Brazil protesters keep up the pressure

Huge demonstrations ahead of the World Cup in 2014 continue to focus on corruption and governance issues.

Sergio Cabral
Protesters burn a puppet that symbolises Rio de Janeiro State Governor Sergio Cabral during a demonstration [AP]

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – Massive demonstrations called after a bus fare hike in Sao Paulo and other cities in Brazil have developed into a nation-wide movement that is far from finished.

Some of the recent protests in Rio de Janeiro were triggered by the high costs of Pope Francis’ visit last week and the alleged disappearance of Amarildo de Souza, a 43-year-old construction worker from Rocinha, one of the largest favelas in the city, after he was detained by police on July 14.

Protests, occupations of government buildings and massive public debates are becoming a part of everyday life for Brazilian youth in other important cities as well, like Belo Horizonte, Porto Alegre, Vitoria, among others.

On July 28, around 30 people began spending the night near the street where Rio state governor, Sergio Cabral, lives. Other protests have been continuing through the week.

“I want to make an appeal from the heart: no more protests in front of my house, I have small children. Demonstrations in front of the government palace (are fine, because they) are a part of the democratic game. I’m not a dictator. I’m open to dialogue and to the demonstrations,” Cabral said in a press conference Monday.

Protester demands

Although Brazil’s largest marches happened in Rio, a survey carried out by Al Jazeera found that Brazilians have broader demands apart from local grievances such as the proposed hike in bus fares. A total of 544 people were interviewed around the country.

Putting an end to government corruption was the most visible demand of demonstrators, followed by calls for more transparency in public service spending; an end to police violence and a more participatory political system.

At the same time, 77 percent of respondents said they strongly agree or agree that popular interests should be prioritised over economic ones related to World Cup and Olympics projects.

Joao Roberto Lopes, coordinator of Mais Democracia Institute and professor at the Political Studies at UniRio, said that discontent over corruption and a lack of transparency in public spending can be read as a broader dissatisfaction with current political institutions.

“There is one element that unites both top demands: the submission by political institutions to economic interests,” Lopes told Al Jazeera.

He cites the case of Rio de Janeiro as an example, where thousands have been taking to the streets on a daily basis for different reasons. Ongoing demonstrations call for the fall of Rio de Janeiro’s state governor because of his supposed benefits from public money and the poor quality of education, healthcare, security and management of World Cup and Olympics projects.

Political failures

Professor Lopes added that apart from Cabral’s policies being tied to powerful economic interests, he fails at creating dialogue with the population.

“He forged a meeting with fake youth representatives. On the other hand, he uses the police in a repressive strategy to defend himself against the population. He is isolating himself, giving the people more reasons to protest,” he told Al Jazeera. “If there is no response by the government, demonstrations will be even stronger in 2014, ahead of the World Cup.”

When contacted by Al Jazeera, Sergio Cabral’s communications team refused to answer questions by email.

The governor’s most recent response to protests was signing a decree creating a Special Commission to Investigate Acts of Vandalism in Public Demonstrations. The text was published on July 25 after alterations to a version released days earlier, because of criticism by experts. Many social media commentators compared the proposed legislation to decrees signed during Braziil’s military dictatorship.

The commission is entitled to take all necessary measures to investigate acts of vandalism during protests, including breaking individual’s privacy in cases permitted by the law. According to the decree, these cases will have “absolute priority” over other crimes.

Professor Claudio Couto, from the Public Management department at the Getulio Vargas Foundation, puts the Rio case in a broader context and believes that the common denominator of protests are calls to improve the quality of popular representation in political institutions.

“Politicians’ morals won’t change in any case. People on the streets aren’t exactly calling for a political reform, but it could be a way to ease the bad use of public money,” he said.

On June 24, President Dilma Rousseff gave a speech launching five policy plans in response to protests. One of them aimed at building a political reform to “broaden popular participation and the horizons of citizenship”.
She proposed a debate over a popular referendum to authorise establishing a specific constituent process that would implement the reform – an idea that was quickly rejected.

In response to Rousseff’s request, on July 16, the Chamber of Deputies launched a workgroup to discuss political reforms. Fourteen congressmen have 90 days to define the issues that might go through a popular referendum. Congress has opened a website for the population to take part in the debate.

Campaign funding

Congressman Candido Vaccarezza, coordinator of the workgroup, told Al Jazeera that among the most discussed topics are the voting system and campaign funding rules. However, possible changes are unlikely to go before voters until October 2014 when Brazil will hold presidential elections.

The current system allows electoral campaigns to be funded by companies, individuals and the state. Couto believes that companies should not be allowed to donate money to candidates. But if they are allowed to contribute, such funding should be transparent and limited. Firms providing services to the public sector should be banned from financing campaigns, he said.

The streets have become a space to build politics, in popular assemblies, protests, occupations and festivals. We plan on having permanent occupations in the centre of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo in order to build a system of constant social pressure

by Pablo Capilé, a representative from Fora do Eixo collective

“It gives the economic power too much weight in political processes, which is undesirable. If one company donates money to a candidate, the elected politician will act according to its interests,” Couto told Al Jazeera.
“Public funding would guarantee a fairer dispute, because parties may refuse to receive money from a company and companies may choose which parties they want to fund.” 

The coordinator of the Mais Democracia Institute said that private funding creates improperly privileged relations between the market and the state.

“Brazil’s four largest construction companies have donated $266m to electoral campaigns since 2002. And the companies that have more connections with political power are the ones to receive the largest loans by Brazil’s development bank (BNDES),” said Lopes.

“Our country needs to advance democracy over the economic power. This kind of information is out of society’s reach,” he told Al Jazeera.

On that same speech in June, president Rousseff also called for a law to classify corruption as heinous crime.
However, professor Carlos Ari Sundfeld, from the Law School of São Paulo at Getúlio Vargas Foundation, believes that harsher penalties won’t end corruption.

“If the penalty is more severe, the judges are more careful. It is likely corruption will be less punished. And criminal procedures in Brazil are endless as they are”, he told Al Jazeera.

According to Sundfeld, limiting the amount of money invested in propaganda and reducing the number of appointed positions in the public administration could reduce corruption opportunities.

“Appointed positions are badly paid, but put people in privileged positions, allowing them to do illegal business within the public administration”, said Sundfeld. The bill is due to be voted on in August.

No matter what the next responses to protests might be, Pablo Capilé, a representative from Fora do Eixo collective, an umbrella group gathering social movements in more than 200 cities, thinks that Brazilians won’t leave the streets any time soon. “The streets have become a space to build politics, in popular assemblies, protests, occupations and festivals. We plan on having permanent occupations in the centre of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo in order to build a system of constant social pressure so that the government keeps on moving forward,” he told Al Jazeera.

“Brazil has a tradition in popular organisation and ongoing events are giving even more confidence to social movements. I hope that the next leaderships will arise from this, which could oxygenise our failed representation system.”

Source: Al Jazeera