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The demonstration games

Recent protests over a bus fare increase signal a major shift in Brazilian society as the growing middle class demands social justice. But what future is there for a movement without leadership or clear direction?

Flavie Halais Yuseph Katiya
5 July 2013

That a twenty-cent bus and metro fare increase could bring millions to the streets of Brazil would have been unthinkable a couple of months ago. And yet it seems Brazil’s youth have had enough; in large cities like São Paulo, commuters face monster traffic jams, crowded buses, metros and trains. The public-private model adopted for public transport has resulted in poor service provision and sky-high ticket prices.

Protesters on the streets across Brazil are using words like “cartel” and “mafia” to describe the private bus companies (“public” bus networks in Brazil are usually privately-run). The feeling is that with growing car-ownership across the country, and few solutions to car-driven cities, the liveability of Brazilian cities is only getting worse.

Generalized anger

And yet Brazilians are not protesting over transportation per se, but against a system of governance which makes life unbearable for vast swathes of the population, disillusioned that everyday life has yet to live up to the country’s much lauded economic transformation. From education to health to corruption to high taxes, Brazil’s youth (according to a survey conducted by DataFolha, most protesters are between 26 and 35) fail to see the benefits of the country’s newfound wealth in their daily lives.

“Brazil is one of the countries with the highest taxes,” says 28-year-old journalist and protester Táia Rocha. “What’s strange is that this is not visible in the quality of services […] Corruption has settled in and is now part of Brazil’s identity.”

Ironically, mega-events that were marketed to the population as an invaluable opportunity to sustain economic growth and lift national spirits have crystallized all grievances; more than anything else, the series of mega-events represent the wasteful spending, high-prices, and lack of transparency that have alienated people across the political spectrum in this soccer-mad nation.

The challenge for the three levels of government (municipal, state and federal) is how to skilfully address a social movement that has no leadership and such a wide array of demands. In an emergency move, several cities have announced drops in public transportation fares, including São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, yet the protests continue, however with diminished intensity since Brazil’s victory  in the Confederations Cup. The onus is now on President Rousseff to address the broader complaints of the protestors, such as poor urban infrastructure and crippling corruption. After running an exceptional meeting with leaders of the Free Fare Movement and other groups (perhaps for good measure only, as Rousseff quickly deemed free mass transit “unfeasible”), she announced last week a package of reforms targeting health, education, inflation, transportation and political institutions.

Rousseff has much to lose from the situation. A much-loved political figure before the protests began (her government’s approval went from 57% to 30% in three weeks), she will face re-election in October 2014, only a few months after the World Cup. The former guerrilla must now deal with the pressure of the street and of a stale and corrupt political system, while proving the strength of Brazil’s democracy during turmoil.

Football democracy

And democracy it would seem, is something FIFA is not too fond of either. In a somewhat prophetic moment, last April, Jerome Valcke declared that “less democracy is sometimes better for organizing a World Cup” (minutes later during the same event, FIFA president Sepp Blatter said the 1978 World Cup reconciled the Argentinian people with their military regime. Interestingly, the protests have proven a test case for the massive security apparatus that is being set up for FIFA and Olympic events, with drones and helicopters purchased to fight off acts of terrorism being used to monitor crowds. Blatant acts of brutality have revealed how Brazil’s military police, an institution that hasn’t been reformed since the end of the dictatorship and is considered to be one of the most violent police forces in the world, braces for major challenges in controlling large peaceful demonstrations in urban centres, let alone actual threats to national security.

Rousseff seems to have engaged so far on the path of dialogue and welcomed Brazil’s largest protests in 20 years as an act of democratic expression, perhaps to Valcke’s dismay. “I want to repeat that my government is listening to the democratic voice, to the democratic voices that go out and emerge on the streets and call for changes,” she said last Monday.

However, listening to the democratic voices is one thing, and making sure that reforms go through is another. There isn’t much room for mistakes here; as Brazil faces an economic slowdown as well as the threat of high inflation, spending for mega-events infrastructure is on the verge of becoming uncontrollable – a recent report from the federal senate estimates the current budget for the 2014 World Cup to be bigger than the last three editions combined. If costs keep on being readjusted as they have since construction began, the overall budget might very well outgrow that of all past World Cup editions.

A lost generation awakens

Brazil’s urban youth have sent a clear message to politicians that they are indeed able to demand good governance, and that lack of trust in political institutions doesn’t necessarily transcribe into apathy. In that way, these protests have much in common with the new wave of youth-driven, leaderless movements in North America and Europe such as Occupy or Quebec’s Maple Spring, with a fight for social justice and equality at the forefront of demands.

“I’m happy to see that even though the economy has greatly improved in the last 10 years […], people are still capable to voice their indignation,” says Rocha. “That is very encouraging, since my generation has often been described as lost, alienated, individualistic and consumerist.”

In Brazil, a key victory for protesters is the support they gained from the usually government-friendly media; after journalists found themselves targeted by the police, they went from labeling protesters as vandals to embracing their cause. Signs of this shift are already visible: RioReal notes that TV Globo spent an unusual five minutes last week covering a shooting between police and residents in the Maré favela complex that left 10 dead.

Whether the movement dies out or carries on, Brazilians will have many opportunities to voice their demands in the future, with international scrutiny reinforcing the pressure on governments to deal with discontentment in a sensible way. If the Confederations Cup is considered as a test drive for the World Cup as far as soccer is concerned, it may be that the protests were also just a dress rehearsal.

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