• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, riorealblog.com. The views expressed are the author's own.
Though the imminent approach of Carnival served to pressure the state government into pay increases for security forces, the holiday may also have taken the wind out of the striking police's sails. With blocos, or Carnival street bands, already in the streets and popular focus shifting to fun (with concern over the safety and spending of Carnival-goers, both locals and tourists), the strikers found little support for additional demands.
But the strikes raised important questions about ongoing class inequality in Brazil, and the Latin American region as a whole. Latin American history could easily be written as the story of how the elite have managed the needs and wants of the poor. Over time the identity of the elite has changed, with some socioeconomic mobility occurring, but the dynamic has largely remained the same.
Slavery was abolished late in Brazil, only in 1888, with no provision made for the newly-freed. In the 1940s and 1950s, Brazil’s strongman Getúlio Vargas coopted labor movements to keep them under his thumb, setting up a system that largely persists to this day– strangling efforts to make the Brazilian economy more agile and dynamic. In the same spirit, in 1962 Brazil instituted a paternalistic thirteenth salary, awarded to workers at year-end with the tacit idea that they are incapable of planning ahead for holiday spending.
So strict were Brazil's labor regulations, that Lula’s metalworkers’ movement was illegal back in the 1970s and 1980s under the military government. The movement turned into a political party, which during his two terms as president (2002-2010) awarded labor groups and leaders enormous access to funding.
Today, workers have greater access than ever to information and a greater ability to communicate among themselves. The world has changed: Brazil’s economy is growing, inequality is lessening and labor has the upper hand, for the first time in history.
It’s not just the police who are straining at the reins: construction workers on the remodeling of Rio’s Maracanã stadium organized a strike over work conditions last year. In the state of Rio, workers are currently in conflict in Itaguaí, where Petrobras is building a huge petrochemicals complex, Comperj.
This time around, no great rupture occurred. After only a few days of a striking, the Rio police got raises and Carnival masks will be donned. But come Ash Wednesday, all would do well to take stock of the evolving power equation in Brazil, and reflect on where it will lead us next.
--- Julia Michaels, a long-time resident of Brazil, writes the blog Rio Real, which she describes as a constructive and critical view of Rio de Janeiro’s ongoing transformation.
Get daily or weekly updates from CSMonitor.com delivered to your inbox. Sign up today.