I am a Brazilian with love and pride

Development Policy,Inclusive Politics21 Jun 2013Conor Foley

The protest movement in Brazil has been likened to an awakening giant, that is now suddenly out of control. 

Revolutions and riots are difficult to keep up with and the piece that I wrote here was slightly out-of-date even before it appeared.

Throughout last week the protesters were being beaten, gassed and pepper-sprayed off the streets. Then, on Wednesday morning President Dilma Rousseff declared that they had strengthened Brazilian democracy and achieved a great victory. The state governors in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro announced that the 20 centavo rise in bus fares was being rescinded and also hailed the democratic spirit of the protesters. We could all go home now it seemed.

The leaders of the protests responded by calling for a million people to demonstrate across the country: Vem pra Rua! (Come to the streets). It seems like over two million may have actually turned out yesterday.

In Brasilia – where I live – a fairly half-hearted attempt was made to storm, or burn, the Foreign Office (Itamaraty). There were isolated acts of vandalism in other cities. One protester was killed in Sao Paulo when an enraged motorist rammed into the crowd with his car. A courthouse was attacked in another city and Rio de Janeiro echoed to the sound of stun grenades and falling tear gas canisters.

A general strike has been called for 1 July. How widely it will be heeded will probably be largely determined by what happens tonight and in the next couple of days. The protest movement has been likened to an awakening giant, that is now suddenly out of control. Widespread violence over this weekend will undoubtedly fracture what has, up until now, been a largely middle-class led campaign.

Yesterday, activists from PT (Partido dos Trabalhadores – the Workers’ Party) tried to join the demonstrations in Sao Paulo, together with representatives of CUT (the main trade union federation). The demonstrators attacked them and ripped up their banners. You can see what happened here.

PT is the party of Dilma and, before her, President Lula . It heads a coalition that governs at the national level, although rival parties control many of the large states. Since it is the states that control most social spending and have responsibility for issues such as policing, PT’s attempts to place itself on the same side as the demonstrators is not quite as opportunistic as it may seem. A party of former guerrillas, trade unionists and Catholic liberation theologists, it is largely credited with leading the campaign for direct democracy which helped to bring down the dictatorship in the 1980s. For the current generation of protesters, though, many of whom had hardly been born at the time, it is now just part of the corrupt establishment.

So, who are the protesters and what do they want?

Well you can have a look at their Facebook page here and analyses of their political significance from the neo-liberal Economist here and noted left social commentator, Boventura de Sousa Santos, here. What they both agree on is that Brazil is facing a crisis of social and political exclusion, largely brought to a head by a weakening economy.

After shrugging off the world financial crisis at the time, the Brazilian economy is now facing a sharp downturn, rising inflation and – particularly in recent weeks – a sharp devaluation in its currency. The economic miracle, proclaimed by Lula a couple of years agohas quite definitely turned out to be an illusion. This leaves Brazil facing all of the problems that never really went away. Despite some progress in tackling poverty, it remains a deeply unequal society in which levels of poverty and violent crime remain shockingly high.

And this is the fundamental weakness of the current social movement. If you look at the demonstrations, it is notable that the predominant colours are green and yellow and, apart from the handmade signs, the only banners being carried are the national flag. The main chant is Eu sou Brasileiro com muito orgulho e muito amor (I am a Brazilian with great love and pride, which sounds much better when you hear it sung in Portuguese) and various versions of the national anthem.

But a national movement for ‘good governance’ ducks the hard political choices that all governments necessarily face. It also assumes a degree of social coherence and unity that is sadly absent in today’s Brazil. The irony is that it is the very things that the demonstrators are protesting about, which are likely to place the movement under its greatest strains in the days to come.