Basta! Brazilians Move from Apathy to Action

In Rio de Janeiro, when the going gets tough, the tough… often go to the beach. The expanse of blue shoreline lined with small botecos (bars) is a sanctuary from the troubles of everyday life and according to some Cariocas – natives of Rio – the explanation for their relaxed attitude. On 15 March, they turned up – in droves – at Copacabana beach. Cariocas came dressed in the national colors green and yellow with some sporting the slogan “Basta” (Enough). The same scene was repeated in 160 towns across Brazil with numbers said to be as high as 1.5 million. Only this time, it was to protest against the state of the country and the corruption that has become synonymous with Brazilian political life. Most particularly, their anger turned against President Dilma Rousseff whose Partida Popular (Worker’s Party – PT) is seen to embody a culture of impunity.

Fora Dilma! (Out Dilma). Photo: Jørgen Skjelsbæk

To the outside observers, it is a mystery that these demonstrations come only five months after Rousseff was elected to a second term in office in a closely contested election. This is particularly so as allegations of corruption between the national oil giant Petrobras and the Roussef’s PT were already widespread. The elections in October took place under a general feeling of apathy with many Brazilians choosing not to vote despite voting being mandatory. Many wondered what had happened to the spirit that led people out into the streets in the summer of 2013, demanding improvements to Brazil´s endemic problems of health, education and infrastructure.

Now, it would seem that apathy has turned into action as details on the amounts siphoned off to politicians are contrasted with the rising costs of living for ordinary Brazilians. So far, 34 sitting politicians are under investigation, including speakers of both houses of Congress. On March 16, a day after the demonstrations, João Vaccari, the PT treasurer was charged with soliciting hundreds of millions in donations in bribes from Petrobras executives. Thus it comes as no surprise that one of the slogans in the demonstrations has been “Fora Dilma” (Out Dilma). The call for impeachment has been prominent in the discussions although as commentators point out, there is no legal basis for impeachment. That being said, impeachment decisions are made in Congress where the PT is presently in a weakened position. Calls for impeachment are common in Brazil’s history of civilian presidents. However, they beg the question “what next?” As a Brazilian friend commented in exasperation: “We impeach Dilma and then what? The vice-president is even worse.”

Beyond the issue of corruption in the PT, there is a general dissatisfaction with the direction that Brazil is going in. Economically teetering on the edge of recession, there has been a rise both in unemployment and in the price of important commodities such as electricity (up by nearly 30%) and petrol (at a time when the petrol price is in free fall). Inflation is now at its highest for nearly a decade. In an effort to remedy the flailing economy and restore investor confidence, President Rousseff appointed Joaquim Levy, a Chicago trained banker, as Finance Minister in November. His liberal economic policies have ushered in austerity measures before a seemingly unprepared public. Electricity subsidies have been removed and a fuel duty put in place. These have a very real impact, particularly on the lives of poor Brazilians, the PT’s demographic, to whom Dilma made rosy election promises. The significant turnout in Recife in Brazil´s Northeast – a PT stronghold, illustrates to which extent dissatisfaction cuts across party lines.

Dissatisfaction might be one of the few points uniting the left and right in Brazil. Their solutions, however, are radically different and span the spectrum from reform to removal of the PT government. Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to think that the demonstrations are solely against the sitting regime.

In a symbolic nod to Brazilian democracy, the date for the protests, 15 March, was chosen to commemorate the re-establishment of democracy 30 years ago after Brazil’s long military dictatorship (1964 – 1985). Ironically, among the protestors there were also marginal groups with slogans in support of military intervention. (In fact, the fear of right-wing calls for intervention, and the invalidation of the electoral process, was also one of the reasons some liberals gave for not taking to the streets). Despite its flaws, however, today’s Brazil has institutions that are stronger and less politicized than its turbulent neighbors Venezuela and Argentina. This was reflected in President Rousseff´s response to the demonstrations. In a press conference the following day, she stated, “Yesterday, when I saw hundreds and thousands of citizens speaking out, I could not help thinking that it’s worth fighting for freedom, it’s worth fighting for democracy. This country is stronger than ever.”

Among those supporters on the left who took to the street, this resonates well. When asked what they hoped to accomplish by demonstrating, one commented: “I hope to show my commitment to democracy, my respect for the polls, to demonstrate with others who think like me – that we want to keep a politics that supports those that need it most, with a better distribution of wealth, so that the riches of this country do not remain in the hands of a small prejudiced elite.”

