Brazil unrest: two million join protests in 100 cities

On Thursday 20 June, two million students, unemployed, lower middle class and poor workers demonstrated in 100 towns and cities throughout Brazil against poverty, for jobs, proper state health and education services. This was not simply the culmination of two weeks protests started by campaigners protesting against bus fare increases in São Paulo. Protests took place in August last year in Natal, and then this May and early June in Goiânia where buses were burned and stoned. They now grew dramatically after brutal attacks by police on peaceful protests in São Paulo. Mass demonstrations have now forced the fare rises to be dropped. President Rousseff abandoned a visit to Japan and made a public statement in response to demands for better transport, health and education spending. On 24 June, she opened up the political game by further proposing a referendum on political change. ALVARO MICHAELS reports.

The shifting class basis of Brazilian politics

Officially, from 2005 to 2010, the mass of people living below the poverty line in Brazil fell from 32% to 22%, but this still left 44 million, about a quarter of the population, struggling to survive, which is roughly those twelve million families currently receiving support through the ‘Bolsa Familia’. A total of 85 million people live on 50% of the average income or less, the ‘social class E’. Only 49% of the working population has official employment, so they do not pay social security or receive any benefit. Brazil is one of the most unequal societies on the planet.

In the last 10 years, 40 million people have struggled out of absolute poverty into ‘social class D’, now 63 million, with between 50-100% of the average income. They now face the threat of being forced back into poverty again by a stagnating economy and constant inflation. Last month prices rose by 6.59%. Basics like tomatoes have risen by as much as 90% in the last year. Rent has also increased by an average of 120% since 2008.

Above them sit the better-off ‘real middle class’. This 24 million ‘class C’, 11.9% of the population, earns between 100-150% of the national average income. Social classes C and D (from 50% to 150% of the national average income) are very misleadingly lumped together by establishment politicians and journalists who soothingly speak of the ‘new middle class’.

Looking down on these are 10 million well-off people with 150-200% of the national average income and finally another 17 million richer with over 200% of the average. The richest 10% of Brazilians receives 42.7% of the nation's income, while the poorest 10% receives less than 1.2%.

Economic growth in Brazil last year barely reached 1%. The masses cannot save and the mass of surpluses extracted by capital are taken by the imperialist states. These ‘foreign investors’ reduced their investments in Brazil from mid-2011. Imperialism demands multiple concessions from the alliance of parties in power in Brazil, and bitterly resents the Workers’ Party holding the Presidency and shaping the ruling coalition’s legislation. The new urban working and lower middle class resent the demands of foreign investors.

Before 2000, an earlier and smaller middle and upper middle class could often avoid using the public health and schooling system by going private. The same applied to their ‘security’. However the ‘new lower middle class’ cannot afford such escapes. Their finances are too precarious. They want better public services and finding them lacking have become increasingly frustrated. The state will not create more places in the public universities. Private education of a very low quality is extended day after day, supplied by businesses supported by government money. Private colleges now function in every corner of the country and the teaching is awful and the students frustrated. Most of their students – using loans and grants – are from the poorest classes unable to pay for their studies and who will never be able to get a place in the public universities.

The Government

The Coalition Government that emerged from the 2010 elections is in effect made of ten parties, with 311 of the 513 seats in the Chamber of Deputies. The Workers’ Party has the Presidency, but only 15 of 81 Senate seats, and only 88 seats of 513 in the Chamber of Deputies. The Workers’ Party itself is not in a position to govern at all without systematic concessions to Brazilian and international capitalism, so it has become discredited in the eyes of the masses.

The demonstrations

On 2 June, the price of a single bus ticket in São Paulo was raised from 3 reals ($1.40, £0.90) to 3.20 reals. Dismissing previous protests, all the major cities in the country now raised the bus and train fares to a level too high for the average Brazilian. The MPL (Movimento Passe Livre or Free Fare Movement), which has existed since the mid-2000s, again called for protests against the fare rises. Local workers and students began to protest by holding two demonstrations, the first on 6 June, which the press ignored. However on the night of Tuesday 11 June, São Paulo police attacked the third Free Fare protest. Social media networks spread news of the police attacks. The slogan ‘It's more than just 20 cents’ rallied people to their defence. A range of protests against the nature of state spending erupted in demonstrations across the country, specifically directed at the $15bn spent on the 12 football stadiums to be used in the 2014 World Cup.

