landmark of re-democratization. Some of the rights now compromised are: the age of criminal responsibility, which might be lowered, the disarmament statute, the right of abortion in cases of rape, and indigenous people’s rights.

Threats of impeachment curtailing President Dilma Rousseff are one of the big issues at the moment. These threats come from Federal Representative Cunha along with opposition parties, who accuse the President of violating the principles of fiscal responsibility. PMDB, Cunha’s party, is the party of the Vice-President, who should be acting as an ally to the government.

Judicial Power has been the arbitrator of many of the ongoing conflicts. It acts with promptness, but its direct involvement has lead to criticism relating to the excessive use of judicial power when it comes to political issues. It is either revered or censured, depending on whom the final decision benefits and on who evaluates it.

All these issues are related to an operation lead by the Federal Police – operation Lava-Jato – that aims to investigate a huge corruption scheme, linking key Brazilian politicians with leading contractors. This is the biggest investigation ever in Brazil, and involves senior politicians of all parties and major Brazilian construction firms.

Participation, innovation, future

Despite the current apparent chaos, there is a chance to bolster the belief in democracy, to reformulate participation mechanisms and intensify its practice. Civic innovation seems to be strengthened in spite of the fact that relationships within the realm of State seem more and more corrupted. Brazilian civil society is a vibrant sphere; it is currently mobilized, and truly believes in democracy. On the one hand, civil society calls for an urgent political reform and tries to protect republican institutions. On the other, through its many struggles, it is trying to secure democracy as a core value that shapes social life.  

We should recall that more than a million Brazilians protested back in June 2013. Many were the slogans and messages, but the one that gathered more consensuses was the message “you don’t represent us”. This was a clear message to the State: there is a huge gap between those who represent and those who are represented. 

There’s an urgent need to restructure politics in a wide and profound manner. But more than that is needed, and Brazilians know it. We need to look beyond the State and its institutions and reinvigorate the idea of democracy as a core value for social coexistence.

Today, all around Brazil, and following that idea, many independent and autonomous groups are taking to the streets and to the networks to give a boost to political passion and to oppose the paralysing mood caused by the chaotic political scene. Two recent protest mobilizations should be mentioned for their merit: the resistance of Brazilian women and the insurgency of many high school students belonging to the public school system in São Paulo.

Brazilian women marched on the streets, claiming that none of their rights should be taken and many more should be given. They seized a number of media and occupied for a week various significant spaces of discussion, usually taken by men, with feminine feminist voices to talk about sexism and gender inequality. They caused a great upheaval all around the digital world, with a significant march of hashtags against sexual harassment and violence against women. 2015 was the year of the feminist spring in Brazil. The new feminist struggles for a new notion of “normality” within the relationship between individuals are just but one example of how Brazilian civil society is gathering to take extra care of a democracy that should be perceived as a whole.  

High school students from São Paulo have as well shaped a great contribution to new re-democratization. They protested, as never before, against the reorganization of education policies proposed by governor Geraldo Alckmin (PSDB-SP) and against its authoritarian and hostile formulation and implementation. Thousands of students occupied about 200 public schools for a month and, as a result of their protests, they achieved the suspension of the project proposed by governor Alckmin. And yet, Students were not alone: parents, teachers, various communities, intellectuals and artists joined their struggle and helped them to prevent the closing of schools and in the defence of democracy, both in the area of decision making by State authorities and in the realm of relationships between citizens, and both in the classrooms and in the streets.

In politics, no victories are permanent, but there are conquests that deserve celebration. What those women and students did this year must be observed and studied carefully. The end to the crisis might be found in innovative articulations that bring together civil society into progressive networks. The power of these networks relies on their diversity and in the way in which they are capable to boost the atomized and individual activism, the social movements and the organisations.   

It is urgent to protect the Democratic State governed by the rule of law. Institutions must be preserved, the political reform is crucial and unavoidable, but it is also vital to think about democracy as a core value to social coexistence.

We wish for a truly democratic country. To many of us, Brazilians, democracy is more than a system. We want a daily democracy; a democracy that is felt and used both inside and outside institutions. Women and youth are showing us a way ahead. Politicians should listen to them.

This is how the future becomes present.

Translation by Ana Milhazes, member of Democracia Abierta’s Volunteer Program

About the authors

Lucia Nader is a Fellow at the Open Society Foundations.

Lucia Nader es Master en Ciencias Políticas del Instituto de Estudios Políticos de París (Sciences-Po) y miembro de la Fundación Open Society.

Lucia Nader é pesquisadora bolsista da Open Society Foundations.

Manoela Miklos is PHd in International Relations. She is Special Assistant of the Latin America Program at Open Society Foundation.

Manoela Miklos es Doctora en Relaciones Internacionales y asistente especial del Programa para América Latina en la Fundación Open Society.

Manoela Miklos é Doutora em Relações Internacionais é assistente especial no Programa para América Latina da Fundação Open Society.

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Ana Carolina Evangelista holds a master’s degree in International Relations and Public Management from PUC-SP and FGV-SP. She is a programs’ manager at Fundación Avina.

Ana Carolina Evangelista é mestre em relações internacionais e gestão pública pela PUC-SP e FGV-SP. É gerente de programas da Fundación Avina.

Ana Carolina Evangelista tiene um Master em Relaciones Internacionales y Gestión Pública de la PUC-SP y FGV-SP y es directora de programas de la Fundación Avina.


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