WTF is up in Brazil

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 Guardian

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.

NY Times

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.

Rio Gringa


Street pictures collected by O Globo

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.

7 thoughts on “WTF is up in Brazil

  1. Tom ODonnell

    A major aspect of the falling apart of the old political parties in Venezuela in the 1990s was the inability of these former ‘champions of democracy’ (of the rather paternalistic post-revolution sort, in the 60’s) ability to meet the rising expectations of the growing middle class. The middle class wanted government institutions and political parties that responded to their more nuanced economic and democratic-participatory needs. The old parties utterly failed and eventually were completely abandoned. (the UCV/Venezuelan left sociologist Edgardo Lander of UCV writes about this, as have others at CENDES at UCV.)

    1. sapitosetty Post author

      I love how Venezuela is currently such a clusterfuck that it can be used to warn “do that and you’ll end up like Venezuela!” The problem is that everything that anyone does seems to get compared to Venezuela. I don’t think Brazil is at any risk of Chavismo.

      1. Tom ODonnell

        That{s funny about Venezuela ‘ yep.

        But, I-m not saying Brazil could end up like Venezuela. Venezuela was way more polarized before that period of the failure of the old parties to accomodate the demands of the new middle classes (not to mention the poor).

        The characteristic demands of the middle class, as it grows, is what pushes institutional development and rule of law and all that sort of thing.

        Some states handle it, evolve and get to be ‘first world’ … others get stuck. Piñera, when he came to office, was all about making the “transition to first world,” which he correctly associated with an average income somewhere north of $10k per year. But, he forgot that it isn’t just deficit reduction and free trade and FDI and income per capita and that makes a country “first word.” It is also the ability of a mature social system to work out the clashes of lower-and-middle (i.e. popular) classes with thier deomocratic and social demands against the business elites with their usually narrow-minded economic and rule-of-law attitudes towards social progress. Piñera forgot that part. Chile needs a social compact of some sort where both sides compromise in a more or less civil manner, not where the old elites (of right and left) dictate ‘solutions’.

        Brazil is also near a similar nodal point, at least in the big cities.
        I liked your post. Thanks

        1. Darius Wilkins

          Venezuela has lots more oil than Brasil, and fewer people. They can afford to be dysfunctional, just the way the US can afford to be dysfunctional in dramatic ways.

          However dysfunctional Venezuela is, when I apply context, it’s just doesn’t seem to be that far from the mainstream of Latin American successes and failures. When held up against world norms of dysfunctional to the point of state failure, Venezuela doesn’t seem to be in very much trouble at all. Most MENA countries are in more severe distress, like Egypt, or are more fundamentally fragile, like Turkey (and it’s dependence on Gulf investment).

          And at the end of the day, the Venezuelan state is coming out pretty as roses compared to Brasil right now. The clientélist politics are crude, but so far, it seems that people there think (or thought–one line of analysis of Chávez’ popularity had to do with people thinking he was an effective administrator that got things done, and not about Bolivarianism or cult of personality) that the government is accountable enough such that amorphous protest doesn’t happen. The people are in a dialogue with the state about the lack of toilet paper and other sundries, and the state readily acknowledges the failures, and amidst conspiracy theories, talk about ways of resolving them. Where Brasillian politicians have a tendency to just be brazen and ignore requests that might be difficult to administer…

  2. kodhambo

    Re: Darius Wilkins comments, should I laugh or cry? Has he actually been to Venezuela? The week I was in venezuela in June, gas stations were short of gasoline! There may be just one person in the world who thinks Chavez was an effective administrator; not even the Chavistas think so. Venezuelan state talks about ways to resolve the lack of sundries? Try getting your money out of a Venezuelan bank! try getting 10 USD in Caracas.

  3. kodhambo

    I forgot to comment on Brazil after reading darius Wilkins. However, there are a lot of issues in Brazil right now, unemployment, inflation, crime, and it is not entirely clear what quantum of combination has upset the people. Who can say when and why people explode? See Turkey.

  4. Franz Fuls

    Brazil’s indigenous population has been fighting for their survival for quite some time now, mostly under a veil of obscurity. It is high time for the general populace of that wonderful country to also start standing up for what they believe in.

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