Great Expectations in Brazil

by Charmain Levy

June 24, 2013

The recent series of massive protests across Brazil have taken everyone – even the instigating group, the Movimento do Passe Livre (MPL) – by surprise. Some international lefties and political analysts have repeated what mainstream Brazilian journalist have claimed to be the most important protests since the end of the military dictatorship in 1985. This is false. Massive protests of the “caras pintadas” took place in 1992 demanding the impeachment of then President and now senator Fernando Collor; different types of social movement protests took place in 1997 when the MST [Landless Workers’ Movement] mobilised over a 100 000 people to march on Brasilia; when the occupation of abandoned buildings in the centre of Sao Paulo and other capital cities took place in 1998-9; when in July 2003 urban and rural social movements occupied land and buildings asking for land reform. Every week there are protests in Brasilia and other state capitals regrouping hundreds of people from different horizons. One cannot deny the vibrancy of 21st century Brazilian civil society.

However, what took place in the last couple of weeks is significant because of the scale of protest and also considering who organised it and who came out into the streets. What started out as a “traditional” demonstration organised by the MPL, a small organisation composed of young students and recently graduated middle class “B” professionals gathered attention and sympathy from the general population after the traditional media tried to portray them as vandals and aggressive riff raff while in fact they were being violently repressed by state police forces.

Brazilians object to how their government is spending public funds.

This police brutality struck an important chord with the general population, especially middle class youth who are not the usual victims of policy violence and expect the rule of law to apply to everyone. They learned the hard way that in Brazil rule of law depends on who you are (your race, class, ethnic background), where you are and what you are doing. The forces of order are not there to serve and protect the general public, but to obey government orders even against the public. The treatment usually reserved for the lower classes that protesters received in the streets mortified the general population. The images of police brutality that even the mainstream media could not ignore sent hundred of thousands into the street to claim their right to protest. At this point, the protests were no longer about a simple 10 cent hike in public transportation but about a state and its governments at all levels that are not accountable to its population.

Luck would have it that these protests took place at the same moment of massive Turkish demonstrations, the Sao Paulo bid for the World Expo and during the FIFA confederation cup taking place in several Brazilian capital cities. In this context, the disgruntled claims of the general population counters the image that the Brazilian political elite has cultivated over the years of a emerging power (the “B” in BRICS), a model democracy that includes the home of the World Social Forum, participatory budgeting and countless public policies to reduce poverty to one third of what it was a few years ago. This throws the spotlight on the contradiction between the Brazil as a model for both the left and the right of economic success, progress, poverty reduction and democracy and the not so easy reality that most Brazilian live through on a daily basis. Have things been worse in the past? Sure. But now more is expected of the state and it governments and ordinary citizens are fed up with the hypocrisy of the image the Brazilian government projects on the international scene and in the national media. There is also a certain element of class struggle in that the “old middle class” feels intimidated and uncomfortable sharing airplanes and movie theatres with their maids and plumbers as well as being governed by ex-unionists.

An important reason that the MPL protests resonated with the general population from youth to the middle aged from “A” to “C” class, from big cities to small towns is the issue of expectations of a new what some call a “middle” class that is more educated and now expects a state that redistributes wealth for the good of the greater population and not just a minority. Everyone is someway feels like an outsider. Certain media “studies”shows that most of the protesters are not affiliated nor have any sympathies with political parties and have never participated in demonstrations. Most would not bother voting if i twas not mandatory. In times of economic growth and prosperity, citizens expect more in terms of public goods and services such as security, health, transportation, education and urbanisation. They simply feel that as citizens, who pay their taxes and work hard, they deserve better and the state has the capacity to provide them with that. What is missing – and the protests have demonstrated this – is
political will.

The protesters also wanted to send a message out to the political elite now made up of the PT [Workers’ Party], a social democratic party in power for the last ten years and older traditional elites. Although the PT began as the party of social movements, in the past 25 years it has taken after European social democrats, socialist in name, but heterogeneous in composition and supportive of both social programmes and neoliberal macro-economics. The PT still has the support of what is becoming more and more “old” social movements which have their own particular orbits and publics, gather less sympathy and recognition from the general public and are still very supportive of the PT as a party and of its governments although they often contest its neoliberal policies and old school politics.

