Who Speaks for Brazil's Streets?
A student protester is arrested by military police in São Paulo on June 11, 2013.
One can only imagine the back-room discussions in Brazil and then in New York that led to Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s July 16 op-ed in the New York Times. Only a few days before, the Times had run two stories by Larry Rohter, a correspondent who has been expelled from Brazil for allegedly libeling Lula, the country’s president between 2003 and 2011. In Rohter’s story the protests that have rocked Brazil since June are about corruption and dissatisfaction with the Workers’ Party, which has been in power for more than ten years. The national administration, Rohter contends, has again and again attempted to placate the protesters with mere symbolic gestures. Lula, defending his party, prefers a different version of events in which the protests reflect the demands of people whose lives have improved but whose means of communicating are out of step with an antiquated political system.
So who has the story right? And where does Brazil stand now?
A little more than a month after a series of small of protests in São Paulo over a nine-cent bus fare increase ignited national demonstrations, the “June Movement” still lacks clear claims and proposals. It is ideologically undefined. The intensity of the protests has fallen, though the movement remains active in larger cities, particularly those hosting the 2014 World Cup. Young people and college students are a notable presence, and social media has been extremely important in bringing them together. The movement has a middle-class tinge. By some estimates, at least half of participants had never been involved in political mobilizations before. Police violence against demonstrators has also been a constant.
In some cities—such as São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, São Luís, and Belo Horizonte—Occupy-style popular assemblies are ongoing. Participants present motions and strategies and discuss a range of political concerns. Some of the principal issues are the state of public health services, education, public transportation, police violence, generalized corruption, unresponsiveness of the political system, and media monopoly. At the assemblies in São Paulo, for example, a recent topic was the role of the corporate media in politics and the lack of alternative viewpoints on television and in newspapers. The NINJA collective (whose Portuguese acronym stands for Independent Narratives, Journalism, and Action) is a good example of the creativity of this emergent movement. Founded by out-of-work journalists, the collective reports on the movement, documenting, for example, police attempts at framing protesters for vandalism.
The political process took note of the protests and responded quickly. Brazil’s political system is notoriously corrupt, and reforms had been a banner of social movements and progressive elements within the Workers’ Party for quite some time. A variety of proposals had been languishing in congress for years, and the protests inspired a renewed push to see them enacted. On June 24th, in a meeting with governors and mayors, President Dilma Rousseff put forward a five-point pact to concretely respond to the protests. The second point was a proposal to hold a plebiscite on reforms including completely public funding of electoral campaigns, laws to enable popular referenda on national policies, recalls of elected officials via popular vote, better access to public documents, and more serious punishment for corruption.
But these proposals didn’t get far. Big media outlets argued that reforms would just direct even more public money to politicians who are already overpaid. Aided by the press, center and center-right parties defeated the idea of the plebiscite. Fighting within the Workers’ Party diluted congressional support for more modest reforms, and what remains is now an anemic, multi-party commission. Most of the more progressive ideas have been removed from discussion, and one of the elements the commission is now considering would actually make it more difficult for smaller political parties to enter the fray. It appears unlikely that any meaningful political reform is on the horizon.
The protesters have not only been stymied by politicians, but have also have run up against the traditional participants in Brazil’s social movements. National movements have existed since the before the transition to democracy in the 1980s. They are large and well organized and have sought to work with the national administration. Lula’s call for the Workers’ Party and government to reestablish “daily links” with social movements is curious given how intense the dialogue has been, including with youth. National conferences and other participatory mechanisms have drawn millions of Brazilians to dialogue with the government over the last dozen years. The Landless Movement, for example, as critical as it has been of the Workers’ Party, continues to talk with it and to send its members to government fora throughout the country.
Participants in popular assemblies do not only want an end to corruption. They also distrust politicians who act legally on behalf of the powerful.
Traditional movements have a distant and cautious relationship with the recent protests. Some organized movement leaders, from the protests’ early days, have expressed suspicion at both the middle-class component and the distrust of political parties that pervades the June Movement, a supposed “fascist tendency.” Some traditional organizers claim they see evidence of right-wing manipulation in the protests and that the demonstrators are privileged people who do not understand the importance of a leftist government.
But other organizers have attempted to more centrally and visibly insert their movements into the broader wave of protests. Several of the large unions, in concert with some nationally organized movements, called for a “National Day of Struggle” on July 11, which included a general strike. The demands—for political reform and greater spending on health and education—were consonant with the concerns of the protesters.
Still, the strike, more than anything, showed the distance between traditional movements and recent protesters. Services stopped in some cities, but street protests were muted.
The last month has also seen a no-holds-barred contest between the conservative media and the government, replayed in a distant way between Lula and Rohter, about how to name and understand the new movement, and by implication, how to diagnose what is happening in Brazil generally. The media are intent on making the movement a referendum on the Workers’ Party and corruption. The media have also drawn sharp distinctions between the civic, pro-democracy, peaceful parts of the movement and the supposed vandals and violent troublemakers. The government and the Workers’ Party leadership are in line with Lula, who argues that aging institutions and parties have lost the ability to communicate with dissatisfied youth who have never known hardship and have high expectations from government services.
The June Movement, inchoate as it is, challenges both narratives. Corruption is a concern, but not a driving one, and may be seen more as a symptom of a malfunctioning representative democracy than as an isolated problem. Participants in popular assemblies do not only want an end to corruption. They also distrust politicians who act legally on behalf of the powerful. A recurrent theme has been that the political system favors the powerful few—FIFA, the body that organizes the World Cup; land developers; bus companies—at the expense of the many.
And while it is true that the movement has a visible middle-class component, its dissatisfaction is not only that of aspirational young people who don’t know how good they have it. The dissatisfaction is quite real: urban transportation, health care provision, and public education are in shambles. Despite the progress of recent years, there is a sense that things are not as good as they should be—that more of the population should benefit from prosperity and growth, that services should be better, and that regular citizens are left out of decisions that matter to them.
Finally it is not only the means of engagement that is new in these protests. What is different is the meaning of politics for these protesters and the importance they place on autonomy from political parties. That, more than anything, challenges a government that sees itself as speaking for the people.
Photograph: Mídia NINJA