Following the protests in São Paulo (and supporting demonstrations in Rio de Janeiro) last Thursday, the weekend saw protests spread throughout the country. On Saturday, as the Confederations Cup kicked off in Brasilia, protesters demonstrated against the costs of preparing for the Confederations Cup and World Cup. Those expenses were also subject to protests in Rio de Janeiro yesterday, protests that turned violent when police launched tear gas and attacked protesters who voluntarily chose not to provoke the cops (to little avail). And though a Facebook RSVP is far from a rock-solid statistical analysis, over 200,000 people on Facebook said they would attend protests in São Paulo today. As the unrest continues at least in the short term and begins to become something more than an isolated protest gone awry, the question remains: what exactly is going on?
First thing’s first: it’s not a “Brazilian Spring.” The “Arab Spring” was a wave of popular movements demanding an end to decades of repressive and undemocratic regimes; despite the flaws in Brazilian democracy [or democracy more broadly], such conditions do not apply to Brazil, nor is it the subject of protest for Brazilians in the streets. Though police violence was common both in the countries of the Arab Spring two years ago and in Brazil now, the broader political systems are fundamentally different, as are the issues confronting the people. And it’s far from some widespread movement; thousands have taken to the streets, and that’s not insignificant, but in metro areas of 20+ million (São Paulo) and 11+ million (Rio de Janeiro), thousands or even hundreds of thousands is far from a mass movement. That’s not to say people don’t quietly support the demands and issues without taking to the streets, or to say it can’t grow further. But calling it a “Brazilian Spring” (or any popular expression of discontent) is as lazy as slapping a “-Gate” on the end of every political scandal in the US.
So what is it? Well, simply put – it’s complicated. While a quick glimpse seems to suggest a broad movement, the causes of protest in Brazil over the last few days have varied, from bus fares in São Paulo and then to police violence and even to soccer. Throughout it all, on the surface there has not been a unified message that offers a coherent set of political demands. That said, these seemingly disparate issues actually tap into some of the broader, and more historically rooted, processes that are fueling the protests. Indeed, when looking at the actual structural issues at play in bus fare increases, government spending on athletics, or police violence, one sees the long-term historical processes of governance that helps the few at the cost of the many as a common thread throughout.
On the one hand, the bus fares are about a basic issue – increasing the cost of travel for the majority of an urban population, even while the wealthy, with their cars (or helicopters), who can most afford increases in daily expenses, remain exempt from such increases. This issue is not a new one in Brazil; in the 1950s and 1960s, student movements regularly protested against bus fares and demanded exemption for students who had to travel to school. Nor was such activity limited to students; as JF String reminds us, Sao Paulo witnessed protests over an overnight bus fare hike in 1958. Such protests were not just minor incidents of public anger, either; the 1958 protests left four dead after the police and protesters came into conflict.
Which leads us into a second process that has deep historical roots. The brutal and grotesque use of tear gas and rubber bullets against unarmed civilians last week was but another incident of police violence in what is a decades-old phenomenon (and one that arguably has its roots in slavery in Brazil). Throughout the twentieth century, police violence was a feature of arrests and crowd control, especially in poor areas. Even in the 1960s, police death squads operated in favelas during the military regime, prompting the press to distinguish between death squads against “criminals” and torture against political prisoners. The end of the dictatorship did not bring an end to such violence, in no small part because such violence well predated the military regime of 1964-1985, and such violence has continued to define police tactics and methods throughout much of urban Brazil well into the 21st century.
Likewise, government largesse going to those who need it the least also has deep historical roots. The First Republic (1889-1930) was an oligarchy in which regional elites were able to look out for their own interests; the creation of Brasilia in the 1950s gave Brazil a flashy capital to show the world even while it failed to provide for the rural poor who helped build the high modernist capital; the “Brazilian miracle” of 1967-1974 dramatically expanded the gap between Brazil’s rich and poor even while it laid the groundwork for the economic “lost decade” of the 1980s; and the neoliberalism of the 1990s, whose zealous quest for privatization affected everyday expenses in Brazil in a dramatic fashion even while multinational corporations got richer. The government spending on the World Cup itself is vulgar; the costs of preparing for the World Cup have been astronomical, with $13.3 billion originally scheduled for preparations, money that went to new fancy stadiums far more than it did to infrastructural improvements that would benefit all Brazilians. That so little of that money went to infrastructural improvements that would genuinely affect the lives of most Brazilians is unsurprising, just as it is unsurprising that some are now bristling at it.
