At a time of relative growth and stability, nobody was expecting some of the largest protests in Brazilian history – not even the protestors themselves
São Paulo. June 23. It will go down in history as proof that popular protest can work. On the evening of Wednesday June 19, following Brazil’s victory over Mexico in the Confederations Cup, Geraldo Alckmin, the governor of São Paulo state, and Fernando Haddad, the mayor of the city of São Paulo, together appeared live on television to announce that they would be reversing the decision to raise the cost of public transport in the city from R$3.00 to R$3.20. Haddad insisted that the decision was one taken ‘in the spirit of reconciliation, of democracy and peaceful coexistence,’ despite having said less than seven hours beforehand that such a decision would be ‘populist in nature.’ Alckmin too had been insisting as late as Tuesday evening that there was no chance of reducing the fares. It was a humiliating defeat for both men, replicated in other cities across Brazil where one by one local legislators were forced to reverse the decision to raise the price of urban public transport.
The initial reaction of many to the protests was perplexity. After all, the hike in the fares was just 20 centavos (6p), a routine increase that, as Haddad and other politicians repeatedly pointed out, was well below the current rate of inflation. A single journey on the metro, bus and train in São Paulo – the highest fare in the country – would have cost R$3.20 (94p), a sum which seems fairly cheap relative not only to the cost of public transport in several other countries, but also to the cost of many other goods and services in Brazil, especially in Rio and São Paulo. Why then, was there such fierce opposition to the fare hikes?
First, it is unhelpful to consider the price of fares in isolation. An article published in the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo instead calculated how many minutes someone earning the average salary needed to work in order to pay a single fare. The conclusion? That the transport in Rio and São Paulo is among the most expensive in the world, even more so than cities such as London, Tokyo and New York. Secondly, in São Paulo, where the minimum wage is just R$755 (about £225) a month, even an increase of just 20 centavos would have had serious implications for some of the poorest people in Brazilian society. And finally, as many protestors pointed out, the demonstrations were not just about the cost of the transport but also the quality, which compares badly not just to the cities mentioned above but also to other Latin American cities such as Santiago de Chile, Mexico City and Bogotá.
However, as so many of those who took to the streets chanted, ‘Não são só 20 centavos!’ (It’s not just about 20 cents!). So just what were these protests about? After all, while most of the developed world continues to struggle with the effects of the financial crisis, wasn’t Brazil supposed to be one of the great global success stories? Sure, the public transport leaves much to be desired, but is it worse than 10 years ago? Not at all. New bus lanes are being opened, new metro lines are being built. So, as Juan Arias asked in El País, ‘Why Brazil, and why now?’
In part, the protests were about defending the very right to protest. The initial demonstrations were met with brutal repression by the military police, cheered on enthusiastically by the politicians and the media. Alckmin in particular was guilty of using some highly inflammatory rhetoric, describing the protestors as ‘vandals’ and ‘troublemakers,’ and insisting that the police had acted with ‘professionalism’, even as videos exposing police violence began to circulate online. Likewise, most initial press coverage of the protests was extremely negative, with Reinaldo Azevedo labelling the protestors as ‘terrorists’ in the news weekly Veja, and TV Globo’s Arnaldo Jabor even comparing them to São Paulo’s principal criminal organization Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC). The initial protests thus exposed an ugly authoritarian streak running through the Brazilian establishment, and the later marches were as much a reaction against this as they were a protest against the fare hikes. Had the initial protests been policed more sensibly, the movement might simply have run out of steam. As it was, the repression provoked widespread outrage and drew thousands more to a cause they might not otherwise have even been aware of.
As the situation escalated, Alckmin backtracked hastily from his previous position, paying tribute to protestors he had insulted only days beforehand. The press also quickly changed their tune, not least because several reporters from São Paulo’s two main newspapers O Estado de S. Paulo and Folha de S. Paulo found themselves on the receiving end of the repression on the night of June 13, with one reporter from Folha almost losing an eye to a rubber bullet. Hundreds of thousands of people turned out the following Monday in cities across the country, in marches that were largely peaceful, and the protests of Thursday 20 were bigger still, with more than a million people taking to the streets in 75 cities across Brazil. The weekend of June 22-23 also saw protests throughout the country, again drawing hundreds of thousands. So why, even after the movement has achieved its stated objective, are people still taking to the streets, and in ever larger numbers?
