Ructions in Rio

The scale of the protests rocking Brazil took everyone by surprise - even the demonstrators themselves. Sue Branford and Hilary Wainwright investigate where they came from and where are they going

July 20, 2013
8 min read


Hilary WainwrightHilary Wainwright is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective and a fellow of the Transnational Institute.

brazil-protestOne of the demonstrations in June. Photo: Fernando H. C. Oliveira

Former President Lula, who helped found the ruling Workers’ Party (PT) and governed from 2003–2010, took his time to comment on the wave of protests that erupted in Brazil in mid-June, bringing millions onto the streets. But when he finally gave an interview, he warmly welcomed the protests: ‘Brazil is living an extraordinary moment in the affirmation of its democracy. We are a very young democracy . . . It’s only to be expected that our society should be a walking metamorphosis, changing itself at every moment.’

Quoting the PT mayor of São Paulo, Fernando Haddad, elected last year, he said that ‘stepping from the street into your house, a lot has improved in our country, but stepping from your house to the street, nothing has been done.’ In other words, household incomes have risen and families can afford more consumer goods but public services, be they transport, health or education, are abysmal. The protests, says Lula, are a wake-up call for the government to do something about this.

It’s a reassuring way of looking at the protests. There’s nothing to worry about, normal growing pains for a young country, and we’ll sort it out. In the early days of the PT government Lula’s alchemy – skilfully drawing on his popular legitimacy as a workers’ leader – might have worked to pacify the protesters. But today his words sound complacent.

Outside the system

The fact that the protests erupted outside both the party political system and the labour movement is an indication that the old ways are not working. It is partly that Lula’s successor, Dilma Rousseff, is a technocratic manager, who excels in the negotiations with agri-business, banks and foreign governments that are needed as Brazil accelerates its attempt to become a global power as a resource-exporting economy, but is notoriously reluctant to talk to social movements.

But a more fundamental issue is what has happened to the party that Lula helped found. For many in the older generation it is hard to break from a party that represented a dream of a democratic and egalitarian Brazil and has brought about real change. Today the poorest households receive a greater share of national income than ever before, yet these advances have not given people a greater political voice. So what about the PT’s much talked-of participatory democracy? Indeed, the government under Lula created a large number of participatory spaces, setting up numerous national councils on a variety of issues, particularly health. But social movement activists have repeatedly complained that resolutions that went against government policy or powerful economic interests have not been adopted.

Evelina Dagnino, professor of political science at Unicamp and active in the beginnings of the PT, says that the official spaces of participation are not known about, not enough or not working. ‘People have turned elsewhere. Mobilisation through social networks has been more powerful to organise people who want their voices to be heard. Even before the demos, we saw how actions on the street contributed to winning affirmative action and achieving legislation against domestic violence and also against homophobia.’

It is going to be difficult for the PT to recover the lost ground. The young have little memory of the PT as a party rooted in social movements; they associate it with the systemic corruption of the Brazilian political system. As a minority party, the PT, which once prided itself on its ethical approach, rolled up its sleeves and dug in, forming alliances with noxious right-wing parties, even appointing a homophobic evangelist to head the human rights commission. Yet it was always viewed with suspicion by the old political elite, which was overjoyed when the PT government was almost brought down by a vote-buying corruption scandal, known as the mensalão.

João Pedro Stédile, a leader of Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement (MST), believes that anger with this system helps explain the scale of the demos. ‘Today, to run for any political office, you need money, big money – over a million reais (£300,000) to become a vereador (city councillor), about ten million reais to become a deputy,’ he says. ‘The capitalists pay and then the elected politicians obey. Young people are fed up to the back teeth with this mercantile, bourgeois way of doing politics.’

For many, the blatant misuse of public funds for the World Cup was the last straw. ‘The Globo network [a huge privately-owned TV company] received 20 million reais from state and municipal governments in Rio to organise a little two-hour show around the draw for the Confederation Cup,’ he says. ‘The opening of the Maracanã stadium in Rio was an insult to the Brazilian people. The photos said it all – the world’s most important football icon and there wasn’t a black or brown face in sight!’

Change to come?

Can the present protests bring about change? Perhaps, because members of Congress are panicking about losing their seats in next year’s general election. According to Evelina Dagnino, ‘The fact is that, after a week of the protests, Congress spent all day and all night debating legislation that it had blocked in the past – legislation that enabled the minister of public justice to investigate public corruption and oil revenues to be channelled to education. Both these demands were on banners on the streets. Some mayors and governors are also responding in a public, positive way.’

So where does it all go now? Much will depend on alliances that can be built up between different movements – and on Dilma Rousseff’s leadership. Here signs here are not good, for many believe that her initial proposal – to hold a national plebiscite on political reform – will not deliver change quickly enough.

There are clearly risks. The right has infiltrated many of the demonstrations and is working hard, with the support of some TV networks, to create a right-wing backlash. There is unanimity on the left, even among those critical of the PT, that this must not be allowed to happen.

Alfredo Saad Filho, a professor of political economy at SOAS in the University of London, warns: ‘If the current government lost support and coherence and became paralysed, this would not lead to a socialist revolution because there is no social, material, organisational or ideological basis for that. It would just lead to a right-wing victory in the presidential elections next year, and to the terminal demoralisation and disorganisation of the Brazilian left for another generation.’

Tarso Genro, a leading PT member and governor of the state of Rio Grande do Sul, believes that the authorities must be radical: ‘It [the political class] has no chance of regaining the full legitimacy needed to make democracy work without implementing new forms of participation in public decisions . . . The objective must be to channel the present political energy to carry out political reform.’

Many stress the importance of structural change. Geraldo Campos, a daily participant in the demonstrations who is active in numerous movements, comments: ‘Most people don’t have a clear picture of what needs to be done. The risk is that ‘anti‑corruption’ feelings take over and the debate over change in the [economic] model gets drowned out.’

Could the fact that Brazil’s landless movement, the MST, is now on the streets bring the economic model more directly into question? Campos believes it is too early to say: ‘They have enough history and capacity to do it. But it depends on how far they remain radically autonomous from the government.’

One clear priority is to unite struggles. The people in the periferia, the poor outlying areas of cities, who have long been organised, have already joined the students’ protests. And now those who have been battling for years in outlying regions to change Brazil’s development model – for instance, those campaigning to stop the huge Belo Monte dam on the Xingu river in the Amazon – need to be brought in. But, says Campos, ‘the way these movements will be able to work together to present a more coherent alternative programme is not clear. But new strategies of political organisation will be needed. Urgently.’

For many, the 2002 election of Lula, a worker, meant that the people were in power. Now, at least in the cities, people are gaining a sense of their own power. The big demonstrations on 11 July, bringing together for the first time trade unions, the MST and the early protesters, were a hopeful sign that it may be possible to forge an effective alliance. It’s clearly a new and exciting phase in Brazil’s history but it is too soon to know where it will end.

Sue Branford is managing editor at the Latin America Bureau. You can also read Hilary Wainwright’s detailed analysis of PT corruption


Hilary WainwrightHilary Wainwright is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective and a fellow of the Transnational Institute.


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