The struggles that turn around the Brazilian crisis

A time of crisis is also an opportunity to create something new. The Free Pass Movement is contributing to turn the negativity of the crisis into the positivity of democratic innovation. Español Português

Bruno Cava
25 January 2016
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Passe Livre Movement protest. Newton Menezes/Futura Press. All rights reserved

In June 2013, the fuse for the large demonstrations in Brazil was the fare price increase of public transportation, which immediately affected millions of people. At the time, the increase was 20 cents. 2016 has begun with protests against the increase in public transportation fares throughout Brazil. In Sao Paulo and Belo Horizonte, it has gone up 30 cents; in Rio de Janeiro, 40. Like they did three years ago, the protests are being drawn to the Passe Livre Movement (MPL), a small autonomous group advocating full public subsidy for public transportation, so that the cost to the users is zero. The difference between 2016 and 2013 is that, today, an economic and political crisis with no end in sight is providing the powder that any spark can ignite, setting off massive turmoil. Disenchantment with politics is widespread, and so is indignation about corruption scandals, the loss of purchasing power, rising unemployment and lack of economic prospects.

Transportation fares are just one among many rising costs. In a context of diminishing wages, electricity rates, petrol, rents, school supplies and other basic items are increasing. At the close of 2015, inflation was 10.7%, the highest in 13 years, well above the official target of 4.5%. It rose even above savings, hurting mostly small savers who are not investing in more profitable products. On this issue, the government clings to a policy of expenditure contraction, cutting public investment and reducing social rights and benefits. The fiscal adjustment austerity program, coupled with an unfavourable international context, inhibits the government’s capacity to react to the recessionary spiral.

At the same time, the Lava Jato Operation, conducted by the police and the federal justice, does not give quarter to politicians linked to the government and, to a lesser extent, to the opposition. Both the extent and the depth of the Lava Jato investigations are turning into a Glasnost of the Brazilian political system and its business and financial partners. Nobody seems to be safe, not even Lula. In the eyes of the population, all of this adds up to the outrage, fueling a feeling of revolt and detachment from politics.

In Sao Paulo, the protests promoted by the MPL are hitting the gates of Mayor Fernando Haddad and Governor Gerardo Alckmin. Haddad belongs to the Workers Party (PT), the party currently in charge of the federal government. Alckmin belongs to the Party of Brazilian Social Democracy (PSBD), the main opposition party. But when it comes to supporting the transfer of the costs of the crisis to the population, both the government and the opposition, the left and the right, agree to ensure austerity. This is yet another evidence of the bias of polarization between the traditional parties, a constant feature in Brazil since the 90s. At the last elections, Dilma Rousseff (PT) put the economy first and founded her campaign on the promise not to undertake a neoliberal structural adjustment, as opposed to what her opponents would surely do if elected. The immediate result was disappointment in her own ranks, especially in the euphoric election victory time spell that could have been turned to her advantage. More worryingly, many voters got the impression that the president had been lying. The lack of innovative figures and alternative political forces adds the final touch to the inventory of ingredients for a permanent crisis.

So far, in Brazil, no Pablo Iglesias or Ada Colau has appeared yet and the most conspicuous figures coming out of the crisis are the Lava Jato judges and promoters, such as Deltan Dallagnol (who is 35) and Sergio Moro (44). The context continuously reminds the nineties in Italy, when the operation Mani pulite (Clean hands) dismantled the main parties, leaving a great void which was then filled by Silvio Berlusconi.

On June, 6, 2013, the MPL protests began with 200 demonstrators in Sao Paolo and Rio de Janeiro. Within two weeks, millions took to the streets in more than 400 cities, parliaments and town halls were occupied, and a great variety of slogans and ways of protesting flourished throughout the country. One of the highlights of the 2013 uprising was the Cadê o Amarildo? (Where is Amarildo?) campaign, which received international attention, about a black bricklayer who lived in the Rocinha favela in Rio de Janeiro, who was tortured and killed by the police. The memory of those dramatic nights was impressed permanently in the militants’ minds. The geometric progression of the number of demonstrators has not continued after 2013, although it is quite common to hear in the marches that "it smells of June." This has to do, on the one hand, with improved repression techniques by the state - such as kettling -, social network surveillance, and legislative changes. In August 2013, for example, Dilma Rousseff signed a bill that created a new category of offense, "criminal organization", under which people who simply “associate with” militant groups can be reported.