More than 10,000 people marched through São Paulo's streets for six hours. The police indiscriminately used British-invented rubber bullets, plus gas and pepper sprays to disperse them and arrested 20 people. This spontaneous movement had no traditional political affiliation nor clearly identified overall leadership. The press painted the protesters and the MPL as vandals and hooligans.

On Thursday 13 June, to provoke open conflict and discredit the government, two of the biggest newspapers in the country printed heavily opinionated editorials calling for the Military Police to ‘take action’ and not be so ‘soft’ on the protesters. São Paulo Governor Geraldo Alckmin, one of the founders of the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB), described demonstrators as ‘vandals’. He promised to intensify police repression. Alckmin has used taxes to invest in large, state-run projects, health and education programmes, through privatisation programmes using Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) that sold off public and state-owned companies. Blair’s ‘Government Advisory Practice’ is under contract to advise São Paulo from its office in Mayfair, London.

In Sao Paulo Shock Troop Police, many of them hiding their name-tags, used ‘riot control’ measures against peaceful protesters: 232 arrests were made. Two journalists were hit with rubber bullets in their eyes. One of them, a photographer Sergio Silva, is blinded. Several journalists were arrested. To handle their reporters’ anger over these attacks, the owners of the mainstream media subsequently changed their editorial tactics, now attacking the government directly. Rallies were also now staged in Rio de Janeiro and the southern city of Porto Alegre.

By Saturday 15 June in Brasilia, there were clashes between police and 1,000 protesters near the Mané Garrincha National Stadium. On Sunday 16 June 600 protesters clashed with riot police near Rio de Janeiro's Maracana football stadium. By 17 June the transport price rises were reversed in several cities, but with threats to cut spending elsewhere.

The nature of the protests

Inevitably an enormous mix of political opinion ran through the demonstrations. The different cities have different political characters. São Paulo, the biggest city in the southern hemisphere, is the most significant for the reactionaries. Opponents of the government come in all shades. Many joined because it was not organised by any Congressional Party. There are 23 political parties in Congress. Voters for parties in government wanted them to do what they thought they had voted for. The chief concerns were ‘misspending’, and the protests and interests reflected the fact that 41.5% of the population is younger than 24, and 85% is under 54. 87% of the population lives in towns. This has placed the city once again at the centre of class struggle. Mayara Vivian, an activist with the MPL, said: ‘The population is participating en masse. We have had various protests in the peripheral areas of the city with participation from workers, mothers. It’s a milestone.’

Throughout the weekend of 15/16 June, twitter preparations were made for Monday. The biggest protest up to this point took place, with over 65,000 people marching in São Paulo alone. Of the 30 political parties registered for electoral purposes in Brazil, the protests were only now joined by three small left parties, the United Socialist Workers Party (PSTU), the Socialism and Freedom Party (PSOL), and the Brazilian Communist Party (PCB). Some 250,000 protesters came out on 17 June. The largest was in Rio de Janeiro, where 100,000 protested from mid-afternoon and overnight. In Curitiba over 10,000 people turned out. In Belo Horizonte thousands tried peacefully to enter the stadium (the Nigeria v Tahiti Confederations Cup game) and were violently attacked by police. In São Paulo the upper middle classes now came out, joined by small groups of right-wingers. Broader demands were made and now focused on ‘corruption’ – always a demand used by the right to attack high taxes. At the same time, government corruption is undoubtedly part of the process of plundering taxes imposed on the working class. The young emerging middle class took to the streets. Generally these protests express a wave of anger at unemployment, poverty, police brutality and taxation which is simply plunder consumed by a corrupt system or invested in profiteering investments such as the soccer 2014 World Cup ($15bn) and the 2016 Olympics. Despite the prestige of football in Brazil, the Confederations Cup football tournament, held in five cities, has been the centre of protests.