There is no simple answer. There is a pervasive sense of general malaise, of frustration with the political status quo, a sense that none of the established parties represent the desires of the populace. Corruption is the cause of much anger, with people unhappy that many of those involved in last year’s mensalão scandal are still at liberty. Often protestors’ ire is directed towards specific targets, such as Renan Calheiros, the President of the Senate, widely perceived as corrupt; or Marco Feliciano, head of the National Commission on Human Rights, an evangelical preacher notorious for racist and homophobic comments. There has also been widespread discontent at a proposal to limit the power of the Public Ministry, the institution responsible for investigating crimes such as political corruption and police brutality. Transport is frequently mentioned too, alongside poor quality of public services in general, particularly in health and education.
Perhaps most pertinently of all, in a nation where football is almost a religion, people are livid about the spiralling costs for next year’s World Cup. The projected cost is R$28 billion, nearly four times the amount that was spent by South Africa in 2010. Hosting the tournament in Brazil was always going to be a more costly affair than in previous years, given the physical size of the country, the need to modernise existing infrastructure and the need to build several stadiums from scratch. However, there has been much incompetence and there are suspicions that large sums of money have been lost to corruption. Doubts have also been raised about the future of new mega-stadiums built in cities such as Brasília, Manaus and Cuiabá at enormous expense, despite the fact that the local teams will struggle to fill them after the World Cup. Many people also feel cheated because promised improvements in urban infrastructure ahead of the tournament – particularly in transport – have largely yet to materialise.
But why now? After all, leaving aside the issues relating to the World Cup, most of the problems listed above are not new to Brazil. Much of the local media has emphasized present economic conditions. True, growth has been sluggish for the last couple of years, and inflation is on the rise. However, while this may help to understand the context within which the protests are occurring, they are not about economic issues as such. Indeed, the majority of the grievances explicitly identified by the protestors seem to be social or political in nature. What the protests have made clear is that as the Brazilian economy has evolved over the last two decades, so have the priorities of the citizenry. The growth and jobs agenda developed by the Fernando Henrique Cardoso administration and continued with such success by the PT is no longer good enough. Most Brazilians are no longer so concerned about finding work and putting food on the table. This is certainly true of the protestors, the majority of whom are well educated and middle class.
What they are concerned with is political corruption, and the failures of the state regarding important quality-of-life issues like health, education, transport and public safety. The anger they feel is especially acute given that in recent years the dominant narratives regarding Brazil have largely been of progress and improvement. Yet when they look around them they see that many of the old problems never went away. The politicians are still corrupt, public services still insufficient, the streets still unsafe. The economy may now be the world’s sixth largest, sandwiched between France and the UK, but for most of the population this is little consolation when quality of life remains so far below Western European standards. The fare hikes on public transport and ensuing police violence served merely as the trigger for all these other deeply ingrained and longstanding frustrations to become manifest.
All these other frustrations are now coming to the fore. The problem is that the list of demands is potentially endless. With no leaders, no centralised organisation and now, following the reversal of the fare hikes, no definite objectives, it remains to be seen exactly where the movement is heading. Still, the government is clearly rattled, with Dilma taking the unprecedented step of appearing on television on the evening of Friday June 21, in an attempt to appeal for calm and assuage some of the main concerns of the protestors. It seems to have had little effect, with protests continuing throughout the weekend. Even if, as is likely, the movement begins to run out of steam in the coming weeks, at the very least it will have served as a compelling reminder of the power of popular protest, and a nasty wake up call for Brazil’s ruling elites.
Tom Gatehouse is a British writer and LAB contributor who has lived in Argentina, Spain and Brazil. He has an MPhil in Latin American Studies from Cambridge University and now lives in Sâo Paulo.