On Thursday, June 13, my friend Piero Locatelli, a journalist for the magazine CartaCapital, headed to the Praça do Patriarca in the old center of São Paulo to cover the fourth day of protests in Brazil’s largest city. The protests had been organized by the Movimento do Passe Livre, or Free Fare Movement, a group formed by suburban and middle-class students in response to a nationwide 20 centavo raise in bus fare that had taken effect on June 1. Their first three days had drawn several thousand people out onto the streets of São Paulo. Weeks earlier, similar demonstrations had taken place in other large cities like Salvador, Porto Alegre, and Goiânia.
I had heard about Thursday’s demonstration from Piero the night before. We had been exchanging text messages when he said he needed to wake up early to cover the protests that I, in New York, had been vaguely following in the news. When I arrived home on Thursday night, I learned within minutes of logging on to Twitter and Facebook that he had been arrested earlier that day. Seeing two young men being searched by military police in the Praça do Patriarca, Piero had approached the police, his smartphone camera on, to ask what was going on. Minutes later, Piero too had been searched and detained. The reason given: he had a bottle of vinegar, a popular remedy to weaken the effects of tear gas, in his backpack. Before Piero was taken to the police station, he managed to speak with two friends, also journalists, who reported on the arrest. That evening, my teenage sisters forwarded me a series of memes satirizing a police force who arrest young people for carrying salad dressing in their purses.
By the end of the day, 105 protestors, eighteen police officers, and fifteen journalists had been injured. One, Giuliana Vallone of Folha de São Paulo, the largest newspaper in the country, had been giving directions to a lost woman a few streets away from the protests when a police officer drove by, looked straight at Vallone’s face, and fired a rubber bullet into her left eye. Earlier on Thursday Folha de São Paulo had defended the police for trying to keep protestors from disrupting the city’s already congested traffic; the next day, Friday, June 14, the newspaper reversed its stance, criticizing the police and supporting the protestors. After a photograph of Vallone’s purple eye and a video of Piero’s arrest circulated online, thousands more people joined the protests across Brazil. On Monday, June 17, 230,000 people blocked traffic along the busiest streets in more than forty Brazilian cities.
Over the last thirty years, Brazilians have taken to the streets en masse only twice: first, as part of the Diretas Já movement of the mid-1980s, which demanded direct elections for President and an end to the country’s military dictatorship; and once again in 1992, when students with their faces painted green and yellow demanded the impeachment of Fernando Collor, the first popularly elected president following the dictatorship, on corruption charges. Until last month, protests like these seemed like a thing of the past.
In the past decade, as Brazil has expanded into the world’s sixth-largest economy, nearly 30 million Brazilians have been lifted out of poverty into the middle class, and can now afford to buy cars, finance houses, travel abroad, and send their children to college. But the country suffers from inadequate infrastructure, failing schools and hospitals, a regressive tax system, and a corrupt and bureaucratic government. Although the public transportation system is expensive, its quality is poor: most Brazilian cities have too few bus lines, and the ones they do have are underserviced and overcrowded. At the protests, posters read, “It’s not just the 20 centavos.” The grievance underlying these signs is not the fare increase but the government’s broken promise to provide public services to its citizens.
In the song “Construção,” or “Construction,” Chico Buarque’s masterpiece written in 1971, a construction worker falls from a new building and dies in the middle of the street. The song describes the absence of solidarity that characterized life under the Brazilian dictatorship; the worker’s death is noticed only because it blocks traffic and delays the weekend routines of people passing by. If the openly repressive state that “Construção” condemns no longer exists, the uneven distribution of the benefits of Brazil’s new growth means that some people still suffer disproportionately, even as the country’s center-left ruling party governs in the name of the working class. What tens of thousands of protestors are now asking is: If Brazil is rich, why do we still live poorly?
On Saturday, June 15, two days after Piero’s arrest, Brasília held the opening ceremony of the Confederations Cup in the new Mané Garrincha National Stadium. As the police held back surging protesters outside the gates, the wealthy spectators inside the stadium booed Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, when she appeared at the ceremony with the president of the FIFA soccer organization. Though Rousseff is still very popular, recent polls show her losing support as the economy has stalled and fears of rising inflation and currency devaluation have began to spread. By now, even her reelection next year seems uncertain.
The new Mané Garrincha was completed earlier this year at a cost of R$1.2 billion, the equivalent of $600 million US dollars. Brazil is building even more stadiums for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. Thirty billion reais ($15 billion USD) have been invested in the World Cup—a third of the Health Ministry budget for 2013. Seeing the rapid construction of these expensive facilities as plans for new schools and hospitals are continually delayed has made it clear to many Brazilians that when the government wishes, things get accomplished. One poster outside the Confederations Cup read, “I want a hospital with the quality of a FIFA stadium.”