In 2016, the year of the Olympics, the novelty will be the crime of terrorism, included in a legislative proposal submitted by the presidency, under emergency procedure, which is currently being processed by Congress. On the other hand, it has to do with the wearing down resulting from the routine of taking to the streets to demonstrate, being repressed and then concentrating on the repression itself and human rights as the main issue, in a kind of vicious circle that shifts the focus. Street protests during the celebration of the World Cup in 2014 were small and scattered. In 2015, they were quite larger as they focused on corruption. Often despised by the left as a moral issue, the anti-corruption movement actually serves as an umbrella sheltering quite different irritations: with governments, parties and politicians. Indignation keeps on turning on itself as it looks for ways, narratives and political agreements to express itself.

To the MPL, a free public transportation pass for all could be paid for via tax reform, through a progressive tax on property and real estate. To the mayor of Sao Paulo, this is unfeasible. According to him, it would entail spending the entire municipal income of 8,000 million Reais (2,000 million dollars), as it would multiply by four the existing subsidy to senior citizens and students. The MPL replies that this is not simply a quantitative issue, but a change in the mass-transportation business model and the embracing of a "life with no ticket gates" philosophy. What the MPL and the Zero Fare group (from Belo Horizonte) are proposing is a qualitative democratization of the organization of the city traffic and flows. If contract transparency prevailed and the private benefit "black boxes" were opened, the story would certainly be quite different. In addition, investing resources in urban mobility cannot be addressed simply as an expense, but as a direct investment in productivity. But Haddad is merely putting forward technocratic arguments, much as Rousseff’s government, which is certainly a symptom of a left that used to be a good wine in the 90s, but has now turned into vinegar. Instead of democratic innovation, it simply presents spreadsheets and pushes for new repressive laws. Unable to discuss politically with MPL militants, whom he has dubbed "fundamentalists", the only thing left for the mayor to do is to join the governor and call in the military police, the brutalities of which are as much a national brand as football.

Not all is negative, though. In 2015, besides the anti-corruption movement, there was also a vibrant student movement that occupied almost 200 secondary schools in Sao Paolo and turned them into self-managed spaces. This occupation wave came in the wake of the school reform propounded by the state government, which would have resulted in a reduction in the number of schools. Unexpectedly, the students organized autonomously and, after some months, managed to have the reform suspended and the Secretary of State for Education replaced.

The feminist spring happened also in the second half of 2015, a social-network based mobilization with several internal conflicting tendencies, which ultimately took a rather positive course. Another important mobilization was led by the environmental movement as a reaction to the breaking of the Mariana dam in the state of Minas Gerais, which caused 17 deaths and destroyed the Rio Doce ecosystems. The dam belongs to a consortium formed by a Brazilian mining company, Vale SA, and the Anglo-Australian BHP Billiton Corporation, and is an integral part of the strategic development project embraced by Rousseff’s government.

These four struggles – anti-corruption, student, feminist and environmentalist – are not, by any means, transmission-belts of the main parties or governments. They go beyond the usual political games defined by the polarization between government and opposition, although both government and opposition have attempted, in every case, to capture and appropriate them. They stem from an indignation that refuses to be organized according to the traditional channels of parties and unions, which reached critical mass in the last year.

A time of crisis is also an opportunity to create something new. When the covenants of power appear to crumble, it is a good time to build new political and economic forces, capable of turning the negativity of the crisis into the positivity of democratic innovation. The PT itself emerged in this way in the face of the decline of the military dictatorship, and hastened its end. It implies dealing with the latent indignation in society and being able to offer an alternative project that confronts the corruption, development and environmental problems, among others.

Without a creative intervention in this sense, however, there is nothing to prevent the Brazilian crisis from spreading, bitterly, for a long time. MPL action is a contribution to prevent this from happening.

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