Thinking global, living local: Voices in a globalized world

240,000 Brazilians protest across country for reforms

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São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and five other Brazilian cities have already announced bus fare cuts

Brazilian protesters stand in the reflecting pool in front of the National Congress in Brasilia on the evening of June 17, 2013. (photo by Rogério Thomaz Jr., some rights reserved under Creative Commons.)

Brazilian protesters stand in the reflecting pool in front of the National Congress in Brasilia on the evening of June 17, 2013. (photo by Rogério Thomaz Jr., some rights reserved under Creative Commons.)

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

BRASILIA, Brazil – In a movement devoid of any overt political demands and run mostly by young Brazilians fed up with being ignored for so long, Brazilians across the country spilled out into the streets on Monday night (June 17) to protest rising bus fares, huge federal government expenditure on football stadiums for the 2014 World Cup, and a chronic lack of investment in healthcare and education.

An estimated 240,000 people took to the streets in Brasilia, São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Belo Horizonte, Salvador, Maceió, Vitoria, Porto Alegre, Fortaleza, Curitiba and Belém. The biggest turnouts were in Rio de Janeiro where an estimated 100,000 people took to the streets, and in São Paulo where an estimated 60,000 people protested. These were the biggest street protests since the ones in 1992 calling for the impeachment of the then president Fernando Collor de Mello.

The protests are already showing results with five Brazilian cities announcing they were reducing their bus fares by 10 centavos, or 5 US cents on Tuesday 18 June. With an eye on the 2014 elections, the governor of Pernambuco, Eduardo Campos, who is planning to run for the presidency next year, denied that he had decided to reduce bus fares in Recife to appease the protesters.

Brazil is currently hosting the Confederations Cup football tournament, with matches being held at many of the gleaming new stadiums built with public money to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. On Sunday, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff was booed by spectators at the National Stadium in Brasilia when she opened the tournament. That stadium cost a whooping US$600 million to build and was delivered over budget and behind schedule just in time to host the opening match of the tournament.

The day before the tournament kicked off, homeless people protesting the high cost of hosting the World Cup next year, burned a line of tires on the main road next to the stadium, blocking traffic for several hours. On Monday, Globo TV revealed that one of the leaders of that protest was an assistant in the presidential Office of Strategic Affairs in Brasilia.

The protest in Rio turned ugly on Monday night when a small group of protesters broke off from the main group and marched to the local Legislative Assembly building where they began throwing stones and Molotov cocktails at police guarding the building. During the night, around 70 policemen and 45 legislative workers were pinned inside the building for several hours, with 20 of them injured and unable to receive medical attention as emergency workers could not get inside the building. The head of the assembly estimated that the building suffered around R$2 million (US$1 million) in damage. Vandals also turned their rage against shops and banks in the downtown area of Rio, ransacking them and setting two cars on fire. The trapped policemen were finally rescued later in the night after Special Forces arrived to get them out in safety.

In Brasilia, the federal capital, around 10,000 protesters marched to the National Congress building around 6 pm, and some 3000 of them ran up the ramp of the building at around 7:45 pm, occupying the rooftop of the iconic building with its cup and saucer coverings over the Senate and the House of Representatives designed by Oscar Niemeyer. Around 600 policemen guarded the Congress, showing amazing restraint and only using pepper spray a few times when some the protesters jumped into the reflecting pools in front of the building, and again when some of them tried to get inside the building itself.

This was in sharp contrast with the violent police reaction in São Paulo to protests there last week. Last Thursday the police used large quantities of tear gas and rubber bullets to push back protesters from the main Avenida Paulista. They also targeted journalists covering the protest, shooting rubber bullets directly at several of them, and hitting two of them in the eyes. Sergio Lima, a photographer for Futura Press, was the worst affected, and doctors say that he has less than a 5% chance of regaining vision in the eye that was hit. Giuliana Vallone, a reporter for the Folha de São Paulo, was also hit in the eye, but doctors say she will regain vision. In all 105 protesters were injured in protests over several days, with 12 policemen wounded.

Many blame the governor of São Paulo, Geraldo Alckmin, for the escalation in police violence after he publicly called for a tougher crackdown on the protesters after their first protest caused huge rush hour traffic jams which caused gridlock in the streets of the central area of the city. After the many injuries suffered during the second protest, police in São Paulo were ordered to stop using rubber bullets, and resort to pepper spray instead.