On Tuesday 18 June, there was another protest of 100,000 in Sao Paulo. An effigy of the mayor Fernando Haddad – previously Minister of Education and now Mayor of São Paulo, member of the Workers’ Party – and a TV satellite truck were burned. Globo TV crews were jeered while covering protest rallies and demonstrators set the satellite van of another station ablaze. The poor youth –‘anarcho-punks’ as the Brazilian Communist Party evasively called them – also targeted shops, banks and the opera house, all expressions of private profit and privilege. President Dilma Rousseff now said that she was ‘listening’ to the aspirations of a country. In Rio there were violent clashes between 200,000 protesters and the police outside Tirandentes Palace, the Legislative Assembly building. The mainstream media – with echoes of rightist removal of the Paraguayan president in July 2102 – now pressed for the ‘impeachment’ of the legally elected president.

On Wednesday 19 June, São Paulo's mayor and the state governor announced the cancellation of its bus fare increase. The MPL scheduled another protest to celebrate the decision. This time left-wing protesters were harassed and there were reports of anti-racist, feminist and anti-homophobia activists being attacked by right-wing protesters. Fascist skinheads were spotted on the edges of the protests, looking for victims. The media did not report these acts. In Fortaleza 30,000 demonstrators, mostly lower middle class and students intent on peaceful protest, denounced Cid Gomes, the State Governor of Ceará (Partido Socialista Brasileiro) as a dictator for blocking and frustrating their march on the Brasil v Mexico Confederations Cup game. Demonstrators carried banners reading ‘a teacher is worth more than Neymar’ – just signed by Barcelona for €57m. Police attacked them with tear gas and rubber bullets.

On Thursday 20 June a march to the National Congress denouncing the projected Proposal 37 to amend the Constitution grew to 30,000. This Proposal will remove the power of investigation from the independent ‘Ministério Público’, fundamentally weakening the fight against corruption. There were also denunciations in the demonstrations of the project for ‘a gay cure’ actually approved this week by the Human Rights Commission of the Chamber of Deputies. The rebellion of youth clearly understands the reactionary nature of the Congressional agenda.

In Brasilia from 17 June, demonstrators were standing unhindered on top of the Congressional Building. On Thursday 20 June, protesters tried to storm the Foreign Ministry and were driven back by police who fired rubber bullets and tear gas. At least 30 were injured. Brasilia is surrounded by expanding slums and environmental degradation which typifies the deep contrasts imposed by capitalism’s absolutely unbalanced accumulation of wealth, which is the actual object of the mass demonstrations.

On the night of 20 June the demonstrations peaked when up to two million people took part in rallies across the country, with protests of some sort in 438 counties. In São Paulo 110,000 flooded the main Avenida Paulista to celebrate the fare rollback and to keep the pressure on Rousseff's government to increase social spending. There were 300,000 protesters in Rio and demonstrations in Porto Alegre, San Jose de Campos, Recife, and another 100 towns and cities. In Belo Horizonte where the Confederations Cup started, about 15,000 people, most of them in their 20s, gathered just before dusk on the Alfonso Pena thoroughfare in Belo Horizonte. The police responded with rubber bullets. President Rousseff cancelled a visit to Japan and called an emergency cabinet meeting for Friday 21 June. After Thursday the conservative middle classes no longer attended the demonstrations in the same force as before.

Belatedly the country’s significant social movements, including the Movement of Landless Rural Workers (MST), the Unified Workers Central (CUT), and the National Union of Students (UNE), now sent an open letter to President Rousseff supporting the demonstrations. [1] Not a word was said about imperialism and the constant imposition of poverty on over a quarter of the population, whilst another half lives on bank credit under constant threat of renewed impoverishment.

Rousseff’s response

On Friday morning 21 June, in Curitiba, the demonstration split in two groups. ‘Anti-party’ people threatened to attack the group carrying Workers’ Party (PT), Socialism and Freedom Party (PSOL – formed from a split from the PT in 2005) and the united Socialist Workers party (PSTU) flags. The Communist Party denounced the danger presented by neo-fascist groups. The MPL in turn now promised it would press on until public transport is free of charge.

