Brazil? That’s not where you expect to see mass demonstrations. On my first trip to Brazil, in 1992, I tried to talk with people about politics. Nobody wanted to. Finally a drunk on a street explained why: He said he had been a political activist and had gotten beaten for it too many times. He said people are scared to talk politics, you have to be insane to talk politics in public. Like him.
At the time, the progressive young people I met would whisper that they supported Lula, a union activist with a political movement. Over a decade later, that same guy finally won the presidency. He was widely credited for his hybrid socialism-capitalism that helped use some of Brazil’s booming sales of hydrocarbons, iron ore and grain to make the country more equal and pull millions of poor people up into the middle class.
Today, the generation coming up has higher expectations. They don’t just want a few rusty handouts while the billionaires remain in control, zipping about in sports cars, running over poor cyclists. They want a country that works.
Here are a couple English-language stories I have found informative:
The large turnout and geographic spread marked a rapid escalation after smaller protests last week against bus price increases led to complaints that police responded disproportionately with rubber bullets, tear gas and violent beatings.
One issue surging to the fore involves anger over stadium projects in various cities ahead of the 2014 World Cup, which Brazil is preparing to host. Some projects have been hindered by cost overruns and delays, the unfinished structures standing as testament to an injection of resources into sports arenas at a time when schools and public transit systems need upgrades.
But for all that, you really need to look at the local press to get extensive coverage. And since Brazil has little in English, you just have to read Portuguese. Try it, it’s pretty easy.
Altogether, more than 240,000 people participated in the acts, whose agenda expands every day: the demonstrations on Monday combined protests against rising bus fares, the overspending in the 2014 World Cup, the PEC 37 (known as PEC of Impunity), the controversial status of the Unborn, and requests for investment in public transport, health and education, a clear demand from civil society for an update of the country’s political agenda.
(Who knew, a proposed abortion ban is one of the issues?)
I recently had the pleasure of working with a Brazilian photographer here in Santiago on a project where we had to visit a bunch of the city’s public works. His jaw repeatedly dropped at our ability to get in a cab or subway at any time and get to where we wanted to go, anywhere in the city, in about a half hour. In São Paulo, you need to leave an hour or two for travel between appointments. I told him that Santiago’s largely privatised infrastructure, including buses and freeways, draw complaints from the left. The basic problem is that private companies profit from the necessities of life. He said, sure, and in Brazil we have more people taking more money from the public, and the services don’t even work. If people are going to make money off the system either way, might as well do it transparently and have working public services. “After São Paulo,” he said, “Santiago is Oslo.”
To be glib about it, the best marketing for extreme capitalism is dysfunctional socialism.
Of course Chileans aren’t happy, either. Chile’s protests over profiteering in education were the first time that the global wave of protests hit Latin America, coming quickly from Tunisia and Algeria before bouncing up to Occupy in the USA and back to the indignados in Spain. Five days ago, 80,000 students marched here in Santiago, and faced the same sort of disorganized, provocative crackdown by cops as we’ve seen in Brazil (not quite as bad as the last days in Turkey). This Brazil protest is part of the same thing. Modern day people expect to be included and listened to. The political and economic elite everywhere finds it fun to party on while ignoring those who don’t wear the latest silk ties. We’ll see how that works out for them.