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Brazil protests – shades of the French Revolution?

SourceJan Rocha


São Paulo, July 17

There is no doubt that the events of the last few weeks have shaken the ruling Workers’ Party (PT) out of its self-righteous torpor, as it cruised along at a comfortable speed towards the re-election of President Dilma. Her poll ratings have plunged to 33%, from a high of over 70% a few months ago. Dilma would no longer be elected in the first round, although she would still beat all the other likely candidates in a second round. The right has been revelling in the PT’s discomfort, deliberately overlooking the fact that the protests have been directed against all politicians, not just the PT. PSDB candidate Aécio Neves is also down in the polls. The conservative press has splashed  negative headlines about the ups-and-downs of the economy –  government spending and inflation up, exports and GDP projections down, ignoring the wider picture of a depressed world economy. But the economy is not the target of the protesters – inflation at between 5 and 6 % a year is nowhere near the hyperinflation of yesteryear and, with almost full employment, it is not jobs that people are demanding either. Vandals continue to hijack many of the protests – in Rio on Wednesday night they turned a peaceful protest against the governor, Sérgio Cabral, into a riot of destruction, attacking both public and private property and blocking roads with burning barricades – while the police stood by. Later the Rio police chief admitted they needed to rethink their response, which all too often seems to involve attacking peaceful demonstrators while masked vandals go unchecked. Who are the vandals? What is their real agenda? Are they disaffected youths, criminal elements or agents provocateurs?  Nobody knows and the police seem unable to find out, or just not interested in doing so. What has become clearer is that people have taken to the streets because they want to be heard, not just called on every couple of years to vote for representatives who then ignore them. For Frei Beto, a former adviser to Lula’s government, the PT opted for governability guaranteed by the national Congress – although it is still the congress of the “300 picaretas (rogues)” denounced years ago by Lula. It refused to follow the example of Evo Morales in Bolívia who opted for governability supported by social movements. People want a say in how their taxes are spent. Like the inhabitants of the Rocinha shantytown in Rio, where the authorities plan to install a cable car up the steep hillside on which the favela is built. They are saying: `We don’t need a teléferico, what we need is a sewage system. We have HDTV, but we don’t have drains`. Lula said told the New York Times that democracy was not a pact of silence, and “the good news is that young people are not conformist, apathetic, indifferent to political life…..they don’t just want to vote, they want to be heard, and this is a huge challenge to the parties and political leaders”. It is perhaps relevant that today’s protesters have been to school for an average of nine years – in 1985 the average of those at the rallies calling for direct elections for president (Diretas Já) was just five years.  Almost three-quarters (74%) of Brazilians also have access to the Internet today, so they are better informed about what is going on.  So up and down Brazil there are growing demands for greater transparency and what is best called accountability (though, interestingly, that is a word that has no equivalent in Portuguese …) These calls are paying off.  For the first time, bus companies in many cities are publishing their budgets and revealing their cost and profit margins.  The Air Force has begun to publish details of the hundreds of free flights given to government officials, congress leaders and judges, allegedly for affairs of state, but in many cases to attend weddings or soccer matches with a posse of family and friends. Copacabana Palace HotelSpeaking of weddings, a few days ago angry protesters gathered on the pavement outside the Copacabana Palace Hotel in Rio from where they could see the lavishly decorated Golden Room where 1,000 guests were enjoying a sumptuous wedding feast said to have cost R$3 million (£880,000). What aroused their ire was that both the bride and groom had inherited money from wealthy transport companies – and, of course, it was fare rises on public transport which sparked off the recent wave of demonstrations in Brazil. Later a guest said that, as they ran the gauntlet of the protesters, everyone was frightened.  “We looked at each other as though we were all Marie Antoinettes about to be guillotined”. Other guests were less intimidated, and threw R$20 banknotes from the balcony down on the jeering crowd. One rich vandal hurled a glass ashtray – hitting a man on the head so badly that he needed stiches. In her first reaction to the protests a month ago, Dilma announced a range of measures. All are in tatters. The proposed plebiscite on political reform has been sabotaged by the chamber of deputies, which, quickly recovering from the impact of the clamour of the streets, has instead set up an all-party committee to look at reform, with any resultant changes only applicable in the elections of 2016 at the earliest, instead of next year, as Dilma wanted. It is not really surprising that most of them do not want change – a recent international survey showed that Brazilian congress representatives are the fifth highest paid in the world, and that is without counting their incredibly generous perks. The government’s proposals for changes to the medical profession have aroused huge controversy with doctors closing ranks against the idea of bringing in foreign medics to work in remote country areas and the poor outskirts of cities where there is a shortage.  And a proposal to extend medical training from six to eight years with two years compulsory service in SUS (the National Health System) has also been condemned. There was no consultation with the medical profession before the proposals were announced – so white-coated doctors have taken to the streets along with everyone else to protest. The protests are not specifically anti-Dilma, or anti-PT, but anti-government at all levels, anti-politicians who do not represent them, who do not listen to them. This Marina Silvaprobably explains the surprising success of Marina Silva who now ranks second in the electoral stakes, with one fifth of those polled opting for her. Marina, former Environment Minister in Lula’s government, does not even have a party yet; her Rede, or Network, is still in the process of registering the necessary number of state committees – an essential part of the complicated obstacle race facing those wanting to put up candidates in elections. An evangelical, she  draws votes from their growing numbers, although the radically conservative  agenda of some of the pastors – no abortion, no same sex marriage, a ‘cure’ for homosexuals – is in direct confrontation with the liberal views of most of the green movement, who support her environmental positions.  How Marina will square this circle is yet to be seen. While the mass protests have stopped – after all July is a holiday month – many smaller, more focused protests continue, plus the occupation of town halls, state assemblies. Attention is now on the Pope’s visit next week, from the 23-28 July. Protests are expected, not against the Pope, but to take advantage of the huge media spotlight.  Papa Francisco, as he is called here, probably aware that corruption and lavish spending on events have been targets in the protests, has wisely chosen to fly to Brazil on a commercial flight, to sleep in a simple room rather than a suite, and he wants to move about in an open-sided jeep, thus giving the security services their biggest headache of all.

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Jan Rocha's Blog

Jan Rocha is a former correspondent for the BBC and the Guardian and lives in São Paulo, Brazil. She is the author of a number of LAB books, and contributes this regular column for LAB, known for its incisive analysis of current Brazilian politics.

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