Rousseff gave a 10 minute pre-recorded speech on TV sympathising with the protests and offering Brazilians a ‘great pact’ between the government and the people to improve shoddy public services and for ‘more effective ways to fight corruption’. Not a word about the World Cup or the Olympics. She would speak to leaders of the protest movement, ie, the MPL, governors and the mayors of major cities. She proposed a National Urban Mobility Plan, and reaffirmed a ‘proposal’ already in Congress to assign all the royalties obtained from oil to education. The now universally known moral and practical example set by Cuba in its relations with the ALBA countries forced her to promise to bring in foreign doctors to areas that lack doctors, to strengthen the Unified Health System (SUS). This immediately provoked strong objections from the wealthy medical profession in Brazil.

The President’s warnings against acts of violence received the most applause from the Congress members. In São Paulo, the city’s airport highway had been blocked, forcing passengers to walk 5km to terminals, carrying their luggage. More than 100 flights were consequently delayed or cancelled. About 1,000 people marched in western Rio de Janeiro city, with some looting stores and invading an enormous $250 million empty arts centre. Police tried to disperse the crowd with tear gas as they were pelted with rocks. Protesters headed to the home of Rio State Governor Sergio Cabral, one of the most corrupt governors in Brazil.

Rallies will continue

Two-thirds of people polled in São Paulo say they want the protests to continue. They want better health care and education. A national day of protest has been called for 1 July.

On the 22 and 23 June, protesters increasingly denounced Proposal 37. Outside the Mineirao stadium in Belo Horizonte 60,000 protesters were gassed and shot at with rubber bullets by police. In Salvador, where Brazil played Italy, protests also took place. Rousseff now spoke again on TV to stress that a few ‘troublemakers’ could not detract from their right to protest, and that her generation had been tortured and died to allow such protests. On Sunday 23 June more than 250,000 Brazilians marched through the streets of more than 100 Brazilian cities protesting against government corruption. A poll showed that 75% of citizens supported the demonstrations. About 60,000 demonstrators gathered in Belo Horizonte, 30,000 shut down a main business avenue in São Paulo. In Salvador, where Brazil played Italy in a Confederations Cup match, 5,000 protesters gathered three miles from the stadium. In Belo Horizonte and Salvador police attacked activists, while the vast majority of demonstrations were peaceful.

It was obvious that the right could not influence this movement nor discredit it with smears of any sort, including those of mindless violence. The extent and depth of anger clearly threatens every stage of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.

On Monday 24 June Rousseff met with the governors and mayors of Brazil’s 27 states and then spoke to leaders of the MPL. The next day, she announced Brazil was ‘ripe to advance’, a referendum on political reform ‘as necessary’, along with 50bn reales (£14.5bn) for public transport and a new law with penalties of up to 12 years in prison for ‘wilful corruption’. The reform proposal is otherwise quite cloudy. Rousseff floated the idea that a Constituent Assembly might debate the process. She also suggested that reform proposals might ask if corporations could continue to finance electoral campaigns, leaving individuals and the government with strict rules. It is proposed that a vote on such reforms take place in October. The results would be implemented after the 2014 Presidential elections. This was immediately attacked by right wing senators as a ‘Chavez method’, and is, in any case, a play for re-election by the Workers’ Party President.

On Tuesday 25 June came the first march in Rio directly from two favela communities – Rocinha and Vidigal – to the wealthy middle-class neighbourhood of Leblon, which is home to the state governor, Sérgio Cabral, again demanding hospitals and schools and condemning spending on stadiums. In London approximately 2,000 people took part in a protest held at the Old Palace Yard, Westminster, on Tuesday afternoon in support of protests going on in Brazil.

This political crisis has been long in the making. It has taken the deepening global economic crisis to precipitate this mass rebellion. Brazilian youth have watched how in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, mass struggle can beat reaction and improve the conditions of the poor. They are watching events in Turkey and Egypt, and the ongoing demonstrations in Bulgaria all demanding a revolution in democracy. Brazil's youth have now to draw on international traditions of organised struggle against imperialism, and to build a system that meets their real needs, a socialist economy and an economic democracy.



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