Less than a year after massive protests swept the nation, forcing city governments to take the unprecedented step of revoking planned price increases on urban public transport, bus fares are on the rise again in Brazil. In São Paulo, the government has quietly raised the fares on municipal routes linking the city with its outlying suburbs, most of which are known to Brazilians as the periferia – a loose network of poor neighbourhoods and favelas that surround the city proper. Curiously, the price increases were not reported by either of São Paulo’s two leading newspapers, with online bloggers suggesting that there may have been collusion between the centre-right state government and the media. Meanwhile, in Rio de Janeiro, the city government raised the cost of a single fare on the city’s buses from R$2.75 (69p) to R$3 (75p) in early February, reinstating the price rises revoked last year. This resulted in chaotic protests in the city centre, in which Santiago Andrade, a cameraman with the TV network Band, was hit in the head by a firework launched by protestors and later died of his injuries in hospital.
If, last year, the reversal of the price hikes on public transport became a symbolic issue, then the present creeping price rises are a symbol of how little has changed. Poor urban mobility – a daily bugbear for millions of Brazilians – remains constant, and while there have been some minor improvements, such as the expansion of bus lanes in São Paulo, in general public transport remains much as it was last year. In Belo Horizonte, it had been promised that the long awaited Bus Rapid Transit system would be operational by February, but its opening has now been postponed until May, just a month before the beginning of the World Cup. While of course real change does not happen overnight, the World Cup was supposed to usher in a new era of modern infrastructure and first world public services. Clearly, this has not occurred.
Repressive police tactics, another major cause of last year’s protests, not only remain in use, but are being expanded and developed. On February 22nd, in the second of what is likely to be a series of demonstrations against the World Cup, the police in São Paulo used for the first time the controversial ‘kettling’ strategy, repeatedly used by London’s Metropolitan Police in recent years to control protests. While the European court of human rights declared the practice legal in 2012, it has been the target of much criticism by protestors, human rights groups, and even the UN, whose special rapporteur on rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association condemned kettling for its ‘powerful chilling effect on the exercise of freedom of assembly.’ Nevertheless, following the demonstration in São Paulo, the Military Police declared that the kettling strategy had been ‘a complete success.’
It is also becoming increasingly clear the police have adopted a tactic of blanket arrests. In the two protests against the World Cup this year, the police arrested 397 people. By way of contrast, just 374 people in total were arrested at protests in São Paulo last year – despite the fact that there were at least fifteen mass demonstrations in the city, most of which were significantly larger than the two recent protests.
The official justification for the change in police tactics is that they are necessary in order to prevent violence and criminal damage on the part of masked protestors, who infiltrate protests in order to vandalize property. The problem, of course, is that such tactics are completely indiscriminate. As the police later released without charge every single demonstrator arrested on the last protest, it appears that people are being arrested not for any crime they have committed, but merely as a means of crowd dispersal and intimidation. After every demonstration, politicians of all levels and political persuasions repeat the same line: they condemn the violence while upholding the right to peaceful protest. The police, however, seem content to ignore the latter.
A new anti-terrorism bill is also being hurriedly rushed through the Senate ahead of the World Cup. While the bill’s sponsors point to the fact that Brazil does not currently have a specific law against the crime of terrorism, there are concerns that the wording of the law is general enough to permit its use against social movements, protest groups and even political opponents. Whether or not these concerns turn out to be justified, new legislation is arguably unnecessary. In a country where so many crimes go unpunished, it is debateable whether new legislation will achieve anything. As João Tancredo, a lawyer, and the president of the Institute for the Defence of Human Rights, argues, ‘Brazil is one of the few countries that already has a law for everything […] We don’t need to create any new laws, it would suffice merely to uphold the existing ones.’
If fares don’t go down, Rio will shut down! Photo: Wikimedia
Still, it may be the case that Brazilians have become tired of protest. All the demonstrations so far this year have been significantly smaller than those of 2013. At the last protest in São Paulo, the 1500 or so protestors were badly outnumbered by 2300 police. In contrast, the biggest protests in the city last year were attended by hundreds of thousands or even millions of people. Some commentators have suggested that people have been alienated by the inherent negativity of the anti-World Cup movement, tired of hearing the same ‘Não vai ter copa’ (‘No World Cup’) slogan chanted again and again. There has also been a constant stream of negative coverage across most of the press, which has tended to paint the protestors either as dangerous radicals, or as naïve middle-class kids out of touch with real bread-and-butter concerns. According to the pollster Datafolha, Just 52% of Brazilians now support the protests, down from 81% last year, and while 85% of Brazilians expect there to be protests of some kind during the World Cup, only 15% would currently consider taking part.
All of this can change rapidly though, as the events of last year showed, when a negative response to the initial protests by politicians and the media only succeeded in fuelling the movement. Moreover, as the World Cup gets closer, we can expect increasing scrutiny of both the tournament’s organization and of the legacy it will leave the country. Essentially, this is what the protestors have been demanding: a serious cost-benefit analysis of the event and its legacy, with explanations as to why lawmakers thought it best to spend so much money on a sporting mega event, rather than on essential public services and infrastructure. So far though, the only response of the state has been to ratchet up the repression. ‘Instead of sitting down to talk, they say they’re going to put the army on the streets, they say they’re going to mobilize the national security force, they’re going to increase the repression. All of this only exacerbates the crisis,’ said Benedito Roberto Barbosa, a member of the Popular World Cup Committee.
Interestingly, given the Brazilian passion for football, much may depend on the performance of the seleção at the tournament. Were Brazil to lift the trophy on July 13th, the celebrations might drown out any dissenting voices. An early exit, however, might only add to existing frustrations, resulting in further demonstrations. Whatever happens, come June, you can bet that the Brazilian political classes will be crossing their fingers and rooting hard for Felipão, Neymar and the rest.