Local reporting: So what is really going on in Brazil?

By Bruno Lima Patrício dos Santos, August 12th, 2013

The wave of protests that has swept the country in recent weeks will go down in Brazilian political history as one of its defining moments. Not only the international community but also Brazilians themselves were surprised by the speed of the process and the dimensions of the popular movements that are still flaring up across the vast territory of Brazil. Opposition to government spending on the World Cup is just one among the broad and diverse range of grievances highlighted by Brazilians demanding improvement in their standard of living. In response to the construction of extravagant football stadiums, protesters hold signs bearing demands such as “We want hospitals and schools in line with FIFA quality standards” and “I want my money back from the World Cup, I need it for health and education”. The FIFA World Cup, to be hosted by Brazil in 2014, has become a rallying point in the battle against inequalities, social injustices and the political corruption that reigns in the largest country in South America.

Although the movement only achieved mass proportions in 2013, the beginning of the story of the protests was on 27 August 2012 in the city of Natal in northern Brazil, when the municipal government announced an increase in the price of bus tickets. This brought many – mostly student – protesters to the streets. Three days later, a second protest took place and conflict with the police ensued. Public pressure forced local politicians to reduce the ticket prices. In May of this year, the Prefecture of Natal once again increased the price of public transport, resulting in renewed conflict.

In the course of 2013, other protests took place in various parts of the country, such as in Porto Alegre, the capital city of the southern State of Rio Grande do Sul, and Goiânia, the capital of the central State of Goiás. During this initial period, events in Goiás came to a head on 28 May 2013, when four buses were destroyed – two burnt out and two ransacked – and 24 students were arrested for vandalism and civil disobedience. Nevertheless, the protests achieved a positive result, as the students of Goiás managed to get the cost of public transport reduced.
When the increase in ticket prices reached the two largest cities in the country, São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, the protests became mass movements. Almost all of them were subject to disproportionate force exercised by the Military Police of the States, with the use of tear gas and non-lethal weapons, as well as the imprisonment of protesters.

The largest television network in the country, Rede Globo, sought to portray the protesters as criminals, referring to them as vandals and transmitting only scenes of conflict and damage to property, without also covering the general context of the protests. This type of media coverage only served to reinforce a widespread sense of injustice, increasing the general public’s level of support for the protesters. The police’s efforts to suppress the protests were ultimately counter-productive, as the intensification of police control led ever more people to join the protests on the streets.

As in the case of the Arab Spring, the protests were mostly organised on social networks. Facebook was the main tool used to spread information. Various groups took charge of receiving and spreading the information gathered by the protesters, so that everyone involved was aware of what was happening in other parts of the country, creating a sense of coherence among the daily protests in geographically distant locations. The “AnonymousBrazil” profile on Facebook, one such group, already has over one million adherents.

General meeting, 24th June 2013 at the IFCS
General meeting, 24th June 2013 at the IFCS

However, the protests are not only organised on social networks. In Rio de Janeiro, the protesters hold regular general meetings at the Institute of Philosophy and Social Sciences (IFCS) of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, to debate and decide upon the planning and objectives of the protests, decisions that are then disseminated through social networks.

As a result of the fast-growing number of protest marches, additional demands emerged within the movements, including issues that had been leaving a bitter taste in the mouths of many Brazilians for a long time. The protest events became decentralised, without party political leaders, allowing every social group or individual to seek to voice their discontent with aspects of Brazilian politics. The impression is that the population do not identify with the political representation by the politicians who govern them. This plural and multi-faceted character is a feature of a type of protest movement that mixes the specific issues of certain social groups (gender-based groups, ethnic groups, social classes) and the local issues of each State and city with issues of national significance.

Despite the decentralised nature of the movements, they have some definite common goals, such as: the reduction of prices and improvement in the quality of public transport; combating corruption; political reform; improvement in health and education services; salary increases for teachers; opposition to the costs of the World Cup; and the demilitarisation of the police. These demands have been clearly articulated on the streets and on the internet.

Social networks were also harnessed by the protesters to report on the violent actions of the police by uploading photos and videos, as well as to respond to the distorted way in which the major television channels were covering events.

After the initial attempt to tarnish protesters as criminal elements, official organs sought to issue inaccurate data on the size of the protests. On 20 June 2013 in the city of Rio de Janeiro, the largest protest that Brazil has ever seen took place. The main avenue of the city centre, Avenida Presidente Vargas, and the adjacent streets, were besieged by protesters. According to the Rio de Janeiro State Military Police, the protest involved just 300,000 people. The protesters themselves flatly rejected this estimate. On social networks, bloggers compared photos of the protest with photos of this year’s Carnaval parade, resulting in an estimate of over one million people on the streets that day. The most iconic section of the Carnaval parade takes place on Avenida Rio Branco, which is 33m wide and 1.8km long. 1.8 million people attended that event. The protest on 20 June, not counting adjacent streets, filled an avenue 80-90m wide and 4.13km long with people.