A demonstration outside the Metropolitan Cathedral.

What is interesting about these protests is that these “old” social movements and their PT leftist allies within the party were completely out of the loop even though for years these movements have been claiming more and better public goods and services and contesting the displacement of the poor and questionable allocation of resources for major sporting events in the name of the nation. Since Lula took power,they continue to demonstrate and negotiate with government on a routinized calendar of protests that make the government aware of their demands but don’t rock the boat enough to destabilise their allies in power. The question they should be asking themselves is why do they no longer manage to reach and mobilise the general public as the MPL has these past weeks? Indeed, at first no one completely understood what was going on. Once things heated up traditional social movements did come out into the streets with their own demands, but they continue to support the PT and defend it against calls from the upper middle class and traditional political elite to impeach President Dilma and weaken other PT governments, such as the Haddad administration in Sao Paulo.

How to explain these protests? On a structural level, Brazil’s heritage of a skewed wealth distribution coupled with 25 years of neoliberal economics that the PT has accepted while implementing government sponsored revenue transfers are not redistributing wealth or creating a providence state type well being among the general population. As it stands,the past few years of economic growth have translated into much more for the wealthy, a little for the middle classes and crumbs for the poor. Lula himself understood that the state can give disproportionately to all classes within the same economic and political system without major changes. It demonstrates that even at high levels of economic growth, bigger salaries and more jobs, government intervention is need to redistribute wealth through government sponsored social programs aimed at the 80% less wealthy. In terms of the political system that was decentralised in the late 1980s, municipalities and states are responsible for more social services including health, transportation and education. Even so, the federal government often intervenes and disputes policies with other levels of government in order to maintain its political hegemony in a political culture that still revolves around governing elite pacts and private use (both individual and partisan) of public funds where publicly condoned acts remain unpunished. In the case of the issue of public transportation, responsibility is shared between the municipal and state governments. They belong to opposing parties – respectively the PT and the PSDB [Brazilian Social Democratic Party] – which are vying for the presidency in the 2014 elections.

The reaction to the protests is almost as interesting as the protests themselves. The political right and right wing pockets of classes “A” and “B” have tried capitalize off of the protest against the PT, portraying them as corrupt and not governing in the interest of the population. The extreme left sees the protests as the fire that will ignite a revolutionary spirit and their potential to mobilise the population for future rebellion against the political and economic systems. Segments of the PT are trying to make contact with the protest organisers to draft them into their circles in order to get back to business as usual. Fernando Haddad, the mayor of Sao Paulo, has given into cancelling the hike in transportation, although questioning the legitimacy of the protests, reasoning that his election by citizens through formal elections is binding consultation that counts for more than spontaneous acts of collective disgruntledness.

Protestors march through the streets of Sao Paolo.

What is taking place this week are street battles for the hearts and minds of the protesters by different political formations. This has led to much violence among protesters to the point that the MPL has desisted from demonstration in repudiation of the anti-party acts of groups of protesters with whom they do not want to be associated. Only time will tell if it will develop into a “real” social movement or if it represents a new type of social movement.

The PT governments also seem open to understanding the claims of the protesters and conceding small concession to get them back to their homes and jobs. Without major upheaval, it does not seem that there will be a change of course of any government, just a few concessions to targeted groups that will allow for at least a short term social peace. One thing is sure, governments are beginning to understand that just bread and circus won’t cut it anymore. The question is how many concessions they will have to make.

Another outcome could be more class polarisation, especially if governments opt for police force or if there are multiple tragic deaths from confrontations between protesters and police. As for any long term social impact, the protests indicate that it only takes a spark to light the fire of indignation for better government policies and politics in the interest of the majority of citizens.

Charmain Levy is professor of social sciences at the Université du Québec en Outaouais. She has been following social movements in Brazil since 1994, especially the urban housing movement in Sao Paulo, the MST and the women’s movement. She holds a Ph.D. in anthropology and sociology of politics from the Université du Paris VIII. Her most recent article appeared in Globalizations (2012).