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Brazil: transport is not a commodity


A gallery of photos of the demonstrations, taken by the independent journalist Raphael Sanz, can be seen here.

Photos for this article by Ricardo Mezzacapa Kurt

Recent weeks have seen the resurgence in São Paulo of a series of mass protests against hikes in public transport fares.  The increase in tube, metropolitan train and bus tickets from 3.50 to 3.80 reais was announced by state and municipal governments in December 2015.

Movimento Passe Livre (MPL) is the free fare movement which led the 2013 protests which brought hundreds of thousands to the streets and forced authorities to rescind the 20 cents fare increase imposed then (from 3.00 to 3.20 reais). Now MPL has taken to the streets again demanding the fares stay as they are.

Demonstrator injured during kettling at Rua Sergipe. Photo José Eduardo Bernardes.

With support from other social movements MPL in São Paulo has been organising protests every week in different parts of the city since the increase came into force on January 9.  The police have used excessive force to curb protests and dozens of people have been injured – including one man who had an exposed fracture and a pregnant woman who almost lost her baby.

Success of the 2013 protests

The protests organised by MPL in June 2013 attained massive proportions, spread nationwide and were violently repressed by police.  Evidence of police excesses which left hundreds of people injured appeared all over social, and eventually mainstream media.  But instead of deterring people from joining in, police violence increased support for the movement and brought more people to the streets, eventually forcing governments in most cities to back down and cancel the fare increases. 

With this first victory, people felt stronger and started making other demands beyond the fares issue.  The protests continued throughout the Confederations Cup in August 2013 and became directed at the amount of government money being invested in the World Cup when there was no budget for other basic public services such as health and education. Denunciations of corruption gained force and elements hostile to the PT, the party of government, came to dominate the movement.

Once the protests became more political and violent, targeting mainly the PT government and ostracising people from left wing parties, the MPL left the streets as the movement insisted that it was non-partisan, not connected to any political party and that their goal had been achieved.

The protests eventually subsided. They had begun to lose strength after they were joined by ‘black-bloc’ anarchist groups who carried out violent attacks on banks, shops and public buildings leaving a trail of destruction. Eventually wider support for the movement was lost.

The 2015 fare hike

Twelve months ago, in January 2015, São Paulo authorities ramped up transport fares, this time from 3.00 to 3.50 reais.  Before announcing the increase, municipal and state governments announced free transport for low income students hoping to defuse the outrage.  But MPL wanted the fare increase cancelled for everyone and took to the streets again. Peaceful protests turned violent with police using a panoply of non-lethal weapons such as stun grenades, tear gas and rubber bullets.  They also started using kettling, with large cordons of police officers containing the crowd within a limited area and preventing anyone from leaving. This tactic was ruled unlawful by the European Courts of Human Rights in 2012 in part because it results in the detention of ordinary bystanders as well as protesters. In São Paulo police have taken it a step further and fired bombs and tear gas into a crowd who could not escape.

Due to internal divergences within the MPL movement at the time, the protests lost strength as state violence escalated and the authorities persisted in implementing the hike.

Fair fares and decent transport

The main demand of MPL is free and fair transport for all.  Brazilians already pay enough taxes to the government, which gives massive subsidises to the automobile and oil companies. Why not subsidise transport for its citizens? 

The price of public transport in Brazil is too high.  If it were subsidised to the same level as fares in Peking, Paris or Buenos Aires, for instance, the São Paulo would be only 1.27 reais.

According to Lucio Gregori, former Secretary of Transports for São Paulo in the early 90s and one of the thinkers behind the Free Fare Project, bus companies operating in the city have profit margins that range from 26 to 34%.  If profits were cut to 12%, the municipal government would save R$ 6.9 billion, enough to subsidise bus transport for 4 years.  THE MPL says the government is more interested in protecting at any cost the profits of the private companies which run bus and underground services.

The authorities claim the current 8.57% fare increase is below the rate of inflation which in 2015 stood at 10.49%. But the 50 cent increase imposed only one year ago was well above inflation and in addition incorporated the 20 cent rise withdrawn in 2013.

The fourth mass demonstration organised by Passe Livre, January 19.

If the high fares paid by São Paulo citizens paid for good quality and efficient transport services, people might be happier to accept them.  But the huge profits made by the transport companies are not invested back into the system. 

For working class people who live in the suburbs, where there is no underground network, the journey to work can take up to three hours. Travelcards (Bilhete Unico) allow passengers to make up to four journeys in 3 hours, but most workers still have to pay at least two fares per day. The machines that dispense the cards are often out of order, so that people cannot obtain them.

Trains and metros, which are run by the state government, are terribly overcrowded, have frequent breakdowns and other technical problems. And when that happens the companies rarely provide adequate information to passengers and offer no alternative services.

The politics of transport

Alckmin and the PSDB have been ruling São Paulo state for more than 20 years.  During every election campaign they promise extensions to the underground and metropolitan networks and the opening of new stations, but once they get elected they break their promises.  They have constructed less than 2km of railway tracks per year.

Last year Alckmin announced the postponement or cancellation of most of the metro line extensions and stations he promised during his election campaign in 2014.  Others that were promised for the World Cup, including lines to connect the airports to the city network, never materialised.

