'Sorry for the inconvenience, we are changing the country': Brazil

In the last month, Brazil has joined the growing number of countries whose civil society has gone to the streets to start large demonstrations. Why did it happen? Who are the protesters? What do they want? What were the main reactions? These are some of the important questions.

Leonardo Paz Neves
10 July 2013

Photograph by Rafael Costa. All rights reserved.

The ‘joke’ title is drawn from a creative sign in one of the protests in Rio de Janeiro last June. It is probably the best way to express what is going on in many countries worldwide. This phrase somehow encapsulates the growing discontent within the population from all the countries that have recently experimented with popular manifestations.

Taking a closer look at what happened (and is happening) in Brazil over the last month is a good starting point for grasping the differences and similarities between these manifestations. For roughly two weeks, the country nearly stopped. In more than 350 cities, millions went to the streets to protest. The demands were numerous. In fact, it was very difficult to keep track of every one of them. That prompted some early experts to accuse the manifestations of being too diffuse (apart from the bus fare issue) and to predict that for that reason they wouldn’t last long. Well, those first ‘experts’ had to eat their words as they watched the protests grow into one of the biggest manifestations in Brazilian history.

How did it start?

Protests against the rise of the bus fare are rather common in Brazil. Actually, every year a couple of hundred people, mainly students, organize small demonstrations. So what made the difference this time? If I were to choose a starting date for these manifestations, it all began on June 6. On that date, 2,000 protesters, organized by the “Movimento Passe Livre” (Free Pass Movement), which aims to extinguish public transport fares, organized a protest via social media and marched in São Paulo against the recent rise of public transport fares (these ordinarily occur in January, but this year the Brazilian Finance Minister pleaded with the mayors to hold off for some months in order to keep inflation down). The manifestation ended in violence, inflicted both by protesters and the police.

The same protest pattern was repeated over the following days. What is interesting is that, at the very beginning, the movement did not enjoy wide public support, with a good part of the media identifying the protests as ‘disturbances’ and its actors as ‘delinquents’. This early assessment changed rapidly after two key episodes: the protest of June 13 in São Paulo and the protest of June 16 in Rio de Janeiro, during the opening of the famous Maracanã football stadium.

Both of them were met with heavy repression. The indiscriminate use of tear gas and rubber bullets by the police contributed to the warzone-like imaginaries which quickly went viral in the media (mostly the social media such as Twitter and Facebook). In my opinion, those events were the turning point, because the manifestation gained incredible popular support, not only across the Brazilian cities, but also in many different countries.

Saimos do Facebook

Photograph by Rafael Costa. All rights reserved.

From this point forward, the logic of the protests changed dramatically. The media, experts and politicians (although still stunned) started to “welcome” the right to popular manifestations and to condemn the violence and the vandalism promoted by a “small few”. The following protests soared, reaching  their peak on June 20 when around 2 million (although I believe this number is very conservative) people took to the streets. Again, the day ended up in violence – this time, on their side, the police clamped down as hard as they could. On the other side, these “small few” destroyed police cabins, torched cars and dustbins and smashed the glass walls of banks. The following day, President Dilma broke her silence and addressed the population. Her speech was received with mixed feelings – some believed that she was smart in not compromising much and putting pressure on the legislative powers to meet public demands; others criticized the emptiness of her words.

It is important to acknowledge that virtually all cities brought the bus fares back down to their original price. But, at this point, the damage was already done. The protests continued, although smaller in number. It was possible to see manifestations on TV every day in a different city, always with thousands of people and sometimes repressed by the police. The endurance of the movement forced President Dilma to make a second address on June 24. This time, the President came up with a 5 point national pact, which was received again with a large degree of skepticism. Meanwhile, at an incredible speed, the Congress rushed to rule on some of the main demands from the manifestations. They cut taxes on fuel, rejected controversial legislation on “Gay Cure” and an attempt to the limit the federal attorneys’ power over criminal investigations. They also approved a law identifying corruption as a severe felony.

All these measures have somehow appeased the mood of some of the protesters, even though it is still possible to see some protests in different parts of the country. A good example of this is a group of students who have been camping outside of the official residence of the governor of Rio de Janeiro.

Who are the protesters?

