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On the Recent Events in Brazil


This is a guest post from Colin Snider of Americas South and North.

As many by now know, the last 10 days have seen an incredible degree of social mobilization in Brazil. On the surface, it began with a twenty-[Brazilian]-cent hike in bus fares in São Paulo. Protesters marched peacefully, By the end of the night, the police response to violence had created a broader sense of outrage, leading one Brazilian on Twitter to comment, “It’s no longer about the fares. Fuck the fares. This has become much greater than the question of fares.”

And indeed, it was always about much more than the fares. As I outlined earlier last week, the reasons for now are complex, and are as much about historical inequalities, a fact reflected in the variety of demands: from educational reform to anger at the $13.3 billion spent on the World Cup; from Congress’s disconnection with the people it ostensibly represents to decades of generally-unchecked police violence; all of these, and more, are the causes people are raising in the streets. It’s not even about a single political party; while President Dilma Rousseff and the center-left Workers Party [PT] have been targets of outrage and slogans, so have the other other parties on the left and right. In terms of politics, it’s not as much about partisanship as it is about the broader system of political cronyism and oligarchical politics that goes back centuries. So the protests did not come out of nowhere. In fact, the writing has been on the wall for some time; at the beginning of the year, Francisco Everardo Oliveira Silva, a TV clown who ran for Congress (and won) in an attempt to show the absurdity of politics, commented that “Either this thing [Brazilian politics] changes, or people are going to go crazy.”

So in many ways, it’s about broader political inequalities and absurdities within a functioning electoral democracy. And though politics is an important part of it, it’s not the sole issue at play; the economy, both in real terms and in terms of Brazilians’ material expectations, is an important part of the discourse of unrest as well. The twenty cents was a not-insignificant amount of money for a working class that is often underpaid even while living in the 12th most expensive city in the world, ahead of New York City, Los Angeles, or any other city in the US. And although nationwide, Brazil continues to enjoy near-record low unemployment rates, unemployment in São Paulo has been above the national average for Brazil, compounding the problem for many paulistanos [those from São Paulo city].

But these are problems limited to São Paulo – how did it go national? The national economy is a part of the issue, but it’s not the whole picture. Yes, Brazil has recently seen inflation increase, growth rates slow down, and currency devalued, making well-paying jobs harder to come by and lessening the overall value of incomes among both the working and the middle classes in Brazil. But it’s as much about the representation of the national economy as it is about actual economic factors. For about ten years now, politicians, analysts, and foreign commentators had all pointed to Brazil as having finally becoming an economic powerhouse in the world. They pointed to its status as the seventh largest economy in the world; its growing role in global trade; and even its recent debt forgiveness in Africa as symbols of this strength. Winning the bids for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics were hailed as final evidence Brazil had “made it.”

But, as is all too often the case amongst neoliberal analysis, they falsely equated growth to development. Sure, Brazil’s economy had grown, but it also retained one of the higher levels of income inequality in the world. And the government spent $13.3 billion for FIFA to host the World Cup in Brazil, money that went to stadiums rather than to infrastructure projects that would help a majority of Brazilians. And this while educational levels and adequate health care continue to be major problems for millions of poor and middle class families throughout the country. Brazilians had been told for ten years that things had improved, that Brazil had finally “arrived,” and that they were now enjoying material and social benefits that they’d always been excluded from. And in some ways, there were real gains in the 2000s – the purchasing power of the working class and middle class strengthened somewhat, and programs like Bolsa Familia and Fome Zero helped millions of poor families. But at the first sign of economic instability, it all threatened to come apart, even when their expectations had already increased, and even after ten years of being told that this time it was different. And yet, the socioeconomic inequalities remain in a system where politicians still seem to ignore or be completely unaware of the issues facing tens of millions of Brazilians.

But, if all of these issues have been latent for a long time, why now? The short answer is: it’s complicated, and there’s no definite “quotient” that meant demonstrations on the scale of millions was inevitable. Indeed – this video does a really good job of showing how all of these issues have come together, with the World Cup as a symbol of all that’s wrong with Brazilian inequalities.

All of the above issues have certainly contributed to the unrest and anger. But this is where police violence in São Paulo played a key role. While the police in Brazil have used violence and operated with impunity all too often, the violence last week was one straw too many. That police responded so disproportionately against peaceful protesters exercising their right to speech and assembly, led to broader anger throughout the country. The images that emerged from such violence were so surreal and so grotesque, it only further ignited anger in Brazil, prompting more people to take to the streets, and leading to more surreal scenes throughout the country and even greater police violence, and so on and so forth. In that way, what had apparently started as popular anger at bus fare hikes in Brazil’s largest city became the beginning of nationwide demonstrations from Brazilians who had simply decided they’d just had too much.

