Brazil: safety in numbers

Mauricio Savarese

Frustration with the government’s fiscal policy prompted ordinary Brazilians to take to the streets in protest for the first time in decades in the spring of 2013

Soaring inflation and creative accounting: these are the roots of Brazil’s biggest protests in decades. If it weren’t for those two coming together exactly during the Confederations Cup, the World Cup’s dress rehearsal and a shopping window for foreign media, it would have been difficult for the mass demonstrations of June to even take place. Police violence and the sense that there was a lot to complain about transformed the sparkle into a big fire. But it was all started by a tactless managerial decision made in Brasília. 

The turmoil began with a US$0.10 increase in transport fares in São Paulo – a move that was supposed to happen in January, when students were still on vacation. But President Dilma Rousseff, a pro-business leftist who was never a fan of fiscal conservatives, asked for a postponement in the rise. She argued that a fare change at the beginning of the year would impact dramatically on the inflation target. By the time she was ready, so were protesters. Youngsters had four months of the school year to campaign and build up support. 

At the beginning of June, the movement gathered from moderates to anarchists in São Paulo, a city flooded by cars and crowded buses. Their focus wasn’t World Cup spending or corruption – their motto was “a world without turnstiles”, since they wanted public transportation to be free. As São Paulo mayor Fernando Haddad, a close ally of Rousseff’s, showed no interest in negotiation – and governor Geraldo Alckmin decided to increase tube fares at the same time – the hundreds who first turned out became a few thousand. 

That’s when rioters appeared, targeting banks and public buildings. When a policeman was shown drenched in blood on the cover of major newspapers, the mainstream media took sides. On 13 June, two of the big dailies – Folha de S. Paulo and Estado de S. Paulo – insisted that the police should act. They did so that very night. The forces controlled by Alckmin attacked vandals, peaceful protesters, bystanders, journalists and whoever else was in the way. The media withdrew their support because the police violence enraged everyone. 

Brazilians strongly reject violence as a means to getting things done. We get too much of it already. In 2012, about 50,000 people were unlawfully killed – the same number as died in Mexico, a country torn by narco-traffic violence. We fear crime, but we fear the police as well. That applies even to the supporters of death squads and torture. So when the officers showed they had lost their self-control, the average man on the street decided to act. This is why from 14 June onwards the mass protests spread. 

After millions took to the streets, the initial coherence was lost. Police violence and the fare rise became a backdrop for the grievances of hundreds of thousands who had never protested and felt it was their time. There must have been some organised groups, but the vast majority were politically disengaged youngsters carrying signs with platitudes like ‘more education’ or ‘better health care’. Another popular one was ‘no political parties’, which shows the widespread discredit for our corrupted and fragile political system. 

Once demonstrations emerged during the Confederations Cup, protesters felt they needed to use it as a magnet. Although the criticism against World Cup spending captured headlines, it is difficult to believe people have really turned against it – a few weeks before 13 June, a Datafolha poll showed about 70 per cent of people wanted to host football’s extravaganza. That figure has dropped to about 50 per cent, but experience in big sporting events shows enthusiasm grows as the opening match approaches. It was more of an opportunity than genuine rage. 

Not surprisingly, the mass protests lasted exactly until the end of the Confederations Cup and haven’t got up a head of steam since then. There are three reasons for this: the international attention is much smaller now, demonstrations shrunk because people were put off by the violent Black Bloc groups (masked demonstrators who were prominent in the 1990s) and the authorities actually addressed some grievances. Rousseff was responsible for most of the latter by bringing more doctors to isolated communities and funding education with royalties from the vast pre-salt oil reserves. 

But it wasn’t all down to the President. Mayors are now more open to dialogue with their communities. The police, who are led by governors, are now more careful all over Brazil, except for the still unstable Rio. Congress has suddenly become very proactive in passing populist bills, such as labelling corruption a ‘heinous crime’ – all quite innocuous, but bringing a calming effect. And there has finally been some closure on a ‘votes for bribes’ scandal, with a decision by the Supreme Court to arrest key politicians of many political parties. All those decisions will impact on 2014. 

It is impossible to say that the massive protests won’t come back during the World Cup and electoral campaign, but today there are not the elements to predict turmoil as big as that of June 2013. The tide for Rousseff’s re-election seems to be back, the economy isn’t sluggish enough to affect jobs and, like it or not, the football tournament is such a colossal event that many Brazilians just won’t care about politics as soon as the atmosphere sets in. Traditionally, the outdoor campaign trail begins after the trophy is lifted. 

Violent small demonstrations here and there, however, are very likely – Black Bloc groups have promised to be present. Since unskilled policing fostered the gigantic protests, new elements could appear and sour the country into a new wave of agitation. Will Brazilian leaders learn from their mistakes? So far they have counted on the majority of people tiring of it – more than 90 per cent of citizens in Rio and São Paulo are just fed up with demonstrations, recent Datafolha and IBOPE polls show. 

Voters also seem to want stability, despite calls for change in the protests. Rousseff had a huge approval rating of 65 per cent before June. It dropped to 30 per cent and is now at around 40 per cent. Polls say she would win in the first ballot were the vote to be made now. To make it even easier for the President, her main rival so far is in trouble. Centre right candidate Aecio Neves, a senator for Minas Gerais – Brazil’s second-wealthiest state – hasn’t even sealed the deal in his own party. He has no clear policies either. 

Another potential rival for Rousseff has made a risky bet and probably won’t even run for President. Former Environment Minister Marina Silva was the only politician to gain ground with the protests. That is partly why she rushed to create her own political party, with little success. In a surprising move, Silva joined a party led by Pernambuco Governor Eduardo Campos, an old-fashioned politician who belonged in Rousseff’s coalition until recently. Campos is far behind her in the polls, but wants to be President. 

Inflation is tamed now. Creative accounting is going soon. But now the stakes are higher. The elements to consider are much more plentiful. Decisions in Brasília aren’t all that matter. As a country making difficult choices, Brazil will be on show to the rest of the world like never before in 2014. This could usher in a period of calm or destabilise the nation again. At least everyone will discover Brazil isn’t just an exotic nation; it is a complex place that is not for beginners. 

Or tactless managers. 

About the author:

Mauricio Savarese calls himself "a political junkie" and has been covering politics since 2004. He has worked for Reuters in São Paulo and news website UOL in Brasília. He shares his analysis in English on his blog A Brazilian Operating in This Area


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