Reprinted with permission from Jacobin.
For more than a week Brazilian workers have taken to the streets. Yesterday, the country witnessed its biggest demonstrations since the fall of the dictatorship, with an estimated 1.2 million people taking part. But the situation on the ground has confounded many international commentators.
I asked Miguel Borba de Sa, a university lecturer at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, to shed light on the new developments. He is the author of Bolívia – Passos das revoluções and has written extensively on indigenous struggles in Latin America.
Mark Bergfeld: How could a 20-cent increase in bus fares spark protests in more than 100 towns and cities across Brazil?
Miguel Borba de Sa: In his book The Road To Serfdom, the Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek wrote that there are two areas that one cannot leave to the competitive principle: transport and the environment. Brazil’s bourgeoisie consistently fails to understand this.
In the last ten years transportation has become a lucrative business for the Brazilian elite and local government officials. Enterprises and corporations bid for local routes and lines. Local government officials cosy up to the bus companies for benefits.
Here in Brazil, transport costs cut into workers’ wages far more than other utilities such as electricity or water. Fares have risen faster than inflation. An average workers’ wage is 650 Brazilian real. A bus ticket is 2 real. This private-public relationship has broken down.
The movement we see on the streets today actually started in Porto Alegre. People protested the fare increase two months ago. The police turned violent. Public outrage followed and the hike was halted. Was it a victory? No! The money for the bus company was raised by exempting the local bus company from future tax payments. In Rio, for every real I pay for a ticket the local authorities adds the same amount in subsidies or tax exemption.
At the same time the huge infrastructure projects like the Confederation Cup, the Pope’s visit later this year, the FIFA World Cup have displaced poor people from the city center and, in many cases, even cut them off from public transport. Dissatisfaction and “unfairness” have been simmering on Facebook, in the popular neighbourhoods and among working class youths. Radicalization and marginalisation have gone hand in hand. Now there is collective rage.
A few days ago FIFA President Sepp Blatter condemned the protesters and said “we did not force the World Cup on you.”
In towns and cities where the World Cup will take place there has been an escalation of social conflicts on an unprecedented level for the last one and a half years. (People might remember Pinheirinho.)
Infrastructure and entertainments projects like the FIFA World Cup wreck people’s livelihoods and are class war from above. The protests don’t articulate concrete demands but people are automatically linking up the issues. The displacement of indigenous people and the further enrichment of the elites are at the core of the protests are two sides of the same coin. People are sick of the elites.
That’s why the escalation has been so rapid. There’s a daily escalation. FIFA President Sepp Blatter said that the World Cup might have to be cancelled. That led even more people to spill out into the streets. 80,000 people surrounded the stadium in Fortaleza where Brazil’s held its first match in the Confederations Cup. That’s more than the stadium’s capacity.
How are people organizing and coordinating the protests?
There’s no doubt about it. In many towns and cities the protests are spontaneous. People saw photos and reports on Facebook and started organizing their own protests.
In Rio de Janeiro the local authorities announced a hike in fares for the beginning of this year on 2 January. Anonymous, the hacking collective, organized a protest in response. Radical left organisations such as PSOL and others showed their solidarity with their protest. Only 95 people turned up yet the demonstration stopped the hike going forward.
In May we organized big demonstrations against the new Human Rights Commissioner who is a homophobe, racist and sexist. The demonstrations were big. The mainstream press denies that there is any correlation between these protests and the ones today.
Throughout all this time we organized assemblies (Forum Contra O Aumento Da Passagem) which brought different groups, students and non-political people together. In other cities, there have been similar initiatives. At least in Rio we never managed to get Anonymous and the hackers to come along. In other cities that might be different.
These assemblies are really beautiful. They are popular and really changed my outlook on radical politics. They have a political quality to them. I have never been involved in anything like it before.
Have the assemblies experienced any difficulties?
Last Sunday was a huge turning point. The middle classes started to mobilize with their anti-corruption platform. Alongside their buddies in the media they called for a demonstration for this following Monday. They tried to split the movement and the assemblies which had called for yesterday’s demonstration. Luckily, they were unsuccessful. The movement had gained so much momentum that they had to come in behind Thursday’s protests.
What is the influence of these middle-class groups? And what is the role of the media?
The movement has become the prime site of struggle for hegemony today. Different actors try to articulate themselves through the movement.
The parties of the radical left, Anonymous and the autonomists aim to push the protests in an explicitly anti-capitalist direction. We raise the property question and point to the the systemic inequality that government after government perpetuates.
It is more and more the case that the middle classes and the media-savvy anti-corruption parties are the dominant voices in the movement. With the media at their disposal they appear to be successful. In many towns and cities they’ve managed to sideline the demands of more radical elements.
In its own right the media has mastered an historic shift. For a long time they kept quiet. Then a journalist from Sao Paulo’s biggest newspaper lost his eye and six other journalists were heavily injured. That changed the situation. Some circles within the ruling class altered their strategy. The media started to support the protest – and even call on people to march. This gave the protests a greater sense of legitimacy but represents a clear attempt to hijack the protests.
What is the Workers’ Party (PT) doing?
The PT and the CUT didn’t mobilize initially. Only once the liberal-conservative elites started to call for President Dilma Rousseff’s resignation the PT mobilised its members to prevent the protests turning into an anti-government movement. Now PT and CUT members are in the streets to defend Dilma’s government.
The CUT, the main national trade union, is currently discussing the possibility of a general strike. Depending on what shape the movement takes in the next few days a general strike could become a reality. But that’s speculation.
There have been reports that right-wing thugs and nationalists are mobilizing as well.
The demonstrations have turned increasingly yellow and green as the movement goes on. All the contradictions in Brazilian society come to the fore. People come up to radical left and autonomist activists and scream at us for not carrying Brazilian national flags. Our comrades have been physically confronted in a number of places. People with left-wing flags and red t‑shirts have been hunted down on the demonstrations. As people don’t have clear demands and no clear enemy they turn against all political parties.
The media whips up hatred against the radical left. The bourgeoisie uses sexism, racism and homophobia. In this case, the “carnevalization” of the protests serves those hostile to the aims of the movement. And undercover police are creating chaos everywhere, as well. Last night’s clashes in Brasilia, the capital, were led by the extreme-right. I’m astonished of their capability to lead, highjack and imprint meaning on these events.
When protesters closed Octávio Frias de Oliveira Bridge in Sao Paulo a couple of days ago our comrades experienced a sudden outbreak of hostility. Last night, the bloc of radical left organisations, students and members of the social movements was attacked by thugs in Rio de Janeiro. The levels of intimidation and aggression we experience on the demonstrations are out of this world. Yesterday night they sought a large conflict with us. The left closed ranks. PTSU militants, PSOL and PCR joined ranks and defended those people carrying red flags and banners on the demonstration.
What is the future for the protest movement?
The movement is a battlefield. It highlights all the contradictions of Brazilian society. The “common sense” ideas prevail in people’s heads. Sexism, racism, homophobia aren’t vanishing like they should. At the same time the state apparatus and the elites remains intact. That is mainly due to a change in strategy. Yet the bourgeoisie is acting irresponsible and playing with fire.
There is no political force on the Left that could articulate any alternative to the current status quo. Social movements have declined in the last few years and the radical left doesn’t have the kind of political instrument we so desperately need. However, the anti-elitist sentiments of the majority of protesters should be fertile ground for us.
While it is a possibility that this movement ends with a right-wing consolidation, its future is really in the air.