After concessions, Brazil's giant goes back to sleep

Protests rocked Brazil in June. But since then, the government has made concessions that have quieted the streets.

Thainá Barbosa is rolling up her protest banner that says: "Give us doctors! Give us a better health system!" The 26-year-old dental nurse, who lives in Rio de Janeiro, was one of thousands who joined antigovernment demonstrations back in June.

She says her protesting days are over for now as she believes the government has begun to meet some of the protesters’ demands.  “I really believe we made a difference. We put pressure on the state government to put the bus prices down and they’ve done it here in Rio de Janeiro. It’s cheaper for me to travel now,” Ms. Barbosa says.

Over a hundred cities have lowered their bus fares by an average of 7 percent, achieving a significant victory even though the original "clamor of the streets"  was for free public transport. Protesters celebrated again in June when Brazil's Congress responded to pressure and rejected a proposed 37th amendment to the Constitution that, critics charged, would have limited the powers of public prosecutors to the advantage of corrupt politicians and officials.

And last month the government took steps toward fulfilling a promise to improve the health service by employing more than 4,500 foreign doctors, mainly from Cuba, to work in underserved regions in the country.

Barbosa says it’s a start, but that hospital infrastructure needs drastic improvements. It’s well documented that many of Brazil’s public hospitals, particularly in the north, lack necessary resources and equipment. However, Barbosa says she feels more positive today about the government’s willingness to listen and act than three months ago when the demonstrations started.

Hope and change?

It’s just over 100 days since the first wave of protests hit the streets with a vision of hope and change for the citizens of the world’s fifth largest country. The demonstrations shook the political establishment as hundreds of thousands of protesters shouted "enough is enough" and cited a litany of grievances that included the lack of investment in health care and education, government corruption, and excessive public spending on stadiums for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.

Since then lawmakers have been rushing through initiatives that President Dilma Rousseff promised in a live broadcast to the nation in June. It’s led to more victories for protesters. Legislation increasing prison sentences for corruption is being introduced and a 43 million Brazilian real (US$18.9 million) budget to buy video transmission services during the FIFA World Cup has been canceled.  

Last week, a new law committing 75 percent of oil royalties from the country's vast recently discovered offshore "pre-salt" deposits to education and 25 percent to health was sanctioned by Ms. Rousseff. Education Minister Aloizio Mercadante said $161 billion will be injected into education over the next 30 years, with $337.4 million earmarked for this year.  

But it isn't all smooth sailing. A $22 billion agreement to build and improve urban transportation projects in a number of municipalities is still awaiting approval. In June the government promised to curb inflation with a $6.6 billion cut in the federal budget, but inflation rose again in August, increasing prices for staples like bread and beans.

Despite this, a new survey by the MDA research institute found that almost two-thirds of Brazilians say Rousseff "has met some" of the protesters' demands. The poll also found that the president’s approval rating performance rate has largely recovered from the hits it took during the protests. Rousseff's approval rating rose to 58 percent from 49 percent in July.

A popular president?

The research, released just days after Brazil commemorated its independence, suggests a president who's weathered an unusual outpouring of public anger. The poll registered a seven percentage point increase from 31 percent to 38 percent for the government overall.

Nevertheless, politicians would be foolhardy to think they are in the clear. At the end of August when a secret ballot in the chamber of deputies failed to impeach congressman Natan Donadan, jailed for 13 years for stealing $3.6 million from the public purse, there were calls for hundreds of thousands to march against corruption and impunity on Brazil’s Independence Day on Sept. 7.

“Corruption is so widespread in Brazil that for the government to show it’s really listening to the people it’s important to translate the demands of the protesters into concrete commitments and Congress must now respond by ending the secret vote,” says Chris Sabatini, senior director of policy at the Americas Society and Council of Americas.

Public security expert Eduardo Pazinato, a professor at the University of Santa Catarina, says transparency and accountability are still areas of weakness for the nation's politicians. “If the government fails to respond quickly the demonstrations could come back even stronger and more uncontrollable,” he predicts.

A proposal banning secret voting is currently being rushed through the legislature in an effort to demonstrate that politicians are paying attention.

While political corruption was passionately denounced by protesters just three months ago, the zest for mass action seems to be fizzling out. Numbers at the Independence Day rallies were far lower than expected.    

“In my opinion, the protests are beginning to lose their strength,” says André César, a political analyst at Prospective Strategic Consultancy in Brasilía. “I blame [the] Black Bloc, a radical and sectarian group, whose tactics of opposing dialogue and inciting violence has stopped the participation of other segments of society who were involved in the protests in June,” he says.

The motto "The giant awoke," widely used in June, is now being replaced with "The giant went back to sleep,” he adds.

That may well be the case. But Barbosa warns she’s prepared to unwrap her protest banner.  “It was because of pressure placed on the government by people like myself that things started to change,” she says.

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