Last Sunday, images of the Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro showing 3.7 million people gathered for Pope Francis’ mass service were broadcast and may have created the impression that peace and tranquility had returned to Brazil. Over June and July, the world was caught off-guard by the recurrence and intensity of protests in the streets of more than 100 Brazilian cities, including all its capital cities, in a way and size unseen since the early 1990s. What started as a student movement against public transit fare hikes evolved into a mass of generalised demonstrations. The protestors’ demands range from improvement to a variety of public services to general discontentment with politics. Authorities and media initially branded the protestors “thugs and vandals”. Protesters were violently repressed by the unprepared and underpaid police force – only to be joined by entire families, workers and senior citizens in peaceful marches in the following weeks.
It surprises external observers that a country which recently hit the jackpot would be the stage of so much frustration. While being called to occupy new positions in the world arena, Brazil, from the federal level down to the city administration, seems unable to respond to its own people’s demands – which are more complicated than a couple of cents’ increase on bus fare and have been lingering for too long in the lives of ordinary Brazilians. Each person joined the demonstrations with a complaint: ultimately, what people want is to be heard and to receive worthy, fair treatment from their government.
Relying on the state to provide free education, even at its basic level, has led to a horde of functionally illiterate adults. Although a public health care system exists, its outdated resources are overcrowded in urban areas and sparse or non-existent in the country’s interior. Overall tax collections equals 36.3% of GDP and the burden is directly transferred to the consumer: at least 30% of the final price of most productsconsists of taxes. In addition, the sense of generalised corruption among the society transcends political affiliations and social classes. Money is mismanaged or funds will be lost somewhere between the taxpayers’ pocket and the public services’ bank accounts. Given high levels of public debt and the persistence of significant infrastructure deficits, the use of nearly $3 billion U.S. to build and refurbish stadiums for the 2014 World Cup is perceived as an unaffordable extravagance. Luxury spending effectively displaces badly needed investments in public transit, resulting in unbearable fare increases. It also prevents the solution of other pressing problems, such as: the everyday police violence (freely seen in the favelas, disguised in downtown areas) that does not prevent crime and the open consumption of drugs by the increasing homeless population in urban centres. The general climate of corruption and the lack of government accountability also contribute to the sense of disenchantment with politics. Citizens believe that the political decisions being taken and latest bills being drafted do not represent their will. Lastly, demands for review of some labour rights recently emerged in the minutes of the protesters, in a smaller scale and a bit more organised than the mass. All that was needed for the time bomb to go off was a tiny spark.
The movement’s magnitude makes it difficult both to comprehend and to define it, let alone negotiate with it. Perhaps this is the reason why a national broadcast from the president Dilma Rousseff took so long to be arranged. Since then, palliative solutions have been announced – though the streets are a bit quieter than during the Confederations’ Cup matches, people are still not satisfied and gatherings are happening almost daily, still with violent police repression. Nonetheless, it is important to highlight that the demonstrations started in late May and, coincidently, the biggest riots took place while all eyes were on Brazil because of that tournament – the result was free publicity and more impartial coverage by sports channels when compared to the national, traditional newsrooms. Intelligence services were ready to act on any incident that could disrupt protocol or threaten the Pope’s life during his 6-day visit. However, as the demonstrators pointed out, the clashes outside the Rio de Janeiro Governor’s Palace or in front of his house were not against the Pope, but directed at politicians. Again, publicity was on the demonstrators’ side.
For most protesters, this is the first time they have shown true interest in politics. Such a diverse group of people came together with the help of new technologies: social media spread the word for meeting points, helped protesters to exchange information on safety and was the stage for organising support demonstrations of expatriated Brazilians across Europe, North and South America and Australia. Hackers promoted denial of service attacks to governmental websites; Facebook, Twitter and YouTube users became live broadcasters of what was happening on the ground. This is mostly a literate people’s movement and it includes the growing middle class that is aware of the improvements in Brazilian standards of living over nearly two decades, but is increasingly demanding better quality goods and services as well as better value for money. The protesters, whether young or senior, are a product of the economic reforms that began in 1994. They have been also affected by the main social reforms implemented over the past 12 years during the Workers’ Party (PT) mandates. They can own electronic devices and even a motorbike or a car; most of them have access to education up to the university or technical level. Having a decent living became a right and people will make all necessary efforts to avoid falling back into poverty again.
When the economy sneezes, people become worried. With the ongoing European recession and the slowdown of Chinese investments, Brazilian’s economy is going through a tough and long cold; thus, cost of living and businesses’ well-known Brazil Cost (Custo Brazil[iv]) have risen. Inflation knocks again and some young families have no idea how it is to live under its rules – although they already feel its impact on their financial situation. The PT government expanded several pre-existing policies that have had both positive and negative impacts on Brazilian families, including: unregulated expansion of domestic credit availability to boost manufacturing industries, increase consumption (sometimes leading to interest rates of as much as 989% yearly) and avoid recession; and indefinite extensions of cash transfer programs that compete with needed infrastructure projects for scarce public resources. These policies prevented the development of a savings culture in a nation that for too long was used to spending all its income in one afternoon, before products were retagged. The lack of adequate responses to the market by the Finance Ministry plus a general discontentment with increasing food and housing expenses should also be mentioned: growth in 2013 is estimated at less than 3%, in contrast to an expected rise of 5.8% in consumer prices.
There is not yet a uniform way to call all these outcries. ‘The Salad Uprising’ or ‘The Vinegar Revolution’ were names given by Internet users after the arrests of some protesters under charges of possessing vinegar (which soothes the effect of tear gas). Interestingly enough, the former fits perfectly to describe the main actors of this political erosion, which come from different levels of Brazilian society and have a variety of distinct claims. In common, they all share the feeling of being neglected by the state. Certainly, a slackening economy perfectly fits as dressing for this already tossed salad.
The authorities’ answers have been relatively fast: a draft bill against corruption was voted by the Senate in 4 hours, after a 2-year appreciation wait. Most cities revoked transit fares increases, while others are in the process of conceiving free transportation passes for students. Nonetheless, Ms. Rousseff has experienced a sharp drop in her personal performance approval rating, which shrank to 49.3% from a 73.7% rate registered in June. The major test is yet to come: 2014 is a federal and state elections’ year. The demonstrations’ climax would definitely be seen by then and is expected to reflect in the polling stations: 49.7% of the interviewees believe the protests’ target was “politicians in general”. Citizens’ frustration is directed at more than the current governing coalition, mostly because the way political favours are exchanged in the country has been blurred for too long. As a poster on the streets said: “Left? Right? All I want is to move forward”; the population demands changes regardless of party flags. Brazilians are now in the longest, uninterrupted democratic period of their history. It was about time to wake up.
Daphnee Iglesias is a Master of Public Policy Candidate at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin, Germany. Holding a BA in International Relations and interested in global governance, she is currently at the Centre of International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Canada, assisting the Global Security Program.