Brazil: The giant awakens

June 25, 2013

Brazil is in revolt. What started as a protest about a R$0.20 rise (about $0.10) in bus fares has turned into a mass nationwide movement against corruption, the rising cost of living, starved public services and money squandered on sporting mega-events.

Events are moving fast with protests growing and spreading to new cities each day, and it is far from clear when or how it will end.

On June 17, an estimated 100,000 people marched through the streets of Rio. I started out at a gathering of students from Rio’s Federal University in a square in the Uruguaia shopping district. One protester held a banner reading “Nothing should seem impossible to change”, a quote by Bertolt Brecht.

A speaker shouted out instructions for the route the crowd would take and exhorted his audience to be disciplined, peaceful and brave in the event of confrontation with police.

The crowd collectively repeated the words so that those at the back could hear ― a technique developed by trade unions and democracy activists during the 1980s. Everyone sang “Ole ole, ole ola, se a passagem nao abaixar, o Rio, o Rio, o Rio vai parar!”, roughly translated as “If the fare is not cut, we will bring Rio to a halt!”

The crowd began to move and, upon reaching the Avenida Getulio Vargas, converged with a much larger protest. I think here everyone began to realise the scale and importance of what was going on.

Placards and banners with messages like “The giant has awoken” and “We are the social network” expressed a mixture of joy and relief. In a country often seen as politically passive, a silent majority was finding its voice.

The marchers gleefully chanted: “It’s not Turkey, it’s not Greece, it’s Brazil, leaving its inertia.”

The participants were predominantly young, but the movement resonates far beyond them. Suited professionals leaving their workplaces mixed in and office workers waved white flags and threw confetti from the skyscrapers overlooking the procession.

Similarly, although the majority were middle-class, there were clearly many from humbler backgrounds. People of every age and across the social spectrum were voicing similar grievances: a corrupt and arrogant political elite, high costs, substandard public services and a contemptuous attitude towards human rights, particularly within the police.

Until now they discussed these problems individually with resignation, saying “that’s just the way Brazil is”. Now they are demanding change.

A key aspect of the protests concerns the urban impacts of preparations for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Rio Olympics. In Rio the mega events are being treated as catalysts for a “whole city project”, which, besides new sporting infrastructure, includes major transformations in housing, transport and security.

The stated aims of investment and integration are widely supported, but the way the policies have unfolded has created widespread disillusionment. A housing boom has brought a windfall for speculators, but priced many out of their neighbourhoods.

The first large-scale favela (slum) removal program since the military dictatorship of the 1960s is being carried out. Expensive transport and favela “pacification” (or proximity policing) policies appear more geared towards delivering the mega events than improving quality of life in the city.

Meanwhile, public schools and hospitals remain underfunded and overcrowded.

Innumerable placards and chants highlighted these issues: “How many schools fit in the Maracana stadium?”; “Forget the World Cup, I want money for health and education”.

One sign ominously read: “There will be no World Cup.” This will send shivers down the spines of political elites who see the successful hosting of these international spectacles as economically and symbolically crucial for the future of the country, and for their own reputations.

They may have been concerned about drug gangs and street criminals marring the events. They never foresaw the possibility of mass opposition.

In Rio, the protests have been targeted at state governor Sergio Cabral and Mayor Eduardo Paes, who are seen as responsible for the failures of the city project. Brazil’s highly federalised system leaves significant powers at the state and municipal levels, including in the key areas of health, education, policing and transport.

As a result, President Dilma Rousseff has been less of an obvious target. However many believe she has not used her powers to pressure for change.

One banner called for Rousseff to “wake up”, as Brazil had, implicitly referring to her own revolutionary past. Wider disillusionment with her Workers Party (PT), was expressed by the chant, “We have no party”.

After reaching the Candelaria, the protesters continued on towards Cinelandia, with many congregating on the steps of the beautiful Theatro Municipal, still in a light-hearted mood. Occasional loud bangs of firecrackers, perhaps mistaken for acts of vandalism, prompted chants of “No violence”.

There was a conspicuous lack of police presence, presumably a deliberate strategy after the outrage they provoked with their indiscriminate use of pepper spray and rubber bullets in Sao Paulo.

When the march finally converged upon the Rio state legislative assembly, the picture began to change. About 30 police guards were stationed outside it, separated from the demonstrators by a wall of railings.

As the mass arrived some elements began to throw bottles and stones, thinning out the police line and pushing them up the steps. Crackling fireworks that were being set off into the air began to be directed towards the building.

Then what appeared to be a molotov cocktail started a fire beneath the building’s main columns, causing the remaining police, by now at the top of the stairs, to scramble into the building. The crowd broke through the gates and occupied the steps. Bonfires were lit in the square and surrounding streets, and a car was set ablaze.

For the next two hours police tried to clear the square using tear gas, while protesters fled down side streets only to return as the air cleared. I saw a few people spitting blood. This pattern continued for at least the next two hours.

It was only at this stage that I saw any vandalism ― mainly masked, adrenaline-fuelled teenagers smashing windows and graffitiing walls. In almost every case other protesters intervened to try and stop them. One time a large crowd chanted “no vandalism” at a young man trying to kick in a window, and he sheepishly walked away.

A few days earlier, the violence might have been used by right-wing media outlets to sway public opinion against the protests. But after the unpopular actions of the police elsewhere and the momentum the movement has now taken on, it is much too late for that. Brazil has awoken!

[Abridged from Red Pepper.]

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