Dr Maite Conde of Brazil Institute, Kings College London and Dr Tariq Jazeel, Senior Lecturer in Human Geography, blog for SIID. This blog was originally posted at Social Text
Over the past year, Brazil has anticipated being in the global spotlight. The Confederations Cup, which kicked off on 15 June, is widely seen as Brazil’s dress rehearsal for the 2014 Soccer World Cup to be hosted across the country. After turbulent preparations, everything was in place. Stadiums renovated, hotels primed, and bars and restaurants across the country expectant. Brazil was prepared for the worlds gaze.
Today all eyes are indeed on Brazil, however, for a very different reason. Since June 6th, a series of protests – ‘manifestações’ – that began in São Paulo have swept across the country’s major cities: Rio de Janeiro, Belem, Belo Horizonte, Salvador, Brasilia and elsewhere. Initial protests were directed at the recent increase in public transport fares; the Metro fare was increased from R$3.00 to R$3.20. Such public protests are not uncommon in São Paulo, wheremanifestações are integral components of the urban landscape. In the last two months for instance, the Frente de Luta por Moradia (Struggle for Housing Front) and the Sindicato dos Trabalhadores das Universidades Federais no Estado de São Paulo (Union of Federal University Workers in the State of São Paulo), have inscribed their presence and voice in the city’s streets, at one and the same time articulating their specific demands and highlighting deficiencies in state provision. São Paulo, in other words, is no stranger to public protest.
These demonstrations underscore a key fact: despite the inequalities and social injustices common to most cities, especially in Brazil, one could tentatively suggest that São Paulo is something of a democratic space. Democratic in the sense that there are countless demonstrations, that manifestações are quite normal, that people assert their presence and rights through such events. All of this challenges stereotypical views of the country’s essential undemocracy and its population’s endemic passivity. To be sure, the streets of São Paulo stage varied forms of popular politics and participation: urban graffiti (or pixação) and squatting movements (Os sem teto) to name just two.
São Paulo’s recent protests, initially organized by the ‘Movimento Passe Livre‘, took on another dimension after 13th June. Indeed, as the protestors now sing, Não é só vinte centavos, highlighting that their protests are about far more than a 20 cent hike in travel fares. When the state’s ill-trained military police reacted to the mostly peaceful demonstrations withextreme violence, using pepper spray, plastic bullets, tear gas, and firing stun grenades indiscriminately at fleeing protestors and bystanders, injuring many, it simply wasn’t tolerated. Consequently, the manifestações have escalated. They have become protests against the military police’s brutality, the right to demonstrate peacefully, the impunity and privilege of politicians, and the state’s neglect of the peoples’ needs. These particular demonstrations have been catalysed by a more general anger with political corruption, the likes of which are embedded in Brazil’s history of authoritianism, evident not just in the relatively recent dictatorship but also through to the country’s colonial roots.
There is no doubt that the military police wanted to quickly quash this popular ‘inconvenience’, especially with the Confederations Cup imminent and the world about to turn its gaze onto Brazil. Their attempts, however, have spectacularly backfired. More interesting though is the fact that an urban population, which demands the right to continue to occupy and politicize urban space, does not tolerate police brutality and the remnants of authoritarianism and dictatorship.
That the world’s attention is turned to Brazil’s popular manifestações at a time when the country is stage-managing its ’emerging nation’ and ‘economic powerhouse’ profile internationally is just as significant. The manifestações highlight a deeper and broader mass articulation (in both senses of the word). People are angry at the lack of state provision and investment in services they depend on daily – education, housing, health, security, transport. They are angry at escalating costs of living. They are angry at non-equitable salary raises – politicians in Brazil earn 28 times the minimum wage. They are angry at rising inflation. All this at a time when so much tax income is being conspicuously spent on the Confederations Cup, the World Cup and the Olympics; hence the manifestações‘ popular chant, Hey FIFA, paga a tarifa/Hey FIFA, pay the fare. The country has already spent R$3.3 billion preparing for the World Cup (R$1 billion alone was spent on refurbishing Rio’s Maracanã stadium), 3 times more than South Africa’s total four years ago. Brazilians pay the highest taxes of any country outside the developed world and they receive little in return by way of public services. In other words, it is no coincidence that the manifestações have escalated right now during the Confederations Cup and a year before the 2014 World Cup. Indeed, many of the protests have used specific matches as platforms for their expression thrusting themselves into the gaze of the world. The current manifestações are umbilically linked to the games.
The ‘Brazil as an emerging economy’ narrative is not incidental here either. What is being expressed is the multitude’s sense – and to be clear, a multitude has certainly assembled – that it is not benefiting economically and developmentally while the nation-state’s international profile skyrockets and the elite and the upper middle class’s pockets get fuller and fatter. Emerging economy for whom? The manifestações have spiraled to articulate mass grievance about a range of issues that revolve around the state’s neglect of the people and their basic needs, as well as socioeconomic and political inequalities. The footage of President Dilma Rousseff being loudly booed by 42,000 people at the opening ceremony of the Confederations Cup in Brasilia, this despite her 57% approval rating (down from 65% in March), is telling.
Yet, this Brazilian movement can force us to look beyond these specific events to think about broader issues regarding the so-called BRICS and their growing global presence, epitomized by the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, and now Brazil’s hosting of both of these events in quick succession. As well as PR exercises, such events are used to boost economic development by accelerating investment in national infrastructures and, so the logic goes, provide future growth. However, as Brazilian protestors are showing, the costs to the people and the public purse of this kind of global presence raise questions about whether the money may be better spent in improving the basic foundations for society – education, housing, health, security, and of course public transport? Likewise, whether the money may be better invested in ensuring that Brazil’s progress is universal and benefits everyone equally? The Confederations Cup that began on 15th June has kicked off much more than an international sporting tournament.