Breaking down Brazil’s protests

Rising social unrest has seen hundreds of thousands hit the streets over discontent with government policies.

Brazil social protests
Riot police are seen in Sao Paulo during a protest against a recent rise in transport fees [AFP]

Sao Paulo, Brazil – What started in anger over a 20 cent transport fee increase has ballooned into Brazil’s most significant social unrest in decades, with tens-of-thousands taking to the streets demanding economic justice.

For a week now annoyed Brazilians throughout the country have expressed their discontent with the status quo by massing themselves, mostly peacefully, in the country’s biggest cities.

Following the lead of São Paulo – Brazil’s biggest metropolis – other centres have seen similar scenes of mass demonstration, including Rio de Janeiro and the nation’s capital Brasília. Estimates put the number of protesters in the hundreds of thousands, with as many as 100,000 demonstrators in both São Paulo and Rio on Monday night.

For the government of President Dilma Rousseff, the demonstrations couldn’t have come at a worse time. The Confederations Cup is currently underway and Pope Francis arrives on July 22 for a weeklong stay. Brazil hosts the World Cup next year and also the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio – and the international community is watching.

It doesn’t appear the protests will fade away anytime soon. 

“It is about the 20 cent raise but in the end it is also about better transportation, better services and infrastructure … It is about living better, with more respect and dignity.

– Silvio Caccia Bava, sociologist

The government, meanwhile, deployed its National Force police unit to five of the six cities hosting the Confederations Cup. The Brasilia-based unit – consisting of special operations officers from the Ministry of Justice – have been sent to “hotspots” in the past.   

Rising fees

It all began with the decision to hike public transport fees by 20 cents in São Paulo to $1.50 per trip. But the unrest quickly spread to other cities, signaling deeper issues are at play.   

“It is about the 20 cent raise but in the end it is also about better transportation, better services and infrastructure, decentralization in management, etc. It is about living better, with more respect and dignity,” Silvio Caccia Bava, a sociologist and editor-in-chief of Le Monde Diplomatique Brazil, told Al Jazeera.

Brazil is a country with a history of economic disparity, and evidence of inequality is not hard to find in São Paulo. High fences protect its luxury condominiums, while thousands of less well-off dwell in overcrowded peripheries, barely able to eke out a living.

A developing country, Brazil still boasts the planet’s sixth-largest economy, yet people making the minimum wage earn just $313 a month and struggle to cope with a 6.5 percent annual inflation rate. 

For the average family, even a modest increase in the cost of transportation represents a considerable burden. Those concerns are magnified, protestors say, as São Paulo’s transportation system does not sufficiently serve the 20 million people in the metropolitan and surrounding areas who rely on it.

“I’m Brazilian and this is a fight for the Brazilian worker, the ones who need public transportation daily and struggle because of it,” Leonora Ferreira, a 56-year-old civil servant at Tuesday’s protest, told Al Jazeera.  

“I need to show my support because I use the bus and the metro every single day, and this will make a huge difference in my pocket. As with many other Brazilians, I have a small salary.”

Youth movement

Caccia Bava said the movement is led by students and the middle class. As it did in the “Arab Spring” rebellions, social media has played a key role in spreading word of the protests. Some of São Paulo’s older residents have taken cue from today’s tech savvy generation.

A demonstrator holds the flag of the “Free Pass” movement [Reuters]

“I was also like them in the 70’s, during the dictatorship. Today I can’t attend for health reasons, but I’m fully behind them because it’s a movement that comes from the youth.”Paulo Morais, a 56-year-old theatre director, was not taking part in the protest, but watched as a bystander.

Brazil’s mainstream media initially portrayed the demonstrations as carried out by rowdy trouble-makers following clashes between protesters and police and some acts of vandalism. That narrative has begun to shift, however.

Still, many in Brazil’s press remain uncomfortable with the upheaval, according to Caccia Bava.

“What the media have done reflects the distribution of power in this country as well,” he said. “The powerful families that own some of the main newspapers and TV networks are afraid of social movements, so they have a tendency to criminalize them. They have shifted in their narrative just because of the momentum, nothing else has changed.”

20 cents to 20 reasons

While the transport fee hikes may have sparked the mass demonstrations, Brazilians are angry at the government’s rule in general, as well as the extravagant public expenditures on the upcoming international events.  

Carina is a 22-year-old student who for the first time in her life attended a rally. “I’m tired of exploitation and injustice. Who is the World Cup for? Foreigners? To improve Brazil’s image? What about us, the Brazilian people?” she said, refusing to give her last name.

The sense of discontent over major events soon to take place in the country became even clearer this past weekend in Brasilia. While Brazil prepared to kick off against Japan on the football pitch, police outside used tear gas and other violent tactics to stop a demonstration.

Police actions have been under heavy scrutiny since the beginning of the protests and is now citied by demonstrators as one of the reasons behind the growing unrest. One galvanizing incident that went viral online was a photo showing an officer blasting pepper spray into the face of a woman.

Hundreds of people have been arrested and many others injured. The UN issued a report asking the government to hold a dialogue with protesters and calling for an investigation into police actions.

President Roussef, meanwhile, has so far shown tolerance towards the movement. “Brazil woke up stronger today”, she said after Monday’s protests. “Peaceful demonstrations only strengthen our democracy.”

“I’m tired of exploitation and injustice. Who is the World Cup for? Foreigners? … What about us, the Brazilian people?

– Carina, demonstrator

The demonstrations have worked out concerning at least one aspect, as both São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro states announced Wednesday they would revoke the transport fee hike.

The move was “important … so the city can have the tranquility needed to debate issues calmly”, Sao Paulo state Governor Geraldo Alckmin said

Bus rates have now been lowered in 11 cities to avoid an outbreak of protests.

But it remains to be seen if the moves were too little, too late. The next demonstration in São Paulo is scheduled for Thursday with organisers calling for one million people to take to the streets. Protests were also planned in more than 70 smaller cities.

The sociologist Caccia Bava said the size of the demonstrations have surprised him, adding it hasn’t been “part of our culture for a long time”.

“This was not about international pressure or Brazil’s image, this was about the people in the streets,” he said. “Such massive demonstrations were impossible to ignore, the kind we hadn’t seen for the past 20 years.”

Source: Al Jazeera