But Rousseff will need more than rhetoric to carry the Brazilian people. While the promise of reforms is enticing, the low popularity of the government in a difficult economic climate and the determination of the opposition to bring it down (efficiently assisted by large media networks such as Globo), spell trouble on the horizon. The call for military intervention by a marginal right wing group is primarily a reflection of the lack of trust in civilian politicians. It cannot be taken seriously, but its root causes should not be ignored either.

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Dear Pinar, congratulations on your work, you quite rightly and elegance came public will show clearly a bit of problems and inconsistencies of Brazilian policy. Keep writing. big hug

Pinar Tank

Dear Marco,

Thank-you for your interview and your encouragement! Abracos

Ivan Soares

Dear Pinar,

Thanks for the comprehensive analysis, but I am afraid your analysis is not complete. You are missing one detail. Protests are not occurring only in Brazil. Protests and rallies are all over the Globe. They are occurring in Rio, in Yemen, in Syria, in Egypt, in Ukraine, in Paris, in South Africa, Greece, Spain and in most of South American, Middle East and African countries.
Why is that so? Do you think that these protests and rallies have anything to do with the distribution of richness in the Planet? Do you think that another economic system should be discussed? Or, is it just a problem of Brazilians not been aware about their own election issues?
Maybe it is time to redefine the distribution of richness in the planet. Let’s remember what Europe has done 500 yrs ago. How Portugal, Spain and England have explored Africa, South America, India, and all sorts of the so called Third World countries resources.
Please, think hard before your next analysis. Is it just a problem of Cariocas liking being at the beach ?

Pinar Tank

Dear Ivan,
Thank-you for your comment. Here´s an attempt at answering your questions, starting with the simplest explanation. This blog was intended to explain some of the challenges facing the Brazilian government and which brought out such a large and diverse crowd to demonstrate last weekend. I intended to focus specifically on the Brazilian case because it is interesting and important to understanding developments over the next few months in Brazil. So, it was a personal choice to limit my focus (and not least, the short form of a blog is limiting in itself.) As to your question regarding the global protest movement, while it might be tempting to find a single variable that explains all protests, I would argue that protests in, for example, Brazil and Turkey (2013), the two cases I know best, were driven by very different factors. In Turkey, it was an environmental demonstration that became a wider protest against authoritarianism and police brutality. In the Arab World, it was the demand for “bread (so distribution of wealth, yes) freedom, and dignity”. In the Ukraine, it began with a protest against the refusal of the government to develop closer integration with the European Union, preferring closer ties to Russia. The regimes brutal response, quickly turned it into a demonstration against an autocratic and corrupt regime. So, if I had to generalize, I would say that the common factor I would choose for cases as varied as the ones you list would not be global inequality, but poor governance. These were local demands from citizens tired of a self-serving and corrupt political class. Of course, poor governance results in inequality so one cannot be separated from the other. But, I would argue that even though the protests are global (and get support globally through social media), they are about local issues. Finally, regarding the Carioca´s love of the beach, this was simply an analogy to illustrate how the beachfront was transformed on that day from a site of willful escapism to one of political change.

Ivan Soares

Dear Pinar,

Sorry if I was rude in my comments to your post. It was not my intention to be rude. I was a little emotionally driven. I understand that PRIO is a very serious organization and I see that you have a strong background in international conflicts and political issues. What I really meant to say is that whenever an International Organization or a journalist from an international journal or an anchor from a TV channel makes an analysis of a conflict, a war or a protest, it generates frustration in the local people, which are the people that are actually living the situation. The analysis is usually short and shallow. The analysis usually does not go deep into the causes of the protests. In some of the analysis made by international journalists, BBC news for instance, the focus of their comments about the protests in Rio was a sign carried by a few stupid persons asking for the military to return to power (which is exactly the picture that you have in your post !!!), which is totally out of question and insane, the Brazilian military don’t even think of it.

In the past, a few tens of black blocks made a mess in pacific protest of millions, and the focus of the international media was on the black blocs.

Yes, including Ukraine and some of the Middle East countries in my list was too much. I agree with you that we cannot compare the protests and rallies in all the countries that I have listed. The point of my analysis is that the real cause behind many protests around the world is that capitalism, the way it is, will always favor very few and exclude a massive amount of people who does not have access to a decent education that can give them the tools to rely on capitalism the same way that wealthy people do. In some countries where we are seeing protests, corruption is just the tool that corrupt governments use to maintain themselves in the power forever and deny access of the poor people to the good things of capitalism.

After reading the PRIO website and your blog more carefully, I see that you made your point, and your analysis is not shallow.

Congratulations for the good job at PRIO.


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