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People march towards the Cinelandia square during a protest on Rio de Janeiro. Brazil on Monday. Photo: AP (AP)
People march towards the Cinelandia square during a protest on Rio de Janeiro. Brazil on Monday. Photo: AP
(AP)

Brazil’s social awakening

Protests triggered by a hike in bus fares have vexed the political leadership as it remains unclear what the people want

At last, the impassioned plea of Maria Lucia, a 46-year-old mother of a disabled daughter, was heard last night, when Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s embattled President, spoke to her nation, promising a plebiscite and political change, as Latin America’s largest country ended the second week of mass protests targeting a potpourri of uncoordinated demands, including increased bus fares, poor public services, widespread corruption, and the staging of the World Cup next year and the Olympic Games in 2016.

On Thursday last week, Maria Lucia glared angrily at a camera and said: “We don’t have health or education. The only thing she gives us is a stadium. This is not about 20 centavos—a city is made for people, not cars. Where are the police when our children need protection? Where is the shameless Dilma? The mayors and governors are corrupt thieves. They never travel on our buses. We are dying and these vagabonds are stealing our money. Arrest me if you want, I’m not a thief."

Four days later, Rousseff spoke to the nation, promising that her administration will find solutions to address the kind of problems Brazil thought it had left behind, as it basked in the glory of being part of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), among the rising economic giants meant to reassemble the global pecking order.

Rousseff was unheard from and largely unseen, except for an appearance during the opening match of the Confederations Cup on 15 June between Brazil and Japan, when she was loudly booed at the National Stadium in Brasilia. She did address the nation a few days later, a speech that only reignited the protests. Whether her promise to hold a referendum on political reforms will pacify Brazil’s angry protesters remains to be seen.

The protests began after the São Paulo administration decided to increase the fare of the sprawling city’s public transport by 20 centavos, about 5.30, an increase of 10%. But as with such mass protests, the increase in bus fares was the last straw; many other concerns—the poor quality of schools, inadequate health care, rising costs, and corruption at every level—found a voice, as demonstrators, peaceful at first, resistant later, took to the streets. Anarchists did destroy property at many places, often inciting the police to act against them, and the police bashed up many, sometimes without pity, as Brazilians were stunned by the scale of protests not seen since the mid-1980s when the 20-year military dictatorship ended, and later, in 1992, when the unpopular Fernando Collor de Mello, the first elected president, was impeached over corruption charges.

Television images can deceive: one night I went out to see the demonstrators. I saw tens of thousands of them walking along Octavio Frias de Oliveira bridge, walking peacefully along its wide, now-emptied avenues. “Roads are meant for walking, not driving," a young woman dressed as a fairy, carrying a wand, with bright make-up told me. Others draped themselves in the Brazilian flag; a few were on skateboards; and the mood was of good cheer. It was like Mardi Gras with clothes on—June is winter in this city. Most of the demonstrators were from the middle class; many did not look as though they needed to travel by public transport.

Bob Corcoran, a senior executive with an American multinational visiting São Paulo on business, told me he had never felt safer on a Brazilian road, as he did when he walked on the streets that evening. The US State Department considers the criminal threat in São Paulo to be “critical" with crime levels high, mainly involving mobile street gangs and organized crime groups. (Indeed, a young executive said, half in jest, that people are marching on the avenues because it’s too unsafe to walk the lanes.)

But two days later, on Avenue Faria da Lima, I saw fine facades and storefronts being trashed, as men wearing ski-masks smashed glass and made off with musical equipment and microwave ovens. The police arrived soon, carrying shields and batons, and the scene turned chaotic as a pitched battle ensued.

“We have bullet-proof glass," my driver reassured me. (Bullet-proof glass raises the cost of a car by 30%, Georges Fischer, a leading lawyer, told me.) Other friends insisted I stay at home. Seeing the masked men destroying fine facades of buildings while well-meaning people stayed at home nervously, brought to mind William Butler Yeats’s lines:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.

Meanwhile, near the de Oliveira bridge the mood was quiet and the police presence minimal. Two men carried a banner that said “No Police, no Violence: What a Coincidence!" Marcelo Furtado, executive director of Greenpeace in Brazil, told me that demonstrators had strictly enforced non-violence. Fischer said he saw some demonstrators carrying large photographs of Mohandas Gandhi.

