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12 September 2013, Gateway House

Why are the Brazilians protesting?

Brazil, despite the presence of good leadership, several consistent and successful development programs, and recording their lowest unemployment rate, witnessed widespread protests this June – triggers for which weren't conventional. What are the Brazilians protesting against, and what does it indicate?

Former Distinguished Fellow, India-Latin America

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While the massive June protests by over a million Brazilians have subsided, smaller-scale protests about different causes continue in various parts of Brazil. Protestors in Rio de Janeiro, for example, have announced an agenda of protests for September, directed against the mayor, the governor, media monopolies and some companies involved in corruption scandals. There is also the threat of bigger protests during the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016.

Why are the Brazilians protesting? Here is a brief analysis:

It is not the poor who are protesting against an uncaring oligarchic government. The poorer sections of the population are, in fact, doing better than they have in the entire history of Brazil. Over 20 million people have moved out of poverty in the last decade because of the pioneering poverty alleviation programmes of the centre-left government. [i] These were started by a poor man, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who became the president and a champion of the poor. Lula, as he is popularly called, started a series of sincere and meaningful “inclusive” development programmes, which have become models for other developing countries.

The rate of unemployment in 2012 in Brazil was at its lowest level (since unemployment measurement was started in Brazil) of around 5%. There is a job for almost anyone who wants to work; it is an employees’ market and employers are working hard to retain workers. The average salaries are generally high, compared to other countries in Latin America. Consumers have had access to plenty of low-interest credit in the last few years after the government reduced interest rates and forced the banks to increase lending.

The protestors are not fighting for freedom or against an oppressive regime, either. The Brazilian democracy is vibrant and open. The government has been elected in free and fair elections. The media is vocal and zealously doing its watchdog duty.

The protests are not against a corrupt or arrogant president. Dilma Rousseff is a clean and straightforward politician, herself struggling with the corrupt and wheeling-dealing Congressmen and Senators to pass the legislation needed for reforms in various sectors, including education and healthcare. In fact, she should be happy that the protests have facilitated her job by putting pressure on leaders of the Congress and the Senate, who now seem willing to cooperate.

The protest is not against the ruling party. The centre-left Workers Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores) is the best bet for the poor. In any case, no single party gets a majority in Brazil and, as in India, coalition politics has come to stay. Coalition means less control over corruption. In fact, the Workers Party suffered its biggest scandal, called ‘Mensalao’ (the word means a large monthly payment), because of the coalition logic. The scandal broke out at the end of former President Lula’s first term (2005). It was a vote-buying scandal with high-ranking politicians trying to buy votes – party leaders were accused of bribing opposition Congressmen and Senators with monthly payments to get their legislative support. A few resigned; but a few months after the scandal, Lula was re-elected as president.

It is not a protest against football or stadiums. Football is the pride and passion of the Brazilians. The protestors are only against the over-the-budget expenditure and the priority given to stadiums over hospitals and schools. They are against the collusion between big business, politicians, local football organisations and FIFA (Federation Internationale de Football Association) together enriching themselves in the construction of stadiums and the organisation of events.

And neither is the protest an outburst of a culturally-stifled society. The Brazilians are lively and free-spirited. In general, they take things in their stride and find happiness in beaches, football, samba and caipirinha (a sugarcane liquor). They are not known for violent protests. They did not even have to fight for their independence, unlike other Latin American countries, or many Asian and African countries. The Portuguese prince in Rio de Janeiro himself declared independence on 7 September 1822 from his father, who was King of Portugal.

The declaration of independence was not followed by any violence or serious retaliation from Portugal. There is no ‘Father of the Nation’ in Brazil, like Simon Bolivar in Venezuela or Mahatma Gandhi in India. Brazil was never invaded or threatened by any outside power and the Brazilians have never had to rise to defend their country. They have suffered military dictatorships, of course. But the dictators were not brought down by public protests, although urban guerrilla groups and trade unions bravely stood up against the army rule. The military turned over power in 1985 to the civilians after hopelessly messing up the economy and reaching the height of incompetence.

So what has triggered the ongoing protests? It is the discontent of the middle class. The poor and the rich in Brazil have benefited from the government’s programmes of poverty alleviation and business promotion, but the middle class has got squeezed by the high cost of living, and poor infrastructure and services. This section is angry about corrupt politicians as well as football organisations – those who run the football organisations are more corrupt and less accountable than the political leaders of Brazil.

An assertive middle class has risen against the commissions and omissions of the political and business leaders. They are ready to spoil the “fiesta of the powerful” (the Confederation Cup, held earlier this year, and the forthcoming World Cup and Olympics) by causing global embarrassment. The protestors’ threat of returning to the streets during next year’s World Cup is a more serious message than the massive protests in June when more than a million Brazilians took to the streets. Social media have especially helped in mobilising people with the slogan “Vem para Rua” (“Come to the street”).

Similar protests by the middle classes have also taken place in recent years in Venezuela, Argentina, and Chile. The Venezuelan middle class rose against the authoritarian policies of Hugo Chavez in 2002. He crushed the protests using the National Guard and the military.  In Argentina, the middle class has held a number of protests since 2009 against the outmoded policies of President Cristina Kirchner, but she has managed to survive with the captive vote of the poor. She is continuing with anti-middle class policies, imposing more controls on foreign exchange and imports.  In Chile, students and the middle class agitated against the centre-right government of Sebastian Pinera and the high cost of education in 2011. The students recently resumed their agitation.

Unlike Chavez, Cristina and Pinera, the Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has been sensitive; she has held dialogues with the leaders of the protestors and has already initiated some measures – including a decrease in bus fares and reforms in the education sector – to meet their demands.

The Brazilian protests will not bring about a dramatic change. But they will result in incremental improvement, as is already evident. Besides withdrawing an unpopular bus fare hike, the government has announced a $1.3 billion investment to create 99 kilometres of express bus lanes, and an investment of more than a billion dollars for sanitation and low-cost housing.

The protests inBrazil have been useful in the maturing process of the Brazilian democracy.  The protests are indicative of the empowerment of the middle class, which has been enlarged by the pro-poor policies of the government. The growing middle class is the solid new foundation of the Brazilian democracy.

Ambassador Viswanathan is Distinguished Fellow, Latin America Studies, Gateway House. He is the former Indian Ambassador to Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Venezuela, and Consul General in Sao Paulo.

This article was written exclusively for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can find more exclusive features here.

For interview requests with the author, or for permission to republish, please contact Rajeshwari Krishnamurthy at krishnamurthy.rajeshwari@gatewayhouse.in or 022 22023371.


[i] Most of the figures in this article are from the database of the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean [ECLAC]: At: http://www.eclac.org/cgi-bin/getProd.asp?xml=/prensa/noticias/comunicados/8/50488/P50488.xml&xsl=/prensa/tpl-i/p6f.xsl&base=/prensa/tpl/top-bottom.xslt

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