And the protests expanded rapidly. On Monday night (the 17th), 230,000 people took to the streets nationwide to protest, in what at the time seemed like a high number. Yet by the middle of the week, the protests were growing; in response, nearly a dozen cities (including São Paulo and Rio) rolled back bus fares. But it was too late. By Thursday night (the 20th), nearly 2 million people across 483 municipalities throughout the country had mobilized. And while two million in a country of 190 million is still a tiny number relatively speaking, the support is much broader, with a poll finding 75% of Brazilians supported the mobilization. Nor was the mobilization limited to a single socioeconomic group, as people from the favelas in Rio joined people from the middle-class Zona Sul on Thursday, leading to at least 300,000 (and perhaps more) in the streets for the largest urban rally in Rio since at least 1984, when the country mobilized for direct elections as the twenty-one-year military dictatorship wound down.

Of course, the events in Brazil have rippled throughout the region in the world. In Paraguay, around three thousand people took to the streets to protest corruption in their own country, with participants openly admitting the events in Brazil had inspired the Paraguayans to speak out as well. More ridiculously, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has said that the unrest in his own country and now in Brazil is due to foreign conspirators who want to destabilize both countries (though Erdogan was silent in explaining why, out of all the countries in the world, vague “foreign” threats would target Turkey and Brazil). Of course, such allegations are ridiculous, as citizens of both Turkey and Brazil are responding to the abuses of power and national contexts within their own countries. Beyond that, the most obvious similarity between Turkey and Brazil is the police’s overwhelming and disproportionate use of force in each case, based on privatized weaponry and brutality against unarmed protesters found in police forces not just in Turkey, but Davis, New York, and now, Brazil.

What happens next is uncertain. Already, the location of the protests has ebbed and flowed; 300,000 in Rio one night, 100,000 in Recife another night, 60,000 in the largest protest yesterday in Belo Horizonte. That a different city has had the largest protests each day demonstrates just how national the discontent is. Still, what change they can have remains to be seen. In some ways, Brazilians face challenges not-dissimilar to those the Occupy movement faced; a broad movement with a variety of concerns and demands that forswears any particular political party or organization. Though the protests may slow down or peter out in the next few weeks [and they may not], it would not be surprising to see them return periodically, particularly as the World Cup takes place next year; after all, those stadiums, with their billions of dollars spent in renovations, will physically remain to remind Brazilians of how little the World Cup actually improved their lives, even while proving extremely expensive. But, while the World Cup will serve as a useful symbol, the protests won’t undo that $13.3 billion.

Perhaps the way these demonstrations could have the longest effect is through political mobilization. In addition to being home to the World Cup, Brazil also holds elections next year. Politicians who choose to disregard the voice of the electorate may find they can no longer do so with disregard. For the first time in twenty years, Brazilians have taken to the streets to express their anger; the last time, in 1992, it led to a president resigning over corruption. For a generation, though, such a sense of empowerment, of being able to shape national politics, was lacking, not out of will, but out of experience. Now, that has changed – there is a new sense that politicians do not rule in an ivory tower, that the people can make themselves heard. A common refrain throughout Brazil this week was that, with millions gathering and making their voices heard, “O gigante acordou – The giant awoke.” Whatever the outcome of these demonstrations, this has been a historic week in Brazil, with demonstrations and popular mobilization that ranks up there with 1968, 1984, or 1992; yet each of those years, the mobilizations were defined by particular terms (protests against a dictatorship; demands for direct elections; calls for the resignation of the corrupt Fernando Collor). 2013 is different – the demands are more open, the people more insistent, and the potential outcomes more diverse. Even if the demonstrations disappear in the coming weeks, the issues behind them will not go away so easily, and it will be worth continuing to watch to see if and how this moment shapes society and political culture in Brazil going forward.

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  • Steve LaBonne

    If only OWS had caught fire the way the protests in Brazil seem to be doing. I hope the good people of Brazil will continue to show us the way.

  • Dave

    Lovely, but government-by-who-can-raise-the-biggest-crowd is still no way to run a country – cf. the hundreds of thousands of French people recently turning out to demonstrate their heartfelt and determined opposition to equal marriage…

    All this is a symptom of the inability of the global left to actually organise anything worth a damn. We should be appalled at the perception that rioting and quasi-rioting have to take the place of democratic participation, yet we – you – seem to treat them as a good thing. In contrast to voiceless exploited poverty, no doubt they are, but they run a very distant second to actual politics for getting anything useful done about poverty, justice, freedom and equality.