One of the most interesting questions posed by this process was: who are they? They are not politically affiliated and do not belong to any union or association. Well, the very first activists were students mobilized by the “Movimento Passe Livre” group. As aforementioned, they rapidly gained support from many sectors of society and became diversified: but the vanguard was still composed by students, mainly from the middle classes.

Why them? There are many different theories. Mine rely on two facts. The first has to do with the age factor. This generation has been hearing about how the last two generations have changed the country, first fighting the military dictatorship, participating in manifestations such as the “Diretas Já” in 1982 (a demonstration that demanded direct presidential elections) and the second creating the “Caras Pintadas” movement in 1992( a demonstration which ended with the impeachment of President Collor). The new ‘generation y’ was repeatedly labeled as reconciled and passive. Whether this is the case it is hard to say, but what is clear is that this generation suffers from disaffection with the political system and widespread skepticism regarding popular action. Nonetheless, we were faced with hundreds of signs saying, “the giant woke up”.

The second fact relates to social strata. Brazil has become internationally famous for its social inclusion policy – roughly 35 million people have attained middle class status. In itself, this fact is truly remarkable and deserves to be praised. The problem is that as soon as those 35 million people so arose, they were presented with the “middle class bill”. Currently, Brazil has one of the highest taxes in the world, higher than many developed countries; but its public services are only really comparable to those of developing countries. Tied to the public service issues, there is the living cost issue. Brazil’s recent rise in living costs, where housing and food are the biggest villains, has been one of the biggest causes of discontent. Just to illustrate, housing prices have increased by over 150% in the last 5 years.

Another characteristic of the main body of the protesters is their independence, as mentioned above. They (all of us) continue to suffer from a crisis of representation and widespread discontent when it comes to the political parties. Most of the protesters do not feel represented and they tried at all costs to avoid the participation of the political parties in this movement. There were even reports that people carrying party flags were beaten up.  

So what do they want?

As said above, all “started” with the rise of bus fares, but soon after that there was an impressive increase in the number of demands. They were so diverse that many experts said it was impossible for the movement to sustain itself. I would divide the demands into two main groups (although I am aware that in doing so I will commit some injustices): first are those that are more tangible, such as the bus fare raise, the approval/rejection of some of the more controversial legislation. The second group is more complex, whose demands require a great deal of effort to be put into practice. Here, I would group all the demands for investment in social services (education and healthcare being the most popular), more transparency in politics and in government spending, more ethics in politics, and even the removal of some important politicians such as the President of the Senate, some governors, mayors and even Dilma herself.

It is also important to take a moment to address the FIFA case. Among the most frequent demands are those that claim that public services should apply “FIFA Standards” and that criticize the opaque public spending on the World Cup and the Olympics. The issue here is that almost nobody is actually against these events taking place in Brazil/Rio. The problem is the widespread perception that there is ill management and planning (and even corruption). Originally, the World Cup was planned to be fully funded by the private sector, but in the end, public money covered most of the budget, which got to be revised upwards several times (the budget from the stadiums alone went from US$ 2.7 billion, originally, to around UUS$ 3.5 billion). There is a lot is misguided anger in that case.

What have the protesters achieved so far?

At first, a large part of the political class was stunned by the protests. They were not expecting it. In fact, many people believed that most of the politicians were “playing dead” and hoping that the storm would shortly subside. Well, it got worse. The first demand met was the return of the bus fares to their original price. But, now, this was not enough. After manifestations swept the country (and spread to other cities in the Europe and the US), the National Congress rushed to meet some of the more tangible demands - the “gay cure” bill, the PEC 37 and the anti-Corruption law are notable examples. Another “gain” was the 5 point pact created by Dilma, in which the crown jewel is the political reform promised for next year (which is being carried out, in my opinion, in the most irresponsible fashion – to be discussed on another occasion).

Reactions: in brief

As in other protests around the world, the social media played a key role. The way that it manages to bring together an incredible number of people with no institutional affiliation to the same place, is remarkable! The traditional media, on the other hand, had a less positive record. At the beginning, they were clearly condemning the manifestations. As soon as it soared, they rushed to greet it and were very careful in saying that the vandals were a “small number of people”. Many protesters were directing their anger to the main media channels (notably O Globo, the biggest news channel). They claimed that the media channels did not portray the demonstrations in a neutral way and that they are lining up with the government (consequently ignoring some of the abuses by the police and being selective on the coverage of scandals). It is hard to say to what extent these claims are true, but no one is completely innocent here.