Born from the Passe Livre (Free Pass) movement, which calls for free public transport in all Brazilian cities, the protests on Monday were remarkable for their lack of any political bias – to such an extent that some protesters who showed up wearing t-shirts of various political parties in protests in Rio and Brasilia were forcibly ejected from the marches. In a survey of protesters in Sao Paulo by Datafolha, 84% of those polled said they had no favorite political party.

Young Brazilian protesters hold up signs during a march in Rio de Janeiro on June 17, 2013. (photo by Tiago Schaewer, some rights reserved)

Young Brazilian protesters hold up signs during a march in Rio de Janeiro on June 17, 2013. (photo by Tiago Schaewer, some rights reserved under Creative Commons.)

Social media sites, especially Facebook, have been instrumental in mobilizing the protesters, the majority of whom are students in their 20s. A hike in São Paulo bus fares from R$3 (US$1.50) to R$3.20 (US$1.60) is what sparked the first demonstration. The mayors of São Paulo, Paulo Haddad and Alckmin were initially dismissive of the demand to dial back the bus fare to R$3, openly scoffing at the idea of free buses which is the ultimate goal of the Passe Livre movement.

President Rousseff said on Tuesday that she supported peaceful demonstrations as a legitimate and democratic right of the people. But government officials have openly shown their frustration at not knowing whom to talk with in the Passe Livre movement in order to try and stop the marches which are disrupting the country and embarrassing Brazil’s government on the world stage. Yet this has been to the advantage of the protesters as police do not have any clear leaders that they can arrest in an attempt to stem the protests.

“This revolt did not happen because of a 20 centavo rise in bus fares,” writes Brazilian activist Raphael Tsavkko Garcia on his blog The Angry Brazilian. “It happened because of the rise in fares across the whole country. While the Workers Party is preaching that everything is honky dory here, the people on the streets have shown that this is not true. We are not happy with the World Cup, nor with the state of our education and healthcare.”

These protests have gone completely against the narrative the Brazilian government has been spinning over the past couple of years that Brazil is striding purposefully towards its rightful place as a developed nation and will reach it in the near future. Weaker economic growth this year coupled with a slight rise in inflation have brought to the surface the anxiety felt by many Brazilians that all is not well in the enchanted kingdom of Workers Party television ads. The minimum salary is R$678 (US$312) a month which is barely enough for one person to survive on, let alone a family of four.

Protesters are fed up with high-priced low-quality public transport systems. According to a Folha de São Paulo survey which looked at the time a person has to work to pay a bus fare, the average Brazilian worker has to work 13.89 minutes to pay his or her bus fare, while a worker in Argentina only has to work 1.44 minutes, and a New Yorker needs to work 6.33 minutes to pay the fare.

On Wednesday, June 19, São Paulo state governor Alckmin and São Paulo city mayor Haddad announced at a joint press conference that all bus, metro and train fares were being reduced to R$3 from R$3.20, a key demand of the Passe Livre movement. One of the leaders of the movement, Caio Martins, immediately announced after the fare reduction was made known that the protest planned for Thursday, June 20, on the Avenida Paulista was going ahead as planned. “It’s going to be a big party to celebrate our victory, but will also be an act of solidarity for those who live in cities that still haven’t reduced their tariffs,” he told O Globo. “The fare reduction is an important decision because it shows that fares are political choices. If they can raise fares to R$3.20 and then reduce them again to R$3, why can’t they reduce fares to R$2 or even to zero?” he added.

Analysts predict that street protests may well continue through to the World Cup in June next year and the Brazilian presidential elections due to be held in October 2014.

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rasheedabou Twitter: @RasheedsWorldRasheed

I am a Saudi-American journalist who grew up in Switzerland and Brazil. I studied at Swarthmore College in the US, and then worked for 20 years in Saudi Arabia and the UAE as a reporter, editor and columnist in English-language newspapers. I moved back to Brazil in 2008, and am now a columnist on the Arab world for O Globo newspaper and a correspondent for Al-Ahram Weekly in Cairo. I speak English and Portuguese fluently.