The road to revolt in Brazil

Sean Purdy, a member of the Party of Socialism and Freedom and activist in São Paulo, traces the development of Brazil's mass demonstrations back to their roots.

People gather for a popular assembly held in the streets in Belo HorizontePeople gather for a popular assembly held in the streets in Belo Horizonte

FOR THREE weeks, Brazil has been rocked by mass protests--first sparked by increases in public transit fares, but quickly spreading to popular mobilizations against police violence, poor quality public services, the social cost of hosting the 2014 World Cup and homophobic politicians in the federal government.

The two largest cities, São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, witnessed several mobilizations in the hundreds of thousands, but mass demonstrations have occurred in all the capital cities, the poor peripheries of the big cities, thousands of smaller urban centers and even small towns.

Despite severe police repression, within two weeks, all municipal and state governments in the country had cancelled the bus and subway fare increases, but the protest movement continued.

Polls consistently show majority support among the population for the mobilizations, and there have been dozens of demonstrations of solidarity by Brazilians abroad and their supporters in North America, Europe and Asia, including from democracy demonstrators in Gezi Park in Turkey.

President Dilma Rousseff of the ruling Workers Party (PT) was forced to convoke emergency meetings with her ministers, state governors and mayors, and on June 21, she made a nationally televised appearance in which she pledged to devote more resources to public services.

On June 24, she invited leaders of the Free Fare movement in São Paulo to the capital city Brazilia to discuss grievances. The activists boldly presented an open letter with scathing criticisms of her social policies, demanding free fares and an improved public transit system, an end to police racism and brutality against the poor and the murderous repression of indigenous peoples, as well as pledging solidarity with all social movements and unions involved in the mobilizations.

More demonstrations are planned in the next week around the country, and the left-wing trade union federation Conlutas has called for coordinated strike actions on Thursday, June 27.

10 years of the Workers' Party federal government

THE WORKERS Party has ruled the federal government for more than 10 years now.

In 2002, the ex-metalworkers union leader Lula of the PT was elected Brazil's president. Continuing the main thrust of the neoliberal politics established by his predecessors, Lula pursued economic policies aimed at bolstering Brazil's agricultural exports, directing state investments into mega-projects and increasing consumer credit and purchasing power. Lula also established a monthly income supplement for the very poorest families, a social welfare program which proved to be very beneficial in electoral terms--and he moderately increased funding for public services and pay for public servants.

Buoyed by a booming world market after 2003, these politics did increase the standard of living of the poorest Brazilians and increased wages for low-income workers.

But overall, the benefits of economic growth were very unequal. The rich and upper middle class gained proportionately more than the working class, with banks and other big companies earning record profits year after year. Lula never reversed the mass privatizations of state assets carried out under President Fernando Henrique Cardoso from 1995 to 2002, and he began financing projects through public-private partnerships.

President Dilma Rousseff, elected in 2010, has largely continued Lula's policies, but faced with a world economic crisis and reduced growth rate, she began to cut public spending and the salaries of public workers, and introduced more privatizations in airports, highways and hydroelectric facilities.

As in Turkey, there has been an increase in the standard of living and some reforms. Yet also like Turkey, Brazil remains one of the most unequal societies in the world, consistently ranking behind many other Latin American countries in health care, education and other public services. Housing and rent prices have skyrocketed in the big cities while inflation continues to eat away at the gains in living standards. São Paulo and Rio are ranked among the top 15 most expensive cities in the world to live.

But the Lula-Dilma governments also raised expectations among the population. Political leaders said that Brazil was becoming a developed country, but people knew that inequality and shoddy public services such as hospitals and education were a daily reality. Social policies around oppression--including the government's support of an openly homophobic politician, Marco Feliciano, who peddles a hateful "gay cure," and the stalling of affirmative action for Blacks and Indigenous peoples--has also incensed large numbers of activists.

