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Brazil’s protests — where now?

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Former President Lula, who helped found the Workers’ Party (PT) and governed from 2003-2010, took his time to comment on the wave of protests that erupted in mid-June, bringing millions on to the streets.  But when he finally gave an interview, he warmly welcomed the protests: “Brazil is living an extraordinary moment in Former President Lulathe affirmation of its democracy. We are a very young democracy … It’s only to be expected that our society should be a walking metamorphosis, changing itself at every moment.”  Quoting the PT mayor of São Paulo, Fernando Haddad, elected last year, he said that “stepping from the street into your house, a lot has improved in our country, but stepping from your house to the street, nothing has been done.” In other words, household incomes have risen and families can afford more consumer goods but public services, be it transport, health or education, are abysmal. The protests, says Lula, are a wake-up call for the government to do something about this.

It’s a reassuring way of looking at the protests. There’s nothing to worry about, normal growing pains for a young country, and we’ll sort it out. In the early days of the PT government Lula’s alchemy – skilfully drawing on his popular legitimacy as a workers’ leader – might have worked to pacify the protesters. But today Lula’s words sound complacent. The fact that the protests erupted outside both the party political system and the labour movement is an indication that the old ways are not working.  It is partly that Lula’s successor, Dilma Rousseff, is a technocratic manager, who excels in the negotiations with agri-business, banks and foreign governments that are needed as Brazil accelerates its attempt to become a global power as a resource-exporting economy, but is notoriously reluctant to talk to social movements.

But it isn’t just this. A more fundamental reason for the protests is what has happened to the party that Lula helped found. For many in the older generation it’s hard to break from a party that represented a dream of a democratic and egalitarian Brazil and has brought about real change. Today the poorest household receive a greater share of national income than ever before, yet these advances have not given people a greater political voice. But what about the PT’s much talked-of participatory democracy? Indeed, the government under Lula created a large number of participatory spaces, setting up numerous national councils on a variety of issues, particularly health. Yet social movement activists have repeatedly complained that conference resolutions that went directly against government policy or powerful economic interests have not been adopted as policy.

Evelina Dagnino, a lecturer in political science at Unicamp and a founder member of the PT but no longer paying her membership fees, says that people have Evelina Dagninoturned elsewhere:  “There is now a sense of the power of participation outside the official structures. Influenced by the model of the Arab spring and the indignados, people have seen that things only get done when people make their voices heard. Before the demos, we’ve seen this in affirmative action, gay marriage and also legislation against domestic violence, where change has not come through the institutional spaces of participation.”

It is going to be difficult for the PT to recover the lost ground. The young have little memory of the PT as a party rooted in social movements; they associate it with the systemic corruption of the Brazilian political system. As a minority party, the PT, which once prided itself on its ethical approach, rolled up its sleeves and dug in, forming alliances with noxious right-wing parties, even appointing a homophobic evangelist to head the human rights commission. Yet the PT was always viewed with suspicion by the old political elite, which was overjoyed when the PT government was almost brought down by a vote-buying corruption scandal, known as the mensalão.

João Pedro Stédile, a leader of Brazil’s Landless Movement (MST), believes that anger with this system helps explain the scale of the demos. “Today to run for any political office, you need money, big money – over a million reais (£300,000) to become a vereador (city councilor), about ten million reais (£3 million) to become a deputy”, he said. “The capitalists pay and then the elected politicians obey. Young people are fed up to the back teeth with this mercantile, bourgeois way of doing politics.” For many, the blatant misuse of public funds for the World Cup was the last straw. “The Globo network [a huge privately-owned TV company] received 20 million reais (£6 million) from state and municipal governments in Rio de Janeiro to organise a little two-hour show around the draw for the Confederation Cup”, he said. “The opening of the Maracanã stadium in Rio was an insult to the Brazilian people. The photos said it all – the world’s most important football icon and there wasn’t a black or brown face in sight!”

Can the present protests bring about change? Perhaps, because members of Joao Pedro StedileCongress are panicking about losing their seats in next year’s general election. Evelina Dagnino: “The fact is that, after a week of the protests, Congress spent all day and all night defeating legislation that it had blocked in the past – legislation that enabled the minister of public justice to investigate public corruption and oil revenues to be chanelled to education. Both these demands were on banners on the streets. Some mayors and governors are also responding in a public, positive way.” So where does it all go now? Much will depend on alliances that can built up between different movements – and on Dilma’s leadership. Here signs here are not good, for many believe that her initial proposal – to hold a national plebiscite on political reform – will not deliver change quickly enough.

There are clearly risks. The right has infiltrated many of the demos and is working hard, with the support of some TV networks, to create a right-wing backlash. There is unanimity on the left, even among those critical of the PT, that this must not be allowed to happen. Alfredo Saad Filho, a professor of political economy at SOAS in the University of London, warns: “If the current government lost support and coherence and became paralysed, this would not lead to a socialist revolution, because there is no social, material, organisational or ideological basis for that. It would just lead to a right-wing victory in the presidential elections next year, and to Professor Alfredo Saad Filhothe terminal demoralisation and disorganisation of the Brazilian left for another generation.” 

Tarso Genro, a leading member of the PT and now governor of the state of Rio Grande do Sul, believes that the authorities must be radical: “It [the political class] has no chance of regaining the full legitimacy needed to make democracy work without implementing new forms of participation in public decisions … The objective must be to channel, in a direct way, the present political energy to carry out political reform.” Many stress the importance of structural change. A daily participant in the demonstrations and an activist in numerous movements comments: “It [a change in the model] is under debate, but in terms of being challenged it is too soon to say. Most people don’t have a clear picture about what needs to be done. The risk is that ‘anti-corruption’ feelings take over and the debate over changes in the model gets drowned out.”

Could the fact that Brazil’s landless movement, the MST, is now on the streets bring the question of the economic model more directly into question?’ Geraldo Campos, a lecturer in international relations, believes so:  “They have enough history, capacity of mobilisation, strategic organisation and national scope to do it but it is too early to say.” One clear priority is to unite struggles. The people in the periferia, the poor outlying areas of cities, who have long been organised, have already joined the students’ protests. And now those who have battling for years in outlying regions to change Brazil’s development model – for instance, those campaigning to stop the huge Belo Monte dam on the Xingu river in the Amazon —  need to be brought in. But, says Geraldo Campos, “the way these movements will be able to work together to present a more coherent alternative programme is far from clear.”

For many, the election back in 2002 of Lula, a worker, meant that the people were in power. Now people, at least in the cities, are gaining a sense of their own power. The big demonstrations on 11 July, bringing together for the first time trades unions, the MST and the early protestors, are a hopeful sign that it may be possible to forge a national front. It’s clearly a new and exciting phase in Brazil’s history but it is too soon to know where it will end.