One of my New Year’s resolutions for 2013 was to become a bit more techie – I am totally inept. To prove my commitment, I have spent more time on Facebook in the last week than in the whole of last year. It was just, I swear, to keep track of the exciting news of the week – Brazilians taking to the streets, and well, the occasional spying on my friends’ lives.
This protest has been now going on for almost two weeks and there is no clear signal that they will stop. And you think, in Brazil, you must be joking! How is it that the country globally known for happiness, economic success and an inspiration for poverty eradication has exploded in massive protest?
Protest at this scale is in fact very unusual in Brazil, this one being the largest since the 1980s when Brazilians overthrew military rule for democracy. Recent protests erupted against urban bus fare increases. Anybody who had the privilege (no irony, it is a life-changing experience) to get a bus in places like São Paulo would certainly agree that protests started on very reasonable grounds. Urban transport in Brazil is expensive and inefficient. Buses are slow, old and overcrowded – in case you are wondering, yes, even more sardine-like than the London tube. Change does not occur because transport companies lobby hard, and find very gentle ears ready to listen among many public officials.
Protests crossed the boundaries of the Brazil’s ordinary political life in reaction to police violence – and what a violence with teargas in eyes, indiscriminate beating, arrests of peaceful demonstrators. Authorisation to violence was probably given hoping that business as usual would soon return.
But enough is enough. Many Brazilians just felt that the right of expression was too minimal a requirement to be put into question. More protesters, more demands – sounds about right. Cheaper bus fares has become just one among many asks, ranging from the end of corruption and overspending on the World Cup and Olympics, to better public services.
All this is very exciting and totally new for a generation of Brazilians, but if you are imaging multitudes of poor people speaking for themselves and making life hard for those in power, pause one second. This is another film. At the very heart of the protest there are Brazilian middle classes, old and new, lower middle and medium middle income, and who knows some infiltrators from the upper classes. This is not necessarily bad news, and has some consequences that can favour the poorest too – or maybe not.
On one hand, protests have already brought some results. The bus fare increases have been cancelled. In a public pronouncement to the nation President Dilma committed to some measures to improve urban transport, public health and education and increase social accountability. What her government will actually deliver is a very – very – different matter, but this is nevertheless a start. On a more abstract level, demonstrations have been nurturing a new sense of the nation as a political community. While protest did not emerge in a vacuum – there are many politically active groups in Brazilian society –the impact of big events on local communities (the environmental, LGBT, black and indigenous movements to name a few) may surprise us. This political baptism will hopefully make more Brazilians familiar with the chores of public life.
On the other hand, the conservative strata of Brazilian society have started to take advantage of the situation. For example, violence by some protesters has been used to justify repression and calls for order, reminiscent of a fearful past. Demands for the impeachment of the current government have started to arise, including a quite paradoxical Avaaz petition.
In 2014, presidential elections will take place in Brazil and how the current situation will be resolved or dissolved will have a very significant impact on the vote and the future political agenda of the country.
Whatever the future is preparing for Brazil, remember that Brazilian politics always comes with a twist. Joyfulness and irony are very much part of the political paraphernalia and words are bended to serve amusement as well as politics. My favourite slogan from the protests is: “Sorry for the inconvenience, we are changing our country!” Just amazing.