After a week of unrest, Brazil’s President, Dilma Rousseff, took to the airwaves last Friday in an address where she stated support for the demonstrations as a means to dialogue and as an example of democracy in Brazil. Though the address was relatively brief (~10 minutes), she acknowledged the need to continue to address educational, socioeconomic, and regional problems, making clear her awareness of and apparently-sincere understanding of the people’s complaints (something Turkey’s Erdogan has yet to do). And yesterday, she again made clear her willingness to engage in dialogue with demonstrators, as she met with leaders from the Free Fare Movement [MPL] in the presidential building in Brasília. Though the MPL participants walked out saying protests would continue until concrete gains were made, the meetings themselves did not appear to be particularly antagonistic, but instead a real and genuine dialogue (again, distinguishing Brazil from what is going on in Turkey).
Nor did Rousseff limit herself to addressing the perceived leaders of the issue that kicked off the protests nearly two weeks ago and that spread throughout the country and came to rapidly express discontent over a variety of issues. Last night, she announced a proposal to hold a national referendum for a series of reforms that would address educational policy, economic policy, health care, and transport, all issues that have been behind recent demonstrations. Perhaps more fascinatingly, though, the referendum would also include the creation of a Constitutional Assembly to amend Brazil’s constitution in order to make governance more efficient and to crack down on corruption. To be clear, the referendum’s success or impact is as yet unclear, but theoretically, he question of a constitutional assembly could have a profound long-term impact on politics by simply making political corruption a major crime. That may not sound like much, but in a country where the president of the Senate has been investigated for corruption no fewer than 4 times yet still holds office, and for an institution where cronyism leads to a homophobe and racist serving as the head of the Congressional Human Rights Commission, the crackdown on corruption is no small thing. And it is not clear that the constitutional reform would be limited to the legislative arena; there is no small sense of frustration with the slowness of Brazil’s legal system and the parallel structures where the treatment and rights of the rich and the poor in prison are very different experiences. Again, what exactly will transpire remains to be seen, but there is at least the potential to fundamentally change in significant ways the operation of politics in Brazil.
The government is not wasting time, either, with an official saying they hope to have the vote on either the symbolically-important September 7 (Brazilian independence day) or November 15 (the day the Brazilian Empire fell and the First Republic was begun in 1889). Collectively, the political reforms of a constitutional assembly, together with the social issues relating to education, health, and economics could help transform Brazilian society and politics. More importantly, if reforms were to pass, it would be the result of popular elections and direct result of the people taking to the streets to make their voices heard. Though democracy in Brazil (or elsewhere) is far from perfect, this is indeed an encouraging sign, and hopefully one that leads to real improvements in people’s lives.