Twenty cents, that’s what we’re talking about. The massive mobilization of the Brazilian population in June was sparked off by the fight to get rid of the 20 cent hike in public transport fares. Students were the first to call for the marches, which this time had a new impact. The harsh repression by the police and the bad coverage they received in the press had a reverse effect because rather than stifling the movement, they strengthened it. It might have been just a few cents increase, but these few cents weigh heavily in the budgets of Brazilian families already deep in debt due to the bubble created by credit expansion under President Lula.
These twenty cents aroused the fury of the people against established politicians and institutions which left no sphere of power untouched. The President, the Congress, governors and mayors, all of them were targets of criticism and protest on the streets. The popular marches in which millions of Brazilians took part tipped the center of gravity in national politics from government headquarters to the streets and led to a breakdown in political stability . The approval rating of all governments had plummeted by the end of June and the recent 6% rise in the popularity of President Dilma, for example, is still not enough to make good the loss of nearly 30% of her approval rating after the marches.
You need to bear one thing in mind which is that Brazil has never experienced a real state of prosperity. In this country we have one of the world’s largest social inequalities. The rich are very rich, the poor are very poor, and our middle class cannot afford the annual increase in public transportation. The much vaunted upward social mobility of a significant portion of the population is wildly exaggerated and was only made possible by liberalizing consumption through credit and tax exemptions for the home appliance and automobile industries. And it has not given Brazilians access to social rights such as health and public education, as enshrined in our Constitution.
The Workers’ Party (PT), that has run the country for ten years now first emerged amid the marches and strikes that overthrew the military dictatorship. Now it is confronted with people burning its flag and vilifying its leaders on the streets. As the strongest parliamentary opposition – led by the PSDB – has a program which is also targeted at the elites, disillusionment with political parties has become widespread. Brazilians have found that the internet is a new way for organizing their anger and protesting the rank inefficiency of institutions. The movement on the streets of Brazil presented itself as horizontal and nonpartisan. And in the struggle for social rights, it has situated itself in the outpouring of global outrage that occupied Wall Street in New York and the Puerta del Sol Square in Madrid.
What do the voices from the streets say? This question is a permanent issue in conversations in social networks, the mainstream press and the three branches of the Republican government. We want an end to corruption and state inefficiency, as well as “FIFA standard” public services. While many Brazilians do not own a house, have a limited standard of public education and die waiting in lines at state hospitals, the government squanders billions on stadiums for the World Cup, to meet high technical requirements of the “Fédération Internationale de Football Association”, the so-called “FIFA Standard” of quality.
And why are popular demands not being met? Because the Brazilian economy in its present state does not allow for reconciliation of the interests of the majority with the interests of the rich, something that former president Lula managed to do. It is very striking how much the allegiance of our government seems to lie with the economic elite, especially bankers and contractors. The increasing price of food is what drives inflation, and in the last few weeks uncontrolled exchange rates – triggered by the skyrocketing price of the dollar and the euro – have worsened the situation of our trade balance which now stands at US$ 4.73 billion. Low growth of GDP which was a mere 0.9% in 2012 is now being repeated in 2013.
In this context, different types of employees in different branches of industry have rejected the apathic stance of their trade unions – which are generally driven by the parties in power – and staged a huge national strike. The first national strike of the year happened on July 11, and was the strongest for decades, as it was heeded in almost all cities across Brazil. Another strike for better working conditions and increased access to social rights took place on August 30, though not with the same massive turnout.
But the new feature of this mobilized Brazil took place in September 7, our Independence Day. For the first time in several decades the date was marked by protests, reinforcing the June demands, and once again massive police repression could not prevent people of all social classes from taking to the streets. Although we have not yet reached all our demands, we have achieved a reduction in bus fares, and now we are pushing for transparency measures in the Congress – such as the end of the secret ballot to revoke corrupt politicians’ mandates. However, the greatest legacy of June is this whole new political situation, defined by the massive participation of people determined to fight for their rights.
The June street protests taught us the strength that comes with numbers and the force for change that a popular movement can unleash. Brazil now has a huge opportunity to emerge from this process as a stronger and more democratic nation. We need to reinvent political representation and politics itself. And to do this we should follow the lesson so loudly proclaimed on Madrid’s Puerta del Sol: “If they don’t let us dream, we won’t let them sleep!”