With the election of President Dilma Rousseff, Brazil decided to pick up the pace in its effort to become a global power. Although quite a few steps in this direction had been initiated before, they were then given a renewed impetus: see the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development and Rio +20, both in 2012; the FIFA World Cup in 2014; the 2016 Olympic Games; the ongoing quest for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council; the active role in the growing prominence of the “emerging economies” (BRICS – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa); José Graziano da Silva’s 2012 appointment as Director-General of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and, as of 2013, Roberto Azevedo’s appointment as Director General of the World Trade Organization; an aggressive policy for the exploration of natural resources both in Brazil and in Africa, particularly in Mozambique; the favouring of large-scale industrial agriculture, namely with respect to livestock and soy production as well as agro-fuels.
Boasting a positive international image earned by President Lula’s social inclusion policies, this developmentalist Brazil has come across in the eyes of the world as a novel, benevolent, inclusive type of power. Thus the international community couldn’t be more surprised when, over the last week, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets of the country’s major cities in order to demonstrate. While Turkey’s recent demonstrations were promptly explained away in terms of the “two Turkeys” interpretation, it has proved more difficult to recognize the coexistence of “two Brazils.” Nevertheless, there it is before our own eyes. The difficulty in recognizing the latter phenomenon lies in the very nature of the “other Brazil,” which tends to defy simplistic analyses. It is made up of three narratives and temporalities. The first is the narrative of social exclusion (in one of the world’s most unequal countries), of the landowning oligarchies, of violent bossism (caciquismo) and of small, racist political elites. It goes back to colonial times and has replicated itself in ever-changing shapes to this day. The second narrative is that of the claim for participatory democracy. It has been around for 25 years, its most salient moments being the constitutional process leading to the 1988 Constitution, the participatory budgets on urban policies taking place in hundreds of municipalities, President Collor de Mello’s 1992 impeachment, and the establishment of citizens councils in the major spheres of public policy, particularly health and education, at all levels (local, state and federal) of state intervention. No more than ten years old, the third narrative consists of the broad policies for social inclusion adopted by President Lula da Silva from 2003 onwards. These policies resulted in a significant reduction of poverty, the emergence of a consumerist middle class, the acknowledgment of racial discrimination against the indigenous populations as well as people of African descent, affirmative action policies, and a growing recognition of quilombolas and indigenous land.
Since President Rousseff took office we have been witnessing a slowdown, if not a shutdown, of the last two narratives. And because politics does not allow for the existence of a vacuum, the wasteland left by those narratives was filled by the first, older narrative, now given new strength under the new raiments of capitalist development at all costs, and by the new (and also the old) forms of corruption. The varieties of participatory democracy have been co-opted, neutralized under the weight of the big infrastructures and mega-projects. Thus they were no longer capable of motivating the younger generation, whose members, dazzled by the new consumerism or obsessed with desiring it, were bereft of an inclusive life within a family and a community. The policies aimed at social inclusion dried up, no longer meeting the expectations of those who felt they deserved more and better than that. The quality of urban life worsened as precedence was given to internationally prestigious events that ended up absorbing the investments that were supposed to improve transportation, education and public services in general. Racism continued to be felt both in the social fabric and in the police forces. There was an increase in the killing of indigenous and peasant leaders, who were demonized as “obstacles to development” by those in political power, for the simple fact that they fought for their land and their livelihoods, against agribusiness and against mining and hydroelectric mega-projects (such as the Belo Monte dam, built to provide the extractive industry with cheap energy).
President Dilma was the thermometer of this insidious shift. She was blatantly hostile to social movements and the indigenous peoples, which came as a dramatic change in comparison with her predecessor. She did fight corruption, but left to her more conservative political partners the agendas that she regarded as less important. Thus the Human Rights Commission, which historically had always shown a commitment to minority rights, was put under the leadership of a homophobic evangelical pastor and is now pursuing a legislative proposal known as the “gay cure”. The demonstrations show that it is clearly the President’s awakening we are faced with, not the country’s. With her eyes set both on the international experience and on the 2014 presidential elections, President Dilma has made it very clear that repressive responses can only intensify existing conflicts and insulate governments. By the same token, the mayors of nine capital cities have decided to lower the price of transportation. This is just a start. For it to be consistent, the two narratives (participatory democracy and intercultural social inclusion) must resume their former momentum. If that is the case, Brazil will be showing the world that the only way to make sure that the price of progress is worth paying is by consolidating democracy, redistributing generated wealth, and acknowledging the cultural and political differences of those for whom political progress without dignity equals retrogression.
Boaventura de Sousa Santos is the Director of the Center for Social Studies, University of Coimbra.