In the past week, there have been a series of uprisings across Brazil, with swarms of people, young and old, of all classes, protesting across the country for a better welfare system. This surge of rallies- some peaceful, others hijacked by violence- has dominated and disarmed the Brazilian government, leaving in its trail a bitterly entangled web of conflict.
The uprisings first exploded on 6th June in Paulista Avenue, São Paulo, as an angry reaction to government-imposed hikes in public transport fares which saw the price of buses rise from R$3 to R$3.20. Yet to think of this as the beginning is to fail to understand the underlying discontent that has been brewing within society against a government unable to meet the growing expectations of its people.
As one of Latin America’s largest and most powerful economies, Brazil is on an ascending economic trajectory, growing in stature not only in the continent but on the international stage. But while many demonstrators have benefited from a recent economic boom, in particular the middle and upper working classes, there is dismay at the high levels of taxes, often equalling those in Europe, that do not match the tired, chronically underinvested public services. The rise in transport fares then tapped into a public resentment with the way their government has handled -or perhaps mishandled- the socio-economic structure of a country still struggling with inequality and poverty.
As the first wave of protests continued to gain momentum, the rallies have since spiralled into a large-scale, mass repudiation of government services and political corruption, engaging all levels of society. Ricardo Romero, professor of Political Science at UBA, explains that the “origins of the protests have to do with the rise in transport tariffs. However, the massive public reaction that this triggered reveals the depth of structural problems within Brazil and its society.”
“The key problem is that Brazil has experienced a big demographic growth in the last few years. In 1960 the population was approximately 60 million, then 180 million in 2000, and by the end of 2010, it has grown to over 200 million.” With such an overwhelming and rapid remodelling of the demographic, there is an enormous burden on public services, in particular health care and transportation. The weaknesses in these vital sectors, and the government’s failure to adapt a financial budget to alleviate this pressure, triggered the anger of Brazil’s concentrated urban voice.
Lack of Leadership
Whilst there may be a common enemy in the shape of government, people’s boiling anger stretches across different strains of society, each with different agendas. For the government, this period is a trying one, as they struggle to understand a mass movement that has engaged so many, yet remains so fragmented.
Social media has played an integral function in how the rallies have developed their amorphous, sometimes anonymous shape. Of the 53.5 million Brazilians online -almost a third of the population- up to 86% use micro blogs or social media tools, according to polling firm Ibope. Yet whilst it was online media that brought people together, it now signals its own division. Radio, TV, and Twitter groups who incited and drove the rallies have recently resounded with condemnations of the increased violence in last week’s protests, desperately trying to disassociate and distance themselves from its current form.
The new social media technologies which constructed the means for organisation did so without centralisation and without taking on the responsibility of leadership. Squeezing together dissimilar groupings, with no particular political affinity, it may have got the government’s attention, but there is a limit on how far it can go. The high-pressure vacuum of the opposition, which was at the very heart of the protests, now begins to unravel, with scattered groups each scrambling for their own cause to be heard.
Brazil has a history of successful mass movements but the current protests seem to be trailing off more abruptly than their predecessors. After the successful movements for re-democratisation in the 1970s and 1980s, there were the ‘Caras Pintadas‘ of the early 1990s, where young people with painted faces took to the streets for the impeachment of President Fernando Collor de Mello. However, the current movement has not inherited the same clear, united objectives that have worked so effectively in the past.
A Government Response
On Tuesday 18th June in a televised speech, President Dilma Rousseff addressed the nation and the protesters, the morning after over 200,000 Brazilians had marched across various cities, declaring that “Brazil has woken up stronger today” with the on-going protests reflecting “the strength of the voice of the streets”.
By Monday 24th June, Rousseff had put forward a national plan to focus on five key areas, which include greater fiscal responsibility and control over the rising inflation; greater transparency and political reform through the formation of a constituent assembly that will tackle issues of political participation and a toughening of the laws against corruption; and an increase of up to R$50 billion on spending in public transportation as well as a reallocation of the budget to target significant problems in health care and education.
Whilst these promises come against a lagging economy, rising inflation, and a large public deficit, Rousseff plans to invest the money from Brazil’s oil rich industries into public services. Romero suggests that this initiative could well be “the means for the government to reform the political system” and thus meet the growing expectations of one of its largest mobilised opposition in 21 years.
There will also be a national plebiscite in which Rousseff has put forward topics including how campaigns are publically financed, a shift from proportional representation to district voting for Congress, and a reform against the re-election of the president, state governors, and mayors. However these points are still to be ratified by Congress.
A Temporary Truce?
The protests have won a small victory as the government has responded to their immediate demands, cancelling the rise in transport fares as well as engaging in political reform. The first step has been the overturning of the contentious PEC 37, a proposal which would have granted immunity to high officials and strengthened the power of the police.
While it may be easy to point out the failings in public services, these are weaknesses that have been around for very long. So the question on everyone’s lips is: why have people only just began protesting? Perhaps the protests reflect not just a failure of the government, and of the public services, but something deeper and more structural. Over the past ten years the psychology of the people has changed alongside the country’s cycle of economic enrichment, creating a profound shift in public expectations regariding its politicians.
There is now a perplexing silence that has settled in Brazil that seems to have quelled the majority of the rallies. However, small factions still gathered outside football stadiums after Brazil’s Confederation Cup victory, truckers continue to blockade artery roads in protest of interstate highway tolls and fuel prices, and labour unions have called for a national strike on 11th July.
With the football World Cup and the Olympic Games just around the corner, the eyes of the world are set on Brazil -and on whether the government will manage to uphold this uneasy truce.
Click here to find out what Argentines think about the protests in Brazil.