In her address Monday, Rousseff said: “We need a public debate on a plebiscite for a constituent assembly on political reform (which) has been on the nation’s agenda for many years."

But she will find it hard to offer solutions, because it is unclear what the people want. Mayors have found it hard to negotiate with the protesters because they do not have a clear set of demands. Being unhappy is a state of mind, and pursuit of happiness can be a constitutional goal (as in the US Declaration of Independence) but not a measurable target, Bhutan’s claim of being “the happiest nation on earth" notwithstanding.

Fischer explained that the current government, which has continued the policies of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the popular two-term president who left office in 2011, is a victim of its own success.

During the past decade, many Brazilians have emerged out of poverty and joined the ranks of the low end of the urban middle class. While they are able to look after their basic needs, they see the good life around them, appearing unattainable. Their children now go to schools which are poorly equipped; they can go to hospitals where there are chronic shortages, including of doctors; and they can travel by buses that are overcrowded and inefficient.

This class, which voted da Silva and then Rousseff to power, has advanced from being daily-wage labourers to a life of some decency and certainty, and is the classic catchment area of football fans. They are the people that have, ironically, turned against the hosting of the football World Cup, thinking that the game is loaded against them.

Meanwhile, Sao Paulo’s elite hop from building to building in helicopters (it has more private helicopters than any other city in the world), and protect themselves with armoured cars and live in walled communities. In this country, as Peter Robb points out in his account of contemporary Brazil, A Death in Brazil: A Book of Omissions, the richest 1% have 15% of the wealth, and the poorest 40% have less than a tenth.

For the government, the World Cup and the Olympic Games are the equivalent of Brazil’s ‘India Shining’ moment, announcing that the country has arrived on the international stage. But as with the slogan that failed to sway the Indian electorate in 2004, Brazilians are calling a halt to celebrations.

Football is to Brazil what cricket is to India, except with more passion, and as Alex Bellos writes in his 2003 book, Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life, Brazil has many truths, football being an important one among them, shaping the multi-ethnic nation’s identity.

Rousseff has promised greater educational opportunities for Brazilians and will allow more doctors to migrate to Brazil. The administration will spend 50 billion reals on public transport, and set up a national council to improve transport infrastructure.

The protest movement is leaderless, and when politicians have tried to capitalize on the protests, they have been rebuffed. Last Wednesday, one of the political parties sent its supporters, wearing its colours and carrying large banners, to join the protests. But some of the protesters tore up their banners and attacked them, saying they wanted no role for politics. Some Brazilians cheer this revulsion for politicians, seeking inspiration from Argentina, which a decade ago defied international markets as workers attempted to take over factories, as shown in Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis’s 2004 film, The Take. But a human rights activist familiar with Argentina says she is worried about a vacuum in the political structure. Grassroots leadership is inchoate, she says, and doesn’t work. A vacuum is dangerous, because fascists can fill it, she adds.

There is some—limited—nostalgia for the dictatorship. Some of that warmth is possibly because Brazilian dictators were not as ruthless as in Chile, where torture was rampant, and people were killed in stadia or dropped alive from helicopters into the Pacific Ocean; nor as cruel as the Argentine junta, which disregarded the mothers protesting in its plazas; nor as ideological as Fidel Castro’s Cuba, jailing dissidents and poets; and nor did they host Nazis as willingly as did Paraguay.

As I waited at the airport, which was under siege, airline crew members were unable to enter the facility, delaying a dozen flights including mine. The networks had suddenly stopped showing riots. I told a friend that this is how it happens: an emergency gets declared, or a coup attempt made. None of the Brazilians watching the TV with me thought it sounded like an outrageous idea. That, in some ways, is the real danger: a power vacuum and the yearning for a strong leader.

In his play, Galileo, Bertolt Brecht wrote:

Andrea: Pity the nation without heroes.

Galileo: Pity the nation in need of heroes.

On Monday, Rousseff said: “We need to hear the voice of the people. Everyone, even the president, must listen in a spirit of humility." Brazil will return from the brink if those words satisfy Maria Lucia, as she leaves her disabled daughter at home for her job as a maid in one of the houses behind the tall gates.

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