Beyond the News
Brazil is going through protests that started in São Paulo a couple weeks ago and now have spread across the country. Yesterday (Monday, 17th), over 250 thousand people went to the streets to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with the government. The main issues addressed include: education, health care, security, public transportation and tax. It was the largest social movement in Brazil in 21 years and to understand why these protests are out there it is important to quickly brush through the recent history of South America largest country.
Between 1964 and 1985 Brazil was governed under a dictatorship regime run by the army forces. The freedom came after a huge social mobilization that culminated with the re-opening of national Congress in 1985, when José Sarney took the role as a president after Tancredo Neves, the man chosen by the Congress to assume the position, died within a few days in power. Some of the people who fought for this transition were a lady called Dilma Roussef and a popular politician named José Dirceu.
It represented a major victory for Brazilian society in its nearly 500 years of history! In 1990 the country had its first direct elections in 40 years, having Fernando Collor de Melo elected as a president. He was young and delivered a lot of promises that captivated the Brazilian middle class. He beat Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva, who would later lose again two elections in 1994 and 1998 for Fernando Henrique Cardoso. This last one became famous for the implementation of a new currency (Real) and for fighting the high inflation.
Collor was involved in major corruption scandals and in 1992 people went down to the streets once again, this time to ask for his impeachment. Collor left the power, which gave the Brazilian society a feeling of victory over the government for the second time in less than 10 years. From this moment, Brazil started to grow, mainly economically.
On the other hand, poverty was (and still being) a major problem in the country. To make matters worse, the criminality in the middle 90’s got out of control. What was initially a problem for the poorer in the suburbs of major towns, started to scare the middle class in the center. On the top of it, the bad administration of tax’s resources and corruption started to affect social projects, such as: construction of public schools and hospitals, development of a better transportation system or even the implementation of new roads.
The investments in police were always as less as possible. A policeman/woman is rarely well prepared physically and psychologically to face the criminality. They were/are paid below standards, which opened a gap for the development of militias inside the different police hierarchies in the country. As a consequence of it, the population became afraid of those who suppose to protect them, and justice was replaced by vengeance. In other words, if you wanted to protect yourself, you had to do it on your own.
Since the end of dictatorship period, the Brazilian society has been urging for better education, health care, infra-structure, security and tax policies. However, with the first democratic government focused on the transition of new republic in 1985; the second involved in corruption at the beginning of 90’s; and the third and forth ones concentrated on recovering the economy, only in 2002 the hopes of a change lied in the hands of Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva, one of most famous Brazilian’s president.
Lula was a syndicate leader in the 70’s and 80’s and was seen by the society as a symbol of Brazil. He was born in the north east part of the country, one of the poorest, and migrated to São Paulo hitchhiking for days on the back of trucks. He worked as a turner mechanic and fought his way up to the presidency, although he never managed to finish the 5th grade.
Lula got in the power focused on vanishing the poverty and brought with him several people who were part of the fight for democracy two decades earlier. One of them was José Dirceu, Lula’s first Chief of State. However, after 2 years, Dirceu found himself involved in one of Brazilian’s major corruption scandals since 1992, where politicians were getting paid high amount of money to vote in favor of the government in the Congress. Dirceu was accused to be the leader of this scheme amongst other top politicians.
His trial started in 2005 and only last year it was finalized. He was found guilty and sentenced to over 10 years in prison, but he has never been behind the bars. Dirceu defends himself by saying that there are no physical or real facts that could culminate on his sentence and plea innocence. On the other hand, a major part of the society does not believe on him and became really disappointed to see someone who fought for democracy being involved in such scandal. Some Brazilians also do not believe that Lula did not know anything about this scheme, as he claims, and want to see him joining Dirceu in a curfew.
Now, Dilma Roussef was one of Lula’s last Chief of State during his 8 years in power and, oriented by her boss, she ran for president in 2009. She won, became the first woman to lead the country in history and will serve a 4 years mandate from 2010 to 2014.
