More Victories & More Protests (or, Why Reducing Bus Fares Won’t Make Brazilian Protests Go Away Immediately)

Following up on the reduction of bus fares in several cities Tuesday, yesterday, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo both announced they were reducing fares for their public transport in the wake of protests over the past week (down to R$2.75 in Rio, or about US$1.25, and to R$3 in Brazil, or about US$1.40). The announcement marks yet another victory for the protesters. In São Paulo, this of course meant the elimination of the 20-cent hike in fares that was originally scheduled and was the cause of protests (and violent police suppression) in São Paulo last Thursday.

Yet these announcements were made just a few hours after demonstrations in Fortaleza (where a Confederations Cup game was taking place), turned violent, as police once again cracked down against protesters expressing their anger at the expenses of the World Cup and the lack of internal and infrastructural development in Brazil. And after the announcements, people across the by from Rio de Janeiro gathered to protest in the city of Niterói, carrying signs objecting to the money that went to the World Cup and even shutting down the vital Rio-Niterói bridge that over 100,000 people cross every day as they travel between the two cities.

And these protests before and after the bus fare announcements get at the heart of why the protests are not likely to just disappear with the concession of lower fares for public transport. Yes, the fares were the superficial cause of protests in São Paulo last Thursday, but by the weekend, it was clear they were just part of broader demands that included anger at government spending for the World Cup, the disconnectedness of Brazil’s political elites from the citizenry, the police’s brutal and disproportionate use of force against demonstrators, and numerous other issues. Indeed, both the United Nations and Human Rights Watch now asking the government to investigate the police’s excessive use of force against protesters, making clear that these issues are not going away just because bus fares went down.

Indeed, the connection between soccer and police violence is seeming to become intractable. In protests in Rio last Saturday, police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets, even chasing protesters (and non-protesters) into the subway system. And again yesterday in Fortaleza, we witnessed a similar experience, even after it was clear that police violence played no small part in the rapid expansion of protests throughout the country earlier this week. This seems to be because soccer and police violence are interrelated. Protesters angry at the $13.3 billion spent on preparations for the World Cup gather at the most obvious symbols of that excess: the stadiums themselves. Meanwhile, the police have nowhere to retreat when protesters show up, even as they try to cordon off and protect the stadiums and to prevent protesters from entering no matter what the cost, both for the sake of Brazil’s image and for FIFA’s own interests. And when FIFA Secretary-General Jerome Valcke claims that “less democracy is better for organizing a World Cup” and praises Putin’s Russia for maintaining “less democracy,” it’s clear where FIFA stands on Brazilians taking to the streets, an attitude Brazilians themselves are not likely to welcome. And thus, the expenses of the World Cup and FIFA’s presence in the Confederations Cup this year and World Cup next year will continue to fuel anger and protest in Brazil.

And so, the movement will not just disappear or dissipate in the wake of a reduction in bus fares. Certainly, it can continue without taking to the streets, and so perhaps the demonstrations will fade for the time being in the coming weeks, as the Confederations Cup comes to a close. But that won’t resolve the broader macroeconomic troubles, the political abuses and corruption, and the sense of disillusionment with traditional politics among many Brazilians, and the ramifications at the state and local levels could be felt for quite some time. Indeed, last night, protesters gathered at Maranhão’s state capitol in São Luís to voice their anger at politician (and former president) José Sarney, who has long used his personal connections among elites to remain in power for decades even while flaunting that power (including getting a court to order a blogger to pay $900,000 in fines for a comment some visitor to her site left on her blog). Discontent with politicians existed well before the issue of bus fares arose, and readjusting bus fares in a handful of cities is not going to get rid of the deeper and more widespread discontent with politicians throughout many parts of the country.

Additionally, the recent demonstrations have reminded a new generation of Brazilians that organizing, publicly protesting, and making their voices heard can and does have very real effects, and provides a powerful way to shape democracy in Brazil. For a country that hadn’t seen such mobilizations since the early-1990s, that is a powerful lesson indeed, and one that a new generation of Brazilians is unlikely to forget, just as those who took to the streets to demonstrate against corrupt president Fernando Collor in 1992 still recall their role in the eventual resignation of the president.

Thus, with deep-rooted issues and inequalities still endemic to Brazilian society, and with the new lesson of the power of popular mobilization, the likelihood of the popular movement that we’ve seen in the last week seems unlikely to suddenly disappear completely. Some temporary victories have occurred, but they haven’t resolved Brazil’s bigger problems even while they’ve reminded Brazilians of the ways that they can shape the path of their country and their government. As thousands of Brazilians have uttered, in the streets, on Twitter, and elsewhere: “the Giant has awoken.” And it’s hard to see that giant demobilizing or forgetting the lessons of June 2013 anytime soon.

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About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
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