But these are historical processes that go back decades. Why are Brazilians protesting now?
In part, the answer is because the political space and will are there. There is no openly repressive dictatorship that will support the immediate, disproportionate use of police violence to silence dissent, and that’s not nothing – though it seems a long time ago, it’s only 49 years since Brazil’s 21-year military regime began, and only 28 years since the country returned to democracy (and 24 years since the first direct presidential elections since 1960). Certainly, in many ways, socially, economically, and in terms of police power, Brazil remains undemocratic, but it is still a functioning electoral democracy that cannot support police repression openly the way the military regime did. That’s not to say the police won’t try to use such repression – indeed, that’s exactly what they are trying to do – but in an electorally democratic system, the federal government cannot support such violence without losing much of its legitimacy.
But it’s not just a change in political systems that help explain why these protests are taking place. After all, Brazil was under an electoral democracy throughout the 1990s, when stories of police-led massacres were common, be it the Candelaria Massacre of eight unarmed street children in 1993 or the murder of 102 prisoners (another nine apparently died at the hands of their fellow inmates) in the 1992 Carandiru Massacre. And even in the 2000s, as many condemned the ongoing violence, it did not bring people to the streets. So what has changed?
I think in part, it comes back to what has happened in the past ten years. At the macro-economic level, the gap between the rich and poor overall shrank somewhat, but it’s still grossly unequal. On top of that, the economic message, both within Brazil and projected to the rest of the world, has I think played no small part in helping to explain the protests. By the second Lula term, both the government and outside economic analysts were pointing to Brazil as a new emerging global powerhouse. They pointed to its ability to weather the global recession of 2008-2009 and the efforts to eliminate extreme poverty as example of Brazil as a new economic haven, one that had finally found the path of widespread growth and stability after decades (or centuries) of exploitation, inequalities, and uneven growth. Even its inclusion in the fictional BRIC [Brazil-Russia-India-China] made it seem like a new economic age had arrived, one that disregarded the lack of unity between the four countries and smacked more of analytical laziness than any genuine explanation of global economics. Many commentators viewed Brazil winning the right to host the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics as the final example that the country was set to show the world how far it has come.
And at first, many people in the mid-2000s began to feel this change. The purchasing power of the working class expanded, even while analysts trumpeted the apparent growth of the middle class. For decades, many Brazilians had been told that the economy was about to give them more, only to find such promises to be hollow. The last ten years seemed to suggest to many people that finally, the time had arrived where they, too, could finally have “more” – more stuff, more purchasing power, a more improved standard of living, a more just and equal society. Yet such promises may have been premature, as recent macroeconomic policies and trends have once again shaken Brazil in the global economy. Yet this time, things are different than previous times when economic success was promised, only to not arrive to a majority of the population. This time, it seemed the change could be real, that perhaps such promises of sustained and more-equally distributed stability could happen. Though it is “only” about ten years of relative economic stability for many (though certainly not for all), ten years is a long time in a country where dramatic economic troubles hit in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Indeed, for many Brazilians, recent years have marked the first time government optimism and reality seemed even close to corresponding for nearly a decade.
And then the bus fare hikes happened amidst growing inflation and economic uncertainty, affecting most those who could least afford it. And then the police turned to the same transparently repressive, brutal, and excessive tactics that they’ve used for decades. And then, on Saturday, Brazil kicked off a sporting event displaying opulence and excess to the world, even while it in reality benefited very few Brazilians in substantive ways (and indeed denied many the right to live in their own homes). And as these superficially disparate inequalities erupted at the same time, a general discontent that old structures of inequality have persisted became the discourse that draws these protests together. That helps to explain why some protesters are now (in many ways erroneously) equating the government of center-left president Dilma Rousseff with the conservative political elites; even though she has very real differences from conservatives in Brazilian politics, her government (and Lula’s before her) have apparently not done enough to erode those structures.
And in some ways, things have visibly changed for the better for many in the last decade. Programs like Bolsa Familia and Fome Zero have had real impacts for millions of Brazilians, and affirmative action has helped address racial inequalities in higher education. But, as the bus fares, the spending on athletic boondoggles, and the police violence all made clear in the last few days, many other things remain the same. The problems that brought Brazilians to the streets aren’t strictly economic, but economics is involved; they aren’t strictly social, but social struggles are involved; they aren’t strictly political, but the history of political hierarchies is involved. In short: the conditions for protest are perhaps new, but the problems fueling those protests are old.