On June 13, overzealous military police in São Paulo attempted to end a bus-fare protest with batons and and tear gas. The sweeping arrests and rubber bullets were able to disperse much of the crowd that night, but not before images and testimonials were circulated widely, including of journalists and bystanders being attacked. This had been the fourth and largest demonstration of the Free Fare Movement, which had been agitating since the beginning of the month against a 20-cent rise in bus fares. Outrage quickly turned to Twitter-speed mobilization, and the movement flooded the streets again on June 17, this time with over 100,000 people and with companion protests in other large cities as well. Throughout the country pepper spray was treated with vinegar, police violence with outrage and more mobilization, and by week’s end not only had the bus-fare hike been repealed in both São Paulo and Rio, but millions of Brazilians had joined the movement with a growing list of demands, protesting World Cup projects and calling for long-promised political reforms such as the stalled campaign financing reform proposal.
By Friday, June 21, the country came to a near stand-still as more and more Brazilians took to the streets. The political tenor of the mobilization now became contradictory, if not impossible to pinpoint. If at first, in São Paulo, it had a clearly leftist, but not partisan, orientation, by week’s end there were vague anti-corruption and nationalist slogans seen on the street as well, and in some cities the visible presence of right-wing protesters. There was also looting and attempts to invade government offices. A hasty attempt by leftist parties to show support for the national government by calling for supporters to come to streets in red ended in well-publicized instances of violence against partisans. The mainstream media in Brazil, run by a notoriously powerful conglomerate virtually unchanged since the dictatorship, rapidly changed its coverage over the weekend as well. What had been calls for the repression of disruptive protesters two weeks ago became active support of the mobilization, now presenting it as a patriotic movement against corruption with the potential for an impeachment push against the Workers’ Party. For TV Globo, the main TV network in the country, or Veja magazine, its print counterpart, this was the surfacing of a national discontentment with corruption, bureaucracy, and high taxes.
Brazil’s ruling Workers Party (PT), now in power for over 10 years, certainly appears to be in disarray. Its president, Rui Falcão, called for party activists to join the mobilization, while other party members called for people to stay away. The party’s youth wing similarly called for the governing coalition to be more “daring,” and more progressive politicians within the party have responded with admiration to the protests. President Dilma Rouseff herself, in a televised statement, offered what many felt was a lukewarm response—an endorsement of peaceful protests and proposals for improvements to education and health, and promises to listen to the people on the streets.
PT has, for better or worse, become the standard-bearer of a certain kind of “pragmatic leftism” in Latin America. Now, after more than ten years of national rule, it has become common to speak of PT-style rule as combining economic growth, a market-orientation, and attention to social justice. This has provided fodder for a number of interesting debates about the left and Latin America’s future, with the PT model being most often contrasted, favorably or unfavorably, with the Bolivarian proposals of the late Hugo Chávez. These debates turn on the prominence of market rule and the role of redistributive policies. Defenders of the current Brazilian path point to a number of its most impressive achievements: a stark reduction in poverty, newfound social mobility for the lower middle-class, a doubling of the number of university students, and seemingly unstoppable economic growth.
But PT has also become adept at the kind of “listening” to which President Rouseff alluded. Before PT was known as the party of pragmatic left policies, its acclaim was that it was a radically democratic party. Born under the influences of liberation theology, new social movements, and popular education, PT was from its inception a party where activist movements could speak, and where traditional leftist ideas of class politics were conjoined with policy goals. From its very first local administrations in the 1980s, the party ran governments that relied very heavily on popular input from both organized and unorganized sectors.
The national administration has continued the tradition of dialogue; since Lula’s victory in 2002 there have been countless instances of popular participation over every imaginable issue. From labor policy, to social assistance, to urban affairs and the environment, the national government has brought citizens and civil society alike into arenas of consultation. By one figure, over a million individual Brazilians have attended a national-level participatory forum in Brasilia. Multiplied by local instances, a conservative guess would be that tens of millions of Brazilians have participated in some forum or another to debate their government policies.
So, why in the world are people taking to the streets?
While social movement activists have never had so much access to government as they do now, a common refrain is that there is a lot of listening but little else, especially over issues that conflict with powerful interests. A long-awaited land reform push has been stalled; on environmental problems the government has sided with business; on urban issues, land developers have prevailed over popular sentiment; the now-famous cash transfer program, Bolsa Familia ignored the voices of progressive anti-hunger activists; slum clearings under the banner of beautification for the World Cup and Olympics were never up to debate, nor was the government’s apparent embrace of a dictatorship-era security apparatus. Some of the energy in the streets no doubt has to do with disappointment and the growing recognition that PT, is ultimately not that different from other political parties.
But a second element is that there is a large number of people in Brazil today little moved by PT’s cultural politics or its leftist discourse. And many of them feel that they have been excluded from Brazil’s recent economic development. For every significant social advance under PT—such as ambitious affirmative action reforms—there are equally damning retreats: today elementary public education is in shambles, and urban inequality remains extreme. Brazil’s rapid development over the last several years has been a contradictory path in which the wealthy have done extremely well while many others groups have not. For those left behind, it is too much to be asked to accept postponing their aspirations in name of an elusive and abstract progressive ideal, especially while others around them have benefitted so much.
Finally, the president was notably silent on the role of the police in triggering the protests. One of Brazil’s tragic dictatorship-era legacies is an outdated and extremely violent police force, largely organized as semi-autonomous state militias, the infamous Military Police. They are so violent that Brazil has had for many years the distinction of killing more of its citizens than almost every other country in the world—despite lacking a death penalty. That police victims are overwhelmingly young, black, and poor is undisputed, but is nonetheless something Brazilians have continued to accept and that PT seems unwilling to challenge, at least in the run up to the World Cup and Olympics.
We do not yet know where these protests will lead or what its consequences will be for politics in the country. Comparisons abound: Is this the Brazilian Occupy that did not happen two years ago? Is this like what happened in Spain or Greece, or is it like the impeachment movement against President Fernando Collor de Melo in the early 1990s? Like the other uprisings around the world, it seemed to appear suddenly, but the malaise is real and the underlying issues are long-standing and complicated. Unlike Turkey, the United States, or Spain, though, Brazil is today run by a political party that in principle is committed to dialogue with social movements, to participatory democracy, and to social justice, and with a leadership that was once itself in the crosshairs of the police for wanting to change the country. Will PT have the imagination to recognize the same impulses today in Brazil’s streets?