Brazil’s collective rage

June 24, 2013

In the course of two weeks, what started as protests against public transit fare hikes has spread into mass demonstrations across Brazil that are presenting a challenge to the Workers Party (PT) government, led by Dilma Rousseff, whose record as a left-wing activist includes time spent in prison under the military dictatorship. Another point of anger is Brazil's spending on sports stadiums ahead of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics while public services are cut. But like the protests themselves, the grievances have multiplied.

Miguel Borba de Sa, a lecturer at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and author of Bolívia: Passos das revoluções, talked to British socialist Mark Bergfeld about the protests and the political currents involved, in an interview first published by Jacobin.

HOW COULD a 20-cent increase in bus fares spark protests in more than 100 towns and cities across Brazil?

IN HIS book The Road To Serfdom, the Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek wrote that there are two areas that one cannot leave to the competitive principle: transport and the environment. Brazil's bourgeoisie consistently fails to understand this.

In the last 10 years, transportation has become a lucrative business for the Brazilian elite and local government officials. Enterprises and corporations bid for local routes and lines. Local government officials cozy up to the bus companies for benefits.

Here in Brazil, transport costs cut into workers' wages far more than other utilities such as electricity or water. Fares have risen faster than inflation. An average worker's wage is 650 Brazilian real per month. A bus ticket is 2 real. This private-public relationship has broken down.

The movement we see on the streets today actually started in Porto Alegre. People protested the fare increase two months ago. The police turned violent. Public outrage followed, and the hike was halted. Was it a victory? No! The money for the bus company was raised by exempting the local bus company from future tax payments. In Rio, for every real I pay for a ticket, the local authorities add the same amount in subsidies or tax exemption.

Huge protests are confronting the Workers Party government in Brazil
Huge protests are confronting the Workers Party government in Brazil (Thiago Queiroz)

At the same time, the huge infrastructure projects like the Confederation Cup, the Pope's visit later this year and the FIFA World Cup have displaced poor people from the city center and, in many cases, even cut them off from public transport. Dissatisfaction and "unfairness" have been simmering on Facebook, in the popular neighborhoods and among working-class youth. Radicalization and marginalization have gone hand in hand. Now there is collective rage.

A FEW days ago, FIFA President Sepp Blatter condemned the protesters and said, "We did not force the World Cup on you."

IN TOWNS and cities where the World Cup will take place, there has been an escalation of social conflicts on an unprecedented level for the last year and a half. (People might remember Pinheirinho.)

Infrastructure and recreation projects like the FIFA World Cup wreck people's livelihoods and are class war from above. The protests don't articulate concrete demands, but people are automatically linking up the issues. The displacement of indigenous people and the further enrichment of the elites--two issues at the core of the protests--are two sides of the same coin. People are sick of the elites.

That's why the escalation has been so rapid. There's a daily escalation. FIFA President Sepp Blatter said that the World Cup might have to be cancelled. That led even more people to spill out into the streets. Some 80,000 people surrounded the stadium in Fortaleza where Brazil held its first match in the Confederation Cup. That's more than the stadium's capacity.

HOW ARE people organizing and coordinating the protests?

THERE'S NO doubt that in many towns and cities, the protests are spontaneous. People saw photos and reports on Facebook and started organizing their own protests.

In Rio de Janeiro, the local authorities announced a hike in fares for the beginning of this year on January 2. Anonymous, the collective of computer hackers, organized a protest in response. Radical left organizations such as PSOL and others showed their solidarity with the protest. Only 95 people turned up, yet the demonstration stopped the hike from going forward.

In May, we organized big demonstrations against the new human rights commissioner, who is homophobic, racist and sexist. The demonstrations were big. The mainstream press denies that there is any correlation between these protests and the ones today.

Throughout all this time, we organized assemblies (Forum Contra O Aumento Da Passagem) that brought together different organizations, students and non-political people. In other cities, there have been similar initiatives. At least in Rio, we never managed to get Anonymous and the hackers to come along. In other cities, that might be different.