    • This seems real easy to say sitting in a comfortable chair in front of a computer. Yes, the political system is the ultimate way that change is created, but the idea that change is not also created on the streets through protest doesn’t make very much sense. Civil rights needed a president willing to push for the Civil Rights Act, but that doesn’t happen without hundreds of thousands of people in the streets. Labor unions needed a president to sign the National Labor Relations Act, but that doesn’t happen if workers aren’t striking.

    • Hogan


      WTF? Is that something quasi-police respond to with quasi-non-lethal force? Do they break out the quasi-riot guns?

    • witless chum

      What a very concerned post.

    • True. We’ve seen that in some countries, progressive participation in anti-government protests merely paved the way for more organized reactionary forces to take power. Not saying that’s the case with Brazil, but the quieter stuff – though less telegenic – is necessary. Occupy may have gotten a lot of attention, but lesser known groups have been more successful at effecting political change.

      • Charrua

        The problem is that, by hating all actually existent political parties, the demonstrators have no way to turn their demands (which are often contradictory) into facts. This is the emotional outburst of a largely politically uncommitted population; it’s very intense when it happens, but it can accomplish surprisingly little. The “Que se vayan todos!!” movement (also largely by the relatively apolitical middle class) in Argentina in 2002 is a useful parallel.
        The 1992 protests against Collor were different in that there was a clear target for their anger and the political system could respond to that.
        The OWS movement also had a focus, although less clear.
        These demonstrations have no clear focus and their demands are often contradictory (which is to be expected, given their ideological diversity), making the fulfillment of their collective expectations impossible.
        If you ask me, my sense is that this might well end in exhaustion and futility.

        • We hear a great deal about the poor declining middle-class in America. I won’t argue that a thriving middle-class is not important… but I will argue that much of the middle-class has been the support base that has allowed corporate and political corruption to advance to their present extremes. And that middle-class will not stand up until their own invitation to the orgy of consumption has been revoked.

          To put it more bluntly: the middle-class in America is composed largely of whining, gluttonous enablers. And my guess is that it’s the same in Brazil.

    • JL

      rioting and quasi-rioting

      Oh, you mean police riots, where police brutalize overwhelmingly nonviolent demonstrators? Yeah, those are certainly a bad way to run a country.

      Maybe we should be appalled that people have to take the streets in order to get things done, that the democratic process isn’t enough, but that’s a problem with the system being protested, not the protesters.

  • Fick FUFA.

    “Labor unions needed a president to sign the National Labor Relations Act, but that doesn’t happen if workers aren’t striking.”


  • scott

    Ken said it, but Romario cited FIFA explicitly when he said that the president of Brazil was Sepp Blatter because the government had subordinated all the issues Erik talks about to propitiating FIFA’s bagman-in-chief. I’m sure Sepp further endeared himself to Brazilians by imploring them not to let their silly politics interfere with the football. Never underestimate the ability of a corrupt, authoritarian, and tone-deaf FIFA to make things worse than they already are and to remind people of the “host” country who’s really in charge.

    • I’m not talking about any of these issues. It’s a guest post.

  • Randy Paul

    It;s worth noting that initially the demonstrations in Belo Horizonte were much calmer, because the police chose to walk with those demonstrating peacefully.

    There is another point worth noting and that is the transformation of the PT (i.e., Worker’s Party, which was started by former president Lula). I can remember several years ago reading that business leaders preferred to deal with PT elected officials on the local and state level as there were fewer examples of corrupt officials than with other parties. Issues such as the mensalão scandal, which resulted in the conviction of Lula’s former chief of staff, José Dirceu.

    Notwithstanding that most of the other parties in Brazil are thoroughly detestable, the level of outrage now also encompasses the PT, at least if my family members in Paraná, Minas Gerais, Rio de Janeiro, Bahia, São Paulo and Espírito Santo are any indication.

  • bw

    The Mercer rankings aren’t really appropriate here as a measure of cost of living. They’re specifically focused on how much it costs to live *as an expat*. Because Luanda is flooded with oil wealth but has little housing that multinational businesses would find suitable for their Angola-based employees (and most goods must be shipped in), it’s way up there on the list even though 5 million Angolans manage to scrape by there. I suspect that Brazil’s cities fall into a similar though less extreme version of this phenomenon.

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