The protest began ten days ago, when the Free Pass Movement mobilized against increases in bus fares in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Natal (a northeastern coastal city), and Goiânia (in the country’s interior, near Brasília). The demonstrations began mostly peacefully, with not much more than some burning tires and impromptu roadblocks, but they took a violent turn after the São Paulo police overreacted and sprayed tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowds. Over the next few days, the movement expanded to more cities and became more confrontational.
Now all of Brazil is in revolt, with the country seeing its largest demonstrations in 20 years. In fact, Brazil was no stranger to protest before 2013, either. For the past three decades, the country has experienced regular cycles of street activity. Three decades ago, a million people demanded direct elections. Two decades ago, well over a million successfully marched to demand the impeachment of President Fernando Collor de Mello for corruption. And one decade ago, protests approximately the size of the ones today spread across Brazil’s cities in response to the country’s participation in negotiations meant to create the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas. In between, there were many smaller protests, strikes, and land occupations. What most of these past demonstrations had in common was that they were coordinated by the PT, which is the party now in power but today protest is about the people.
Since Brazil became democratic in 1985, its governments tended to respond with at least some concessions to specific demands. Last week The Free Pass Movement agreed to meet with both city and state officials, and all sides promised more restraint. To be sure, the government might have been wise to give in on bus fares earlier this month to head off what followed. But if that might have worked a few weeks ago, it certainly will not suffice today.
The demonstrations have only grown in size over the last couple of days, and demands have multiplied. The Free Pass Movement, for its part, has disavowed its leadership of the protests, insisting that it just wanted to call attention to high bus fares. No longer just about transportation costs, the protests now target endemic corruption, the poor quality of education and health services, excessive spending on sporting events such as the current Confederations Cup and the upcoming World Cup and Olympics, urban violence, violence against women, the removal of local politicians, police brutality, and much more.
Seeking to put the protests into context, many commentators, and many of the young protesters, have claimed that such an uprising is uncommon in Brazil. But this year, unrest has been the rule rather than the exception. When the government announced plans to privatize Brazilian ports in February, weeks of strikes and protests gained some concessions for unions, but privatization is proceeding.
Indigenous groups have been mobilized for weeks against proposed legislation that would change land demarcation. One indigenous man was killed in confrontations with security forces at the end of May. Another government proposal to reduce the investigative power of Brazil’s Public Ministry, a very active body of public prosecutors who defend collective rights, has led to a petition drive with nearly 400,000 signatures to stop it. The construction of the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam in the Amazon -- which, if completed, would be the world’s third largest hydroelectric plant -- has been stopped regularly by labor unrest, indigenous opposition, and the Public Ministry. In São Paulo, university students have been sparring with the police for several years now.
The cacophony of voices is as problematic for the protesters as for the politicians. Political crisis, corruption and economical reforms cannot be achieved over night. Protesters would have, in some point, trust the government willingness to address these issues now. Politicians also must bear in mind that people of Brazil, seeing what it is going on around the world ( Arab Spring, Occupy the world movement, Gezi park protest in Turkey, Occupy Wall Street movement) will not be intimidated by more police brutality.
It would be pretentious for politicians to even think that they do understand what is going on. These are new forms of mobilization that politicians, of the generation of the 1970s, the 1980s, the 1990s, have not known. Unless they can find a common cause and articulate it together, the energy of the protests will be hard to maintain and no government response will be adequate.
By Guylain Gustave Moke
World Affairs Analyst