For 10 years, Lula and Dilma were able to use their past as union and working-class leaders and their control over the unions, along with social welfare programs for the very poorest, to pacify social and workplace struggles.

The CUT, the largest trade union federation, and the Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST) were constantly warned that if they stepped up struggles, they would help elect the largely discredited right-wing opposition. The social movements and unions remained fragmented and unable to launch a generalized and united struggle.

The Free Fare Movement

On June 2, bus, train and subway fares were increased by a very modest 6 percent, or 20 cents. The recently elected PT mayor of São Paulo, Fernando Haddad, claimed correctly that the increase was below the level of inflation.

But many people understood that this increase came on top of hikes well above the level of inflation over the last 20 years. If transit fares had increased at the level of inflation over the last 20 years, they would be around R$2.16 instead of the current R$3.00. Taking into account average incomes, Brazilian public transit is among the most expensive in the world.

"It's not just about 20 cents" became a rallying call for the Free Fare movement, reflecting the frustrations that had accumulated over the last decade over public transit and many other issues.

The Free Fare movement--founded in 2005 by high school and university students, but also trade unionists and activists from a broad section of social movements--took the lead in organizing the protests. The first three demonstrations brought out 5,000 to 10,000 demonstrators, but they had already sparked similar movements in other Brazilian cities.

The fourth demonstration on June 13 was brutally attacked by police, leaving hundreds of demonstrators and dozens of journalists wounded. TV cameras captured scenes of elite "shock" police savagely beating peaceful demonstrators. Similar police brutality occurred in other cities.

In the next few days, the protests spiraled all over the country around fare increases, but also around the preparations for the World Cup and other local grievances.

Brazil is currently hosting the Confederations Cup in soccer, and many of the demonstrations have taken place outside the newly built stadiums. Billions have been spent upgrading stadiums, and thousands have been displaced from their homes in an effort that has boosted the profits of large companies and produced few benefits for the population.

Victory and Challenges

With a clear victory around transit fare increases and the promises of the Dilma government to put all profits from petroleum exploration into education as well as improve urban services, the movement faces challenges around the next step of the struggle.

At the large demonstrations in the last week, right-wing elements, using vague slogans against corruption, attempted to derail the mobilizations. Members of left political parties and social movements were physically attacked.

Some supporters of the PT government have also tried to weaken the mobilizations, jumping on the bandwagon at the last minute, diverting blame away from PT officials and even blaming the left for opening up a Pandora's box that supposedly threatens the stability of the very government and aids the right-wing opposition. But many grassroots PT militants have been active in the struggles and have begun to question their support for the government.

It's clear that unity is needed among the left parties and combative social movements, as well as a clear focus for mobilizations. Fortunately, the main movements have responded with a focused agenda to advance the struggles, aimed at isolating both the right wing and the opportunist supporters of the PT.

In São Paulo, Rio and other cities, the movement against the homophobic Marco Feliciano has been organizing, and explicitly links its struggle to the larger movements for better urban services.

Movements have also been launched in the urban periphery of the big cities, which go to the very heart of the vast inequality and oppression of Brazilian society. Their slogans are concrete: free transit fares; an end to police brutality and the demilitarization of the police; against rising rents and house prices; no money for the World Cup; education and health care at "First World" standards; and reduction of the official workweek to 40 hours without a reduction in income.

Strike actions, which have already begun on a small scale, also need to be stepped up. Militants in workplaces need to make the argument that the only way to guarantee our victory and advance the struggle is through the economic power of the working class.

A one-day general strike across the country has been called by the principal trade union federations, most of them allies of the federal government, for July 11, with demands for more investment in health care and education; salary increases; reduction of the work day; agrarian reform; and improvements in public transport. This is an important first step, but we need to continue mobilizing to ensure that this is not just a way to let off steam and divert attention from the popular mobilizations at the grassroots level.

With left unity, a clear focus and job actions, we can win a better world, not just for Brazil, but for workers the world over.