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An increasingly vocal movement against fare increases on public transport has swept Brazil in the last two weeks, resulting in street demonstrations in several cities and angry confrontations between protestors and police. In São Paulo, Thursday night saw the fourth demonstration in the space of a week, drawing a crowd of almost 10,000 people. Nearly 130 people were arrested and 105 people were injured, according to the organisers of the march, the Movimento Passe Livre (MPL).
Likewise, in Rio de Janeiro, more than 2,000 people took to the streets. Both demonstrations ended in violent clashes with the police, who used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse demonstrators, some of whom responded with rocks and fireworks. Smaller demonstrations have also taken place in the capital Brasília and in Porto Alegre, in the south of the country.
Demonstrations of such strength have not been seen on the streets of Brazilian cities since the movement to impeach the then president Fernando Collor in 1992. However, the current protests involve a new generation, for the most part too young to have participated in the earlier movement. Many are university students. They are politically conscious, well organised and extremely frustrated with the current political landscape in Brazil.
While the fare increase of R$0.20 (6p) might seem trivial to city dwellers in the US or Europe, it is the spark which has ignited longstanding public anger about the poor quality of public services in general, political corruption and even the preparations for next year’s World Cup, which are badly behind schedule and way over budget.
The protests have also highlighted the gulf that exists between most Brazilians and their elected representatives. While police and demonstrators clashed in São Paulo, Fernando Haddad, the mayor, and Geraldo Alckmin, the state governor, were in Paris, promoting the city’s bid to host the 2020 Expo World Fair.
The protests will have been highly embarrassing for both men, not only given São Paulo’s Expo bid but especially considering the need to promote Brazil as a safe tourist destination ahead of the World Cup and the Rio Olympics in 2016. Alckmin has reacted angrily to the protests, dismissing those involved as ‘troublemakers’ and ‘vandals’, and suggesting that the demonstrations are nothing more than the actions of ‘a few small but very violent political groups’.
However, the number of protestors involved suggests that Alckmin has badly misread both the situation on the ground and the broader public mood. According to opinion polls 55 per cent of the public in São Paulo support the protestors, despite initially negative coverage in much of the national media.
Early reports tended to emphasize acts of criminal damage committed by a minority of the demonstrators. Now, however, most of the national media is beginning to strike a more balanced tone, not least because reporters from both of São Paulo’s two main newspapers, O Estado de S. Paulo and Folha de S. Paulo, were attacked by police during Thursday night’s demonstrations on, despite having identified themselves as press. Seven journalists from Folha were injured, with one reporter pictured bleeding from the eye after being hit by a rubber bullet.
Policing has been heavy-handed enough to provoke criticism from Amnesty International which condemned ‘the alarming discourse from the authorities, which has encouraged greater repression and the detention of journalists and demonstrators.’ Indeed, the events of Thursday night forced Haddad to admit that the police may have used ‘excessive force’. ‘On Tuesday the enduring image was one of violence on the part of the demonstrators,’ he said, ‘unfortunately today [Thursday] there is no doubt that it is one of violence on the part of the police.’
While Haddad’s tone has been more conciliatory than that of Alckmin, he has also reiterated that will be no reduction of the fares. ‘I do not intend to revise the transport fares because an enormous effort was made over the course of the year to ensure that the increase was well below the rate of inflation,’ he said.
More demonstrations have been scheduled for the week ahead, and protestors have insisted that they will continue until fares are reduced to their previous rate or lower. Haddad has invited representatives of the MPL for talks, in which he will outline a series of measures aimed at improving public transport in the city, and explain in detail how the new fares have been calculated. He will also show how state subsidies for public transport have developed over the years.
However, given that neither side appears willing to compromise on the main issue, more disruption is almost certain in São Paulo and in other cities across Brazil in the coming days and weeks.
This article was first published by Latin America Bureau