Brazil protesters: Is common ground really necessary?

The bus fare hikes that sparked widespread Brazilian protests have been reversed, but protests continue. Can they last?

Felipe Dana/AP
Demonstrators march toward the Mineirao stadium where a Confederations Cup semifinal soccer match will be played between Brazil and Uruguay in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, Wednesday.

When Gilmar Lopes marched from the favela Rocinha to the Rio de Janeiro governor’s house last night with a thousand of his neighbors, his demand was a very local one: Basic sanitation in the low-income community where he lives.

Mr. Lopes’s call was one in a sea of diverse demands: clean up the polluted Rio beaches, improve public daycare facilities, raise teacher salaries, and stop police brutality.

In the past two weeks Brazil has seen its biggest demonstrations in two decades, which were sparked by a rise in bus fares. Local governments quickly reversed the increases as protests gained momentum. But transportation costs were just the final straw for many Brazilians, and the protesters’ voices have since grown louder, but also more fractured.

Brazil is now facing a cacophony of disparate grievances. In order to push for more lasting changes, demonstrators face a growing and key challenge, observers say: how to keep up momentum while identifying and rallying behind a shared list of demands.

“We have to take advantage of the fact that the people are on the streets and the government is listening,” says Lopes. “We are here to demand our rights. The bus price is just the smallest of our problems.”

'Everyone with ideas' can protest

The current demonstrations are serving as a catchall for whoever has a grievance, says David Fleischer, a professor of political science at the University of Brasília.

From broad issues like government corruption to very specific calls to throw out the so-called “gay cure” legislation, which would allow medical professionals to treat homosexuality as an illness, the multitude of complaints signal that the movement is digging in for the long run. It has created a headache for President Dilma Rousseff, who has found no easy fix for the mass frustration on the streets, despite repeatedly praising the expression of democracy and offering partial solutions, such as convening a constitutional assembly to address issues weighing down the country’s political system. Talks of a nationwide general strike on July 1 are gaining force, while protests are daily shutting down streets and ending with skirmishes with police.

“If you’re going to do this, you’re going to have to let everyone with ideas come,” Mr. Fleischer says, highlighting the vital role social media has played in rallying protesters, potentially lending it some staying power.

Though Brazil has been celebrated as a success story as an emerging economy with a burgeoning middle class, the protests have shown how middle- and working-class Brazilians still feel their fortunes and quality of life have lagged. Brazil is the world’s seventh largest economy but ranks in the bottom 10 percent for income equality, according to the World Bank. Rather than enjoying the fruits of a prospering economy, many entrants to the new middle class are strapped by payments for private schools and healthcare, calling the public system unreliable.

Past Brazilian demonstrations were largely organized by political parties or groups with specific agendas, Fleischer says. In 1992, demonstrations led to the impeachment of President Fernando Collor, and the "Direitas, Já" movement helped bring an end to the 1964 to 1985 dictatorship.

The protesters today have not united against an easily identifiable figure in the same way. Fleischer contrasts that with the focus Turkish protesters have on Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, saying President Rousseff has not been similarly demonized.

What protesters might lack in unity of ideas or figures to detest is made up for by the extra attention Brazil has received during the Confederations Cup, Fleischer says. Demonstrators have been offered a global platform in the media.

“In large part, [the demonstrators] are carpe diem – they are seizing the moment. And it is a very appropriate moment to seize,” he says. Fleischer questions whether momentum could die down after the soccer tournament concludes at the end of the month, but predicts similar uprisings could take place during next year’s World Cup when the media returns.

'Battle for rights'

Tadeu Lemos, a student leader with the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro who helped organize the first demonstrations against the increase in the bus fare, says transportation activists welcome the broadening of the movement.

“From the beginning we’ve been saying that this is not a battle for 10 cents [fare increase] – this is a battle for rights,” says Mr. Lemos, who participated in a public forum last night to define the movement’s demands.

Those include free public transportation, reversing the privatization of the Rio de Janeiro Maracanã soccer stadium, and protesting recent police violence, focusing on a confrontation Monday in a Rio favela that left nine dead, including a police officer.

“It’s not a problem that we have diverse causes,” Lemos argues. “This just shows the will of the people to demonstrate.”

And there have already been small victories, in addition to lowering bus fares. The protests drove the Brazilian congress to vote early and reject a proposed constitutional amendment that would limit the ability of prosecutors to carry out investigations, which demonstrators feared would limit corruption investigations of elected officials. Legislators cited the clamor in the streets for moving quickly.

Inclusivity, but...

Though there is a push for inclusivity, there is a concern among the core demonstration leaders that groups with right-leaning or partisan views are taking advantage of largely anticorruption, pro-social inclusion protests.

In São Paulo, where the “Free Pass” movement that organized the first of the country’s largest demonstrations is located, transportation activists have complained that causes they do not stand by have cropped up at the protests. “In recent demonstrations we could see people asking to lower the age to be tried as an adult and other issues that we consider conservative. We do not endorse these demands,” Douglas Belome, a São Paulo Free Pass activist, told the local press.

Lenita Adriano, a public servant, came to a protest last week in Rio to call for an end to government corruption and what she sees as too populist an administration.

“People … vote for the wrong people,” Ms. Adriano says. “People sell themselves for the bolsa família,” she says, referring to the conditional cash transfer program that gives small stipends to low-income mothers for keeping their children in school and taking them for routine doctor check-ups. The program has often been a sticking point for middle-class Brazilians who feel overtaxed.

'One thing' led to many

As demonstrations continue into a second week, there are signs that the very local nature of complaints could be what is providing the staying power these demonstrations may need to continue. When asked what brought her to the streets with protesting favela residents in Rio yesterday, saleswoman Suzana Oliveira replies, “everything.”

She and neighbors protesting with her tick off a list of issues, including a proposed cablecar in their community, which residents say is a waste of money when doctors are still hard to find in neighborhood clinics. There are overcrowded schools with underpaid teachers, and the city government restricts the use of transit vans, which are adept at snaking through the narrow streets of favelas, they say.

“One thing brought on another,” Ms. Oliveira says of the beginning of the protests, the first one organized in her favela and that she participated in.

“We needed something unified to bring us out to protest the [other] things which we saw as broken.”

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