I wish I could say that the police reaction was the worst surprise, but it was not. In fact, the only surprise arises from the fact that they suppressed the manifestations (of middle class students) with the same brutality they use every day in the ‘favelas’. What we saw (I saw), were scenes of an occupation in an enemy territory. The police hunted down protesters on the streets through the night, throwing tear gas bombs at any agglomeration of people, in bars and even in a hospital. The only upside was that the police actions reignited the discussion of police reform (demilitarization and unification of the police forces). Anyhow till this date, I have not heard of a single police officer who has been held accountable for the ‘excessive use of force’. Right now, in my opinion, this issue should be put at the top of the list of priorities.

Row of Police

Photograph by Rafael Costa. All rights reserved.

At the beginning it was almost funny (and sad) to see how flummoxed the politicians were by the protests. They simply did not understand them. They took several days to start positioning themselves. After a while, they all started up with the same discourse: “The population is within its democratic right to perform manifestations, but we have to condemn all kinds of violence”. Also, after the very 1st speech from President Dilma, the Congress started meeting all the major demands from the streets.

Many have been accusing the politicians of acting in an opportunistic manner, since they already have their eyes on next year’s elections. Examples to support this argument are the recent accusations of several congressmen and senators who used public money and resources, like helicopters and planes from the Air Force (still in the heat of the protests) to attend the Confederation Cup games and other private social events, with their families and friends.

Consequences, challenges and the future

Meanwhile, some conclusions that can be drawn about what happened in Brazil are:

  1. The police have to pass through a deep and comprehensive reform. The lack of responsibility, the violence and the certainty of impunity cannot be part of its modus operandi - (this is very serious!);
  2. It was exceptional to see the power of social media. They managed to achieve what even powerful unions and political parties have never succeeded in: the ability to mobilize people (all kinds of people) and to share information in real time. This was the real revolution!
  3. There is a deeprooted crisis of representation in Brazilian society. It is so serious that it made people react violently against all those who attempted to wield any political party flag in the demonstrations. This is a very dangerous situation.
  4. The political class in Brazil is an interesting entity. They act as political professionals, with an internal logic, ethics of their own and their interests not necessarily matching those of the general society. I do believe, when it comes to that, that they reacted opportunistically in the case of the controversial legislation. Somehow, some of the actions taken (and here I include the president as well) were carried out with the sole purpose of appeasing the ‘mob’ and not with a long-term sustainable view. Here, I offer only one example, but the most dangerous one: political reform. Facing a sharp drop in popularity, president Dilma is convinced that rushing into political reform at all costs over the next year is of ultimate importance, so that these could be applied in the upcoming elections (in which she will try for re-election). The tools and means she proposes are not only unconstitutional, but also might result in a weak and/or unsuccessful reform.

It is hard to predict what is going to happen. The manifestations, although still ongoing and scattered all over the country, are losing momentum. Promises from the government and the approval/rejection of some controversial legislation have for the time being apparently appeased most of the protesters. And it is unlikely that what we saw in the last month will be repeated anytime soon, at least not until next year. The World Cup and the presidential elections, however, offer an excellent opportunity for a new round of protests.  

When it comes to comparisons with other countries: scores of analysts are trying to trace the line that connects these manifestations. The most imaginative ones have even tried to locate the origin of all that is happening this year in the Arab Spring. The most prevalent ones compare Brazil to Turkey and even to Egypt. I will not address this issue or attempt to develop a deep comparison among them – except to say that there are indeed many similarities, but the differences are more important. Here are only a couple of them. The first difference is the lack of a religious element (which makes things much less complex). The second is the political response and the way the manifestations were dealt with by security forces. Although there was violence in Brazil, I feel that it is not comparable to what has been happening either in Turkey or in Egypt.

Fun Fact: for those who want to amuse themselves a little, try deciphering some of the protesters’ signs. It is of unparalleled creativity. It is amazing how Brazilians are able to make fun out of their own misfortune.

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