Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Brazil's "Vinegar Uprising"

Protests across Brazil, June 20, 2013
(© Zero Hora)
At various points over the last three years, popular uprisings, often arising out of the aftermath of the 2008 Global Economic Crisis and centering on economic inequality and neoliberal and libertarian policies, but sometimes focused necessary local and national political and social transformations, have arisen all over the world. The Arab Spring revolutions, still unfolding, garnered considerable attention, as did the Fall 2011 Occupy Movements across the US and in other developed countries, and most recently, there have been the protests in Istanbul's Gezi Park and Taksim Square, in response to plans by Turkey's conservative-neoliberal government, led by Recip Tayyep Erdogan, to build a shopping mall and mosque in one of Turkey's capital's few remaining public green spaces. Brazil had not evaded such events, but with one of the globe's actual leftist-Socialist parties, the Worker's Party (PT), holding the presidency for a third term as a result of popular democracy, with its economy and industries until recently growing at a significant rate, and with its social and economic policies helping to boost the fortunes of the poor and working class, and expand its middle class, the Country of the Future appeared to have found the door to a new moment in its history and created the kind of foundations that protests of the sort seen everywhere else were hoping to realize. Brazil, one of the world's soccer powerhouses, will host the World Cup next year, and Summer Olympics in 2016.

Yet a closer look shows that things are not as rosy as the media and distant observation may portray. Brazil's economy has slowed; economic inequality is again rising; the PT's repeated corruption scandals have worn thin; its coalition politics (a hyper-bipartisanship of the kind fetishized in Washington, and by US media) also have not resulted in the goals set out by President Dilma Rousseff, a former political revolutionary and victim of the dictatorship; the high costs and overruns with the soccer stadiums in major Brazilian cities has provoked widespread condemnation and disgust; and a sizable swath of the Brazilian 99%, especially its youth, are just fed up. And so, last week, mass rallies in São Paulo and Rio, the country's two largest cities, against transportation fare increases, sparked not only violent police responses (including their use of tear gas and rubber bullets), but even more mass rallies, all over Brazil, from the far north (in Macapá, at the mouth of the Amazon River), to the federal capital of Brasília, to the country's far south, in Rio Grande do Sul, on the border with Uruguay. Hardly a state capital, or many of the country's other large cities avoided protest. A New York Times Op-Ed writer, Brazilian Vanessa Barbara, labeled it the "Vinegar Uprising." As with the Occupy rallies and protests in the US, the criticisms have ranged across an array of pressing problems, but the fare and fee hikes, the lack of public services and poor infrastructure, the slowing economy, and continuing political corruption, as the country spends billions on those stadiums, have struck a consistent nerve. A version of a popular chant has gone, "Vamos acordar; um professor vale mais que o Neymar" (Let's wake up, Brazil: a teacher is worth more than Neymar," one of the young stars of Brazil's Seleção (National Team). So far there have been irruptions of violence among a sliver of the protesters, a number have been injured, and four people have died.

Students rallying in São Paulo against
fair hikes, June 19, 2013 (© New York Times/
Miguel Schincariol/Agence France-Press/Getty Images)

Today, in an effort to stem the protests and address the concerns of the populace, Rousseff proposed changes to Brazil's political and social system. They include multibillion-dollar upgrades to the transportation system across the country; hiring foreign doctors to work at public hospitals, thus filling the gap in medical services; harsher penalties for political corruption, which until recently have often gone unpublished; better pay for teachers, a perennial chestnut there as in the US; and a constituent assembly to overhaul the factionalized Brazilian Congress, as well as reforms to the campaign finance, which has been riddled with corruption since the country's return to democracy in the late 1980s. Some of these policies are among ones the PT has proposed before, without success, as it does not control a majority in either house of Brazil's Congress, which like the US is bicameral and includes a Federal Senate (with 3 senators for each of Brazil's 26 states and the federal district) and a Chamber of Deputies (or lower house, with 513 seats, elected by a proportional representation of votes and allocated proportionally by state size). In both houses, though the PT won the most votes, 22 or 23 parties on the ballot received enough votes to merit seats in one or both houses, and members of the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), a big tent centrist party, virtual hold the power as well as chairs of both, and the third largest party, the Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB), once center-left but now also mostly centrist, serves as the PT's main opposition.  PT has a better stake in the state legislatures and state executive posts, controlling 13 of Brazil's 27 state and federal district executive posts, but even where it does, the results have not been inspiring. The PT mayor of São Paulo City, Brazil's (and Latin America's) most populous and its economic powerhouse, Fernando Haddad, was not even in the country; he was busy trying to drum up his city's bid to host the 2020 World's Fair.

Some activists have begun calling for a global boycott of the World Cup next year, and wealthy international soccer stars like Pelé and Ronaldo, who have urged a focus on national unity under the rubric of enthusiasm for the upcoming tournament, have met with scorn and condemnation. I imagine that the country's somewhat wobbly performance hosting the Confederations Cup matches, a run-up to next year's World Cup, along with the protests, will occasion some cosmetic changes and perhaps even a few of Dilma's proposed policies at least being taken up in pro-forma fashion. But whether the rallies and protests can result in real changes is an open question; as the Occupy movements in the US showed, they can provoke at least some reflection among some politicians and scare the daylights out of the plutocracy, and they provide a template for further protests and policy formations (and a target for the state-private security complex-nexus), but they may not lead to the changes that would really benefit a large portion of the population, including those who aren't out rallying but might be chief beneficiaries. Yet by voting with their bodies, Brazilians are rattling, and perhaps unraveling, the status quo.

Rising costs of living, Brazil, 2000-2013
(New York Times, source: Brazilian Institute
of Geography and Statistics)

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