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On the Recent Events in Brazil

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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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