On Monday, June 17, protesters broke through police barricades and assembled on the roof of the National Congress chanting, “The people have awoken.” On Tuesday, during a short speech, Rousseff claimed that the demonstrations displayed the energy of Brazilian democracy. On Wednesday, São Paulo, Rio, and dozens of other cities announced the price reduction of bus fare, but neither that nor the president’s speech allayed the zeal of the protests. Twenty days after the original bus fare raise, on Thursday, June 20, 1 million people marched in the streets throughout the country.
On Friday, June 21, Rousseff delivered a ten-minute speech on national television. Addressing the protestors, she said, “My generation fought hard so that the voice of the people could be heard. Many were persecuted, tortured, and died for this.” She was indirectly referring to her own well-known history as a guerrilla fighter of the left, imprisoned and tortured by agents of the military dictatorship. During her speech, Rousseff promised to work with representatives of Congress, the judicial system, and social organizations to improve public transportation; to bring doctors from abroad to hospitals in the provinces where the professional workforce is scarce; and to petition Congress to direct oil royalties to be spent on education reform.
Shortly after the first reports of violence—as home videos circulating through social media showed a police officer breaking the glass of his own car in what seemed like a deliberate attempt to fabricate evidence against the protestors and an MP throwing tear gas bombs at protestors who pleaded for peace on their knees—some police officers began to break ranks and join the protests. Some protestors, too, started to vandalize public buildings, subway stations, banks, and restaurants. In Rio, the Legislative Assembly was looted. In Juazeiro do Norte, a small city in the Northeast, voters cornered the mayor inside a bank.
As the protests continue, groups have begun to fight among themselves. Some have carried the flags of political parties to the protests and others, in turn, have burned these political symbols, accusing party members of opportunism. Religious organizations, anarchists, a group of mothers and children, trade unions: all kinds of disparate groups and demands are out in the streets. In the last week of June, three military veteran associations released a statement in support of the street protests, which concluded with a line from a famous song that had become an anthem of the protest against the military dictatorship thirty years ago: “Those who know take action and don’t wait for things to happen.”
The Brazilian uprising has already been compared to the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, the 15-M Movement in Spain, and even the 1968 student protests in France. As the first wave of the recent series of protests around the world, the Arab Spring inspired, directly or indirectly, all the movements that followed it, but the coincidences stop there. Likewise, the uprising in Brazil seems to share the 15-M movement’s distrust of politics, but Brazil’s economic situation bears little resemble to the stagnating wages and 27 percent unemployment rate that have contributed to the protests in Spain. In this sense, Brazil’s protests are closer to France in 1968, where protests also broke out during favorable economic times, a phenomenon Tocqueville called “the Revolution of Rising Expectations.”
Underlining the affinity between these different movements, Brazilian and Turkish emigrants in New York—who, like many others throughout Europe and Latin America, are holding demonstrations to support the protests in their countries—gathered in solidarity in Zuccotti Park, the site of the first Occupy encampment. The Turkish and Brazilian protests both resemble Occupy in their demands from, and criticisms of, their respective governments, as well as the horizontal structure of the protests—a characteristic of the ’68 protests that has been tremendously amplified by the power of social media. But they differ from the earlier movement, and from each other, in important ways.
While the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has called protesters “terrorists,” Rousseff has summoned mayors and governors to Brasília, listened to the Supreme Court, and received representatives of the Free Fare Movement. To the mayors and governors, she proposed convening a Constituent Assembly to debate changes to Brazil’s constitution. But with critics accusing her of turning Brazil into Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela, compounded with legal concerns, the proposal for a Constituent Assembly survived only twenty-four hours. Now there is talk of calling a plebiscite to change the country’s electoral law.
It is hard to understand the Brazilian uprising right now and even harder to predict what will happen next. As I write this, truck drivers are blocking the main roads of nine Brazilian states and doctors are organizing to protest Rousseff’s proposal to bring in foreign health-care workers. Continual waves of new demands are being added to existing questions that are far from settled. In Brazil, it is common to see a government “work-in-progress” sign on the long drive home from work. These signs warn drivers to resign themselves to traffic delays and half-built roads, but promise better conditions in the future. Now, at many demonstrations, protestors carry signs with a message borrowed from the government: “Sorry for the inconvenience. We are building a better Brazil.”