These assemblies are really beautiful. They are popular and really changed my outlook on radical politics. They have a political quality to them. I have never been involved in anything like it before.

HAVE THE assemblies experienced any difficulties?

JUNE 16 was a huge turning point. The middle classes started to mobilize on an anti-corruption platform. Alongside their buddies in the media, they called for a demonstration for June 24. They tried to split the movement and the assemblies that had called for the June 20 demonstration.

Luckily, they were unsuccessful. The movement had gained so much momentum that they had to come in behind the June 20 protests.

WHAT IS the influence of these middle-class groups? And what is the role of the media?

THE MOVEMENT has become the prime site of struggle for hegemony. Different actors try to articulate themselves through the movement. The parties of the radical left, Anonymous and the autonomists aim to push the protests in an explicitly anti-capitalist direction. We raise the property question and point to the systemic inequality that government after government perpetuates.

It is more and more the case that the middle classes and the media-savvy anti-corruption parties are the dominant voices in the movement. With the media at their disposal, they appear to be successful. In many towns and cities, they've managed to sideline the demands of more radical elements.

In its own right, the media has mastered an historic shift. For a long time they kept quiet. Then a journalist from Sao Paulo's biggest newspaper lost his eye, and six other journalists were seriously injured. That changed the situation. Some circles within the ruling class altered their strategy. The media started to support the protests--and even call on people to march. This gave the protests a greater sense of legitimacy, but represents a clear attempt to hijack the protests.

WHAT IS the Workers' Party (PT) doing?

THE PT and the CUT [the main national trade union] didn't mobilize initially. Only when the liberal-conservative elites started to call for President Dilma Rousseff's resignation did the PT mobilize its members to prevent the protests from turning into an anti-government movement. Now PT and CUT members are in the streets to defend Dilma's government.

The CUT is currently discussing the possibility of a general strike. Depending on what shape the movement takes in the next few days, a general strike could become a reality. But that's speculation.

THERE HAVE been reports that right-wing thugs and nationalists are mobilizing as well.

THE DEMONSTRATIONS have turned increasingly yellow and green as the movement goes on. All the contradictions in Brazilian society come to the fore.

People come up to radical left and autonomist activists and scream at us for not carrying Brazilian national flags. Our comrades have been physically confronted in a number of places. People with left-wing flags and red t-shirts have been hunted down on the demonstrations. As people don't have clear demands and no clear enemy, they turn against all political parties.

The media whips up hatred against the radical left. The bourgeoisie uses sexism, racism and homophobia. In this case, the "Carneval-ization" of the protests serves those hostile to the aims of the movement. And undercover police are creating chaos everywhere as well. Recent clashes in Brasilia, the capital, were led by the extreme right. I'm astonished at their capability to lead, highjack and imprint meaning on these events.

Recently, when protesters closed Octávio Frias de Oliveira Bridge in Sao Paulo, there was a great deal of hostility directed at our comrades. Then, the bloc of radical-left organizations, students and members of the social movements were attacked by thugs in Rio de Janeiro. The levels of intimidation and aggression we experience on the demonstrations are out of this world.

In response to these attacks, the left closed ranks. PTSU militants, PSOL and PCR joined ranks and defended people carrying red flags and banners on the demonstration.

WHAT IS the future for the protest movement?

THE MOVEMENT is a battlefield. It highlights all the contradictions of Brazilian society. The "common sense" ideas prevail in people's heads. Sexism, racism, homophobia aren't vanishing like they should. At the same time, the state apparatus and the elites remain intact. That is mainly due to a change in strategy. Yet the bourgeoisie is acting irresponsibly and playing with fire.

There is no political force on the left that could articulate any alternative to the current status quo. Social movements have declined in the last few years, and the radical left doesn't have the kind of political instrument we so desperately need. However, the anti-elite sentiments of the majority of protesters should be fertile ground for us.

While it is a possibility that this movement ends with a right-wing consolidation, the future of the movement is really up in the air.

First published at Jacobin.

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