Roussef started her government fighting the corruption. Several of her direct ministers were sacked in the first 12 months, including the minister of sports, who was heavily involved on the organization of World Cup and Olympic Games. Her actions were admired by the Brazilian people independently of being her voters or not. Nevertheless, Brazilians now think that Roussef does not have much power and does everything according to Lula’s wishes, which means that her antecessor is still ruling the country and making hard for certain crimes (like the one that Dirceu is involved) been brought to justice. Furthermore, Roussef has not yet promoted a real political change and the social projects that she implemented have been criticized by the media as been a short term remedy that will cause serious collateral effects in the future.
However, what really infuriated people in the last 20 years, culminating on these current protests, is the feeling of hopelessly that comes and goes in the society. Someone rises from the bottom, participate in major demonstrations and when he/she gets in the power, becomes just like the antecessors. And even Lula and Dilma, the two most popular presidents of Brazilian history, cannot escape from that.
Yes, there was a huge improvement on living standards in Brazil in the last 10 years, but corruption is still a major part of Brazilian political system. The overall infra-structure has not improved as much as the economy, and as a result of it, people must pay extra for services that are not satisfactory and should be provided by the government. Also, the criminality has drastically increased in the last 20 years and the vague arguments shot by the two major political parties against each other in order to point out who is responsible for the problems in the country, are becoming more and more unacceptable.
And the “cherry on the top” in this story is the high tax that Brazilians must pay. According to a recent research from IBPT – Instituto Brasileiro de Planejamento Tributário (which in a free translation means: Brazilian Institute for Tax Planning), Brazilians work 5 months in a year only to pay taxes. Hence, by not having a reliable transportation system when paying so much tax made people of São Paulo city really infuriated with the fact that they had to pay 20 cents extra to travel to/from work every day.
The protests started in the center of São Paulo city with about couple thousand of people attending the events. The group responsible to organize this manifestation requires from the government implementation of a free bus fare in the town reasoning this claim by saying that the high taxes paid by São Paulo residents is enough to cover all the expenses.
The government at first moment did not want to negotiate with them by saying that this is impossible to be done in any city of Brazil. In the meantime, the mayor and the governor (who are from oppositionists parties) travelled to Paris, in France, to promote the city as a candidate for Expo 2020; although there was announced a new protest in the coming days.
In São Paulo, any public manifestation like this one aims to reach the Paulista Avenue, where major banks and corporate offices are located. It is one of busiest streets in São Paulo and if it stops, the entire city goes halted by the immense traffic jam. Get to Paulista Avenue is the most representative act that a protest can reach in São Paulo.
And while the mayor and governor were away enjoying the summer in Paris, the police was cracking down on the protesters at Paulista Avenue by saying that they were disturbing others who were not part of the protests and wanted to move across the city that had some of its roads closed due to the manifestation. The police said that they reacted as a self-defense attacking the demonstrators, who damaged several shops’ doors, banks’ entrance, public phones and metro stations. Both leaders overseas defined the protesters as vandals!
Once back home, they were welcomed with an even larger protest last Thursday in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Until there it was all about the bus fare. However, this third protest was the most violent with dozens of people getting arrested. This time, the protest started pacific in the center of São Paulo city with thousands of people marching towards Paulista Avenue. At half way through the police came without any warning and violently tried to disperse the protesters by shooting rubber bullets against them and utilizing tear gas bombs and pepper sprays on anyone seen around, even on those who were in bars and restaurants at the proximity and were not part of the protest. One journalist was shot in the eye and others were arrested even though they were there to cover the events, and not necessarily to protest. One reporter was taken in jail for carrying vinegar, which he was doing so to diminish the effects of tear gases and the police alleged that the vinegar could be used to fabricate bombs, so the reason for his prison.
The military intervention in this protest was a foot in the door for people from other states and different social classes, ages, sex and religions to get together. They understand that the protests are legitimate and although there were some abuses from the demonstrators, the government response could be a sign of a new dictatorship on the way. From this moment, Brazilians started to march not only for a reduction in bus fare, but also, and mainly, to protest against the way how the country has been conducted. The action of trying to stop public demonstration like this one could be frightening the democracy that was acquired nearly 30 years ago. At last, having someone like Fernando Collor de Melo now back in power as a Senator is shocking, revolting and painful! Brazilians want now a change as whole and not simply (and only) on the 20 cents bus fare! The yesterday’s invasion of National Congress roof was an warn to the government that Brazilians are really talking serious about it!