In 2013 German company Siemens accused the PSDB governors in São Paulo of forming a cartel that defrauded the state of hundreds of millions of reais, crippling the metro and train system.  But investigations into the matter are constantly put on the back burner by a partisan state judiciary. 

Mayor Fernando Haddad of the PT, who came into power in 2013, introduced a series of measures to improve mobility in the city, including 320km of exclusive bus lanes which increased average bus speed by up to 45%.  The measure was vociferously opposed by car users because their exclusion from some lanes increased their journey times.  But for working class people who would take up to three hours to get to work it was very welcome and the mayor’s popularity grew.

But now, with Haddad standing by the elitist and authoritarian state governor Alckmin, and not taking a firm stand to condemn the police repression ordered by state security forces, he shoots himself in the foot.

Haddad stands for re-election in October and this dispute is already damaging his popularity and unleashing a backlash against him. 

Brazil’s political situation is considerably more fraught than two years ago, with a serious downturn in the economy, a much weakened PT government beset by the massive ‘Lava Jato’ bribery scandal, and constantly repeated opposition threats to impeach president Dilma Rousseff. The Passe Livre protests have confined themselves so far to fares and police brutality and declined to embrace a wider set of issues. Opposition banners have been largely absent from the protests, and even São Paulo’s 2015 near-disastrous water shortages have been scarcely mentioned.

The state government claims Brazil is undergoing a serious financial crisis and cannot afford to subsidise free transport, or invest in health or education, but it is spending millions on weapons and equipment to use against peaceful protesters. Alckmin has spent at least 77 million reais in security equipment to fight protests since June 2013.  The money was used to buy tear gas bombs, stun grenades, rubber bullets, special uniforms for the riot police and recently it acquired six top of the range armoured vehicles from Israel, at a cost of 5 million reais each.

The right to protest

Since 2013 human-rights groups have condemned the State for failing to respect people’s freedom to protest, excessive use of force, use of tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets, as well as carrying out arbitrary detentions, random searches, kettling of protesters, closing off streets and transport terminals. They have also launched several lawsuits against the São Paulo state government calling for a halt to the abuses committed by military police during demonstrations.  According to federal Constitution the right and freedom to protest is protected by law.

Recently it was revealed that no-one has been tried or punished for the violence and vandalism of previous protests.  The alleged vandals, black-blocs ‘terrorists’ who supposedly attacked the police and destroyed private property, walked free.  Prosecutors claimed there was no evidence to claim these were connected to the MPL or black-bloc groups.

Equal impunity was extended to the police, who had injured dozens of people including journalists and photographers, one of whom has lost the sight in his left eye, when shot in the face at close range. Journalists were also violently beaten by police during several of the protests. 

Back to the streets

The January 2016 protests are taking place mainly in São Paulo city, but also on a smaller scale in other cities across the state and elsewhere.  MPL has been calling for two large marches per week, meeting each time at a different central station or bus terminal.

The protests always start peacefully but are heavily guarded from the outset by a huge contingent of heavily armed military police from various special units.  At some point things turn ugly – according to the police, when they are attacked by one or more masked protesters lobbing stones or a home-made bomb at them. The protesters claim that the attackers are undercover policemen.  The police respond with a fusillade of indiscriminate firing into the crowd.

A number of other videos of the protests can be seen here.

In some recent protests the police have been caught red-handed trying to plant artefacts in rucksacks belonging to participants who have already been detained.

MPL wants the governments to cancel the increase and make progress in talks that could one day provide a system of free transport for all. Authorities have invited the MPL to present its demands at meetings in state buildings behind closed doors but they have refused because they claim they cannot decide anything on behalf of people who are not present. They have instead invited authorities to an open discussion outside City Hall on January 28

The authorities have also demanded that MPL announce the route of planned protests in advance, “In an absurd interpretation of the Constitution, the state (Public Security Department) has decided it has the right to determine the route to be followed by the protesters called by a social movement”, MPL declared in a public note last January 25.

MPL says they have a horizontal movement that liaises with other groups and cannot arbitrarily determine the route to be taken. It is something decided at the time of the demonstration, by consensus. On the one occasion when MPL did announce the route of the march prior to the event, the police prepared ambushes at the ending point.

MPL is a social movement based on the principles of autonomy, independence, non-partisanship, horizontality, anti-capitalism, federalism and their decisions are made (as well as any principle could be modified) by consensus. On their list of strategic perspectives, they state “The MPL has no end in itself, it should be a means for the construction of another society. Similarly, the struggle for Free Fares is not an end in itself. It is the initial tool for debate on the transformation of the current urban transportation system, by rejecting the concept of business in transport and by supporting the struggle for free and quality public transport, as a right to the whole of society; it campaigns for a public transport system removed from the private sector and under public control (by workers and users).”

The latest demonstration called by the MPL was held on 28 January opposite São Paulo Town Hall. This, the seventh large demonstration in the City, was called a ‘protest meeting’, as the movement invited the mayor and the state governor to come down from their offices and engage in dialogue. Neither politician showed up, and they sent no representatives. There was a huge police presence, but the demonstration finished peacefully. MPL members declared that it is now time to build up their strength and engage further with Brazil’s oppressed communities. The next large protest is booked for February 25, but in the meanwhile, smaller mobilizations will continue.

For the present, it seems unlikely that the state and city governments will back down.

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