Protest on Avenida Presidente Vargas, RJ, 20th June 2013
Protest on Avenida Presidente Vargas, RJ, 20th June 2013

The following day, President Dilma Rousseff announced her response to the main demands of the protesters on national radio and television stations. She presented three broad areas of urgent action: The development of a National Action Plan on Urban Mobility, focusing on public transport; allocating 100% of oil revenues to education; and immediately contracting thousands of doctors from abroad in order to increase the capacity of the Single Health System (Sistema Único de Saúde). The President’s speech received a mixed welcome, but the protests continued across the country.

After the protests had forced various State governments to reduce the cost of public transport, the activism on the streets shifted its focus to opposing the Constitutional Amendment Proposal no. 37 (PEC 37), which was awaiting a vote by the Chamber of Deputies (the lower house of the Brazilian Parliament). This proposal to amend the Constitution has earned the nickname “Impunity PEC” as it foresees limiting the powers of Government Ministries to conduct investigations into organised crime, misappropriation of funds, corruption, abuses perpetrated by agents of the State and violations of human rights. Such investigations would become the responsibility of the Civil and Federal police forces.

Just as in the case of the bus tickets, in response to the clamour of the protests, members of parliament swiftly altered their stances. When the proposal was launched in 2011, there was wide support in parliament. Now, following the events of recent weeks, PEC 37 was quickly put to the vote on 25 June and defeated by an overwhelming majority of 430 votes against, nine in favour and two abstentions.

As with any political drama staged on Brazilian soil, former Brazilian football stars entered the fray. Ronaldo, a world champion in 1994 and 2002 and currently ambassador for the 2014 World Cup, declared that “you can’t host the World Cup in a hospital”. The player was strongly criticised and became the target of biting satire on the streets and social networks.

The words of Pelé, world champion in 1958, 1962 and 1970, and fellow World Cup 2014 ambassador, also provoked discomfort among many Brazilians, when he beseeched his compatriots to “forget all this confusion in Brazil and let’s focus on the fact that the Brazilian national football team is our country, it is our blood. Let’s not distract the team”. Criticisms of Pelé were less incisive that those directed at Ronaldo. In fact, the protests are not specifically directed at the Brazilian football team, but there is an almost universal dissatisfaction with the public money that has been spent on the hosting of the event during times of continued social inequalities, police repression and corruption in politics.

Romário, a world champion footballer in 1994, voiced the most prominent celebrity criticisms of FIFA and the use of public funds, declaring that “the World Cup will be the greatest robbery in history”. According to the Sports Ministry, the World Cup has already cost Brazilian coffers 28 billion Reais. The government predicts a total cost of up to 33 billion Reais.

The Confederations Cup matches have been marked by conflicts between protesters and police, even if the atmosphere within the stadiums has been festive and jubilant. In the State of Minas Gerais, after Brazil’s victory over Italy, one protester fell from a viaduct and died later in hospital.

But the most lethal event of the entire period was a massacre at the favela of Nova Holanda in the district of Maré, Rio de Janeiro, on Monday last. Police action in response to the protests taking place on the main streets close to the favela spiralled into a violent confrontation with drug dealers, resulting in eleven deaths.

The protesters of Rio de Janeiro are organising a national protest march towards the Maracanã Stadium on the occasion of the final match of the Confederations Cup, between Brazil and Spain, on Sunday 30 June. Despite the climate of uncertainty surrounding the impact of the protests and commitments to the 2014 World Cup, the Brazilians heading back out onto the streets are not anti-World Cup per se. They are simply convinced that the economic growth that the country has experienced, and such large events as the World Cup, should benefit all Brazilians and not just a minority.

It may seem puzzling to some that the country of football, with five World Cup titles, should articulate such strong resistance to hosting the World Cup. But the real message is that the Brazilian people will not stand idly by as football, inherent to their popular culture, is transformed into a great festival for certain amongst them who benefit from public money, while corruption corrodes the republican foundations of the country and the police and politicians continue to prevent its most disadvantaged inhabitants from ever joining the party.

Bruno Lima Patrício dos Santos, born 1981 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Bruno Lima Patrício dos Santos teaches sport at public schools in the Brazilian cities of Rio de Janeiro and Niterói. In 2006, he concluded his studies in sports science at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) and completed a Masters in Social Policies at the State University UFF in 2010. Since 2012, he has been conducting doctoral research in Public Policies and Education at the State University UERJ. He grew up in a favela in the city of Rio de Janeiro and perceives the current social unrest in the country from various perspectives. Today, he is a member of the emerging middle classes and, like many of his compatriots, he is deeply concerned about corruption in Brazilian educational and social policies. He is also an active member of the teachers’ union. In this article, he reports on the Brazilian protests in relation to the realities on the ground, providing a counterpoint to existing media coverage, which has been filtered through Brazilian news agencies.

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