Government U-turn on bus fares fails to stem wave of unrest as millions of Brazilians take to the streets in 100 cities in the biggest protests so far.
Burning cars in Rio. Violent clashes between police and protesters in Salvador. Security forces desperately trying to keep the angry masses out of Congress and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Brasília. A riotous mob looting stores in Porto Allegre. But also smiley faces and a festive atmosphere in São Paulo and dozens of other cities, as people finally encountered each other in the public sphere again — struggling for the right to be heard and for the dignity of ruling their own destiny. Struggling, in other words, for real democracy.
These were just some of the images emerging from Brazil on Thursday night as the country witnessed yet another explosion of popular outrage following Monday’s groundbreaking and historic demonstrations. With millions marching peacefully in over 100 cities, Thursday’s protests were most certainly Brazil’s biggest in decades. What started over an increase in bus and metro fares last week has now exploded into a spontaneous and furious feast of democracy. And clearly the government has no clue how to handle the situation.
Just as it became commonplace to say that the Turkish protests were not just about a park, it is by now already a cliché to note that Brazil’s protests are not just about the 20 centavos increase in the fee of bus and metro tickets. Last week’s violent police crackdown on the mostly peaceful bus fare protests appears to have opened Pandora’s Box, allowing a wide range of long-repressed grievances to come pouring out. The government’s announcement on Wednesday that the bus fare increases would be reversed thus did little to stem the unrest.
Throughout Brazil, millions are now expressing their outrage over the country’s crumbling infrastructure, rising inflation, poor public services, vast inequality, violent crime, widespread police brutality, rampant political corruption — and a government that seems more concerned about pleasing private investors and pumping billions worth in taxpayer money into useless World Cup stadiums than meeting the needs of its own people. As most protesters see it, the ruling Workers’ Party has long since sold out to the dictatorship of the markets.
“There’s been a democratic explosion on the streets,” Marcos Nobre, a professor at the University of Campinas, told the New York Times on Wednesday. “The Workers Party thinks it represents all of the progressive elements in the country, but they’ve been power now for a decade. They’ve done a lot, but they’re now the establishment.” One of the activists confirmed this analysis, arguing that the protests are ultimately targeted at “politicians who do not represent us”, leaving the people with only one alternative: to take to the streets en masse.
Meanwhile, the autonomy of the protesters places President Rousseff in a difficult position. According to a Datafolha poll, 84% of the protesters do not back any political party. While this does not necessarily make them revolutionary anarchists, it does show that there is something deeper at play than just frustration with the government itself: the real frustration here is with the failure of the system of representation as such — a theme that has kept coming back from the European anti-austerity protests and the worldwide Occupy movement to the Taksim uprising.
But while the general pattern of the protests in Brazil shows an unmistakable similarity to the ongoing uprising in Turkey, we have to recognize that the context in which the two are taking place is radically different. Turkey is ruled by a megalomaniac and increasingly autocratic Islamist madman who in recent weeks has displayed an undeniable tendency towards the fascistic and the delusional. The protesters are Erdogan’s natural enemy; he knows they will never vote for him again so his only concern is with their violent repression.
The same cannot be said of Rousseff, a former Marxist guerrilla, who has been forced to praise the protests and push state governors into reversing the measures that initially sparked the unrest. Realizing that last week’s police violence served as a major catalyst for the movement, she has urged restraint on the side of the police and has tried to start a dialogue with protesters. But the leaderless and diffuse nature of the movement makes such a dialogue practically impossible, leaving the government dazed and confused about how to handle the unrest.
Earlier this week, a live poll on a major commercial TV station showed — beyond any doubt and to the dismay of the presenter himself — that the vast majority of Brazilians do not only agree with the protests but with the riots as well. Another Datafolha poll found that 77% of the population is in favor of the protests. With such a stellar approval rating, Rousseff — who is standing for re-election next year — can hardly be seen cracking down on the demonstrators. Even if she wants to, she simply cannot be seen pulling a Tayyip-style move.
But while Rousseff’s precarious position provides the movement with opportunities, it also implies dangers. The greatest threat is that business interests, through their control over the commercial media, will try to use the left-wing protests for their own political goals and to further destabilize the position of the Workers’ Party. As one organizer puts it, “we are criticizing the government from the left, and we want nothing to do with those anti-government or right-wing movements. That could be their last strategy to try to rid us of influence.”
And so the future of the budding real democracy movement in Brazil remains wide open. One of the immediate outcomes may in fact well be similar to the ones in Greece and Spain: the ultimate discrediting of the Workers’ Party leading to its defeat in next year’s elections. But while the return to power of the right would by no means improve the situation in social and political terms, this possibility should not be read as a reason for despair. If anything, the ongoing protests show that — even if Brazil’s “socialist aristocracy” may long since have caved in to neoliberal orthodoxy — the radical aspirations of Brazil’s massive population are now more alive than ever.
If anything, the ongoing protests in Brazil are an awakening from a long slumber. At long last, the giant has risen. Millions of bodies are now resonating to the rhythm of rebellion, mustering all their strength to collectively challenge the oppressive institutions and sham democracy of the capitalist state — and to re-affirm the dignity of the long-forgotten masses. As Latin America’s biggest country explodes in a furious feast of democracy, one thing is clear: the global wave of struggles that kicked off in 2011 is now more alive than ever.