Brazil: Pro-Bolsonaro forces privatise Sao Paulo’s water amid repression in parliament

December 12, 2023
protesters leaving a building and chanting
Protesters leave the Assembly building after reaching agreement with security to release those arrested. Photo: Federico Fuentes

Sao Paulo’s State Legislative Assembly voted to privatise its water and sanitation company Sabesp on December 6, after the parliamentary session was briefly suspended while security forces cleared anti-privatisation protesters from the gallery using batons and pepper spray.

Despite the repression, and struggling to breathe due to the pepper spray, right-wing deputies returned to approve the bill, while 26 deputies from opposition parties such as the Workers Party (PT) and Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL) were absent.

PSOL deputy Monica Seixas said the security forces’ use of batons and pepper spray had made their presence in the assembly impossible. “The idea of going ahead with the vote amid the scenes of police barbarity that we witnessed was absurd.”

Seixas added: “I had an abortion ten days ago and I'm still bleeding [from the procedure]. PSOL deputy Paula Nunes is pregnant, and we have other men and women deputies for whom returning to the assembly when voting resumed represented a health risk.”

Green Left was present at the Assembly during the repression and witnessed protesters with serious head injuries and many more — including journalists and parliamentarians — heavily affected by pepper spray.

Four protesters were arrested — two were later released on strict bail conditions while two remain in police custody. They are facing a long list of charges including criminal association, assault and resisting arrest. [Update: The two protesters in police custody were released on December 12 on strict bail conditions until they face court.]

The vote was an important victory for right-wing Sao Paulo governor Tarcísio de Freitas, a close ally of far right former president Jair Bolsonaro. Many believe Tarcísio could be a presidential candidate if Bolsonaro cannot run in the 2026 elections. Bolsonaro has been barred from office by the federal electoral court, which found him guilty of abuse of power and misuse of the media.

The vote means that the state government will reduce its share in Sabesp from 50.3% to 15‒30%, with the exact percentage to be determined. Tarcísio is seeking to privatise other public services, such as metro train and bus lines, as well as cut R$10 billion (approximately US$2 billion) from the state education budget.

Opponents to the privatisation push have highlighted that similar actions in other states have only led to higher water bills and a deterioration in the quality of services.

With polling showing majority opposition to privatisation, close to 900,000 citizens participated in a popular referendum on the issue organised by unions and social movements. Unions covering Sabesp, public transport and education workers also mobilised thousands of workers over two days of strike actions.

According to PSOL deputy Guilherme Cortez, the vote was “completely illegitimate” as Sabesp’s privatisation requires the approval of a Proposed Amendment to the Constitution by two-thirds of parliament.

PSOL deputies have lodged an appeal with the courts, arguing that the bill’s unconstitutional nature and the use of police violence and voting-buying tactics mean the vote should be voided.

Cortez noted the bill was rammed through just two months after becoming public and with less than 48 hours of debate in the parliament. He argued this was due to the governor wanting to avoid privatisation becoming an issue in next year’s municipal elections.

Cortez added: “The icing on the cake of Tarcísio’s authoritarianism was the scenes of police brutality against protesters … which made it impossible for civil servants and parliamentarians to remain in the assembly”.

“In short, what happened this Wednesday will go down in the history of our state as an unforgettable shame.”

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